An interview with Marcia Lynx Qualey

Henry Ace Knight

Marcia Lynx Qualey is a household name among students and aficionados of Arabic and Middle Eastern literature, many of whom avidly read her blog ArabLit.org, or “Arabic Literature (In English).” A freelance journalist based in Cairo, Qualey keeps her finger on the pulse of the Arab literary sphere, and Arab Lit is the conduit through which she brings her expertise and discoveries to the English-speaking world. Her coverage leaves no stone unturned, spanning a wide range of genres (from poetry to nonfiction, magical realism to science fiction) and countries (from Morocco to Iraq, Sudan to Syria).

At the 2017 London Book Fair in March, Qualey’s “strong personal dedication to creating cross-cultural understanding in the diverse world of Arabic literature” was recognized with the Literary Translation Initiative Award. Her effort to facilitate mutual appreciation across disparate literary communities is undoubtedly an act of translation in itself, enabling writers and readers to access a conversation that straddles linguistic lines. (This in addition to drawing special attention not only to translated works, but works in need of translation—an alert to the community of Arabic-English translators that there remains work to be done.)

Qualey holds an M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of Minnesota and, in addition to guiding Arab Lit with a steady hand, covers Arabic literature for
The Guardian. Her writing also appears in Al Jazeera, The New Republic, Your Middle East, and AGNI, Boston University’s online journal.

—Claire Jacobson



What drew you to Cairo and to Arabic literature? When and how did you learn Arabic, and have you ever been tempted to take up translation yourself? And what do you read when you’re not reading to write about it?

To simplify my Cairo story: I visited a friend in the spring of 2001. While wandering the city environs, I fell deeply and magically in love, and I have never grown tired or disappointed of the city yet. Throw up whatever facts or failings you like, Cairo saved me from myself. I am eternally grateful.

I have been learning Arabic in a host of places and with many resources since the summer of 2001, and the process will continue tomorrow, and the next day. Sometimes I do translate for fun (I might ask Sonia Nimr for permission to translate a bit from the book I'm reading now), or because it's required for a job, but I don't think it's where my skills are best employed. Also: there are a number of really talented people who translate Arabic-English, while nobody else seems to want my gig!

When I'm not reading for work, I have all sorts of guilty pleasure stuff: science fiction (I'm a hardcore Octavia Butler fan); Arabic kid lit and YA (shout-out to Sonia Nimr, Taghreed Najjar, Fatima Sharafeddine); experimental short stories; scientific works . . . basically anything that has the power to surprise me. I hate reading familiarity.

How do you choose what to feature on Arab Lit, both in terms of translated literature and and works in need of translation?

I suppose my personal tastes are the guiding factor, for better and/or worse. I like literature that invents and re-invents, which is why I've taken up the cause of translating Salim Barakat. I try to feature writers who don't already have a megaphone, the greats who haven't (yet) hit the critical big time. So Rabee Jaber and Iman Mersal more than Elias Khoury and Mahmoud Darwish, although I greatly admire all four. I also try to nudge us away from teaching and reading the same Arabophone writers year after year. It's time to move on from positioning Nawal El Saadawi as the seminal representative of women's lit in Arabic. Although it's a daily blog, so sometimes I just grab what comes to hand.

If you had the authority to integrate a few Arabic novels or poetry collections in translation into high school literature curricula across the United States, what would you choose and why?

Ah, but I do have that authority! Okay, not really. A tenth-grade teacher did recently contact me, looking for coming-of-age works to bring into his classroom. My first suggestion was and is Saud Alsanousi's The Bamboo Stalk, an International Prize for Arabic Fiction-winning novel that's very accessible. It narrates the life of a Filipino-Kuwaiti (or Kuwaiti-Filipino?) boy and man as he navigates his role in both societies. I'd also love to see high-school students take writer-translator Tim Mackintosh-Smith up on his challenge of reading Accounts of China and India, (late ninth century, early tenth), and bring that into classrooms.

For poetry, I'd have to think a bit, and it would depend on what the classroom wants. I might suggest Iraqi poet Adnan al-Sayegh's Biography of an Exile, translated by Stephen Watts and Marga Burgui-Artajo. I might suggest Chronicles of Majnun Layla and Selected Poems, by Qassim Haddad, translated by John Verlenden and Ferial Ghazoul, for the cycle of Majnun Layla poems. I'd like to see Robyn Creswell's translation of Iman Mersal's Until I Give Up the Idea of Houses, which I think is in progress.

