Elegant Graffiti

Boyd Tonkin of The Independent
finds a terrific metaphor for Arab writing: the Moorish citadel in Granada, its interior covered with ornamental poetry in Arabic. Tonkin calls it "Europe’s most elegant graffiti," and like graffiti, its florid craftsmanship is illegible to the public at large. It is a crime of writing. Arab writing has long flouted the law; now it is being asked to exculpate real and imagined crimes.

Despite Arab governments’ support for literature across the region, writers are still jailed. Western news feeds are full of tales of repression, like the arrest and conviction of an Egyptian blogger who writes under the name Kareem Amer (presumably, he was imprisoned under his real name). He was convicted of insulting President Hosni Mubarak and an Egyptian university in his blog. Interestingly, insulting the university carried the stiffer penalty. Religious militants lurk everywhere, ready to harass anyone who writes a single heterodox line.

When despotic Arab governments aren’t throwing writers into jail, they’re handing out lavish awards. Two major literary prizes have recently been established: the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, commonly known as the "Arab Booker," and the Sheikh Zayed Awards, which are part of the emirate of Abu Dhabi’s determined attempt to create a new Granada on the Persian Gulf.  All cultural awards are promotional to one degree or another, and these awards are no exceptions. These awards have raised the profile of Arab writing internationally, but equally important, they provide official endorsement of the novel as a genre, something the novel hasn’t always enjoyed in a culture that has long considered the novel an irredeemably Western form of writing. Unlike lyric poetry, which is closer to the Muslim tradition of oracular verse, the novel is prosaic and secular, two qualities still regarded with suspicion in a region plagued by bureaucratic disinformation and a religious fundamentalism that has replaced secular dissent as the most popular form of resistance against tyranny.

After describing the daunting obstacles Arab writers continue to face, Tonkin argues we need to pay attention to the new Arab writing. By beginning his discussion of Arabic writing in Granada, the site of a European victory in the clash of civilizations, Tonkin suggests that translated Arabic literature is important because of "the perpetually rocky relationship between the Arab and European worlds" in which "[i]mperial bureaucrats, soldiers and scholars on one side; radical nationalists, pious militants and oil-rich oligarchs on the other – all have had their various axes to grind, and to wield." These crimes will be exculpated by a writing that is itself outside the law. Arab literature is the new "elegant graffiti," both illegal and admired, cryptic yet expressive, collective but inscribed where it isn’t welcome.

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