Thursday, September 24, 2009

A Categorical Problem

I found the introduction of Magda M. Al-Nowaihi's article "The 'Middle East'? Or.../Arabic Literature and the Postcolonial Predicament" to be particularly informative. Here, the author addresses the problem of the academy -- the generator of our most trusted knowledge -- and its culpability in terms of inclusiveness. Though the task of being always politically correct can be exhausting and, at times, disingenuous, I would think that we should expect our institutions of higher learning to set the ultimate example of tact. The issue of Middle Eastern Studies departments, as Al-Nowaihi mentions, exposes the depth to which that area of the world and its culture has been disenfranchised. The term "Middle East" itself is a colonial appellation not useful to those who actually reside in the region, unless they are speaking to a member of the Western hegemony. Furthermore, the professors within such departments are effectively "ghettoized," to borrow Al-Nowaihi's term, as their individual specialties may or may not overlap with those of their departmental colleagues. This is one example among many of how bureaucratic university administrations foster professional tensions through attempted logical organization.

Those professors working in Middle Eastern studies, it seems, have their work cut out for them without the additional problem of being lumped together beneath less than adequate nomenclature. As the aforementioned article asserts, those working with literature from the Middle East must deal with the politics of translation, a process that requires input from both creating and receiving ends of the exchange. Some works sent westward could be privileged because of its home country's, often elitist, canon. Furthermore, the decision to translate tends to privilege works that will reinforce preexisting American stereotypes. An example of the ways in which translated works are perpetually marked by their "otherness" can be found in the novel by Salwa Bakr mentioned in the article. Beneath the title, The Golden Chariot, reads the subtitle, "A Modern Arabic Novel." Let us not allow the reader to embark on reading this book without bringing with her all of the mental and emotional baggage that she associates with the term "Arabic." I have a hard time believing that we would attach such a subtitle to a book coming from any other part of the world.

I have been exploring Bakr's work for the past couple of weeks, particularly her collection of short stories entitled, The Wiles of Men. In this collection, she directly addresses this notion of the Other through the perspectives of her female protagonists. In many cases, the women inhabiting her stories are labeled by their friends, relatives, and neighbors as mentally ill. Most of the time, these women simply refuse to conform to the expected norms required of them by a patriarchal society. Attaching the terms "crazy" or "dotty" or "not normal" to these women allows outsiders to "other" them. This process absolves the labeler of the guilt he or she might experience when mistreating another human being. Categorizing anything helps us to better understand it. Middle Eastern Studies. A Modern Arabic Novel. An Insane Woman. Categorization also causes us to employ conventions specific to that category when internalizing whatever lies within it. Considering the connotations with which many Westerners associate the Middle East, it seems that, for the time being, existing within that category inheres particular handicaps.


  1. Now I really want to read Salwa Bakr -- I was interested to see that the article mentioned the novel _Wild Thorns_ which was one that I taught and was the focus of my class last year. I tried to find Magda Al-Nowaihi to write an email to her about our discussion of her article, but I find that she died last year.

  2. I actually wanted to comment on your other blog from the 22nd... but the place to comment was not on my screen! Your post made me think how sad it is that there are so many "anti-"feelings all around. The anti-Semitic comment was heart-breaking. The other thing that boggles my mind is the opinion that the US feels guilty because of WWII. After all, we did intervene, did we not? hmm....

  3. Interesting analysis, Katie. I completely agree that we are often too quick to label and categorize in order to stereotype and form (often incorrect)assumptions. I feel the "other"-ing that you speak of also allows us to justify our exercise of power over the people of the "Middle East" through war and what seems to be a continuing colonialist effort.