And I'd love to make up a list of short stories. Actually, give me a contract! I'd love to put together a collection of short works for teaching in high schools! Translator and educator Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp and I chit some idle chatter about putting together a guide to teaching Arabic literature in schools.

Do you think there are limits to what a writer should be able to write? Or rather, do writers have the right to speak in someone else’s voice, and write from an underrepresented perspective (i.e. in terms of gender, religion, ethnicity, etc.)? What potential problems or benefits can arise from doing so?

Of course, that's all fiction writers do: clothe themselves in the voices of others. But anyone who's read Updike's Terrorist or seen Homeland knows this creative impulse isn't “pure,” but sits within other frameworks of meaning-creation.

To speak within Arabic fiction: there has, for instance, recently been a surge of portrayals of Jewish characters and a minor movement toward creating more queer characters. On occasion, this is done with a complete fictional sympathy (Alexandra Chreiteh, Ali and His Russian Mother, on both accounts; Hilal Chouman's Limbo Beirut). Other times . . .  I believe Kamal Ruhayyim's intentions are excellent, but in attempting to resurrect a “glorious past” in which Egyptian Jews played a part, he also consigns these characters to a somewhat rose-colored history. And there's The Bamboo Stalk, mentioned above, where a Kuwaiti man (Saud Alsanousi) portrays Filipino characters and Bidoon [stateless residents].

To speak outside Arabic fiction, I do cringe to see “Middle East” reading lists that heavily feature books by Westerners about/set in the region. I do think Anglophone creative writers need to work harder to think about how our bubble intersects with and affects other bubbles. But it's not easy. I suppose you've hit on a major reason I've drifted away from writing fiction. Too hard!

How does genre translate among literary traditions? For example, Mortada Gzar and Fadi Azzam, both of whom have been featured on Arab Lit, come to mind as writers of surrealist or magical realist fiction. What issues might arise in translating or publishing works from a genre that doesn’t necessarily have an extensive history in the target language?

Good question! We can, for instance, think about Humphrey Davies's translation of Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq's Leg over Leg (1855), which was very consciously not a novel, yet which did surprisingly well in English, in terms of critics “getting” it. Or we can think about Youssef Rakha's The Book of the Sultan's Seal, translated by Paul Starkey, which we didn't have the critical apparatus to “get” in English. I think al-Shidyaq's work is easier because critics see “published in 1855” and accept we might have to stretch ourselves. Whereas, for a recent work, we're more likely to use only the most familiar tools and principles.

I think it's Lila Abu-Lughod who has written about how rural Egyptian women consumed American soap operas; how the viewers incorporated the characters into their own mental landscapes. We Americans do the same, we tailor texts as we read, fitting them into what “works” in our mental constellations. The best we can do is stretch, read literary context, and stretch some more.

Can you tell me a little about the development of science fiction as a genre in Arabic literature? With the release of titles such as Iraq + 100 and Paradise on Earth, is Arabic science fiction becoming more mainstream, or was it there all along?

Science fiction does have Arabic roots it could build on (as graphic novelist Sherif Adel was inspired by the Future Files series from the 1980s). But I think the Iraq + 100 writers, and Fadi, were probably more inspired by Anglophone science fiction. I'm pretty sure Noura is, based on how she's gushed about Dune. My impression is that science fiction is really dominated by tropes coming out of the English.

You wrote about the false claim of the emerging Arabic novel, and the distinction of “first Arabic novel” given to Muhammad Husayn Haykal’s Zaynab, in a recent post for Arab Lit. Could you talk a little more about that? Why is Zaynab frequently considered the first Arabic novel, and why is that problematic?

The idea of the “emergence of the Arabic novel” irks me, as if Arabs started writing in a meaningful way when they started writing European-style novels. Instead, I like to view aspects of the European novel as being folded—incorporated, absorbed—into a very long Arabic narrative tradition. I find the “first-novelling” [of Zaynab] problematic because this—like other “first” tropes—is posited as a point of arrival (“first woman —,” “first Black —”). In this case, it's as though in order to be real modernites, Arabs have to write in a form pioneered by Daniel Defoe. Except DeFoe was probably influenced by Ibn Tufail (twelfth century). So. Also descriptively, I just think it works better to view the Arabic literary tradition not as having a death and rebirth-as-novel, but as having a continuous tradition wherein elements of the European novel are enthusiastically incorporated, toyed with, reimagined.

As opposed to an “emerging Arabic novel,” what do you think of as the “classics” of Arabic literature, both contemporary and in the history of the genre? What are the Great Books of the region?

