Talking With Marcia Lynx Qualey on Issues in Today’s Arabic Literature

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From Asymptote: ‘I haven’t any idea how we could fail to empathize,’ says journalist Marcia Lynx Qualey in a discussion of issues in modern Arabic literature.

At Palm Jumeirah, in the United Arab Emirates. Image – iStockphoto: KoliadzynskaIryna

By Dennis Abrams | @DennisAbrams2

‘We Can Manage To Empathize’
Journalist Marcia Lynx Qualey is known among fans of Arabic and Middle Eastern literature for her blog at ArabLit.org, “Arabic Literature (In English).”

Qualey was given the Literary Translation Initiative Award at this year’s London Book Fair for her “strong personal dedication to creating cross-cultural understanding in the diverse world of Arabic literature.” And she’s interviewed by Henry Ace Knight for Asymptote magazine.

Here are two highlights.

Henry Ace Knight: What can you say about the movement toward writing in a regional dialect, rather than in Modern Standard Arabic? Is it very common, and has it affected the audience or marketability of the texts in question? What about logistical issues, like accurately representing a spoken dialect in the Arabic alphabet given the presence of non-standard phonemes?

Marcia Lynx Qualey

Marcia Lynx Qualey

Marcia Lynx Qualey: [Children’s literature] is a thorny issue. Some authors want to write picture books in spoken dialect—and some have, like Sonia Nimr—but publishers tend to be very opposed, as they want to be able to sell into multiple markets and submit to prizes. Unfortunately, this even goes for dialogue.

I loved Rania Amin’s Screams Behind Doors, which won the Etisalat Prize for best YA novel last November, but it felt weird to have these girls speaking to each other in Modern Standard Arabic. Rania told me she’d written the dialogue in Egyptian, but the publisher “fixed” it, worried they couldn’t otherwise submit to prizes and suchlike. A bit galling.

[Adult literature] is more flexible, as authors tend to have more choice and power. Here, also, there are no parents to tsk-tsk about what’s appropriate, although of course there are occasionally prosecutors to act in the role of a parent.

Ghada Abdel Aal’s funny Ayza Atgowaz (I Want to Get Married! ) is in Egyptian Arabic, and I only read it as a consumer—not looking for standardization of phonemes—but it was perfectly understandable. There are also a small but growing number of “serious” works written entirely in spoken Arabics, and more authors who play with not just the dialogue, but shifting back and forth between registers.”

[…]

HAK: Works of literature like Atef Abu Saif’s The Drone Eats with Me provide a more human glimpse into highly politicized and publicized issues like those of Gaza. But is there a point at which the literature of oppression becomes commodified or fetishized by a privileged audience? Can readers ever truly understand or identify with another’s experience?

MLQ: Atef’s book is a beautiful rendering of one man’s experiences during drone/remote warfare. If we fetishize and commodify it, yes, it’s problematic. (Ditto on fetishization of writing from “banned countries.”) Ra (the publisher) knows I take issue with how he footnotes Atef’s book, which could move the reader away from embracing its aesthetic, philosophical, reflective nature.

I haven’t any idea how we could fail to empathize with Atef or his narrative. We can read Shakespeare and empathize across centuries, so I’m pretty sure we can manage to empathize with a guy who, under bombardment, needs to charge up his laptop.


Henry Ace Knight’s complete interview with Marcia Lynx Qualey at Asymptote is here.

About the Author

Dennis Abrams

Dennis Abrams is a contributing editor for Publishing Perspectives, responsible for news, children's publishing and media. He's also a restaurant critic, literary blogger, and the author of "The Play's The Thing," a complete YA guide to the plays of William Shakespeare published by Pentian, as well as more than 30 YA biographies and histories for Chelsea House publishers.

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