Ahdaf Soueif

[Per un paio di giorni ho letto una serie di post sul tema “cosa sia da considerare letteratura araba se solo quella scritta in arabo o anche in altre lingue”. Piuttosto che inserirmi nella discussione ho pensato di pubblicare qui l’intervento che ho fatto a un convegno svoltosi nell’ottobre 2015 presso l’Università di Belgrado. E’ in stampa, quindi ho tolto la bibliografia e le note per precauzione :). Ho eliminato anche il testo originale della canzone di Šayḫ Imām. Tratta di Ahdaf Soueif, autrice presente al Salone di Torino e il titolo è “I am my language”: Arabic Language in English writing in Ahdaf Soueif’s work. Buona lettura]

Never make fun of someone who speaks broken English.
It means they know another language.
Jackson Brown, Jr.

As long as I have to accommodate the English speakers rather than having them accommodate me, my tongue will be illegitimate.
Gloria E. Anzaldúa

In my paper, I will read some passages of her novels focusing on the use Soueif does of the different languages she knows. First, inserting Arabic words, expressions, honorific titles, historical references, translations and so on, and switching between Standard Arabic and Egyptian Arabic. Second, using the English language to re-tell the story of the Arab world and Egypt in particular from the point of view of the Subaltern. In this way, she succeeds in “translating” Arabic culture into English by forcing the English-speaking reader to confront with the linguistic hybridity and to reassess the stereotypes about Arabic culture in general. In this way Soueif adopts a double strategy and compels the English reader to face a counter discourse about British colonial presence in the region.

Polyglossia is, therefore, a strategy to create multiple identities and multiple readings, to let the Arabic culture emerge and by doing so, to dismantle the stereotype and to speak to the Other. Multilingual writing becomes then not only an experimental writing but a form of resistance to linguistic imperialism, to the phenomenon Jean Luis Calvet calls “glottophagy” – that is the idea of Imperial languages swallowing those which are considered a “minority”. This idea is extremely attractive because it affects not only writers like Soueif, but also researchers of the whole world who are constraint to write in perfect English otherwise their ideas will not be considered. This leads to a binary opposition between the English language/culture and the native language/culture that Soueif and I, as a researcher, reject. To overcome this binarism, one could set her/himself at the borderline and argue, as Homi Bhabha suggests, for a hybridity through transnational literature. Literature, in his opinion, acts as a transnational tool, especially when written by authors like Soueif, who lives in two (or even more) cultures. Bhabha does not ask though the fundamental question that is: in which language should this transnational literature be written? To answer this question, I turned to the work of Gloria E. Anzaldúa, a Chicano writer and intellectual. In her work Borderland/La frontera, Anzaldúa claims that the linguistic mixture is a mode of empowerment and rejects both sides of the hybridity proposed by Homi Bhabha; in fact, she states that they are different sides of the above mentioned binary opposition. She then turns in favor of a multiple version of the “double-voiced discourse”, always slipping in and out of two or more languages, cultures, and worlds. For Anzaldúa, this switching between languages is a form of empowerment as she refuses to choose a language that is not her native one. The result is a deconstructive place where everything is “mita y mita” (half and a half). In fact, in her book Anzaldúa uses at least two English variants and six Spanish variations all at once, partly translating, partly using the different options in a single period or sentence. This is done as an opposition to what is perceived as an attack on one’s form of expression “with the intent to censor”. However, as she claims, “wild tongues can’t be tamed, they can only be cut off”. To be a non-native English writer, then, does not mean to always cope with the binarism correct/incorrect, it means to use a “living” language and to be – for the native English speaker/writer – “your linguistic nightmare, your linguistic aberration, the subject of your burla”.

