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from the January 2020 issue

We Usually Ask Literature to be Humanizing Only When It’s from “Over There”

M. Lynx Qualey is the editor of ArabLit Quarterly. Should we, she asks, really place the onus for responsible travel on international literature—and can such literature even improve us as travelers?

Mark Twain read Arabic literature. Not widely; there were no English translations of Twain’s Arab contemporaries circulating in the mid-1800s. He’d surely have loved the satiric, word-spinning work of Ahmed Faris al-Shidyaq, had it been available. Some of the grimmer American intellectuals read Ibn Tufail’s twelfth-century magnum opus, but I’ve seen no suggestion Twain partook. Yet Twain was unquestionably influenced by the 1001 Nights, which he probably read via Edward William Lane. Twain put it on a list of favorite books, right between “Crusoe” and “Gulliver.” He probably didn’t know the 1001 Nights was one of a number of popular fourteenth- and fifteenth-century collections, scorned by many Arab literati of its time. He probably did know the collection was a wild hit in Antoine Galland’s French translation before it moved to English.

Twain’s whole generation was marked by reading the Nights. He was one of many nineteenth-century authors to pen his own burlesque 1002nd Night, which he did in 1883Apparently, it was so unfunny that his publisher cut it down, then shelved it. 

Twain was also, famously, a traveler. In the 1860s, he took a long trip that encompassed several Arab-majority countries. Still a young journalist, he talked his newspaper into paying his way on the Quaker City steamboat, promising to send back dispatches, which he later turned into The Innocents Abroad.

You can imagine his hearty portraits of stupid savages, dim-witted travelers, and ugly women. In Jerusalem, he compares the locals to Indians, as if prescient of a settler-colonialism to come: “They sat in silence, and with tireless patience watched our every motion with that vile, uncomplaining impoliteness which is so truly Indian, and which makes a white man so nervous and uncomfortable and savage that he wants to exterminate the whole tribe.” 

Clearly, Twain meant to exaggerate and entertain. Perhaps he was a decent enough guest in “real” life: he took off his shoes before entering a home and paid fair wages. But his caricatures had consequences. Popular literature is constantly in motion, being used in ways its authors cannot necessarily foresee. The absurdist way he constructed Palestine is now promoted as proof that there were no nineteenth-century Palestinians. 

The Nights may well have made Twain a better writer. But did it make him a better traveler? Probably not. Certainly, no one would suggest that any international literature leads to self-improvement; if I were to read a sloppy, racist, and misogynist novel written by a Kuwaiti (for good measure, let’s imagine the translation is wooden), I might even be a worse person for the experience. On the other hand, let’s assume I’ve read Ismail Fahd Ismail’s al-Sabiliyat in Sophia Vasalou’s translation (as The Old Woman and the River)I’m sure it must’ve improved me a little, or at least my environmental sympathies. Still, any reading is a mental staging of the book, where the reader is both director and producer. Other directors would find different ways of staging Ismail’s gentle war novel, perhaps to suggest Muslims are inherently violent. John Updike read Arabic literature in translation, surely Mahfouz as well as Munif. I don’t think he ever traveled to Saudi Arabia, but he did create his own Arab characters in Terrorist. He was, let’s say, not a good guest of the Arab lands he’d created in his mind. 

As Edward Said helped us see with Orientalism, people can be quite well versed in a foreign literature and use this knowledge to support real-life brutality. Perhaps some of the architects of the Iraq War read my beloved Muhammad Khudayyir, although I hope they never had anything so beautiful in their hands. Moreover, we usually ask literature to be humanizing only when it’s from Over There. I have never heard of anyone asking French literature to humanize the French. We can be awful, loud Americans in Paris; of course, there might be consequences.

But then what? Is there no reason to read widely, across genres and languages, genders and gender expressions, time periods and experimentalisms? To read with an engaged and relaxed ear, to try to discover the book as it wants to be read, rather than the book as we assume it should be? The question I’d like to ask is: Should we be good travelers, in our heads, when we go to fictional worlds? And does that also matter?

To get existential, our dignified survival as a species probably depends on finding ways to listen to each other. If any literature has made me a better person, it is the literature that showed me better ways to read. A person can be a brilliant writer without being a decent human, but I am not convinced they can be a brilliant reader and also a fascist narcissist. In any event, if we want to be respectful of others, being a good reader is a place to start.

© 2020 by M. Lynx Qualey. All rights reserved.

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