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      Counter-Orientalism: Retranslating the “Invisible Arab” in Leila Aboulela's The Translator and Lyrics Alley



            Retranslation is a foundational postcolonial metaphor that might highlight the new horizons of transcultural and transnational relations and their political backdrop. By the same token, Arab—British migrant narratives are of special relevancy to both translation and cultural studies, since migrant identity and writing are closely associated with the politics of translation, rewriting, relocation, and cross-cultural pollination. This contribution explores the role of counter-discourses in general and counter-Orientalism in particular in the contemporary fiction of one of Arab—British writers. In particular, the article focuses on the textual representations of invisible Arab men and women and the East—West cultural exchange in the writing of the Sudanese feminist and Scottish immigrant Leila Aboulela (1964-). Drawing on the counter-traditional concept of translation as engagement rather than transfer, this article attempts to spotlight the aesthetic and political parameters of cultural translation in Arab—British literature represented by Leila Aboulela's The Translator (1999) and Lyrics Alley (2010). Many studies have examined the (mis)representation of Arabs in Western Orientalist narratives, but very few have probed how Arab émigrés have deftly attempted to engage with Orientalist narratives by restructuring new identities and critically hybridizing unexampled cultural models. In other words, counter-Orientalism implies appropriating Orientalist stereotypes of space, history, identity, and gender in counter-narratives that seek to demythologize and therefore de-Orientalize Arab subjects.


            Author and article information

            Arab Studies Quarterly
            Pluto Journals
            Summer 2014
            : 36
            : 3
            : 220-241
            © 2014 The Center for Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies

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            Social & Behavioral Sciences
            cultural cosmopolitanism,retranslation,counter-orientalism,invisible Arab,Arab—British writers,immigrant writing


            1. See (2012) The Invisible Arab: The Promise and Peril of the Arab Revolutions .

            2. The theoretical section of this article was presented in the workshop “Women, Culture and the 25th January, 2011 Egyptian Revolution,” held in Ain Shams University, Cairo, Egypt, on March 25–27, 2013.

            3. See, for instance, the workshop organized by the Max Weber Programme affiliated to the European University Institute (EUI) on “Identity and citizenship in the new Arab world” on November 14, 2012, which focused on the evolution and outcomes of uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen (http://www.eui.eu/SeminarsAndEvents/Index.aspx?eventid=83977), and see the two workshops “Women, Culture and the 25th January, 2011 Egyptian Revolution,” held by University of Manchester and Ain Shams University in 2012 and 2013, respectively, focusing on the role of women in political activism and resistance in the revolutions of Egypt and the Arab world: (http://www.alc.manchester.ac.uk/subjects/middleeasternstudies/events/seminars-2012–13/2011-egyptian-revolution/).

            4. Said's role model of cultural translation is exemplified by the humanistic philological scholarship of Vico (1668–1744) and Goethe (1749–1832). Vico's Scienza Nuova and Goethe's ideas about Weltliteratur are both grounded in a subtle criticism of all attempts to privilege homogeneity over heterogeneity. It is no wonder that Vico (1999) condemns nationalistic feelings which motivate the heroic duels waged by Christians and Turks, respectively, in the eighteenth century (463–464), and that Goethe's interest in Islam and the Orient led to the composition of the West-östlicher Diwan that was inspired by the Persian poet Hafez.

            5. Most of Sayyid Qutb's religious views advocate a monolithic fundamentalist and culturalist ideology that disavows Western progress and civilization as mere super-myths to be superseded by authentic Islamism.


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