‘Middle-Eastern writer’ is a tricky term, book festival panelists in Edinburgh say

Much of the coverage of the Middle East is dominated by war. But at the Edinburgh book festival, two rising literary stars, Mai Al-Nakib and Selma Dabbagh, discuss the challenges of writing about ordinary people as they try to live their lives.

The Kuwaiti author Mai Al-Nakib. Courtesy Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation
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While one of the great joys of visiting a book festival is hearing what the big names have to say in and around the books they are plugging, a quite different pleasure is seeking out new talent, whether hot-off-the-press debut writers or those slow-burners who are stealthily yet palpably growing in stature after critical acclaim. It's Day 6 at this year's Edinburgh International Book Festival and two such novelists are sharing a podium at a fascinating event entitled Living and Writing in the Middle East – Kuwaiti author of the accomplished short story collection The Hidden Light of Objects, Mai Al-Nakib, and British-Palestinian writer Selma Dabbagh, whose blistering novel Out of It is a fresh slant on people and politics in Gaza. Chaired by Marilyn Booth, renowned translator and professor of Arabic and Middle Eastern studies, the discussion shines a valuable light on the challenges and rewards of writing about ordinary lives in the Middle East.

I get a chance to sit down afterwards with all three participants, who expand previous points and anecdotes into a fuller picture.

Al-Nakib begins by explaining that, for her, it was necessary to reinvent her native Kuwait and reclaim its past. “I wanted to open up a window for myself to reimagine the place I grew up with,” she says. “I knew I was looking at it nostalgically, but at the same time, there was something that was quite distinctive, cosmopolitan, this mixture and heterogeneity that I felt got sucked out of the mix after 1991.” After 9/11, that cosmopolitanism was long gone, replaced by the rigid orthodoxies of “expulsion, restriction and purity”.

Dabbagh has also lived in Kuwait, along with Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the West Bank. Unlike Al-Nakib, though, she is now London-based and so writes about the region from afar. How, I wonder, would Out of It be different if it had been written in Palestine? "I think it would have taken longer to write, as writing conditions would have been harsher," she replies. "One thing I felt when I went to Gaza was there were so many social and political developments on a day-to-day basis. They would have distracted me and created a completely different novel. I certainly couldn't have written in that slightly impressionistic style."

Does she see herself as an outsider looking in? “I’m always going to be an outsider, and the older I get, the more I see strength in that. There are bodies of writers who are more insiders and I kind of envy them. I’d love to have that proximity to the nuances of a particular society for dialogue et cetera, but I have other strengths as well.”

And does she consider herself more British or Palestinian? “I place myself firmly as a writer in the middle ground,” she answers succinctly. She concedes that the Palestinian aspect was a much more “troubled inheritance”. “This unresolved harm and hurt resonated and affected through our lives growing up. In that way, I am emotionally hardwired to it. I see a lot of being Palestinian as an awareness of how it feels to be on the periphery and how you get branded when you’re there.”

I’m keen to pursue this topic of branding and identity. Can the term “Middle-Eastern writer” be applied to a Scottish-born, British-Palestinian author writing about Gaza from London? Does it faithfully categorise a Kuwaiti author writing in Kuwait who views her haven in the Gulf as an “air-conditioned bubble in the middle of hell”? And does the fact that both authors write, not in Arabic, but English, invalidate any claim to Middle-Eastern status? Now seems a good moment to bring in Booth, who, as an American scholar of Islamic Studies living and working in Scotland, constitutes the biggest outsider of the group. What is a Middle Eastern writer?

“I think that’s an important point,” Booth says. “Nobody calls an English writer a European writer and yet the term Arab writer or Middle Eastern writer is used all the time. There is this tendency to collapse everything into one. I’m not sure we have one term that encompasses everything – I’m not sure we should have one term.

“There’s this myth that still exists that Arabic is one language and in so many ways it’s not, and not just because of different dialects. You pick up a Lebanese novel and there are huge distinctions between people’s personal styles and voices. And yet there is something about Lebanese Arabic that to me is so different from Egyptian Arabic. So I think it’s really important to be fine-grained, but also inclusive and think not in terms of categories, but networks and connections.”

Dabbegh concurs. “Writers such as Mai and I are of one origin, but write in another language, maybe about a country, but for our next novels, perhaps we decide to write about completely different subject matter. I rail against the box, I don’t like being put in one. I would like sometimes for people to look at our work and say that, in dealing with the family this writer was great, whether from Palestine or Bolivia.”

Al-Nakib confesses to being comfortable with terms such as “Arab writer” or “Middle East writer”, but stresses that fiction is “the unique place where it is possible to flee the confines of determining factors such as nation, language and history.” But if that history is modern history, then it is likely to be one of conflict or repression. If a contemporary Iraqi author omits mention of this, is he shirking his authorial duty?

“When you write stories linked to this region, it is impossible to escape political impact on daily lives,” Al-Nakib says. “After 9/11, it was so intense for me that it would be impossible not to include it – not as a shirking of duty, just because it informed and saturated my everyday life. Somebody asked me why so many of the young people in my book die. The facetious answer is that so many of the young people in our part of the world are dying.”

“I don’t think it’s a duty, but there are certain expectations,” adds Dabbagh. “My book was hard to get published, and it might have been easier if I had written a book about how my dad made me wear a veil and tied me to a table leg and beat me with a stick, because there was a lot of appetite for that kind of stuff. I think if you try to create urban, cosmopolitan, westernised, multi-lingual people who are not that dissimilar to you, then there is none of this exoticism.”

Al-Nakib agrees. “It was very important to me to create characters that were not specific to the Middle East, but any kid falling in love would recognise these characters, any family worrying about the welfare of their children would recognise this experience. So it’s not a duty, there’s a context that is linked to the Middle East but – and it’s a cliché to talk about the universal experience – there are experiences that we share regardless of where we are from. This may be surprising for western readers, given the images they see every day in the news. They’re surprised to find out their lives aren’t so different.”

Booth returns to the idea of duty, but in her capacity as a translator of Arab texts. "I have a strong sense of duty, and I would say it is a political duty, not in terms of presenting any kind of politics, rather a duty to be true to what people are saying."She goes on to recount the controversy surrounding her translation of Rajaa Alsanea's bestseller Girls of Riyadh. Alsanea was dissatisfied with Booth's original version and made changes which for Booth "dumbed it down and westernised it in a way I completely objected to". An ironic situation arose: "You've got the third-world writer and western translator and usually there's this assumption that the western translator has this power, but actually in this case, I was the one in the powerless position."

Dabbagh’s novel is currently being translated into Arabic. I ask if it will cause a stir. “One hopes! There are some politically and socially sensitive issues that I think are more likely to get picked up by an Arab reader than a western reader. It’s not a feel-good book for Palestinians, it doesn’t say we are in a great position because we’re not. What I wanted to look at was where we are now, how are we handling all of this and how we treat each other as a result.” She smiles. “If it does cause a stir, I think that’s positive. It creates discussion.”

Not only do these three brilliant minds and committed writers generate discussion, but they also passionately engage in it.

Malcolm Forbes is a regular contributor to The Review.