Being Arab and writing in English means knowing that one is living in a dominant language and a dominant culture. Soueif’s choice in her works is to show how she possesses a “malleability” making her “unbreakable”. As Anzaldúa explicitly states: “We, the mestizas and mestizos, will remain”. The mestiza language, therefore, is the only way to avoid being silenced or tamed, as domestication is the chief tool of the relation slave-master. The importance of the mother tongue is paramount here, as the risk in abdicating to it is to be silenced:

Ne pas parler sa langue maternelle. Habiter des sonorités, des logiques coupées de la mémoire nocturne du corps, du sommeil aigre-doux de l’enfance. Porter en soi comme un caveau secret, ou comme un enfant handicapé – chéri et inutile -, ce langage d’autrefois qui se fane sans jamais vous quitter. Vous vous perfectionne dans un autre instrument, comme on s’exprime avec l’algèbre ou le violon. Vous pouvez devenir virtuose avec ce nouvel artifice qui vous procure d’ailleurs un nouveau corps, tout aussi artificiel, sublimé – certains disent sublime. Vous avez le sentiment que la nouvelle langue est votre résurrection : nouvelle peau, nouveau sexe. Mais l’illusion se déchire lorsque vous vous entendez, à l’occasion d’un enregistrement par exemple, et que la mélodie de votre voix vous revient bizarre, de nulle part, plus proche du bredouillis d’antan que du code d’aujourd’hui. Vos maladresses ont du charme, dit-on, elles sont même érotiques, surenchérissent les séducteurs. Personne ne relève vos fautes, pour ne pas vous blesser, et puis on n’en finirait plus, et à la fin on s’en fout. On ne vous signifie pas moins que c’est agaçant quand même : parfois, une levée de sourcils ou un « Pardon ? » en volute vous font comprendre que « vous ne serez jamais », que « ce n’est pas la peine », que « là au moins on n’est pas dupe ». Dupe, vous ne l’êtes pas non plus. Tout au plus êtes-vous croyant, prêt à tous les apprentissages, à tous les âges, pour atteindre – dans cette parole des autres imaginée comme parfaitement assimilée un jour – Dieu sait quel idéal, par-delà l’aveu implicite d’une déception due à cette origine qui n’a pas tenu sa promesse.
Ainsi, entre deux langages, votre élément est-il le silence.

The work of Soueif has been widely studied, especially her novel The Map of Love , as it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. (English speaking)scholars stated that she inserts Arabic in her writing and that sometimes English “betrays” her so that she does not succeed in smoothing the text, which sometimes is in the end a translation. If it is true that Soueif affirms that she translates at some points in her novels, I disagree with this reading, and I will claim hereafter that Soueif writes that way on purpose, in order to deconstruct the English speaker linguistic certainty. In fact, what Soueif states is:

“Because of the specific, peculiar nature of my work in that I’m me and I’m writing in English and a lot of the time I’m writing about an Arab or Egyptian experience and writing through Arab or Egyptian characters—that necessarily involves a sort of translation in the creation of the work.”

This is not a translation in the technical meaning, of course, but a different use of language to create an effect in the reader. “To be able to do that you have to be able to play with the language, to forge new things out of it”. For Soueif, this kind of translation is made of choices and engagement with the novel and its characters.

In the Eye of the Sun she tells the story of Asya, a young woman who gets married when she is only eighteen and then moves to England to write her Ph. D. The main plot describes the young woman’s empowerment journey, which will lead her to divorce her husband. This decision is taken during their stay in England. There, Asya lives alone most of the time as her husband is often on business trips. At some point, she invites a group of friends to a cottage she rents for the Holidays. These are student  both Arab and English native speakers. Among them is Deena, who has come to visit her sister Asya and who is involved in a dissident movement in Egypt. She brings with her a music tape of Sheikh Imam, a protest singer “more or less banned by the government” (Ahdaf Soueif :). Lisa and Gerald, the English students, ask for the meaning of the lyrics and, after having heard the entire song, they play it once more, pausing it after each strophe, so that Asya can ‘translate’ it. The ‘translation’ turns out to be a commentary on Egypt politics and an introduction to some aspects of the Arabic language:

