Does the place matter? Questions around the rising of Arabic Nordic literature field

Babel Hajjar, a blogger, journalist and global media researcher writes about the struggle for (re)gaining the power of words after losing the language of the previous generation. Hajjar’s text is related to Ahmed Al Nawas’s report  “View of the Conditions of Arabic Literature in the Nordic Region” and Professor Olli Löytty’s comments, presented at the publication of Al-Nawas’s report. Adding his experience as a member of Brazil’s Syrian community and as a Brazilian-Syrian “double-immigrant” in Finland, Babel Hajjar picks one of Olli Löytty’s questions as a starting point for his thoughts:

“Does the place matter? What does it mean in practice if an author’s “Arabic language and literature skills were shaped in the diaspora?”.”

Babel Hajjar:

As any hard changing in our lives, immigration is a process that carves its marks on who goes through it. Being a Brazilian, son of Syrians – my father was born in Syria; my mother was born in Lebanon, but their parents were born in a Syrian city called Iskenderun that today is Turkey –  and living in Finland with no immediate expectations of returning, I can say that I’m experiencing my second immigration. Although I never “migrated” to Brazil  – I was born there – and considering myself truly Brazilian, I can’t say that this is all I am. I am Syrian too, even if my parents’ exile process made me an illiterate-in-Arabic Syrian. My father, and my mother with her parents and siblings, moved to Brazil in the 1950´s, forced by political reasons. I have lived the reality of being from a Syrian family and in many ways at the margin of Brazilian society and culture. At the same time, I experienced just the amount of Syrian culture that the life within Arab-Brazilian communities allowed me to.

The literature produced by Arabic speakers and their sons at American nations was not necessarily written in Arabic, and even so it was shaped by their exile. Initiatives in Brazil to teach Arabic are few and not always accessible, nor it was stimulated by Brazilian or Arab institutions, with very few exceptions. Brazil and many other countries with multi-ethnic population in the 1970´s and before, have not always stimulated the immigrants to keep their culture and language. Arabic speakers who succeeded in teaching Arabic to their sons in Brazil had made a private effort to do that. The books written in Arabic by Arab-American populations are not their major literary production. Of course, it did not prevent them from writing. Gibran Khalil Gibran, Edward Said, Mahmud Darwish, Raduan Nassar, are some of the many examples of the Arab Diaspora poetry, non-fiction and prose.

Jean-Paul Sartre’s preface of Franz Fanon’s “The wretched of the Earth” is dedicated to think about the possibilities of the colonized people to speak, to write, to get a voice, once they’ve surrogated their mother tongue by the colonialist language. In this discussion Sartre asks if the ideas of colonized people written in French could reach not only all the world, but most importantly, the people to whom they concern.

For many reasons, perhaps costs and low consumption, books were not the only way of literature propagation in Brazil. Immigrants have created newspapers with news, poems and issues related to Arab themes of interest, many  of them stimulated by Al Nahda  – the Arab Literary Awakening from the XIX century that occurred in Egypt and Greater Syria due to changes in the Turkish cultural policies to their colonies. These newspapers were a way to keep the Arab communities united abroad and linked to their homelands, and some of them were written in Arabic, others in Portuguese.

From where I see, not only the place, but also the context matters very much. And by the context I mean the places and time of the diaspora, or  better saying, the facts that started a migration movement in each Arab country, and the places that received differently those different communities.  Although the main focus of Culture for All’s project on Multilingualism  is the Nordic literature written in foreign languages, an eventual comparison between the reality of diasporic literature here and around the world could not be considered complete if it excludes texts produced by diasporic Arabs and their sons and daughters just because they weren’t written in Arabic, fact that is explained by many specific conditions, as I mentioned.

