"One Only Has to Want to Listen"

For over twenty years the Unionsverlag in Switzerland has been publishing non-European literatures, including a considerable number of Arabic authors. Martin Zähringer read these books and spoke with the director of the publishing house.

photo: Unionsverlag
The Unionsverlag is a pioneer of publishing Literature from the Arab world on the European market

​​The Unionsverlag in Zurich is known for its wide spectrum of international literature. Since its beginning, the Unionsverlag has published 274 international authors; twenty of them are from the Arabic world. That seems like too few. "It's a sad world, if even such a small number stands out," says founder and publisher Lucien Leitess.

This number is, however, impressive—in particular given that the majority of these authors do not by any means fit the Orientalist expectations of Arabic literature, i.e. a "flowery style," etc. etc. They represent critical voices of contemporary writers who are mostly still living and writing.

In the beginning there was "Third World Literature"

Starting in 1982, the Unionsverlag established a program sponsoring authors who write "modern, experimental, urban and contemporary" literature—according to Leitess, this is the type of writing that has it hardest.

In the beginning there had been an attempt to create a "Third World Dialog" with other publishing houses. The idea was to "convey a realistic image of the social and political situation in a [given] country and among its population," according to the brochure announcing the first Arabic title available at Unionsverlag, "Staatsanwalt unter Fellachen" (English title: "Maze of Justice: Diary of a Country Prosecutor") by the Egyptian writer Tawfik al-Hakim.

Today Leitess is skeptical about the idea of "Third World literature," and he finds the claim of "realism" to be "reactionary for non-European literatures, given that these literatures have fantastically enriched the traditional canon, indeed, have shifted its boundaries."

French is the language, the gaze directed south

Unionsverlag represents the Algerian author Assia Djebar. She writes in French, but "her perspective on people and history is radically Southern, and her storytelling consciously rejects Western traditions." But it is not an Orientalist perspective, which becomes apparent in the way in which the colonial legacy and the latest violent chapters in postcolonial Algeria are addressed.

These issues are, among others, those that have also inspired texts by Rachid Boudjedra, Germain Aziz, Malika Mokkedem and most recently Yasmina Khadra, who has written a trilogy of crime stories.

Literature from Palestine

The Unionsverlag represents two Palestinian authors, Sahar Khalifa, who has been with them since 1983, and Salim Alafenisch, who writes in German. But these authors cannot necessarily be understood in turn as "representing" Palestine. Khalifa, for example, takes a very critical view of her own country, as her most recent novel "Das Erbe" ("The Inheritance") demonstrates.

Last year Unionsverlag published the novel "Steine, Gitter, Stimmen" ("Stones, Fences, Voices") by the Israeli author Yitzhak Laor, who is known as a sharp critic of the Israeli government and army. When the book appeared, Laor and Khalifa met during a reading tour in Germany.

Asked if this demonstrates a glimmer of hope for an Israeli-Palestinian dialog, Lucien Lietess replies: "Both of them are first and foremost excellent men of letters who are not fooled by opinion makers." In other words, they are not working in service of a quasi-official mission. The same can also be said of the other authors at Unionsverlag.

Women of letters and women in novels

Sahar Khalifa, Assia Djebar, Malika Mokkedem, and most recently also the Egyptian author Miral al-Tahawi are also represented by the Unionsverlag, demonstrating a fact that is often missed today: women have long found their place in the wide spectrum of Arabic literature. The social repression of women has been a subject addressed by male writers as well since the publisher's earlier program.

In his book "Die Zivilisation, Mutter" ("Civilization, Mother"), Moroccan writer Driss Chraibi portrays the difficult situation of a Moroccan woman, as well as her shrewd optimism and her courage to change things. Taufiq Yussuf Awwad's novel Tamima gives a close-up view of an impossible romance between a young Muslim and a Christian in Beirut.

When asked if "feminist" issues play a role in the publisher's choice of authors, Leitess replies: "It is the writers who choose their issues. Of course, it is not a coincidence that the most important women writers around the world devote their work to the condition féminine in their respective countries. And this is certainly not coincidental among women writers from the Arabic world."

Nobel Prize winner Machfus remains faithful

A particularly outstanding author of the Unionsverlag is Nagib Machfus from Egypt, who is represented with over twenty titles. Another book will be added to the list when Die Reise des Ibn Fattuma ("The Journey of Ibn Fattuma") comes out this summer. But are Machfus' many titles perhaps published at the expense of younger writers? The publisher thinks differently:

"Machfus' oeuvre is a giant of sorts. For over sixty years this master writer has continued to develop his themes and forms, he is still experimental. It is our fortune to be able to accompany such an author. It is also fortunate that he has remained faithful to us after winning the Nobel Prize." Readers have profited from this too, not least because his regular translator, Doris Kilias, has provided continuity in the look and feel of his writing for German-speaking audiences.

Nothing happens without funding

It is important not to loose site of the decisive role of external translation funds in publishing Arabic literature. The German organization "Society for the Promotion of African, Asian and Latin American Literature" and Pro Helvetia in Switzerland regularly sponsor the translation of Arabic literature into German.

Leitess gives some figures to illustrate what this support means: "Without these funds, a translated novel would have to sell five to eight thousand copies, and this is rarely possible."

Asked about how he finds his authors and how he imagines the future of Arabic literature in German translation, Leitess replies: "Many of the authors from this region are represented by professional agents. The times are gone now when it was difficult to find information. One only has to want to listen."

Martin Zähringer

© Qantara.de 2004

Translation from German: Christina M. White