Freedom is what we manage to do with what has been done to us. – Jean-Paul Sartre

I. Compradors and shadows

I have often found myself resisting critical Euro-American academic readings of modern and contemporary Arab intellectuals—some of which were made by diasporic scholars from the Arab world and the global South—which, to put things bluntly, disparage their work. The “par,” in disparage, comes from Latin and means “equal.” So, when critical academics disparage Arab intellectuals, they literally point out the latter’s lesser rank—their status as lesser gods in the pantheon of an imagined world republic of letters. This disparaging judgment was passed through compiling a panoply of attributes that supposedly characterized the scrutinized works. They were found guilty of introducing Western concepts, rearticulating colonial theses, reproducing Orientalist assumptions, sharing imperialist epistemologies, and displaying no critical vigilance toward the foreign concepts they imported. All of these attributes can be subsumed under a broader category: derivative work.

Yet if one looks carefully at these attributes, one realizes they are not purely intellectual or aesthetic. They differ from statements that, for instance, appraise the lack of originality of a work by stating something like, this is a piece à la façon de . . . (in the style of). The disparaged works are not just derivative of the West. Rather, by being intellectually derivative they also become politically significant.

The imitator comes close to becoming a foreign agent who, to be more specific, works for the West. Depending on the critic’s politics, being an agent of the West can be a good thing or a bad one. It is a good thing if one thinks that intellectuals are the vanguards of reform and the heralds of Enlightenment who fight against top-down authoritarian politics and superstitious and traditionalist beliefs from below. Most of the time, in critical academic circles at least, it is a bad thing. These thinkers become fifth columnists, either conscious enemies of the interior or unwitting dupes seduced by the allure of Western intellectual commodities. In both cases, their work serves colonial interests by undermining their societies’ capacities to resist imperial cultural encroachment from within.

My resistance to these readings is certainly not rooted in a nationalist structure of feeling, one that seeks to redress a hurt narcissistic pride and heal a wound inflected by more powerful outsiders on the self. In fact, it is the disparaging intellectual-ideological judgments that are more resonant with both nationalist and nativist sensibilities whose ingrained suspiciousness toward foreigners keeps them on the lookout for discursive agents that have infiltrated their society.

II. Translators and bricoleurs

But what does this discussion of supposed politically suspicious intellectual derivativeness have to do with translation, which brings all of us together for this forum?

My contention is that this discussion is at its heart. One of the central questions animating this forum underscores the importance of moving beyond “a focus on the application of Anglophone theoretical frames to non-Western experience, and instead consider translation as a central and multidirectional process in knowledge production.” I read this as an invitation to address two crucial issues. First, it urges us to reconsider the colonial division of labor that designates the global South as the site of experiences and facts, and the North as the manufacturer of abstract theory that travels back, no visas needed, to the global South to frame it without much resistance. Second, and relatedly, it calls upon us to disrupt this colonial circuit by reconsidering the practice of translation in the global South as a multidirectional and, more importantly, as a generative, process. Translation, in this reading, is not a one-way street. Concepts’ original address is not always in the global North and their destination is not always in a South that receives them, applies them, is influenced by them, and produces inauthentic copies of them. To disrupt this colonial circuit entails troubling three sets of binaries: North/South, Origin/Destination, and Authentic/Copy.

It is precisely this complex perspective on the multidirectionality and generativity of translation that is interrupted when one views modern and contemporary Arab intellectuals as shadows of the Man, the Euro-American Orientalist, and discursive compradors. Shadows do not have an autonomous existence, while compradors, as agents working for foreign interests, are the antithesis of generativity and creativity. They are both dependent on their masters, serve their interests, and are in no position to bring anything new into the world.

To foreground the figure of the translator against the shadow and the comprador shifts our perspective on works and their producers from three different angles. First, in steering away from reinscribing works as derivative of Western originals, and their producers as acolytes, we avoid the historicist pitfall of positioning the postcolony as always lagging behind the West in intellectual production, and always lacking what the West has. We interrupt the reproduction of the “lag and lack paradigm” in intellectual domains.

Second, we move away from a mode of critique that doubles up as an ideological judgment and comes dangerously close to takhwin—the accusation of treason and collaboration with foreign, and mostly imperial, interests—which is a very common, effective, and trans-ideological instrument of political excommunication. In the Arab world, it has been brandished by chauvinistic secular nationalists, some anti-imperialist Leftists and Islamists, and militant nativists of all ilk.

Third, to think about the generativity of translation is to carve out a discursive space for welcoming that which is modern, new, and original in the postcolony. It helps us answer a couple of fundamental questions that generations of thinkers have confronted and have been troubled by. The question of newness: How does the postcolony deal “with the problem of what may be genuinely new about the modern that also seems belated and resembles something that has already happened somewhere else?” And the question of originality: How do we “signal that which is original—without being authentic or indigenous—about” postcolonial history?

