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Portraits of Americans in Arabic literature
Jul 21, 2015
By: Marcia Lynx Qualey

Egypt: CARIO -


And what if these American characters don’t resonate with Americans? They might be re-shaped in translation. With Bahaa Abdelmeguid’s Sleeping with Strangers, translator Chip Rossetti describes making some “minor corrections,” while leaving other things that might feel strange or unbelievable to a US audience. Inaam Kachachi’s IPAF-shortlisted American Granddaughter — written by an Iraqi author who lives in Paris — also rings stereotypical at some points in its depictions of Americans, as well as other Arab characters.

Some books use American characters to move into larger discussions. In Yusuf Idris’s New York 80 (trans. Rasheed El-Enany), an unnamed Egyptian HE is talking to a New York prostitute SHE, who late in the novella is named as Pamela Graham. They have a long fight over the meaning of her work. Here, Pamela Graham: “What can I say to you? People grow up and yet continue to think like children. You disapprove of my job as prostitute, as if I was your mother caught sinning. My dear, sexual relations between man and woman have been a business deal since the beginning of history. It could be nothing else.”

Here, the prostitute-character is also “stereotypical,” but since she’s an archetype, leading into a discussion about sex, it hardly matters.

The final essay-story in Tawfiq al-Hakim’s Revolt of the Young, which he published in 1984, also travels to the US and follows the (fictional) trial of four young people who feigned blowing up the Statue of Liberty in order to get on trial. Although certain aspects of the way they describe their actions don’t ring true, such as when the prosecutor uses the phrase “capitalist imperialist society,” it’s nonetheless — like New York 80 — an interesting way of looking at Egyptians looking at Americans.  

And, the last world on Americans from Jack:

“‘Well,’ he said, ‘we are a team of people going from one country to another, living with the people, the same way the people are living, sharing their everyday lives, and finding out what they truly think of the States, and finding out how we can foster and encourage friendship between us and you.’ He pulled up a chair and sat, his face near mine, his hand on the back of my chair; every sentence emphasized neatly and concisely. I remember a pair of American young men belonging to the Mormon sect, who rang at my door in London one day. In the same neat and earnest way, they recited the fact that God is divided into three distinct entities . . . or is it the other way around, I forget which.”


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