Jean-Paul Sartre’s preface of Franz Fanon’s “The wretched of the Earth” is dedicated to think about the possibilities of the colonized people to speak, to write, to get a voice, once they’ve surrogated their mother tongue by the colonialist language. In this discussion Sartre, drenched by Fanon’s thoughts, asks if the ideas of colonized people written in French could reach not only all the world – as Frantz Fanon did in the 1960´s – , but most importantly, the people to whom they concern. And Sartre’s answers is yes, the colonized people could use and transform the French language in order to make it perceived by their own people. Although the rupture is hard to heal, the appropriation of the colonial language by the colonized people does not limit the expression of ideas.

But one can argue that there are lots of differences between immigration and colonization processes. How to compare the French colonization of Algeria or other places in Africa or Latin America with the migrant and “spontaneous” movement of Arabic speakers from their many home countries to their many destinations? Of course, there are important differences between Arabic-speaking diaspora in Brazil and other American countries from the XIX  and XX centuries, and the history of migration to the the Nordic countries. Taking by examples Brazil and Finland, despite their many differences, they have in common that both countries opened their doors (to different extent, though) to people who needed help and care, and they are not the oppressors. But these people were expelled from their homelands by geopolitical powers that impacted severely their lives. They were violently purged –  by war or by economic motivations –  from their cultural umbrella, a comfortable place where they knew how to behave, where they shared habits, a place with other rules… and where everybody understood them! Isn’t it violence, the need to rapidly learn new languages (almost always the country’s one and English, the nowadays Lingua Franca)  “just” to speak about the weather? Is this process of destruction of homelands and forced migration really much different from a colonial impose of language and culture? I tend not to believe so.

Nordic countries’ high levels of education made possible the awareness of the importance of stimulating the refugees in keeping their own cultural heritage and making their sons and daughters learn about it. The rise of Arabic-Nordic literature is the result of this level of consciousness that is not the norma in our planet. Even so, it seems to me that it´s just the beginning of a much wider process, that leads us to more questions: Why the Arab Diaspora happens? Is it an “Arab” Diaspora or it victimizes just some Arabic speakers? From where each Arab writing here in Finland, Sweden or Norway came from? Are they similar Arabic literatures, or are they talking from different perspectives? How to categorize their literary production?

The Palestinian Edward Said was one of the most important voices of the Palestinian cause and postcolonial subjects. His concept of Orientalism describes how, in the last 200 years or more, Europe perceived the “others”, and how the idea of the “Oriental”, mainly Arab-Islamic subjects, was a counterpoint created by the Western civilization to reaffirm itself. Among the critique expressed by Said, the homogenization and simplification toward “the arabs” is one of the most well formulated. He shows us that today´s image of the Islamic subjects in the West is a distortion that is used as truth.

Said’s Orientalism carries ideas from consensus and cultural hegemony (Antonio Gramsci) and from Michel Foucault’s thoughts on power and discourse, which presents the discourse´s control by the society, in order to diminish or confine its relevance. To Foucault, the science as a way to obtain the truth (truth´s will) pushes disciplines, as literature for example, to what is “credible” and “natural”. The exclusivity of the discourse about Arabs is given by West, and it is full of concepts as sectarianism, fanaticism, violence, passion instead reason, among others that are taken by the majority as the truth about a vastly diverse population.  

And what could we do to avoid homogenization and simplification toward Arabic literature? How to read a Palestinian Diaspora poem, a Syrian pro-rebel or pro-government narrative, a Syrian non-rebel opposition novel (yes, they do exist!), an Iraq pro or against Saddam text, a Saudi Arabian girl who wants to ride a bike, a Lebanese Christian relating the falling of bombs in Beirut, or a Hezbollah partisan that survived at Sabra and Shatila’s Progrom?  

Yes, I believe that the place matters, not only for its national issues.  It’s about knowing the different reasons behind the writing. Personally I’m convinced that cultural initiatives imply political responsibilities, and the opportunity of watching the rise of Arabic-Nordic literature field is a major one.


Babel Hajjar is a Brazilian blogger, journalist and a global media researcher.  The way war in Syria was reported was the theme of his MA.