Out of the eye of the sun: Edward Fox speaks to Arab writers who have escaped from political upheavals to work in Britain

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The Independent Culture
The Lebanese novelist Hanan al-Shaykh's experience of her early years in London would be familiar to exiles of any nationality. 'When we first came here, we Lebanese were very close to each other. We sought each other out, as if we needed each other's warmth. Later I said to myself: 'Why am I seeking out people I wouldn't talk to in Lebanon?' They ate Lebanese food and listened to Lebanese music, as if they weren't living in this country at all. It depressed me.'

The wars and upheavals of recent Arab history have led many Arab writers into exile, to the Western capitals of London and Paris particularly. As a result, a new chapter in Arab literary history has come into being: Arabic literature in exile.

In Hanan al-Shaykh's case, the experience of continuing expatriation - she has lived in Britain for eight years - has turned her away from writing about the Middle East simply because she has been away from it for so long. Exile wears down the boundaries of national identity, and breaks up the simple relation between writer and reader within a shared language and culture. She is now writing a novel about Arabs in London. But who is she writing it for? It is a novel in Arabic which she intends primarily for an English readership. It is a work that cannot come into being as intended without being translated.

A similar trans-cultural conundrum is presented by Ahdaf Soueif, an Egyptian novelist living in England. Edward Said called her recent novel In the Eye of the Sun (Bloomsbury) an example of Arabic literature that happens to be written in English. It is a novel in English, set in Egypt and England, about Arab culture and sensibility. It has been favourably reviewed in Egypt, although few people there will be able to read it until it is translated. 'People there want to see how they are being seen in England,' she says.

For translation into Arabic, Soueif plans to rewrite the book, adding bits that explain England to the Arabs, removing those that explain Egypt to the English. Translation involves her in an exile's paradox: 'The last thing I want is for it to seem like a foreign book translated into Arabic.' She also plans to take out the explicit sex scenes, outrageous in Arabic countries. 'I have to make decisions about the breaking of boundaries in Arabic literature,' she says. Once translated and published in Arabic, it risks being banned in Arab countries.

It is because of widespread censorship, as well as political oppression and violence against writers in Arab countries, that London has become a capital-inexile of Arab writing, publishing and journalism. The majority of Arab writers in London are writing for an Arab readership in the Middle East, and will never be translated. Even though their books can still be banned in the Middle East, at least they are free to write and publish them. A number of publishing houses - notably al-Saqi and al-Rayisi - have set up to publish their work. There is even a magazine published here dedicated to it. Its title, Ightirab al-Adabi, is ironic, punning on the dual senses of ightirab, which means both 'separation from one's native land' and 'Westernisms', the Westernised literature favoured by some Arab expatriates.

Having a book banned is like awarding it a literary prize, it seems. 'When they ban a book, it becomes more popular,' says Dr Sabri Hafez, lecturer in Arabic at the School of Oriental and African Studies. 'Instead of being read by one or two people, a copy of a banned book is read by hundreds. It becomes a commercial failure but a cultural success.'

Exile is necessary for Arab writers because of what the Londonbased Iraqi writer Samir al- Khalil has called 'the impoverishment of feeling caused by violence' in the Arab world. Writers have been frightened and brutalised into silence. Until the mid-Seventies, Beirut was the capital of Arab culture. After the war went out of control, Beirut was destroyed and another exodus of Arab writers began.

This lack of freedom to publish in Arab countries has had the negative effect of creating an appetite for bad writing which is deliberately and gratuitously scandalous. Mai Ghoussoub, the editorial director of al-Saqi Books, which both publishes and sells books from its premises in Westbourne Grove, is particularly dismayed by this phenomenon. 'People confuse literature with banned books. People come in here and say 'Where are the banned books?' So I thought of having a shelf in the shop with a sign that says 'banned books'.'

Going into exile is often a matter of survival. Zakariah Tamer was editor of Syria's leading cultural magazine, al-Ma'rifa, publishing powerful short stories that pointed out, in elaborate allegorical form, the misery of living under a despotic government. He was finally sacked in 1975 for publishing an extract from a book published by a Syrian author in 1904 called On the Nature of Tyranny. It was the excuse the authorities had been waiting for. As long as he was writing in an allegorical style, they couldn't pin him down. Forbidden to work or to publish, but with a family to support, he came to Oxford, where he now writes a column for the Arabic-language newspaper al-Quds. A volume of these allegorical stories has been published in English under the title Tigers on the Tenth Day (Quartet).

Arab writers come here to be free from the deadening hand of political entanglements, and to acquire the credibility of an independent voice, but this independence is hard to maintain. In London, the principal danger for writers is to be sucked, due to economic necessity, into the orbit of Saudi publishing. Of the 10 or so Arabic-language newspapers published here, all but two (including al-Quds) are Saudi-owned, and these have a distinct political agenda based on the avoidance of any controversial statement. Edward Said says that after the Gulf war he was told not to say 'anything bad about America' in his column in the Saudi-owned monthly al-Majalla. He resigned.