Celebrating Arab American Heritage through Language and Literature
To dive more into the richness of the Arab American community, BU Arabic & comparative literature professor Margaret Litvin shares her efforts to learn and teach about Arabic cultures and language.
By: Rachel Lin
The history of Arab immigrants in the United States dates back many years. According to the Arab American National Museum, the Arab American population in the US today is estimated to be between 2 and 3.6 million.
There is also a growing interest in learning the Arabic language, which has become the eighth-most taught language in US universities. The trend is evident in the increasing number of students studying Arabic, as per national surveys. With around 26,000 public school students in K-12 and 31,500 university students studying Arabic, the language has garnered significant attention.
To understand more about this vibrant community and the strides made towards integrating Arabic culture into curriculums and society, we spoke with Margaret Litvin, an Arabic and comparative literature professor at Boston University. As a historian of modern Arabic literature and theatre, Professor Litvin’s expertise lies in situating Arab cultural production in a global context. At BU she teaches courses on translation and transcultural literature such as “Global Shakespeares” and “1001 Nights in the World Literary Imagination.” In this Q&A, Professor Litvin introduces a greater perspective of the rich heritage of the Arab American community, as well as the importance of language education in fostering cultural appreciation and acknowledgment.
What challenges have you faced when educating people about Arabic cultures and language, and how have you worked to overcome them?
I started studying Arabic in the late 1990s, when you could barely find an articulate Arab quoted in an American newspaper. This was before 9/11 kindled a great American hunger to learn more about the Middle East, before the disastrous Iraq war drove Americans to belatedly wonder about Arab history, before The New York Times had Arabic-speaking journalists like Anthony Shadid, may he rest in peace. Back then many people didn’t even know what hummus was.
Today things have gotten much better, there are incomparably more resources to address the ignorance, but you still sometimes see Arabic-speaking people (let’s use that term instead of “Arabs” when we can, because the region includes minorities such as Kurds and Armenians who also speak and write in Arabic) — you see them presented in U.S. media as incoherent jabbering primitives or fanatics, people driven solely by “age-old hatreds” or by Islam. This is the challenge.
So my whole career — teaching, research, editing, and translation — has been an effort to show how Arabic cultures, and specifically Arabic literature, fits into the landscape of world culture. That means helping American students and readers encounter their Arab or Arabic-speaking peers and counterparts: people who are not defined by some traditional culture or religion but who are educated, who read voraciously in any language they can access, who dream globally, criticize sharply, and in many cases know even western cultural forms — let alone their “own” culture! — better than we do. That’s why I write about seemingly elite phenomena like Arabic Shakespeares and Arab-Soviet cultural ties. Social media has made these in-between people more visible; they may also be more numerous due to the Syrian civil war and various disruptions in other Arab countries. There are now far more Arabic speakers living and writing in Europe than there were in the 1990s. Many of these people are bi- or tri-lingual, creative, and ferociously articulate. You just need to listen.
What do you believe is the significance of literary translation, especially in regard to Arabic literature?
Translation has been very valuable for helping Arabic stories reach western readers, but it has also sometimes exoticized Arabic culture, for instance by sticking on lots of footnotes and introductions and glossaries that send the message that Arabic culture is something you need to study: it’s a homework assignment, not a gorgeous pool to swim in. Luckily this is changing. Mainstream presses like New Directions and even Random House are picking up Arabic books and marketing them to all kinds of readers, not just the ethnographically curious. Arabic sci-fi and graphic novels are getting translated. And so on.
Another change is in the audience. Most translators and publishers imagine the Arabic-speaking world as quite separate from the United States. Their implied reader is someone who has no idea of Arab cultures and only the vaguest sense of common Arabic words, Arab foods, or Middle Eastern or North African histories. But my MFA translation student last year, Sharon Grosso, convinced me that we need to change that picture. She reminded me of all the in-between people we both know: folks educated in international schools who speak Arabic but prefer to read novels in English, children of immigrants who know the culture but not the language, non-Arab Americans who spend time with Arabic-speaking friends or partners, and increasingly now, random fans who just got curious about Arabic music or movies or TV and gave themselves a crash course online. Those people need a different kind of translation. Maybe they want to taste the flavor of more Arabic words in their mouths.
How does your background influence your connection to the Arab American community and how does it affect what you value?
Being post-Soviet Jewish (I was born in Moscow and immigrated with my family in 1979) gives me a weird double connection to the Arab-American writers I study. On one hand, I’m a member of a sometimes persecuted religious-ethnic minority group that ended up in the United States, just like the early Syro-Lebanese Americans, who were predominantly Christian migrants from the Ottoman Empire; I can also relate to Muslim Arab Americans through the sad overlaps between antisemitism and Islamophobia in recent times. It turns out that there is also a secret Russian connection — many Arab American families had some dealings with Russian literature or schooling before they learned English or came to the United States. So maybe my own heritage gives me some insight into the complex and multi-layered nature of Arab American identity. It’s not just two things (Arab; American) but a whole global array of things.
What message do you have for the next generation to promote greater awareness and appreciation of Arab culture and heritage?
I am so thrilled that a lot of our students at BU have some Arab heritage, that many of them are learning the language their grandparents never taught to their parents. It is very satisfying to see how motivated they are. But I’m equally thrilled that many of our students are true learners-from-scratch like me, people with no ethnic Arab connection at all. Learning even a little Arabic will change their whole outlook. I hope they can all study in an Arab country one day. But they’ll also realize you don’t need to go to “the Arab world” to encounter Arabic culture. You can listen to Arabic music, watch Arabic movies, read Arabic Facebook. Above all, you can talk to Arabic-speaking people and pay attention to the things they say, in whatever language.