‘Sharraft ya Nixon Baba,
Ya bta’ el-Watergate –’
‘What’s he saying?’ asks Lisa, ‘something about Nixon?’
‘Well,’ says Asya, ‘he says, “you’ve honoured us, Nixon Baba” “Baba” actually means “father” but it’s used here as a title of mock respect – I can’t, honestly, he’s already passed the next couplet and –’
‘Can’t we pause it perhaps?’ says Gerald.
‘But it’s the first time Hisham hears it –’ Asya says.
Hisham presses the Pause button.
‘Let’s hear the song through, and then I’ll rewind it and pause after every couplet. I’d really like to hear Asya’s translation.’
‘Sharraft ya Nixon Baba,
Ya bta’ el-Watergate –’
Hisham presses pause.
‘Well’, says Asya, ‘as I said he says, “You’ve honoured us, Nixon Baba – “Baba” means “father” but it’s also used, as it is used here, as a title od mock respect – as in “Ali Baba”, for example – that’s probably derived from Muslim Indian use of Arabic – but the thing is you could also address a child as “Baba” as an endearment – a sort of inversion: like calling him big Chief because he’s so little – and so when it’s used aggressively – say in an argument between two men – it carries a diminutivising, belittling signification. So here it holds all these meanings. Anyway, “you’ve honoured us, Nixon Baba” – “You’ve honoured us” is, by the way, the traditional greeting with which you meet someone coming into your home – it’s almost like “come on in” in this country. So it functions merely as a greeting and he uses it in that way but of course he activates – ironically – the meaning of having actually “honoured” us. “You’ve honoured us, Nixon Baba / O you of Watergate” I suppose woulde be the closest translation – but the structure “bita’ el-whatever” (el – is just the definite article coming before any noun) posits a close but not necessarily defined relationship between the first noun (the person being described) and the second noun. So “bita’ el-vegetables”, for example, would be someone who sold vegetables, while “bita’ el-women” would be someone who pursued women. So Nixon “bita’ el-Watergate”, which suggests him selling the idea of Watergate to the public – and pursuing a Watergate type of policy, but all in a very non-pompous, street vernacular,, jokingly abusive kind of way. The use of “el-“ to further specify Watergate – a noun which needs no further defining – is necessary for the rhythm and adds comic effect. I’m sure you won’t want me to go on like this, so let’s stop – ’
‘Nonsense!’ says Gerald.
‘It’s fascinating’, says Lisa.
‘Asya,’ says Hisham, ‘I swear I’m enjoying this. Come on, I’ll play the next couplet.’.

In the quoted passage, Soueif’s goal is to present the manifoldness of Arab-Egyptian culture (and language) casting lights on the multi-layered meanings the strophes convey. If this is certainly a strategy to bring the non-Arabic speaking reader closer, it is also a tool to introduce political commentaries and to propose to the reader a different understanding of Egyptian politics. She does this on two separate levels. The first is a linguistic one, where, for instance, two words or expressions, one in Arabic and the other in English, are juxtaposed, as in “Nixon Baba” or “bta’ el-Watergate” in the first strophe. Here, in particular, an English word (Watergate) is assimilated to Arabic by the preponed definite article “el-”, this reverses the “glottophagic” movement Arabic-to-English into an English-to-Arabic one. This linguistic tool, present through the whole song, is typical of the Arabic language. Contrary to other languages where the English word remains as it is although read in a different way, Arabic tends to swallow all foreign words and, when possible, to “Arabicize” them. Another feature is the extensive use of honorific titles and terms of respect taken from the Muslim tradition (by which I mean Arabic, Turkish and Indian) as showed by the word “Baba”, usually indicating respect. These titles indicate on the one side, the hierarchical structure of Egyptian society and on the other one the multicultural configuration of Arab-Islamic society. At the same time, as these titles are sometimes used to indicate a non-Arab character, they are addressed especially to the Arab reader: the couple Arabic honorific title/non-Arab person conveys a sort of mockery feeling. Although Soueif makes explicit this intent when Asya explains, for instance, the first strophe, the native speaker reader can take delight in the multiplicity of meanings and in the cultural literary and semantic connections that the Arabic words care in themselves.

The English reader – thanks to the visual recognition of the original English word and the conceptual explanation interwoven in the narrative – is forced to acknowledge that there is a language, namely Arabic, that behaves exactly like English; he is obliged to assume that linguistic and “cultural fluxes and confluences” work in both direction and to put Arabic on the same level of English.

