Moving into Cairo’s house

For the summer 2018 issue of The Author, the magazine of the UK’s Society of Authors, I interviewed Marcia Lynx Qualey, founder of the ArabLit website, about building a worldwide audience for Arabic literature in English. The piece is not online, but the table of contents for that issue of the Author is given here 

For me, it happened during a family holiday in 1980, when my dad stopped the car on a desert road somewhere south of Jerusalem. I remember getting out. Nothing in suburban Surrey prepared me for a place so big, or still, or silent. I’d never felt the sun so hot. Since then, half a lifetime has been taken up living in, travelling through, writing on and thinking about the Middle East.

The way Marcia Lynx Qualey tells it, for her it happened within hours of landing in Cairo for the first time, in 2001.

‘I remember or reconstruct it as a Proustian experience. I felt very intensely the Cairo of Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy underlaying, or overlaying, the real neighbourhood of Gamaliya. Somehow, in that moment, I felt I had arrived home.’

Within weeks, she had quit her corporate media job in her native Minnesota and moved to Cairo.

‘I became an adult in Cairo, got married, had my first child in Cairo, learned how to be a parent and a meaningful part of a community. Cairo is to me an adoptive mother, who didn’t really agree to adopt me but I moved into her house anyway.’

Since 2009, beside working as a journalist, editor, ghostwriter and teacher of creative writing, Lynx Qualey has built a worldwide reputation around ArabLit, ostensibly a blog about Arabic literature in English translation, but in practice the leading one-stop shop for information on everything to do with literary production of all kinds from the Arabic-speaking world.

ArabLit’s website is a triumph of content over design – a plain WordPress template hosting a chronological list of posts. Occasional contributors aside, Lynx Qualey writes everything herself, updating the site daily with anything from prize announcements to reviews to obituaries to current translations. She also feeds ArabLit’s presence on Facebook (11,000 likes) and Twitter (9,000 followers), and sends out email updates to the site’s 34,000 subscribers.

From a beginning targeting anglophone outsiders, ArabLit now has an audience encompassing writers, industry professionals and lovers of literature from across the Arab world and beyond.

‘I just try to feel my way around, based on what authors, publishers, academics and translators are discussing on social media, what they say in off-the-record emails, and what they’re writing in online journals,’ says Lynx Qualey. ‘Literature is how I relate to the world: it’s my language and my community.’

Jordanian novelist Fadi Zaghmout has called ArabLit the best source on Arabic literature today, even while decrying the fact that such a source appears only in English.

‘That may give us an idea about the state of Arabic literature and how much value we give to intellectual production,’ he wrote in 2015.

But, in conversation with Zaghmout, Lynx Qualey was less downbeat.

‘Everyone would like Arabs to read more,’ she said. ‘But every time a person unironically circulates the [often-cited and much disputed] statistic that ‘Spain translates more in a year than Arabs have translated ever’* I slam my head against a wall. Arabs are an enormously diverse group, and you can’t compare the situations of readers in [cities as diverse as] Baghdad, Casablanca, Beirut and Benghazi. Some places it’s near-impossible to read because of daily violence. Other places, books are too expensive for most people, and libraries too scarce. And some places, the reading population is growing by leaps.’

FOOTNOTE:*This line first appeared in the UN-sponsored Arab Human Development Report 2002, based on a study from 1999. It has been cited widely since, often by those seeking to assert Western cultural superiority. Scholars including translator Richard Jacquemond of Aix-Marseille University dispute the numbers involved.

I ask Lynx Qualey what this fragmented market means for authors. One implication is that they face fewer hurdles on the road to publication, she says.

‘Publishing in Arabic is a bit more informal than publishing in English, for better and for worse. For many decades the main centre has been Beirut, and there are still many excellent Lebanese houses, like Dar al-Adab and Arab Scientific, or houses like Dar al-Tanweer that have a Beirut branch. But there are many strong houses in Egypt: older ones like Dar al-Shorouk and younger ones like Kotob Khan and Dar al-Karma. And Kalimat Group, in the UAE, is a big and growing proposition. The UAE definitely intends to make an impact on publishing.’

Do agents play a role?

‘A handful of writers have international agents. A few work with the very small number of [reputable] Arabic-language literary agents. Otherwise, writers take care of themselves. For most, the amounts at stake are not big enough to support the author, much less an agent too.’

I remember twenty years ago, writing the first edition of my Rough Guide tourist handbook to Jordan, searching Amman’s bookshops for English translations of Jordanian writers to recommend. There were almost none. I directed readers to international publishers such as Saqi, Darf and Interlink, but locally the one or two works I could find in translation had been put out by Jordan’s Ministry of Culture. Does that governmental model survive?

