What a war of words says about foreign wars and the language of the other

An American literary dispute has highlighted the tangled links between language, culture and power in the Middle East, writes Faisal Al Yafai

Author Randa Jarrar was among those who complained about the article in Literary Hub magazine/ Adela Santana
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Earlier this month Literary Hub, an American online magazine that publishes stories, reviews and news about the literary world, posted an extract from a travel book about the Middle East.

Since LitHub, as it is colloquially known, often publishes literary authors – a brief glance through its recent posts throw up articles on the French playwright Florian Zeller and the Japanese surrealist writer Kobo Abe – an extract about an American writer learning Arabic, even one bearing the unfortunate title The Fine Art of Learning to Say Nothing in Arabic, could have been thought relatively inoffensive. It turned out to be anything but.

The extract, from a book called The Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah, a travel book by first-time author Adam Valen Levinson, who had studied Arabic before living in Abu Dhabi and visiting several countries around the Middle East, provoked a storm of criticism against the magazine, forcing it to back down, apologise and promise to publish responses.

Readers were especially irritated by the way the author tried to convey his impressions of starting to learn the language. Levinson makes clunky observations (“no-one denied that Arabic represented a certain opposition – that it was on the other side of something”) and trite generalisations (“calling each other 'dogs', unloved and thought unclean across the Arab worlds, should have been deeply offensive”).

Though doubtless well-meaning, Levinson comes across like a somewhat gauche teenager on his first holiday abroad. By the time the extract ended with the author seeing Abu Dhabi island for the first time from the air (“stuck out into the water like a slice of baklava”), most readers seem to have concluded the piece had no place in a literary magazine.

The backlash on social media was swift, led by the novelist Randa Jarrar and the writer and translator Marcia Lynx Qualey. The piece was condemned as “repulsive”, “ignorant” and “orientalism 101”; one more in a dishonourable roll-call of books using the countries and peoples of the Middle East as mere background. The magazine, wrote readers, was guilty of tokenism, fetishising and erasing the real experience of millions of Arabs. But perhaps the worst criticism levelled was also the simplest: the book just wasn't very good and LitHub had ignored dozens of better works by better qualified writers on the region.

Within days, Literary Hub’s editors amended the original article and published the magazine's first public apology. “The exoticising language in any piece like this, the casual Othering, is not only a failure of literary empathy and observation,” they wrote, “but it reinforces a toxic framework within which racism flourishes and power retrenches.” The magazine promised to publish more Arab-American voices in the new year.

The literary quarrel articulates two key issues. The first is the changing way online communities interact with publishers.

With the LitHub controversy, readers reacted so strongly because they believed some values of that literary community had been violated. Magazines like LitHub encourage and cultivate this feeling of closeness with their readers, but the flip side is that publishing becomes a conversation – and an intensely personal one. Those who disliked the Levinson extract reacted viscerally, as they would to a wounding from a friend. LitHub therefore had to respond rapidly and carefully.

But the second issue is more important because what seems like a mere war of words actually says a great deal about how American readers – and not only American readers – view foreign words and foreign wars.

Arab Americans are living through a particularly difficult social and political moment. In this febrile atmosphere, words have consequences in the real world. The anti-Arab and Islamophobic sentiments that swirl around some parts of America's political discourse have real effects: job discrimination, harassment, criminal attacks and, through the Trump administration's Muslim ban, the separation of families. Mere words matter.

In an essay for the Los Angeles Review of Books responding to the LitHub controversy, the Palestinian-American doctor and poet Fady Joudah remarked that even liberal Americans are blind to their biases when it comes to the Arab world. No editors of any standing would publish an equivalent piece about the English language, or a Chinese language, or about the black experience. The reason, wrote Joudah, is that American culture exists "in a moment where racism against Arabs and things Arab is permissible. It goes by with hardly anyone batting an eye".

The Levinson book extract appears to prove that point. Those sentences must have passed across the screens of dozens of well-read tastemakers: literary agents, publishers, reviewers. It could seem extraordinary that no one pointed out the jarring flaws of the writing – until you consider Joudah's point, that most of these biases are so unconscious, so much part of the prevailing political moment, that the readers didn't even know what they were missing.

And that, perhaps, is the point. American literary culture cannot be separated from the political culture which surrounds it. Such orientalist errors are usually sins of omission, not commission. If literary editors display biases, it is because they don't need to think too deeply about the consequences of these mistakes. That is their luxury: to be able to ignore worlds of emotion, omit words of reaction and erase the lived experience of millions – without even thinking about it.

Literary magazines are part of the gatekeepers of American culture. It is only when a storm like this erupts that it becomes clear how much they are holding back, how narrow the range of experiences is that they are letting through. It is sadly as true in business, politics and the academy as it is in culture.

For now, the controversy has at least sparked a conversation. The hope is that Literary Hub – and the wider cultural community beyond it – will have realised the mistake and now seeks to commission writers with genuine experience of the Middle East, to write about this and all topics beyond it.