Arabic literature has long been marginalized in the English-speaking literary landscape, with interest coming mainly from a small group of regional specialists. According to Elliott Colla, a professor of Arabic literature at Georgetown University, American readers in particular are generally indifferent towards literature not produced in English, preferring narratives that express a distinctly American point of view. As a result, in 2014, roughly 2 percent of published titles in the United States were translated from other languages, with only 2 percent of this already meager number in Arabic. There is a similar trend in the UK, where literary translations pale in number to other European countries.
According to the late translation theorist, André Lefevere, the lack of interest among English-speaking corners of the world is largely because of the prejudicial assumption that literary production from Africa and Asia is “inferior.” To be sure, there have been short bursts of interest in Arabic literature. In 1988, Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize in Literature, generating attention from Western publishers seeking a wider range of titles. Another breakthrough of sorts came when Ahdaf Soueif’s The Map of Love was short-listed for the Booker Prize in 1999. Although originally published in English, it has since been translated into twenty-one languages and turned the international literary spotlight onto Egypt, however briefly.
More consistent interest in Arabic literature among English-speaking audiences did not come until after the September 11 attacks. The event inspired measurable and continuous growth in the number of publishers and translators dedicated to bringing Arab voices to audiences across the globe. This push has, however, been driven mainly by what Colla calls an “ethnographic strand of interest,” in which Arabic literature is treated not as fiction but rather as a portal into the mind and culture of a foreign enemy.
Still, the interest among English-speaking readers is there. But, the tall task remains to connect them with Arabic literature in more profound and informed ways. Towards this end, a handful of dedicated translators, publishing houses, literary magazines, and blogs have worked hard to present a more rich and comprehensive exploration of contemporary Arabic literature.
Adding to this still-growing group is BULAQ, an exciting new podcast about “books in, from, and about the Arab world” that was launched in November 2017. The podcast is co-hosted by Marcia Lynx Qualey, who runs the daily ArabLit, or Arab Literature (In English) blog, already popular among literary enthusiasts, and Ursula Lindsey, a journalist who has also written extensively on Arab history, literature, and culture. The project is produced by Issandr El-Amrani, a journalist and analyst who founded the website, The Arabist.
BULAQ (the name of a northwestern district in Cairo and Egypt’s first major government printing press) is dedicated not simply to reviewing novels, short stories, and poems, but also to carefully excavating themes and situating discussed works in contexts. Episode one, for example, focused in part on Fi Ghurfat al-‘Ankaboot (In The Spider’s Room) by Egyptian novelist Mohammed ‘Abd al-Nabi (translation to English by Jonathan Wright forthcoming in 2018). Originally published in 2016 and shortlisted for the 2017 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, the novel offers an explicit and empathetic representation of queer life in Egypt. In discussing the book, Qualey and Lindsey offered their own impressions, shared excerpts, and discussed how the novel was received in Egypt, especially in light of the surge in hetero-normative policing in recent years. The podcast also highlighted how the novel fit into an emerging (and more general) tendency among Arab authors to integrate queer characters into their stories.
BULAQ offers a contextualized and informed examination of written works coming out of the Middle East and North Africa, presented by two hosts who clearly love (and understand) the craft. Although just a few episodes in, the podcast is already proving to be indispensable to those interested in exploring Arabic literature in a more meaningful and nuanced way.