Saturday, October 10, 2009

Arabic, Israel and an optimistic Guardian

The Guardian's post from a couple of weeks ago, one that I think will go unnoticed by most, suggests that increased awareness might help the infamous conflict in the Middle East. How will this increased awareness be achieved? It raises the fact that for the first time ever, Egypt will see translations of works by Israeli authors and looks at the small Israeli publishers seeking to broaden their bases.
Israeli readers are spoilt for choice when it comes to tracking down international literature in Hebrew translation. [...] The literary curiosity of Hebrew readers seems to do something of a hop and a skip over their next-door neighbours before settling in further flung climes. [...] But there are attempts, small yet meaningful, to introduce Arabic literature to the Hebrew-reading public. One example is Tel Aviv-based Andalus Books. The publishing house takes its inspiration from the "golden era" of intellectual thought and activity in the Iberian peninsula[.]
A commenter below the post discusses the voracity of Israeli readers, boasting that Israeli bookstores have large English and Arabic sections, which is half true - Israeli bookstores have a fairly wide variety of English language books, Russian books and often various others, but its Arabic sections (in the major bookstores, at least) tend to be small or non-existent. Certain areas, I'm sure, can show off large Arabic-language sections (areas with prominent Arab communities, no doubt) but the vast majority of Israel's main-chain bookstores do not offer much in the way of Arabic.

The core question here is whether or not Andalus Books will be effective. The Guardian seems to think that the publishing of Arab books will lead to better days. That is unlikely. Andalus' publications will most likely go unnoticed in the country that, as the article itself mentions, is currently reading "The Elegance of the Hedgehog" and "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo". It's not even necessarily something against Andalus' attempt. Most Israelis, like the whole world, content themselves with the bestsellers recommended to them by booksellers. And it's particularly difficult in Israel, where bookstores are notoriously tiny (though common). So aside from the fact that it's difficult for Israelis to hear about the smaller, more random presses, there's the issue of whether or not the vast majority of Israelis will want to read Arabic books in translation.

Here is where some politics enters. The honest truth is that a large group of Israelis would yell at the idea immediately. But to be even more honest, these are often the same people that wouldn't read much in the first place (no offence, guys). It is true that Israel's left would be more willing to read these books and assuredly would appreciate and enjoy some of them (assuming these are good books; quality literature). It does mean, however, that the potential audience for these books is already small and getting smaller. Yes - Israeli culture does treat reading differently than American or British culture meaning a possible opening for Arabic books in translation. On the other hand, it'll be difficult to pass along these books and their possible positive messages to wide audiences. So the Guardian's enthusiasm should wait for reality to catch up.

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