Saturday Summer Re-Runs: Alexandra Chreiteh on Writing About Menstruation in Modern Standard Arabic

The issue with the translation of Always Coca Cola for me was that, in the original text, I tried to make the prose as clear as possible, and to make it flow as well as possible. Of course the woman’s body is discussed there always as a metaphor — the female body that’s raped stands for the loss of sovereignty over land, or is killed to be conquered; [there’s] the mother’s body that gives the nation its sons. To break the authority of language and of social space, I tried to infect fus7a with the music of these women’s own language, while bending fus7a to make it do what I wanted. In the first part of a two-part interview, which ArabLit is re-running for Women in Translation Month (#WITMonth),   Rachael Daum discusses urinary-tract infections, menstrual blood, and language with acclaimed Lebanese novelist Alexandra Chreiteh:
By Rachael Daum
Chreiteh accepting an award for Always Coca Cola. So what are you working on now? You choose to write in fus7a about very colloquial matters. Michelle and I are very good friends! One way she tries to avoid this is that she makes sure the reader always know it’s a translation, by not allowing her or him to have too smooth a ride. I kept asking myself: when is blood pure and when is it impure? I did not want to depict women as bad variations on men, which I feel is the way they are often portrayed in social space and discourse in Lebanon. The reality is that we deal with these things on a daily basis, and we need to explore them. I needed to talk about the real, everyday struggles of war, about the huge dissonance between the “un-noble” need to go to the bathroom and the noble-sounding calls to sacrifice oneself for one’s country. In the end, we realized that we were dealing with two different texts. Why should authority only be held by a certain group that has grammar and the legal system on their side? Her work has been translated to English and German. I needed to address the contrast between these two levels of existence and discourse. Should a character pee in colloquial Arabic or Modern Standard? And of course there are colloquialisms in the novel, and the mixture was very important to me. Rachael Daum is a graduate student at Indiana University inflicting Russian literature and language on herself, and vice versa. It is a question of who owns language and who owns the right to express herself or himself, to make space for herself in society and in literature. Writing in fus7a is always already a translation, because you need to translate your own thoughts into writing, and the fact that the pulse of everyday life does not flow through fus7a makes it rigid, especially when it comes to the description of the mundane. We talk a lot. As with any translation project, there is conflict and collaboration; how do you navigate this, particularly as your English is very good and you have the luxury (or curse!) of being able to read the translation? What is your opinion of the Arabic literature landscape at the moment? (If there is any such intention!) Basically she wanted me to be as involved as I felt comfortable in the translation. They are rarely allowed to exist for themselves. I wanted to deal with the female body in a way that was explored not through someone else’s gaze. This was the most important thing for me to deal with while I was writing. Women are always there as an erotic body, depicted in sexual ways, and naturally the issue of female desire is a big problem. For example, the Tawariq identity in Libya for Ibrahim al-Koni and the Kurdish identity in Syria in the case of Salim Barakat. Of course, in times of war, women are the biggest losers, but they are often reduced to metaphors. In Always Coca-Cola, Abeer gets her period, and in Ali the protagonist is prone to UTIs, and you write very viscerally about the flow of blood and urine, respectively. It’s used a lot in times of war. What is your relationship with Michelle Hartman, your translator, like? In what sort of language can an author write about something as banal and contested as menstruation? But oftentimes women’s bodies are either sexualized or given a sort of sanctity, or both, and this sanctity is harmful. Anyone would tell you that they read much less than they’d like to. I think she has a bold, unique voice. For me, fus7a is a very difficult tool to use. And there’s a lot of young Arabic writers, and I love seeing how many more young writers there are every year. Alexandra Chreiteh is the author of two novels, Always Coca-Cola and Ali and his Russian Mother. I’m really excited to see where young Arabic literature will go, especially where women will go. It’s a kind of locus of power: the social structures of authority are recreated within language if you do nothing to stop that. She is a doctoral candidate in Comparative Literature at Yale University. And she didn’t want to take away another woman’s agency! And I wanted to show something else, the actual physical needs of someone, a woman, going though war. She is also the Publicity Manager for the American Literary Translators Association, and you can find her @Oopsadaisical. At the moment, I am reading a poetry collection by a young Egyptian poet, Iman Mersal. Why did you choose to do this? Periods are subversive, everything is subversive! I respect her work as a translator—she is so involved in the texts she translates, and it’s important for her to respect the author’s intention. Something I really admire about both of your novels so far is your head-on approach to very, shall we say, earthly matters. I wanted a woman there just with her body, not constructing her identity against anyone or anything else. I’m interested in this, and why you chose to have your readers confront these subjects? Do you get to read a lot outside of your graduate readings? For both, magical realism is a tool of expressing minor identities within the nation that are repressed by national identity. For me, the way to stop it was to write about young women in Beirut dealing with really important issues, and some unimportant issues, but all of these almost never make it into fus7a in the voice of these women. Particularly written in fus7a [Modern Standard Arabic]? Lots of slang, too, which is also important—it’s very subversive. There are of course female authors who write about female desire, and that’s great. Michelle’s political position made her do something very different with the English text: I felt it was choppy and sometimes awkward, and it was part of her political work as a translator. I think there are a lot of very interesting things happening at the moment. Even when these two literatures don’t communicate, they use magical realism in very similar ways. In Ali and His Russian Mother, it was very important for me to address a very certain type of heroic discourse. Everyone can use fus7a   — why should it only address very “noble” ideas and “noble” causes? They are always represented by someone else, through the authority of someone else, and not through their own authority. You can reach more people in fus7a than you can in dialect. This is tricky, but I feel like it was important for me to give at least the protagonist agency over her own body, or to portray the ways in which women’s agency is complicated or lacking because of certain attitudes towards their bodies. First of all, it is the source of a lot a lot of frustration for me — that is, I am really frustrated with the way that women are regulated in social and literary space. And there’s a movement to questions of identity — with special approaches not typical of previous Arabic literature. We, as Lebanese women, and I think as women in general, have to hide these things [such as periods and urination], we have to be ashamed of these things. For Michelle, translated texts by Arab women risk being treated as commodities to be consumed. In Hebrew literature, these minorities are the Arab Jews and Palestinians, who write in Hebrew and use magical realism in order to represent their own repressed narratives and histories. And remember: talking about periods in fus7a is not insulting, because periods are not insulting! My current work is about magical realism in Arabic and Hebrew. There’s a move towards different types of narration I haven’t seen before. Advertisements

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