Frozen in time

How African literature is taught reveals a depressing lack of knowledge concerning North African writers and their works.

Photo by Kenny Luo on Unsplash

The most surprising aspect of Bhakti Shringarpure and Lily Saint’s survey of the African literature, taught in mostly US and European universities, is that there are depressingly few surprises—at least as far as North African literature is concerned.

Shringarpure and Saint describe sending emails to more than 250 academics, mostly members of the African Literature Association. Responses from 105 show that teaching tends to cluster around a single text as a “representative” of each country. Although the titles would not be a surprise to those who read US and UK criticism, they might well be a surprise to an Arabic literature professor in Cairo, Rabat, or Khartoum.

If you asked an Arabic literature professor teaching at Cairo University which Egyptian writer they would expect at the top of this list, they might think it’s a trick question. Naguib Mahfouz, right? Or … what, Taha Hussein? If you said, no, no, it’s a woman writer, they might suggest novelists who are canonized in Arabic, such as Radwa Ashour, Latifa al-Zayyat, or Salwa Bakr, all of whom had works on the Arab Writers Union’s list of top novels of the 20th century. A particularly well-read professor might suggest Iman Mersal. But none of those women appear. Overall, there are roughly as many works by women as by men, but there is more variety among male writers. For women, there are fewer, seemingly representative writers: for Algeria, it’s work by Assia Djebar (particularly Women of Algiers in Their Apartments) that dominates. For Morocco, it’s a book by Laila Lalami (Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits).

As for Egypt, it’s Nawal El Saadawi who appears most often, with five books, one of which—Woman at Point Zero—was mentioned 17 times, making her one of the most-taught authors continent-wide. Sixteen percent of the survey respondents taught with this book. Indeed, in the US and UK, El Saadawi has been much-feted, her name circulated for a literary Nobel. In Arabic, she is not rated as a novelist. That is not to say she isn’t an important writer in Arabic. Nawal El Saadawi is acclaimed as a memoirist, researcher, and polemicist. As Ahdaf Soueif said in a 1996 interview: “El Saadawi writes good scientific research, but she writes bad novels.”

Yet, it was not for its aesthetic qualities that El Saadawi’s work became firmly entrenched in US syllabi in the 1980s and early 1990s. And there it remains, seemingly cemented in place, seemingly preventing new work from appearing. The classic essay that Amal Amireh published 20 years ago, “Framing Nawal El Saadawi,” remains relevant today; it details El Saadawi’s conscription as a celebrity author, how she was simultaneously posited as representative of Arab women and utterly unique. At the time Amireh was writing, El Saadawi was already heavily anthologized in English, the only Arab woman writer who had an entry in the Feminist Companion to Literature in English.

The Hidden Face of Eve, first published in English in 1980, was El Saadawi’s breakthrough book. When it appeared, Amireh writes, there was significant Western attention being given to FGM, and the book—in its English translation—emphasizes the practice, even adding a chapter not in the Arabic, “The Circumcision of Girls.” At the time, El Saadawi expressed anger at how English-language reviewers exclusively focused on FGM. But, as Amireh describes, El Saadawi also grew accustomed to her place in the Anglophone academy.

El Saadawi’s books also coincided with the rise in the popularity of the “saving Muslim women” narratives that Lila Abu-Lughod describes in Do Muslim Women Need Saving? Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Amireh wrote, “El Saadawi’s book becomes a testament to the progress that American women have achieved in contrast to their oppressed Arab sisters.” There is little evidence that El Saadawi’s novels were considered great literature; rather, they were received as ethnographic documents. Students, in Amireh’s experience, “tend to see the novels as windows onto a timeless Islam[.]”

That is not to say that El Saadawi’s feminist writing wasn’t important for many men and women. Amireh herself was influenced by El Saadawi as a young reader in Palestine. Yet, when seeing El Saadawi re-framed in English, she said, “I hardly recognized the author I knew. Even more disturbingly, I hardly recognized myself.”

From a glance at the list, it is hard to know how El Saadawi’s books are being taught. It would be interesting to teach her work alongside Amireh’s “Framing Nawal El Saadawi: Arab Feminism in a Transnational World” and Abu-Lughod’s Saving Muslim Women. We can hope, at least, that El Saadawi is no longer stripped of context and taught as a non-representative representative, the lone Arab feminist.

A syllabus certainly needn’t keep up with the latest releases. But the North African titles on this list feel unhelpfully frozen in a recent past. There are only two books from the last decade: Youssef Rakha’s groundbreaking Sultan’s Seal, presumably taught in Paul Starkey’s 2014 translation, and Ahdaf Soueif’s Cairo: Memoir of a City (2014).

And Naguib Mahfouz? As the only Arab author to have won a literary Nobel Prize, his place in the “world literature” canon is secure. Yet, his place in the syllabus is less so. The Thief and the Dogs appears most often (six times); the Cairo Trilogy and Children of Gabalawi are mentioned once each.

Algeria and Morocco, like Egypt, have a healthy number of titles on this list. Algerian titles are all translated from French, which might reflect knowledge expertise in African-literature departments. Although there are 11 different Algerian authors, that country’s list is overwhelmed by Assia Djebar (1936-2015). She has five different titles as well as a “general” mention.

Works by Laila Lalami dominate titles from Morocco, which also has one work translated from Arabic, even though it seems to be an excerpt published on Words Without Borders rather than a whole novel. The most recent Maghrebi books are all by Lalami, a Moroccan American, who writes in English.

Tunisia barely registers, with three authors who have one title each. There is one author listed for the Western Sahara. Strangely, there is not a single title from Libya. Not Hisham Matar’s brilliant cross-genre The Return, nor a historical novel by Alessandro Spina. There is no short story by Najwa Binshatwan, nor even a single mention of the prolific, much-translated, much-laureled Ibrahim al-Koni, whose The New Waw won the US’s National Translation Award in 2015.

Overall, the most-taught work by a North African author is Tayeb Salih’s classic novel, Seasons of Migration to the North. An English translation by Denys Johnson-Davies was first published in 1969. And in this case, the Anglophone and Arabophone canons agree.

Yet teaching clusters around this one work of Salih’s, although one respondent apparently teaches with The Wedding of Zein. The only other Sudanese author to make the list is Leila Aboulela, who writes in English. There is a startling lack of the vibrant literature being crafted by Sudanese and South Sudanese writers, such as Stella Gaitano, Abdel Aziz Baraka Sakin, Bushra al-Fadil, Hammour Ziada, and Rania Mamoun. There was also a surprise appearance in Sudan: a listing for What is the What, a book written by the American Dave Eggers, based on the story of Valentino Deng.

Overall, the selected women’s writing seems to be more focused on testimonial and ethnography, while men’s writing has slightly more freedom to be high literature. Poetry is nearly absent. According to the Saint-Shringarpure survey, poems made up nine percent of the texts being taught from the continent. But for all of the North African texts that made the list, there was only one poetry collection: Amina Said’s 1988 Sables funambules, which has not appeared in English translation. The great Moroccan writer Abdellatif Laabi is listed without giving a specific work; perhaps it is his poems being taught. Surprising, there is not a single poem translated from the Arabic, even though, as they say, “poetry is the diwan of the Arabs.” (In Soueif’s suggested translation, this becomes: “for Arabs, poetry is the medium of choice.”)

Many thanks to Saint and Shringarpure. Inspired by this survey, a group of us hopes to put together a similar survey of which Arab and Arabic literary works (broadly understood) are taught in US, UK, and European universities.

Further Reading