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Volume 7, No. 34 (Winter 2001)
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Editor's Notebooks

EDITOR'S NOTEBOOK/ELIE CHALALA

Lamenting Standards of Arab Literary Criticism, Rushing Poetry into Translation

The Arab intellectual community often complains about the state of professional criticism in the Arab world, whether of books, journals, music, film, theater, or visual art. This complaint, which for some intellectuals has hardened into resentment, may in some cases be excused by Arab literary critics' over-zealous enthusiasm about cultural production in the region, but the deplorable state of Arab literary criticism is indisputable. One indicator of its failings is the trend toward prolific translation of marginal Arab poetry into European languages, for without the filter of competent criticism, many individuals seeking political asylum pass themselves off as great poets in their native land.

Syrian poet and critic Nouri Jarah described the Arab cultural scene as amounting to a "black market" in two articles published two years ago in the London-based Al Hayat newspaper, and reconfirmed that opinion to me personally in a phone discussion a few months ago. This lamentable state, according to Jarah and others, can be traced to the role played by the personal connections and networking among most editors and critics of the cultural pages of the Arab press, both in the Arab world and the diaspora.

Jarah addressed this same issue a few years ago in the Cairo-based magazine Akhbar Al Adab. In all his articles, he has explored the predicament of the Arab creative person, whether in the Arab world or in exile. He explains that it all begins with al-thaqfa al-rasmiyyah, which can mean official culture, state sponsored culture, or the culture of the establishment. Jarah takes issue with some of the other excuses for this predicament, including the notion that the intellectual has fallen victim to "popular culture," as well as what he calls the game of the "margin," "marginalized," and "marginalization." The deciding factor of whether a given individual becomes an established poet, for example, is simply the "official culture." Other factors like the "margin" and the "marginalized" are intended for public consumption and relevant only to purely intellectual issues like poetry writing. The decisions of culture, Jarah believes, are based on exchanges of power and influence.

Editors of the cultural pages of Arab newspapers and magazines claim to maintain objectivity and the highest professional standards, but Jarah refutes the claim that their loyalty is first and foremost to their readership by citing scores of editorial decisions. One interesting case, although hardly a secret to readers acquainted with the culture and arts pages of major Arab newspapers, is that of the late poet Nizar Kabbani. When he was alive and regularly contributing to a London-based Arab daily, the paper he wrote for never criticized him within its pages; his importance to its editor-in-chief and its readership was too great to risk. While Jarah does not name the paper, at the time of his death in 1998 Kabbani was writing for the Al Hayat.

Jarah invites the reader beyond the editing rooms of these newspapers or even their editorial meetings where they decide who is worthy of being reviewed and covered, taking the reader all the way to the inner workings of the editors' minds, using their lingo or jargon that describes their decisions. Those on the outside will find this picture quite useful, especially authors, editors, or artists who might have submitted their creative works for review. These editors have become seasoned experts in dancing around the professional standards used to judge literary works. "When a poem is bad it is justified on the grounds that no better poetry exists in the poet's country;" when the "review is biased we consider it evenhanded;" and "when criticism is harsh and destructive" it is said to be appropriate, perhaps long overdue to correct some literary defect. Editors of the cultural pages always have ready-made excuses for every position or goal that serves their interest. Even more troubling than the editors' antics is the fact that authors and intellectuals have become involved in these journalistic games."

...is there any criticism that could encourage better poetry by either the "diaspora" or the "native" group? Jarah's answer offers little solace because criticism is absent, and even when it exists, it is hollow and has even lost its purpose...Much of the criticism in the Arab press, particularly of poetry, has the smell of bargaining and wheeling and dealing, says Jarah.

The manipulative decisions of the Arab press editors and the critics distorts the cultural scene, both in the homeland and in the diaspora. Jarah draws some conclusions from his hard examination of the poetic scene. While he seems nostalgic about early generations of Arab poets like Badr Shakir al-Sayyab and others, he acknowledges the talent of many worthy modern poets; his love for poetry led him to publish and edit a quarterly fully committed to poetry, called Al Qassida, the Poem. The plethora of modern poets, many of whom hardly meet professional literary standards, has produced conflicting assessments of this era's worthiness. One assessment finds modern poets making rich contributions to Arab poetry, while the second attributes poetry's retreat to the same poets and their inferior works. Clearly, Jarah does not accept the thesis of a "poetry retreat" or a declined interest in poetry. Instead, he ascribes this contradictory development to what he labels as al-hudour al-thaqafi, the cultural presence, which he equates with a "deadly virus" that emerges at the expense of the "author's spirit and innovative aesthetic works."