That's a tall order! There are classics of poetry (the so-called Hanging Verse, the oeuvres of Mutanabbi, Abu Tamaam, Abu Nuwas, etc.), classics of narrative prose (al-Ma'arri's Epistle of Forgiveness, Ibn al-Jawzi, etc.), popular works (Antarah, 1,001 Nights, Sirat al-Zahir Baybars), classics of religious scholarship; classics of travel writing (Ibn Battuta, etc.), classics of philosophy (Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd, Ibn Khaldun etc.), and more. The corpus is so vast that a project like the Library of Arabic Literature debates whether they're creating/responding to a “canon” or just creating an idiosyncratic mini-corpus.

If I start naming more recent classics, I'll be sure to leave out something really important and embarrass myself. In fact, I'm certain I already have. The Arab Writers Union made a list of the “top 105” books of the twentieth century; people could peruse that.

Algerian-Belgian writer Malika Madi was recently featured on Arab Lit, in an article discussing her works and her visit to Kuwait for the Belgian Embassy’s Francophone Days. What are some of the factors that inform the choice to write in one’s second or third language, as Madi does (alongside others such as Assia Djebar, Kamel Daoud, and Boualem Sansal), and what might some of the (cultural or political) implications of that choice be?

Indeed, in Algeria and Morocco, language is a thorny issue, with colonial and post-colonial Frenches, as well as Darija (that region's spoken Arabic), Modern Standard Arabic, and Tamazight. What are you schooled in? What literary language do you fall in love with? Where can you find your audience?

I think Malika was raised in France, was she not? So I imagine she'd simply want to communicate with an audience of her peers. (Does she even know Modern Standard Arabic? Got me.) There have been financial and practical reasons for authors based in Morocco and Algeria to write toward French audiences. However, Lebanese novelist Charif Majdalani was saying recently, at this year's Emirates LitFest, that authors are no longer so excited to be in French, they prefer to be in English.

What can you say about the movement towards writing in a regional dialect, rather than in Modern Standard Arabic? Is it very common, and has it affected the audience or marketability of the texts in question? What about logistical issues, like accurately representing a spoken dialect in the Arabic alphabet given the presence of non-standard phonemes?

This is such a meaty question! We could do a whole interview on this topic. I'll try to hit some of the highlights.

[Children's literature] is a thorny issue. Some authors want to write picture books in spoken dialect—and some have, like Sonia Nimr—but publishers tend to be very opposed, as they want to be able to sell into multiple markets and submit to prizes. Unfortunately, this even goes for dialogue. I loved Rania Amin's Screams Behind Doors, which won the Etisalat Prize for best YA novel last November, but it felt weird to have these girls speaking to each other in Modern Standard Arabic. Rania told me she'd written the dialogue in Egyptian, but the publisher “fixed” it, worried they couldn't otherwise submit to prizes and suchlike. A bit galling.

[Grown-up literature] is more flexible, as authors tend to have more choice and power. Here, also, there are no parents to tsk-tsk about what's appropriate, although of course there are occasionally prosecutors to act in the role of a parent. Ghada Abdel Aal's funny Ayza Atgowaz (I Want to Get Married! ) is in Egyptian Arabic, and I only read it as a consumer—not looking for standardization of phonemes—but it was perfectly understandable. There are also a small but growing number of “serious” works written entirely in spoken Arabics, and more authors who play with not just the dialogue, but shifting back and forth between registers.

I wrote an essay on this topic last year for Mashallah. In brief, Ghada Abdel Aal told me, “I could never be as funny using Modern Standard Arabic.” Enas Haleem: “Writing in colloquial is close to my heart because it looks at the character’s internal situation and the internal rhythm of human souls.” And Jordanian writer Ma'n Abu Taleb suggested that Ameya, or the spoken language, might be the only way to do a first-person, stream-of-consciousness novel in Arabic.

Is there much in the way of literature in regional minority languages like Kurdish, Aramaic, or Tamazight?

Here we're pushing the boundaries of my knowledge: Tamazight has official-language status in Morocco and Algeria, and institutions and prizes have begun to recognize Tamazight-language literature. People who want to know more about Tamazight should pester Nadia Ghanem, who showed me photos of some Tamazight graphic novels coming out. There are still standardization and script issues to be worked out.

Kurdish has been historically suppressed (most Kurdish writers I know use Arabic). As I'm sure you know, Bakhtiyar Ali’s I Stared at the Night of the City, translated by Kareem Abdulrahman, recently became the first Sorani Kurdish novel published in English translation.

