A collective retreat that brings together writers in and from the Arab world working with their various first languages: Arabic, English, and French.

The Arab world comprises distinct and vibrant scenes whose writers engage different audiences based on the language they write in, which rarely overlap. This multilingual reality shapes the narratives of the region and these writers and scenes are often unconnected, with little in the form of translation, publishing or meetings bringing them together. In trying to understand what stories they tell collectively, we are interested in bringing these scenes together within a shared space where they can speak for and among themselves.

The pilot edition of the retreat took place on October 29 & 30, 2021 in Mophradat’s venue in Athens and included Dalia Taha, Farah Barqawi, Fatin Abbas, Hashem Hashem, Marwa Helal, Nariman Youssef, Omar Robert Hamilton, Sahar Mandour, Wadiaa Ferzly, with Karim Kattan and Yasmine Haj from the team. It explored four main questions: How do we find our stories? Are we trapped in language? Where do stories go? and Who are we writing for? The sessions took place in the afternoons and into the evenings, and the days were punctuated by an hour of readings by the participants.

The retreat began with a session titled “How do we find our stories?” moderated by Mophradat’s Programs Associate Karim Kattan with Sahar Mandour and Farah Barqawi as respondents. It asked the questions: What imaginations do you explore? How do you recognize a story amidst all the noise surrounding us? Where do you look for stories? What is your process, how do you craft your story? Do you start at the beginning, at the end, or elsewhere?

Karim began by sharing his personal questions with regards to his primary writing language, French, and its audience and reception, and how that affects his choice of stories. In France, he often needs to respond to being exclusively pigeon-holed as “Palestinian” while in contrast, he felt that writing in English allows for a sense of a wider and less identifiable audience, which generates broader writing possibilities and genres. Sahar, who writes in Arabic, also spoke about the way she starts and develops her novels and how they are addressed to an audience from the Arab world. While she still draws on real life contexts and details for inspiration, she shared that, for her fifth novel, she is currently exploring other forms of writing, but this time devoid of the usual landmarks. Nothing separates her characters and their invented times and spaces but a blurry space that aims to better grasp the buildup of anxiety, malaise, and fantasy in random lives. Also, aware of the framing of her work whose queer content might clash with societal norms, she explained that she intends her writing to be inviting rather than antagonistic. Farah, who writes nonfiction mostly in Arabic but recently in English, discussed nonfiction as a way of narrating life. She talked about how, although mostly autobiographical, her performances and stories are often presumed to be fiction, raising the question of how performance and uncompromising narrative can create a distance that makes the audience reassure itself by frequently presuming that the text is fictional. She highlighted the importance for her of voice, sound, and rhythm, as tools she uses deliberately as part of her storytelling methodology.

A next session titled “Are we trapped in language?” was moderated by Omar Robert Hamilton, with Maan Abu Taleb and Mophradat’s Editorial Coordinator Yasmine Haj as respondents. It asked the questions: What does your writing language make possible that your other spoken language/s might not? Is language for you a medium or context? When is language restrictive and when is it liberating for you? What makes you uncomfortable in the language you write in?

Omar, who writes in English, talked about the experience of political writing from Egypt in fiction and non-fiction, the constraints of repression on language and thought, the limits of representation when addressing an international audience and the comparative advantages/disadvantages of filmmaking vs prose. Yasmine, who writes and translates into both English and Arabic and from French, discussed how her worldview shifts with the languages she alternates, which is both liberating and inhibiting. She described how typos could be one way to turn words, usually burdened with the history of the language they inhabit, into little moments of entertainment and release. Maan, who writes novels and articles in both English and Arabic, noted that language can be liberating. He argued that rather than being diminished, Arabic grows as it absorbs vocabulary and constructs from other languages.

The next day’s first session titled “Where do stories go?” was moderated by Mophradat’s Programs Coordinator Reem Shilleh, with Nariman Youssef and Hashem Hashem as respondents. It asked the questions: How do you want your story to reach people? Do you have or like to have a role in defining the language and frames that represent your book? What are the risks you face by publishing? Is there a work you would like to translate? Why, and for whom?

Reem replaced Dalia Taha (who could not attend due to travel issues), as moderator and elaborated on the practice of translation in relation to film subtitling and (re)circulation through the work of Subversive Film, a collective she is a member of. Nariman read through an article she co-authored with Gitanjali Patel and published in Asymptote, that is based on quotes from translators about their experiences of being stereotyped and marginalised. The article discusses how literary translation can be embedded in colonial practices and argues that, when trying to address that, “diversity” efforts miss the mark. In the follow-up discussion, Nariman explained that while it’s promising that the range of translated works is growing, there’s still a long way to go when it comes to creativity and risk-taking in the choices that publishers make. Hashem shared his thoughts on where stories go from the perspective of their content and specifically story endings. In observing writings that included queer characters, he noticed that things never turned out well for them as they usually died or disappeared from the story, which pushed him to seek different queer endings. Additionally, Hashem talked about the texts he wrote previously from a queer woman’s perspective, and the current texts he writes as a transmasculine person, and how their reception feels different and how that plays a role in his writing process and choices.

The final session titled “Who are we writing for?” was moderated by Fatin Abbas, with Wadiaa Ferzly and Marwa Helal as respondents. It asked the questions: Who are you addressing? Who are you not managing to address? Who do you not want to address? Who do you feel writes for you? Where do you want to imagine your books circulating? How bound are we by language into a specific cultural condition? When is writing from the region in a language other than Arabic narration and when is it mediation?

Fatin, who writes in English, explored the complexity of the Arabic language in Sudan as a historically colonial language in African countries. She discussed the problematic of who is seen as being authentic enough to represent a context, especially when their first language or current residence is not that of their native homeland. Wadiaa, who writes plays and articles in Arabic, raised questions around how to find an audience and topics beyond the Arab world and in the European diaspora. She wondered if one should allow themselves to be used as a politicised subject, exoticized perhaps, in return for exposure abroad? Or better preserve one’s real voice but not be published in the first place? And finally, Marwa, who writes in English, responded to the question, ‘Who are we writing for?’ by reading an essay she wrote over the course of the retreat that addressed the politics of language and the importance of honoring our linguistic roots.

After the formal end of the retreat, the questions raised during the sessions stimulated discussions amongst the participants well into the night.

Arabics is realised in cooperation with the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung e.V. and Allianz Kulturstiftung.

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