Another strategy is the one embodied by the words and expressions’ polysemy, which testify of an articulated language as a mirror of a dense culture. Thus, for instance, excepting the quoted passage, which is extremely evident in itself, Soueif inserts references to customs and traditions and historical facts or periods by way of Arabic. The use of terms “recalling customs and traditions” has on the one side an estrangement effect, so that the reader is made aware of another culture’s presence and on the other keeps the Arab speaking reader closer to the English text:

Every year for the Festival of al-Sayyid al-Badawi they had all gone up to Tanta. They had visited the mosque of al-Sayyid and they had visited the shrine of Sheikha Sabah then had a big lunch and driven back to Cairo loaded with sweets and special festival candy. Every year during Ramadan they’d broken the fast one evening at al-Dahhan in the Azhar. They’d eaten kebab and grilled goat and Grandfather would always drink a large glassful of straight pickle juice

In this passage, for example, reference is made:

– To the popular cult of the Saints in Islam. Al-Sayyid al-Badawi, founder of the Ahmadiyya Sufi tariqa and whose mausoleum is in Tanta, reminds the Arab reader to the Muslim golden age, as he lived in the XIII century; while as-Sheikha Sabah, is a pious contemporary woman of Tanta, who founded her own tariqa. This way, Soueif links in a few words past and present, traditional Muslim reference (al-Badawi) with Egyptian-specific one (Sabah).
– To religious practices (Ramadan, mosque).
– To traditional places in Egypt: al-Dahhan is one of the oldest restaurants in Cairo in the al-Azhar mosque area, and it is advertised as the oldest “kababgy restaurant” making reference to its Turkish origin

The second level is a semantic one, this time bound to the novel’s development. The different characters have a different background, and regarding Asya’s English friends, have a sort of ‘orientalistic’ idea of the Arab world. Forcing them to confront with the multiplicity of the Egyptian culture and the Arabic language as well, they must confront with their preconceptions, they must stop and think. The Arab world is not the one the reader has in mind, although if the idea is at times an enthusiastic one, neither the Arabic culture is so far away from the western one. The reader has to dismantle his ideas and to rebuild them in a different way. “Gone are the days when the representation in English of Muslims and their cultures was dominated by others -whoever they may be, and whatever sympathies they manifest”. This is underlined by Asya’s friends’ words at some point during the song explanation. After the first strophe, they comment: ‘Nonsense!’ says Gerald. ‘It’s fascinating’, says Lisa; while the Arab friend says: ‘I swear I’m enjoying this. Come on, I’ll play the next couplet’. In the beginning, then, we notice a difference between the audience, the English being ‘fascinated’ or thinking all what they have heard is ‘nonsense’. Only the Arab listener can understand all the linguistic and cultural connections and is, therefore, the only one who, at this stage, can fully understand the meaning. After a while, as Asya explanation goes further and deeper, the listeners’ attitude changes. In fact, when Asya has the feeling of annoying her guests, because what had to be a brief explanation has become a multifaceted commentary she enriches while talking, she asks if she has to stop. Her friends’ attitude has changed: ‘Of course we want you to go on’, says Lisa. ‘It’s incredible how much there is to say’, says Gerald Stone. The ability of Soueif lies in inserting a sort of consciousness in the narrative canvas: the more Asya friends– and with them the readers – learn the better they can understand the Arab culture and they can change their attitude towards it. At the same time, the author is conscious of the complexity of this ‘translation’s’ job. During the evening, the session is interrupted by Asya’s husband Saif, who is calling from abroad. When Asya answers the phone, she says:

‘You saved me. I’ve got some people visiting and they’re making me translate one of Sheikh Imam’s songs to them and it’s beastly.’ Asya whispers.
‘I should have thought it sounds pretty silly in English.’
‘It either sounds silly or ponderous. A page of footnotes for every line’ .

This passage shows how difficult it is to transpose a culture into another one and affirms that, in the end, notwithstanding all the efforts we can do, the result will be ‘pretty silly’ or ‘ponderous’. This statement is interesting because it claims that a culture cannot be assimilated to the English one and that there are concepts, feelings, and ideas that cannot be uttered in English without losing meaning. Soueif sets herself this way on the edge of the borderland, letting the reader know it is necessary to insert Arabic into English if she/he wants to understand the novel’s meaning fully. Her writing carries the rhythm of Arabic which cannot be described in British English, because her goal is not to be domesticated but, on the contrary, to domesticate the English language to her mother tongue, Arabic. As Walter Benjamin  suggests, by ‘translating’ she pushes the English language to its limits – its border – that is, it is still English, but it has also become something else. To recall the multiplicity of Arabic Soueif makes wide use of etymology too, as in the following passage, when the protagonist of The Map of Love helps a girlfriend, who is learning Arabic:

