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JLF 2018: Arab literature and the internalising of racism

Four writers from the Middle East - Lebanese-American writer Rabih Alameddine, Syria-born American journalist and lawyer Alia Malek and Palestinian lawyer-writer Raja Shehadeh talked about cultural appropriation and the great need to stop being Western-centric.

JaipurLitFest Updated: Jan 29, 2018 16:11 IST
Supriya Sharma
Supriya Sharma
Hindustan Times, Jaipur
Jaipur Literature Festival,Jaipur Literature Festival 2018,JLF 2018
From left: Rabih Alameddine, Alia Malek and Raja Shahdehah in conversation with Susan Abulhawa during the session Writing the Arab World at the Jaipur Literature Festival on Monday. (Raj K Raj/HT PHOTO)

During a session entitled Writing the Arab World that raged against stereotyping, Lebanese-American writer Rabih Alameddine said it was actually a result of Western cultural insularity. “In USA, people don’t even know where the Arab world is. I have been asked whether Lebanon is in Latin America,” he said. “They mistake Sikhs for Muslims because they have not read. So we elect Trump and get depressed. I can make fun of Trump but your prime minister is not much better,” he told the audience. The comparison didn’t go down very well with an audience member who leapt to the PM’s defence.

For Jaipur Literature Festival full coverage, click here

Most of the conversation, though, dealt with the fact that Western cultural appropriation, especially in literature, has long been a valid grievance of the so-called Third World.

Moderator, Palestinian-American writer and biologist, Susan Abulhawa, began the discussion by pointing out that the panel — composed of Rabih Alameddine, Syria-born American journalist and lawyer Alia Malek and Palestinian lawyer-writer Raja Shehadeh — represented only the Levant or countries located to the east of the Mediterranean Sea, and not the entire Middle East. Apparently, the session title incorrectly assumed there was a homogenous Arab world and it was “better to call it Writing the Levant”.

Next, she brought up the session introduction in the festival booklet, which quoted from Lebanese writer Hanan al-Shaykh’s post 9/11 essay to ask whether, “the creative juices of the Arab world have really run dry”?

Raja Shehadeh, who lives in West Bank, pointed out that after the state of Israel was officially created in 1948, Palestinians became stateless and their suffering found an expression in their arts. “We lost everything and had to prove that we existed. Refugees had to construct their nation out of words. There has been a flourishing of arts — be it films, theatre, books, dance.” He cited the works of visual artist Emily Jacir and poet Mahmoud Darwish to make his point.

“In the US, people don’t even know where the Arab world is. I have been asked whether Lebanon is in Latin America,” Alameddine said. ( Raj K Raj/HT PHOTO )

Alameddine said this impression of the Arab world being artistically bereft was a remnant of colonialism. “We come from a part of the world where a European opinion matters more than our own,” he said. “If I looked at the West and what it is producing, it isn’t producing much culture either,” he said.

Turning the scrutiny inwards, Abulhawa said the colonised internalised this racism too and asked the writers how they felt about writing in English, a language separate from the world of their characters.

Alia Malek, who moved back to Syria to create knowledge about the region through her journalism for a global audience, said she wrote from the hyphen in Syrian-American. “There is power in claiming English and using it to humanise those who have been dehumanised.”

Raja Shehadeh said he would like to write in colloquial Arabic but that would have a limited readership, and that he enjoyed writing in English. “I have never been apologetic about not writing in Arabic,” he said.

All of them were offended by the best-selling book about the life of an Afghan boy by a former US soldier, Abulhawa said dominant cultures often appropriate the voices of the marginalised and interpret their lives for the rest of the world, posing as experts. A bigger problem than that, said Alameddine, was that there are no Afghan writers for people to read. “So the voice of a white soldier or just one writer from Afghanistan becomes the voice of the country for the world. That, to me, is scary,” he said. “When I am put on a panel to represent the Arab world, it frightens me.”

Malek felt the entire publishing system including the reviewers and publishers who celebrated such works were to blame. “You invade a country, kill its people and then appropriate their voices,” she said. “It is a problem on all our shoulders. We have power in the choices we make,” she said.

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First Published: Jan 29, 2018 16:10 IST