These two questions make an appearance in the translator’s introduction that Robyn Creswell writes to preface his elegant translation from Arabic of Sonallah Ibrahim’s classic novel That Smell. Creswell gives us a glimpse of what Ibrahim, who was imprisoned by the Nasser regime in the 1960s for his communist politics, was reading given his severely limited access to materials. Reading Ibrahim’s prison notebooks, Creswell highlights some of their concerns while underscoring the importance of literatures from the USSR and the United States for the aspiring novelist, despite him having no access to them in their original languages nor in translation in most cases. Sitting in his prison cell, Ibrahim assembled his literary style from whatever secondary or tertiary sources were available to him. “To cobble together bits of Solzhenitsyn with bits of The Green Hills of Africa and bits of other things,” Creswell writes, “and come up with a style unique in Arabic literature.” “This search for models,” he continues, “—‘influence’ is too passive a word to describe what Ibrahim is doing; it is more like bricolage—was made under severe restrictions.”

Ibrahim did not apply a Soviet or American model, nor did he import both of them wholesale. He picked, and reworked, what resonated with his own experience. Ibrahim’s dilemma, as Creswell condenses it, was “how to write oppositional art when the regime in power [Nasser’s] has already stolen your best lines?” In his quest to answer this difficult political and aesthetic question that he, and other communists, faced, since the Nasser regime repressing them had appropriated their own Leftist oppositional languages, Ibrahim found some sustenance in the works of Soviet artists. Poets, like Yevgeny Yevtushenko, showed him “how one might remain a communist despite communism” while underscoring the importance of “telling the truth.”

The figure of the bricoleur that Creswell marshals does not only refer to how something comes into being from an assemblage of diverse and heterogeneous materials; an important aspect of the activity of bricolage is the limited availability of materials that are at one’s disposal. Bricoleurs do not have the luxury of ordering items. They work with what is available here and now. Ibrahim’s imprisonment is perhaps an extreme case but it points us to certain fundamental aspects of working in the South, and some corners of the North. One must contend with political precarity, limited access to materials, and the sense of urgency and existential risk that thinking and writing carries. Last but not least, the imagination is central to the activity of bricolage, which consists of an unconventional repurposing of a limited pool of diverse materials to make something new.

III. After conscription

One can object to what I have just argued by pointing out that the novel form itself is a mid-nineteenth-century import from the West that transformed traditions of prose writing in Arabic. Let’s accept this point. Let’s also add to it that we are descendants of “conscripts of Western civilization,” to draw on the memorable title of an essay by Talal Asad. Our world, he argues in “conscripts,” was reorganized by industrial capitalism and European imperialism, which unleashed forces that destroyed societies and remade them.1 Asad’s argument is pitched below the surface of practice, at the level of undergirding structures. “Social and cultural variety everywhere,” he writes, “increasingly responds to, and is managed by, categories brought into play by modern forces.” Even if newness enters the world and cultures are invented, Asad observes, what matters is the conditions under which this process happens.

If we consider the emergence of the Arabic novel as one of the consequences of the unequal encounter with the West, as evidenced by discussions about which work fits the title of the first Arabic novel, then its originality can be challenged since it came into being as result of importing a Western form. After all, Ernest Hemingway’s style appears in Ibrahim’s toolkit, not the other way around as far as I know. Moreover, this line of reasoning can be furthered by highlighting that the novel form transformed Arabic writing and steered it away from its own forms. Ibrahim’s work can then be charged with continuing, and furthering, the rupture with traditional Arab prose forms.

To be clear, Asad does not make these arguments nor does he marshal the comprador charge. I am making these arguments hypothetically to illustrate a set of difficult questions that we in the postcolony face in the wake of conscription. In the Arab world, we have been living, working, and thinking for about two centuries now since our societies were radically remade. First, how do we assess the thought and the art we produced in these two centuries? Are we doomed to belatedness generation after generation or did we succeed in founding modern traditions, which are neither indigenous nor derivative, such as the Arabic novel? Second, what is the temporality of conscription, i.e., is there a strict before and after when the rupture with traditional ways of thinking and being in the world takes place, or is conscription a protracted and continuous process? Is what we do intellectually and politically always conditioned by the fact of our prior conscription? Are our only available modes of critical engagement either to speak back to the West or look for spaces that remain on the margins of conscription? And third, what is the status of the event, particularly political events, such as revolutions and uprisings? Do they remain epiphenomenal to the structure of conscription?

These are difficult questions. They have become increasingly salient for me in the past decade, with successive waves of revolutions and uprisings against the authoritarian, and at times murderous, postcolonial Arab regimes and the steadfastness and resistance of Palestinians facing continuous Israeli dispossession. As a result, I am finding it harder to dwell mostly underground with subterranean structures and grammars and find myself propelled upwards toward practices and speech acts. True men and women do not choose the conditions under which they act and they do not make history as they please, but Karl Marx’s famous sentence does not start here. At the end of the day, they also make their own history. And if we give up on the promise of emancipation then what are we left with?

  1. Talal Asad, “Conscripts of Western Civilization?” in Dialectical Anthropology: Essays in Honor of Stanley Diamond, vol. 1, edited by C. Gailey (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1992): 333–51.