Jarah's main focus, however, is on the "poetic map" in the diaspora, particularly Europe. He writes that living in exile has certainly benefitted Arab poets, especially through interacting with other cultures. But at what price? The greatest drawback of living alongside different cultures has been their suffocating effect; many Arab poets, Jarah adds, have become infatuated with translating their poetry into foreign languages rather than focusing on other serious issues pertaining to their literary profession.

The contributions of Arab poets, both in the diaspora and the Arab world, has been worthwhile to the extent that "we can observe different voices," distinguishing the two groups without allowing these "aesthetic and linguistic similarities and differences" to compromise "the two types of poetry." However, is there any criticism that could encourage better poetry by either the "diaspora" or the "native" group? Jarah's answer offers little solace because criticism is absent, and even when it exists, it is hollow and has even lost its purpose.

Perhaps to the surprise of those who believe in a healthy creative process, the Arab critic-author relationship is one of enmity rather than amity. "It is no exaggeration to say that the modern Arab critic has abandoned his classical image as an objective party," Jarah writes, "failing to acquire a new one except that offered by some examples which present him as narcissistic and subjective. Perhaps unconsciously, he has become preoccupied with denying an old cliche that the critic is an unsuccessful author." For those critics, "the poet has become a creative rival," challenging another creative person, the critic, who in turn "ceases to be an effective reader." Thus the relationship between poet and reader has transformed into one of hostility, with poets rebutting critics with harsh and reprimanding language, questioning "how could would you write this about me!"

Much of the criticism in the Arab press, particularly of poetry, has the smell of bargaining and wheeling and dealing, says Jarah. This state of criticism perhaps contributes to Arab poetry's failure "to discover the questions of poetry and creativity, not to mention poetry's lack of standards and criterion which guarantee a trust in it" as a literary form. With its importance in Arab culture, poetry has even become a vehicle for "the poet to achieve other agendas, social for instance." Criticism, Jarah laments, "has withdrawn from the cultural scene and the critic has fled out of sight except in the happy occasions."

The rush to translate Arab poetry into European languages, particularly English, has compounded the problems already afflicting modern writing. The substantial increase of its translation distorts the image of Arab poetry in general, including the importance of the poets in their own native poetic environment.

One can suggest a two-fold criteria against which we judge the decision to translate Arab poetry, especially of the modern generation. We will not examine the art and the quality of translation, for this is another issue entirely.

First, are the poets being translated the best Arab culture has to offer to the non-Arabic speaking world? A related consideration is whether these poets developed unique methods, means of expression, imagery, or a specific language that elevate them to some universal level, thus worthy of being translated? Today most of those translated poets hardly achieved recognition in their own countries, and certainly not the Arab world at large. While popularity is hardly a test of literary quality, the translated poets fail on this level as well. As for their contributions, Jarah, who describes the rush to translation as "the game of translation," considers many of these poets "untalented."

Second, do the contributions of these poets convey a political message worthy of being heard by the non-Arabic speaking world? Since the language of poetry is universal, why not introduce the world to our causes and grievances through poetry? This was the case in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s and even later, when the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish and his fellow "poets of resistance" were translated into Western languages. Certainly politics was not the only criteria that legitimized translating Darwish's and others' poetry -- the resistance poets have distinguished themselves poetically as well as through the powerful messages they conveyed. Excluding their lip service to the struggle of the Palestinian people and other popular pan-Arab causes, much of the modern poetry is apolitical. The collapse of the former Soviet Union and the rise of conservative Arab hegemony in Arab media both in the region and the diaspora have convinced many poets to steer away from writing on social injustice, political repression (except by Israel, Turkey, Afghanistan, and at times by Iran) and women's issues lest they risk being accused as "socialist realists!" The result is dull poetry that, when translated, conveys little meaning in either form or content.

We cannot help asking why we have seen such a rush to translation with such texts. Although the term "globalization" has become so common in Arab discourse, with analyses of its "deadly consequences" dominating vast space on the ideas and opinion pages of the Arab press, translating poetry increasingly appears to be one of its unpublicized results. Just as leaders and critics warn of the damage the "globalization" process is wreaking in Third World societies and cultures, the Arab included, the new trends in translation have caused equal damage to the culture.

The policy of granting political asylum to Arab poets fleeing repressive regimes in their countries, and the European environment in which these poets take up residence appear to have more influence on whether their works are translated than the merit of their poetry. Many poets, some of limited literary talent, present themselves to the European host countries as "great poets" in their native lands, while their only qualifying credentials are those of successful political refugees. "They are transformed from individuals fleeing repression into individuals benefiting from repression," writes Jarah.