‘Listen,’ I say, ‘you know the alphabet and you’ve got a dictionary. Everything stems from a root. And the root is mostly made up of three consonants — or two. And then the word takes different forms. Look —’ The old teacher in me comes to life as I hunt in my handbag for paper and a biro. ‘Take the root q-l-b, qalb. You see, you can read this?’
 ‘Qalb: the heart, the heart that beats, the heart at the heart of things. Yes?’
 She nods, looking intently at the marks on the paper.
 ‘Then there’s a set number of forms — a template almost — that any root can take. So in the case of “qalb” you get “qalab”: to overturn, overthrow, turn upside down, make into the opposite; hence “maqlab”: a dirty trick, a turning of the tables and also a rubbish dump. “Maqloub”: upside-down; “mutaqallib”: changeable; and “inqilab”: a coup …’
 So at the heart of all things is the germ of their overthrow; the closer you are to the heart, the closer to the reversal. Nowhere to go but down. You reach the core and then you’re blown away —
 ‘Is there a book that tells you all this?’ Isabel asks.
 ‘I don’t know. There must be. I kind of worked it out.’
 ‘That’s really useful.’
 ‘I think so. It gives you a handle.’
 ‘So every time you use a word, it brings with it all the other forms that come from the same root’.

To further underline this estrangement feeling, Soueif interweaves the text with several Arabic words, names and expressions for which she gives the reader a clue in the Glossary at the end of the book . Novels in English have usually no Glossary, this enforces the estrangement feeling and highlights how the text is located at the Borderland. The presence of a glossary or lexicon, in fact, gives the reader the impression of alterity of a text which cannot be encompassed in the field of ‘English’ literature, but which is immediately identified as other. The author uses the Arabic words and expressions to introduce specific characters or to convey social and political concepts which – although not lacking – cover a total different semantic field in English. When reading, the general meaning is clear or at least the reader can easily understand it thanks to the fact that Soueif introduces them to make them become motives in the flow of narration. Then, in the glossary, she gives an accurate definition or information about the quoted political men or the mentioned situation, to enrich the reader cultural knowledge. In this way, the sometimes incoherence of her English use gains a new meaning. It is no more incoherence, but a manipulation of the English language which is leaning towards Arab Islamic culture and produces a powerful paradox, proving that “despite all its colonial evocations and its atavistically anti-Muslim connotation [English] can be utilized as a sophisticated [Arab] and Muslim currency of credible communication”. If until recent times the process was one of infiltration of English terms and expressions in other languages and Arabic was no exception, in the last decades English is Arabicized and Muslimized. This has been called a “natural process of cultures interfacing” . What is new is the process’ acknowledgment.

Herein then lies the happy irony of Muslim writers “appropriation” a language with a perceived hostile history toward Islam and turning it into a medium of conveying inclusivist ethos, enriching understanding, and establishing bridges. An instrument for demystifying and de-alienating Islam and Muslims, muslimized English, like African or Indian English, becomes a site of encounter for cultures and peoples on equal terms, by peaceful means, and trough intelligent-at times humorous, at others touchingly humane-discourses whose modes and modalities shift from antagonism to understanding, from exclusion to integration, form contest to compromise, and, more importantly, from resistance to reconciliation.

This use of English inserting itself in what Soren Frank names “deterritorialization of language”, by which “forms of expression and language systems are set in motion and forced out of balance” . That is, the presence of “Englishes” dismantles the idea – and the praxis – of a unitarian English binaristically opposing to all other languages. This process is interestingly set in motion from the margins, that is, from authors belonging to former colonies or countries that were or are still subjugated to British or American cultural imperialism. As a consequence, this literature is a political one and, as Salman Rushdie affirms, taming English could “complete the process of making ourselves free” . Still, Soueif, although contaminating ‘official’ English, by disturbing it and showing its opacity, does not make a step further. In fact, even if the presence of the Glossary, has I showed, is functional to an estrangement effect, it also can be read as an apology or an explanation and underlines the fact that this language is not her own. As Soueif states she sometimes perceives her work as a translation, and she, therefore, thinks of her writings as Arabic written in English. As one of her characters says: “We speak as we always have Arabic inlaid with French and English phrases” .

To conclude it is possible to speak of a mixed language, “the mixed diction which is used to mediate between local and standard language”  that is not only a powerful linguistic tool but a strong cultural weapon to dismantle the idea of a pure English language as the only way to express oneself.


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