‘At this point, nearly all support from Arab governments is to translate literature into Arabic. [Translating into English] is a mish-mash – still informal, and mostly driven by translators, although the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) is having an outsize effect on what gets translated, [as do] the Sharjah and Abu Dhabi book fairs, with their publisher-to-publisher speed dating. But mostly it’s translators caring about a project and relentlessly shopping it around.’

The Society of Authors deserves an honourable mention here for administering the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation, awarded annually since 2006. Last year, from seventeen entries, Robin Moger won for his translation of Yasser Abdel Hafez’s The Book of Safety.

I suggested that the Booker-managed, Abu Dhabi-funded IPAF and other prizes such as Etisalat Award for Arabic Children’s Literature, as well as events like Dubai’s Emirates LitFest, reflect ongoing efforts by Gulf states to shift the centre of gravity in Arab culture away from Cairo, Beirut and Baghdad. They help create global profile, but do they also serve to burnish the credentials of authoritarian governments?

‘I don’t think creating global profile is nearly as important as getting arabophone authors in the same place so they can talk to each other. The importance of these events is the ‘public square’ they create, or fail to create. If, in an attempt to burnish its credentials, any country does good, then I’m happy about that. If people are de-platformed because they are critical, or the fair itself becomes an exercise in credential-burnishing, then that’s a net negative.

‘I’m discomfited by the way Arab writers are fêted in translation if they tick particular boxes and break the particular taboos (or supposed taboos) that we like to see broken. Translation continues to mostly put Arab women writers in a double-bind, valuing taboo-breaking, or ‘liberation’ stories – particularly when they make us anglophone readers admire our own values. We all have a responsibility to stop supporting misogyny and misogynist narratives.’

In The Book of the Sultan’s Seal, whose translation, by Paul Starkey, won the 2015 Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize, Egyptian writer Youssef Rakha weaves a complex story of marital betrayal around a series of drives through modern-day Cairo, ranging between past and future time. Lynx Qualey has described it as a work that English readers ‘didn’t have the critical apparatus’ to understand. I asked her what she meant.

‘Youssef is playing, intertextually, with the 1,500-odd years of Arabic literary tradition. Imagine that you didn’t know Chaucer and Shakespeare and John Donne and Virginia Woolf, and you picked up a book that was all about playing with those different modes of using English, while also moving forward its characters and plot. It’s the intertexts that we’re missing in translation – and not just the physical texts but all the other cultural objects that form intertexts. Arabophone readers [may not] get all of them, but they’ll have access to many more.’

If Arabic fiction is still little read in English, Arabic non-fiction seems even less appreciated. Has much been translated?

‘There are a few cookbooks. But there’s a dearth of journalism, memoir, philosophy, sociology. Examples [include] Dunya Mikhail’s heartbreaking The Beekeeper of Sinjar (tr. Max Weiss), but there isn’t much and we can speculate about the reasons – Arab fiction is read as journalism and anthropology, but there’s no appetite for [actual] Arab journalism and anthropology?’

That appetite may grow: Arab journalism is increasingly widely consumed, due in part to locally generated coverage of the 2011-12 uprisings and the subsequent traumas of Syria and Iraq. But in Cairo, where that journalistic spark was lit, the counterrevolutionary crackdown has changed everything.

‘Unfortunately,’ says Lynx Qualey, ‘being foreign started to become very alienating after 2013. I still love Cairo as much as I ever did, but I am not quite so welcome.’

Now based in the Moroccan capital Rabat, she has set about extending ArabLit’s coverage, starting a podcast with writer friend Ursula Lindsey and joining Patreon, an online platform through which consumers fund creators directly. That has opened ArabLit’s first income stream beyond online ads. The site still loses money, says Lynx Qualey, but the fact that more than fifty people are willing to pay for it each month has changed her perspective.

Some of that income goes to sponsor the 2018 ArabLit Story Prize, an idea of translator Thoraya El-Rayyes, which Lynx Qualey says she would like to see ‘boost emerging translators and the Arabic short story’.

At last year’s London Book Fair, ArabLit won the Literary Translation Initiative Award, for Lynx Qualey’s ‘strong personal dedication to creating cross-cultural understanding.’

How does she see her work?

‘I’d like to ever-so-slightly shift the way in which anglophones typically approach Arabic literature, away from the forensic-anthropological sense to an approach where we’re reading Arabic literature for the joy, the surprise, the literary innovation and experimentation, the warmth of the narrative, the ways in which it can enrich and expand us.’