Teaching Literature on the Arabian Peninsula

Even after 15 years of teaching literature on the Arabian Peninsula, I still worry about finding the right texts for my students. They are majoring in English language, not literature, so I don’t have to cover any kind of canon. I just need good stories, plays, and poems that will help improve their English by giving them a chance to read, write, talk, and think. I teach a wide variety of classes covering all levels and genres from the 1700s to modern day, in addition to teaching creative writing, cultural studies, and education classes; the students are mainly female Omanis in their late teens to early twenties.

When I can, I include texts by Arab authors that have been written in or translated into English. I did this originally thinking that it would be helpful for them to see representations of the Arab world in class, but I have realized that for fiction and drama it is the characters that drive students’ interest, not the author. Of all the fiction texts I have used, the hands-down favorite is Anne of Green Gables, which I taught in the Introduction to Literature class. “I am Anne,” students would write over and over in their assignments. The early scene in which she babbles on to Matthew about the beauty of the wild plum was mentioned often: “That’s me.”

I had thought stories set in the Arab world would interest students, but the everyday plight of working women in stories such as “I Saw the Date Palms” by Radwa Ashour didn’t capture their attention. My effusing about Naguib Mafouz did nothing to help the tepid reception to “Half a Day.”

I think the issue is more complicated than “good writing is universal” but certain types of characters and tropes mesh with my students’ lives. For example, in picking short stories, I look for ones with interesting female characters, such as O. Henry’s “The Last Leaf” and “The Gift of the Magi”; “Doll’s House” by Katherine Mansfield; “The Necklace” by Guy de Maupassant; and “A White Heron” by Sarah Orne Jewett. Examples of texts by Arab authors include “A Dash of Light” by Ibrahim Aslan, “Distant Seas” by Habib Selmi, “Dancing by the Light of the Moon” by Salih Saeed Ba-Amer, “Love and Rain” by Mohammed Alwan, and “The Discontented” by Leila Abouzeid.

But, after Anne, which texts and characters were students most excited about?  Everyday Use by Alice Walker and Kipling’s Mowgli. A Canadian orphan, a southern African American woman, and a wolf child would not seem to have much in common with the Muslim, Arab, mostly rural-based women in my classes, but what links them is the protagonists’ struggle to be honest with themselves—not just to live but to live with dignity. The novels that students enjoyed most were Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell and Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility—female protagonists facing life with poise and self-respect.

I had thought stories set in the Arab world would interest students, but the everyday plight of working women in stories such as “I Saw the Date Palms” by Radwa Ashour didn’t capture their attention. My effusing about Naguib Mafouz did nothing to help the tepid reception to “Half a Day.” My championing Mohammed al Murr, who has written excellent stories about the changes that modernization has brought to Dubai, did not help my students warm to stories about unhappily married female characters in stories such as “Dinner by Candlelight” and “Road Accidents.” I thought the humor of “Wink of the Mona Lisa” and “Black and White” would win them over, but they preferred the seriousness of “The Little Tree” by Nasser al-Dhaheri, which is about a tree that grows up as the focus of a neighborhood but eventually becomes desolate and dying in the middle of a tangle of newly-built roads. And it wasn’t a matter of needing texts that depicted events that were familiar: Princess Sunshine by Tawfiq al-Hakim was a great favorite, but so were Much Ado about Nothing, The Importance of Being Ernest, and Alcestis.

Poetry was quite different because poetry is so highly regarded in on the Arabian Peninsula. Poets are well-known, celebrated, and respected. On a final exam for a cultural studies class, I asked students to write an example of their “cultural capital.” Over half the students mentioned a close relative who was a poet. There is also a higher barrier to poetry as students expect that poems will be difficult to read and, in creative writing class, impossible to write.

Sometimes, after we work through a tough passage a student will recite the lines in Arabic and there will be a collective sigh of happiness. That’s the way the poem should sound.

I always start easy (for example, pairing Goethe’s “March” with Dickinson’s “Dear March Come in”) and we work our way through from Shakespeare onward. I add in other cultures such as a few French, Spanish, and Italian poems in translation, in addition to Chinese poets such as Li Bo, Tao Qian, and Han-shan. I include some poems that have a connection to the Arab world such as Shelley’s “To the Nile” and Bryon’s “She Walks in Beauty.” Yet, Mary Oliver is usually the class favorite although I am constantly trying to explain the flowers and animals she references.

Using Arab poets in translation is met with surprise. And surprise in not the same thing as pleasure. I have tried various approaches: using a poem translated from the local, unwritten Modern South Arabian language (Gibali/ Jibbali/ Shari); a poem by a local poet about a local beach; poems by famous pre-Islamic poets such as Imru’ al-Qais, Labīd, Tarafa and Antara, as well as the famous female poet Al Khansa (d. 646). The reaction is like telling a soccer fanatic that the World Cup games will be played in a swimming pool: why are you ruining what is beautiful?

The splendor of the words and the difficulty of the rhyme/meter is the point—reading the poems in English is a needless frustration. Even modern poets such as Nizar Qabbani, Mahmoud Darwish, Laila Al Sa’I and Fawziyya Abu-Khalid who write in free verse are “better in Arabic” I am repeatedly told. Students appreciate my efforts to be inclusive, but it often feels that I am harassing them. Sometimes, after we work through a tough passage a student will recite the lines in Arabic and there will be a collective sigh of happiness. That’s the way the poem should sound. I will continue to include some texts in translation in my classes, but I have a better understanding now that simply including the Arabic texts will not make the students feel “at home.”

My best idea is to bring in local and published poets, novelists, and editors. Several men and women have kindly visited my poetry and creative writing classes over the years. I upend tradition by asking them not to spend the time lecturing but to answer students’ questions and talk about revising (or abandoning) poems because students sometimes believe that a poem appears from a moment of inspiration and is immediately written in its last and perfect form.

During these sessions most of the talk is in Arabic; I can follow a little of what is said, but most of it goes over my head. When the poets leave, I can’t discuss, classify, explain, or point out what I think is most important; they are in control. It disheartening to read in some of the teacher evaluations that these guest lectures “are the best classes you taught,” considering it’s the one time I didn’t teach. But I gave them the chance to talk to a published author from their area; I also gave them Anne, Marianne, Beatrice, Cecily, and a lot of poems about beautiful women with dark hair.

Marielle Risse has taught and done research in Salalah, Oman, for over a decade. She has presented at the annual conferences of BRIMES, BFSA, MESA, RGS, MLA and ACLA. She has published academic articles in the areas of anthropology, literature, pedagogy, and travel writing as well as creative non-fiction.

Cite as: Risse, Marielle. 2019. “Teaching Literature on the Arabian Peninsula.” Anthropology News website, October 7, 2019. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1274

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