An intervention... Jonathan Wright as a denier of orientalism


Dear Mr. Jonathan Wright, I read the exchange between you as an Arabist translator, and Ibrahim Farghali, the Arabic novelist.  I find your response disturbing, for you seem to be missing - or dismissing - the substance that Farghali meant, merely to indulge yourself into refuting his substantiation.


The substance and core of Farghali’s article is stated clearly, in his "first grievance" - as you called it - where he says: These translations (of Arabic literature) have failed to give expression to the true nature of the Arab world’s literary output.


But instead of responding to such grievance head-on, you choose to take an unexplained turn to mock - and I quote - the "19th century, German romanticism, feel to the expression 'true nature'"... because you think that - and I quote - "it's arrogant to claim that any one work is 'truer' to some essence than any other."


Such response, Mr. Wright would have required me to refer you to Lucien Goldmann's book "The Hidden God", at least. But in the current settings, it suffices to say that it is not less "arrogant" from your part to assume - as per your wordings - that the "truer essence" of Arabic literature going into "competition" "in the Anglophone world" would "not seem very good at providing.. strong characters and strong narratives" as to suit the preference of "readers".

For here you not only are assuming a "truer essence" of negative quality to the Arabic literature, to whom you denied Farghali the benefit of assuming the same - but from a positive angle - a while ago in the same sentence, but you are even going further as assuming a "truer essence" of the "reality" of the "limited market for foreign literature in translation in the Anglophone world", whose "truer essence".. "is.. competition", for its readers truer essence is that they "prefer works with strong characters and strong narratives."


I wonder how on earth can you manage to write so many "truer essences", right after claiming to not believe in "19th century, German romanticism, feel to the expression 'true nature'", and still manage to call someone else "arrogant"?!  Such grandeur escapes me, truly!


I won't go into discussing what you mean by "elite writers favoured by the Arabic literary establishment", not because I doubt the existence of such group, but because I doubt that we can ever reach any agreement on such subject because you seem to adopt a certain logic, that permits you to assume "essences" which you deny others, and thus you would easily manage to discredit any claims of mine. So, I choose not to focus on my claims, but only to deconstructively read your own hidden claims.


I can only claim that your response was troubling to me, to the degree that brought to my mind the title of Hamid Dabashi's book: Can non-Europeans Think?


You see, your response has something about it that goes like this - and I am mainly quoting your words here:


We - you specifically used the word "we" in your response - will examine "your grievances against "us" who choose, translate, publish and promote Arabic works of literature in foreign, mainly European languages? And what solutions does "you - he" propose as alternatives to the present possibly flawed system?

Then.. you conclude:

"No, we will not take orders from others "you". We will publish "do" what we like, for whatever reasons we see fit."


This is troubling, because, here you are refusing even to acknowledge that there is any hint of a problem, and merely thrusting yourself into worshiping the "status quo" as the best perfect world possible. Still, you manage to level the accusation of "defeatism" to the other guy, who is criticizing the status quo.


It is troubling also, to see your response to Gaber Asfour's idea about Neo-orientalism, going down the same road of employing the famous "ad hominem" attack, when you write:

"I suspect that in the case of Gaber Asfour, whom I have never met and never read, this grievance may have something to do with the fact that his own works have not been translated. Why that is so, I cannot judge."


This is a bit inappropriate, even for a non-European. It totally escapes me why would you write something like that, instead of doing the appropriate thing, which is: discussing Gaber Asfour ideas about neo-orienralism.


Gaber Asfour is quoted by Farghali saying:


A globally prevalent neo-orientalist tendency espouses a set of literary and artistic works from the Third World in general, and the Middle East in particular, abounding with denunciations and exposés of a ubiquitous vile backwardness and rampant corruption at every level, with the aim of marketing these works after translating, distributing and promoting them in the media to an unprecedented degree. This gave rise to the phenomenon of the modish, scandalizing novel of limited creative value that lets no corruption, oppression, perversion or deviance pass unmentioned, playing up portrayals quite dreadful in their backwardness.” end of quote.


How could you infer form such a text that all Gaber Asfour is expressing here is that "his own works have not been translated."?!


I guess you can level the same accusation to Edward Said, as well. Unless, off course, you are unable to understand the connection between "the essence" of Said's ideas and that of Asfour's, as expressed here.


Dear, Mr. Wright, I found it troubling to read your response, because you evaded the "essence" and the substance of the discussion, and resorted to focusing on other dubious response strategies, in a detail lacking here or there.


In clearer words, I think you evaded discussing the essential subject of neo-orientalism, and submerged yourself and your reader in the trivial subject of: "They're just being jealous. There is no such a thing called Orientalism."


I cannot help but wonder about your reasons for acting as if the charge of neo-orientalism is merely and wholly about jealousy between the Arabs themselves. Which makes me wonder: can Europeans not deny Orientalism?

Author : Amir Al-Ghandour

leave a comment

Comments :