CAIRO: One of Egypt’s most renowned writers, Ahdaf Soueif, spoke at the American University in Cairo (AUC) Thursday night. The famed writer discussed the importance of understanding how the west portrays Arabs in fiction, and her discussion was met with enthusiasm in a packed auditorium on campus.
“The portrayal of Arabs in the west is very important, Yasmin El-Rifae, a graduating senior at AUC, told The Daily Star Egypt before Soueif spoke. “Their writing often portrays Arabs as a tribal society and that often leads to a justification for war.
The soft spoken Soueif began her talk by describing her background. She is Egyptian, gaining her BA at Cairo University and her Master’s at AUC. Currently, Soueif splits her time between Britain and Egypt, which is why she chose the topic. As someone that understands both the west and the Arab world, Soueif feels it is her duty to break the barriers.
“The issue of perception and representation is of vital importance, especially now, Soueif says. “I can map the attitudes of the people in the UK. It is a progression. People must be willing to take the time and take a hard look at how people are portraying the ‘other’ she believes.
Soueif is the author of two collections of short stories, two novels and a collection of essays. Her novel, The Map of Love, is a bestseller and has made her a household name across the globe. Her collection of essays on Palestine, Mezzaterra, have captivated the world and brought more light to the situation in Palestine.
Soueif chose to analyze three novels that are often seen in the west as being “nice to Arabs. Damascus Gates, Lunch in Bethlehem and The Search for Sana were those chosen.
These books, Soueif said, are supposed to be forward thinking, even humanist. After reading a few passages from each, it became obvious to the crowd that this was simply not the case. Instead, what is seen in each of these texts is a simplified version of what an Arab is. They are never shown with the depth of the other characters, especially the Israelis or westerners, she argued.
“Image is tremendously important, Soueif tells the audience. “Observation is vital to the portrayal of the Arab. If these [books] are supposedly sympathetic to the Arab, they are missing something.
Soueif argues that the simplification of the characters, even making the Arabs “retarded in some cases, helps perpetuate the idea that the Arab, and the Islamic world, is backward and needs to be forcibly changed.
“That is why I believe it is important that Arab-Americans have a say, she proposes. “They [Arab-Americans] are really valuable for they are American, but they are also Arab.
She argues that Arabs living abroad have a responsibility to show the reality on the ground to their western counterparts; her own history reminds us that this can be done.
“Every act of resistance does slow things down and makes countries realize that this is not okay, Soueif says in closing. “They must understand that we have agency.
Agency was a vital point she was trying to make in her speech. Many western authors fail to give Arabs the ability to make their own choices, and if they do, it turns into a way of showing the Arab violent side. Soueif says that this is because they fail to observe life in the Arab world.
“If you are going to write about Arabs, you better learn up [on them], she says. Without a real push to understand Arabs, what the world gets are novels that attempt to show the “good side of Arabs without actually knowing the culture and people they are writing about.
“That was the most interesting point I think she made, El-Rifae says after Soueif had finished her comments. “I didn’t know much about the subject, but she made me more aware of the so-called sympathetic westerners writing about Arabs.
Soueif says that if writers continue to push the concept that Arabs can’t do anything right, then there is a lack of imagination in their writing. They don’t see the reality of what goes on here, she adds.
“But there is hope, Soueif says. “This trend isn’t alone. If we look at history, it was the Soviets who got the wrath of the west for a long time. Also the Jews, so now it is the Arabs.
“Hopefully this trend will end soon, but we have to remain critical of what is coming out of the west, she states.