In the vein of novels like Basma Abdel Aziz’s The Queue, how have recent political phenomena such as the Arab Spring made their way into the literature of the region?

Yes, real life makes its way into Arab novels, I suppose like anywhere else. Syrian poet Ghayath al-Madhoun told me, of his work, “Yes, there are poems about Syria. Not because I want to write politics—no, I’m really against the political poetry. But this is my life. When my life is perfect, then you will find my poems about flowers and spring. But it’s a reflection of my life.”

Mohamed Abdelnaby's In the Spider's Room, shortlisted for this year's International Prize for Arabic Fiction, takes up the Queen Boat arrests and a segment of Cairo's gay community. Is that a political statement or just a reflection of Abdelnaby's interests and a way of approaching life in Cairo? I guess we'd have to ask Abdelnaby.

Works of literature like Atef Abu Saif’s The Drone Eats with Me provide a more human glimpse into highly politicized and publicized issues like those of Gaza. But is there a point at which the literature of oppression becomes commodified or fetishized by a privileged audience? Can readers ever truly understand or identify with another’s experience?

Atef's book is a beautiful rendering of one man's experiences during drone/remote warfare. If we fetishize and commodify it, yes, it's problematic. (Ditto on fetishization of writing from “banned countries.”) Ra (the publisher) knows I take issue with how he footnotes Atef's book, which could move the reader away from embracing its aesthetic, philosophical, reflective nature. I haven't any idea how we could fail to empathize with Atef or his narrative. We can read Shakespeare and empathize across centuries, so I'm pretty sure we can manage to empathize with a guy who, under bombardment, needs to charge up his laptop.

What are some of the effects and implications of Trump’s presidency in the Arab world so far, both in general and in the literature being produced?

Nobody can write on their laptops on long-haul flights to the US any more. Otherwise, there are long roots to American policy in Arab-majority countries. Most of the current disasters are not the result of Disaster Forty-five.

Do you see Trump as breaking the mold or continuing in the same tradition as his predecessors?

Forty-five will certainly make for a more volatile head of state than any in recent memory. Thus far he's only exaggerated and exacerbated problems already in place, but who knows!

Among a lot of people I know in the region, I’ve encountered a sort of “how’s it feel, America?” attitude as opposed to fear or anger. What kind of reactions did you see in your area to the election, or to his decisions so far such as the travel ban, policy changes in Israel, or establishing jovial relations with the less-than-universally-beloved Sisi?

Certainly, Arab leaders cozying up to Forty-five—Jordan's King Abdullah recently prattled some nonsense about Forty-five's “holistic vision” for the region—is galling. And for people who fly internationally and do business/schooling/art in the US, or have relatives who do, it's annoying or terrifying or both. But although we are facing a seismic catastrophe, we shouldn't overrate ourselves. For most people, the carryings-on of Forty-five are still a fairly distant rumble. (There are, of course, people in the region who, for various reasons, support or pin hopes on Trump.)

One narrative of the Arab world that is widespread among English-speaking Westerners disproportionately reflects violence and trauma—a narrative which Trump exploited during his campaign. How can the prevalence of that narrative be counteracted, and what other significant narratives do you see in the region?

Many of the metanarratives in circulation about Arabs/Muslims are manufactured with a great deal of money and effort; I am not sure how a minority activity like serious literature can compete in this realm. But I do believe that all acts of integrity matter, and we literature people must do all we can to agitate for open borders as an essential part of open literary dialogue.

I also do see literature as making new meanings, but for the long haul.

Can there be short-term effects, as well, on the global conversation and even political scene? What kinds of long-haul changes have happened though past literary endeavors in the Arab world?

Surely writers like Ibn Qutaybah, and the poetry of what we call the Middle Ages, influenced the idea of Arab-ness, of generosity and honor. Samah Selim surely has some super keen ideas about the effects popular detective novels had on Egyptian society at the turn of the twentieth century.

I'd say that the “saving Muslim women” genre (Not Without My Daughter, Princess, etc.) has had an effect on US politics in the short-term, elevating a narrative that asserts Muslim women's lack of agency. I think the popularity of Mahmoud Darwish's poems in France influenced French ideas about the humanity of Palestinians. But again, neither of these factors are a “single actor” phenomenon, they exist in a complex suite of competing influences.

As to my work, for instance—I don't think it will have any political effect, because it's not embedded within the right suite of factors. Although who knows, tomorrow things could change, so the important thing is to be working with integrity whether or not anything I do ends up having an “impact.”