America for Arabs -- In Translation
Which of our books and plays would tell them the most about us?
By TERRY TEACHOUT
December 8, 2007; Page W18
December 8, 2007; Page W18
Gillian Gibbons, a British schoolteacher working in Sudan, was recently thrown in jail and later deported for the crime of insulting Islam by allowing her 7-year-old charges to name a teddy bear Mohammed. Meanwhile, a United Arab Emirates-based project called Kalima ("word" in Arabic) has announced plans to translate hundreds of foreign books into Arabic and distribute them throughout the Middle East. The venture, which has official government backing, was inspired by a United Nations report that pointed out that more books are translated into Spanish each year than were translated into Arabic in the past 1,000 years. "The rest of the world enjoys a wealth of domestic and translated writing," founder Karim Nagy told a reporter for the Guardian. "Why should the Arab world be any different?"
I dare say that Ms. Gibbons could help answer that question.
You can see a list of Kalima's first 100 titles at the project's Web site, www.kalima.ae. It is, like most such lists, a mix of the brilliantly appropriate (Eric Hoffer's "The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements") and the inexplicably quirky (Astrid Lindgren's "Pippi Longstocking"). For the most part I found it impressive, though I couldn't help but wonder what conclusions Arabs might draw about us after consulting a bookshelf containing the works of, among others, Aristophanes, Dante, Montaigne, Galileo, George Eliot, John Maynard Keynes, François Truffaut, Jacques Derrida, Umberto Eco, Stephen Hawking and Peter Drucker.
I also asked myself a related question: What books would I send to an Arab -- or any other foreigner -- who wanted to know what America and its people are like?
Kalima's list of books is multicultural by design, since its purpose is to give Arabs access to the widest possible range of information about the world beyond their borders. But I'd venture to guess that the average Arab reader is especially ill-informed when it comes to the everyday realities of life in this country, and it strikes me that it would be of great value to the rest of the world if a well-chosen shelf of books about America were to be put into the hands of a large number of Arabs -- which is, needless to say, a very big if.
Which works would I pick? Some, like "The Federalist," Mark Twain's "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and Alexis de Tocqueville's "Democracy in America," are so obvious that they scarcely require mentioning -- though none of these three titles, as it happens, is currently scheduled for distribution by Kalima. But where might you go from there? I drew up a short list of candidates prior to looking at Kalima's Web site and was pleased to see that one of my authors, Isaac Bashevis Singer, also made their list. (I chose "Enemies, a Love Story," while Kalima opted for "Collected Stories.") Here are my other choices:
- Willa Cather, "O Pioneers!" Not only has there never been a more evocative portrayal of the American pioneer existence, but "O Pioneers!" is by and about a strong, independent-minded woman -- something that I suspect many Arabs of both sexes would find edifying.
- James M. McPherson, "Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era." This Pulitzer-winning one-volume chronicle of the American Civil War is an excitingly written account of the pivotal moment in our post-revolutionary history. What could be more inspiring to modern-day Middle Easterners than a book about a Western nation that fought -- and survived -- a bloody war to reunite itself?
- Thornton Wilder, "Our Town." The Stage Manager who narrates Wilder's play about life in an imaginary New Hampshire village remarks at one point that a copy of the script will be placed in a time capsule in the cornerstone of a new bank so that future generations will have a record of "the way we were: in our growing up and in our marrying and in our living and in our dying." "Our Town" says more about these humble things than any other work of American literary art.
- F. Scott Fitzgerald, "The Great Gatsby," and Richard Wright, "Black Boy." No portrait of America in all its proliferating complexity can claim to be complete without showing our people at their ugliest. These two books do that, albeit in very different ways: Fitzgerald's richly lyrical novella focuses on the dark side of the American national character; Wright's scalding memoir, on the savagery of racism.
- Edwin O'Connor, "The Last Hurrah." How does politics really work in a democracy? This 1956 novel about a big-city mayoral election is a rousing piece of old-fashioned storytelling that also gives its readers an up-close look at the American political process. Two additional novels that cover other pieces of the same turf, Robert Penn Warren's "All the King's Men" and Allen Drury's "Advise and Consent," are no less valuable to foreigners seeking to understand how America rules (and misrules) itself.
In the long run, I doubt that we could do more to help shape Middle Eastern perceptions about America for the better than by translating these books into Arabic, publishing them in pocket-size paperback editions, and distributing them throughout the Arab world by hook, crook, camel, backpack or parachute.
Mr. Teachout, the Journal's drama critic, writes "Sightings" every other Saturday and blogs about the arts at www.terryteachout.com. Write to him at email@example.com.