Whenever politics and poetry encounter one another, the former corrupts the latter, no matter when and where -- whether in the Arab world or in Europe. Politically correct poetry insures its authors positions, awards, and invitations to cultural festivals in their country and around the Arab world, and even in Europe, the U.S., Australia, and Canada. As soon as Arab poets set foot in the lands of freedom, their fellow nationals start translating their poetry into the language of the country granting political asylum. It makes no difference what type of poetry; it can be in "defense of nationalism, patriotism, party loyalty, tribalism, localism, factionalism, or joint personal memoirs." Their poetic presence then becomes a part of the "idea of freedom" and an example of "the victims of repression" regardless of the literary status of the poet.

Living in exile proves beneficial to certain segments of Arab poets. Personal friendship networks in the European continent have replaced professional standards in judging and evaluating works of poetry. As Jarah writes, "the Danish reader had his own Iraqi poet; the Swedish his Kurdish poet; the Norwegian his Lebanese poet; the Swiss his Syrian; the Bulgarian his Jordanian; the Spanish his Egyptian; the German his Yemeni, and the French his Algerian."

Translating modern Arab poetry has become a "game" indeed. According to the unwritten rules of this game, it is impossible for a poet to be read in more than one European country since the precondition of being read is having a translation. Since it is unlikely that these poets will be translated unless they live in a particular European country, the poet must seek political asylum in the very country where he would like to be translated. Ironically, "the more repression intensifies and the tragedies unfold in the Arab world, Kurdistan, and Iran... the more prosperous the conditions of the poet," for he receives invitation to panels and conferences, events legitimizing his status as a refugee and a victim of repression, and he subsequently secures an asylum.

Criticism, Jarah laments, "has withdrawn from the cultural scene and the critic has fled out of sight except in the happy occasions."

"We lose our nations and causes, but why should we also lose poetry?" Jarah lamented to a friend. He added that his position should not be misunderstood as against translating poetry or literature into other languages; rather he believes that translation needs to be done seriously and according to well-studied plans, involving poets and authors as well as institutions and translators.

Having worked as an editor, critic, columnist, reporter, and himself a poet, Jarah paints a gloomy picture of the cultural scene, a picture confirmed on the cultural pages of Arab magazines and newspapers. His love for Arabic poetry prevents him from remaining silent while poetry is mocked through the rush to translation. He writes that it is not acceptable to single out a poet with limited talent and introduce him into a European language, claiming that he is the best the Arab culture has to offer, while forgetting that modern Arab poetry has a rich history consisting of different aesthetic schools and generations. He adds that one finds little presence in European languages of great poets like Badr Shakir al-Sayyab, Mohammad al-Maghout, Onsi al-Haj, Salah Abd al-Sabour or Khalil Hawi, while these same languages abound with translations of poets who are hardly accomplished in their own poetic culture.

Jarah's assessment is shared by Lebanese playwright, poet, critic, and journalist Paul Shaoul. "Translation is an exchange of services" rather than a "creative cultural activity," Shaoul said in an interview published in the Lebanese An Nahar newspaper after participating in a poetry festival in France. When Shaoul addressed the Arab poetry the French have translated, he declared "your translations are unjust and impractical, and even forged." Shaoul went on to name important Arab poets like Said Akl, Amin Nakhle, Elias Abou Shabakeh, Mohammad al-Maghout, and others whose works were not translated. "Thus I told them (the French), if you do not know the real pioneers in Arab poetry it is because the translations are subject to political considerations and political institutions that have nothing to do with poetry. Instead they represent personal relationships and exchanges of services."

Echoing Jarah's earlier argument, Shaoul addressed the French literary community: "Do you want every poet to come to Paris and live there for years in order to be translated?" The French admitted, according to Shaoul, that "translations used to be the result of relations and connections first and last and regardless of the poetic value." The response Shaoul received from his French hosts to his next question was quite telling: "'Do you treat the Spanish, Greek, American, and Polish poetry the same way you treat the Arab?' Some laughed and said: 'this is quite a different matter.'"

This disturbing picture applies not only to poetry, but also to other Arab cultural endeavors, Jarah continues. He describes the dominant forces as the "cultural militias." They use the carrot and the stick approach, employing incentives as well as subtle threats, at times going so far as to deprive authors and critics of their livelihoods, namely their jobs. Membership in the "militia" is not arranged through contracts but rather through "aesthetic and "ideological causes," and soon the "militia" becomes an "aesthetic gang excluding its dissident members" from this newspaper or that magazine's cultural page, or withdrawing an invitation to this panel or that festival.

Most disorienting is the fact that Arab cultural activities follow the same traditions, whether editors and critics or poets are working in Beirut and Amman or in London and Paris. An editor working in London makes the same decisions as his counterpart in Beirut, easily following his basic, primitive personal and sectarian impulses, laying to rest the naive assumption that freedom from censorship and oppression, and for that matter even from want, guarantees an enlightened and bright future for Arab culture, whether in poetry or literary criticism in general.

This essay appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 7, no.34 (Winter 2001)

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