Americana in Arabic
A Challenge to Philadelphia
Long-time readers know that as a result of the September 11, 2001, attacks and subsequent events, I decided a couple of years ago that something had to be done about the woeful lack of understanding between the United States and the Muslim world. There will always be differences, but there need not be differences based on ignorance or fantasy. The Arab world alone has a population of 300 million and a combined economy of some 1 trillion dollars a year.
My response has been to found, with some colleagues, the Global Americana Institute, which aims, initially, at getting central works of American thought and history into Arabic. I think we also have to try to endow a chair at an Arabic-speaking university, but more on that later. It has taken a long time to get all the state and Federal permissions, but we are finally done. The Global Americana Institute is a fully recognized 501(c)3 charity, and donations are tax deductible. I am coming to the public with a plea to support us. We will, of course, also be approaching foundations and other funders, but I am hoping that this project is something that can garner grassroots support.
Frankly, we have been failed by our government and foundations in getting the message of what America really is out to the rest of the world. We have no ministry of culture, unlike France, and no British Council or Goethe Institute. The United States Information Agency was gutted in the mid-1990s, virtually defunded, and folded into the State Department as a poor sister. Its libraries, with American books, in Amman, Istanbul, and elswhere, were shut down and the books remaindered. The AMPART program to bring American lecturers to the Middle East has been slashed to the bone, and politicized (when USIA went into State, it gave the ambassadors more say over who gets invited, and many ambassadors are political appointees). Our major foundations avoid the Middle East as a program priority for the most part. There are dedicated people in the US government who try to make a difference, of course, and there are small publishing programs in Cairo and Amman, though they don’t seem to me to get good distribution. Folks, we mostly are going to have to do this ourselves.
In my visits to Japan, I had become aware of the very substantial and sophisticated American Studies establishment at Japanese universities, most of which have a center for American studies. Books from and about the US are translated in large numbers and there is good press coverage.
In contrast, there is, as far as I can tell, not a single Arabic-speaking university that teaches about the United States in Arabic. There is a bit of American studies in Arab universities, but it is almost always conducted in English, and it is usually sited in English departments. American literature is virtually the only area of American studies taught in the region, and then rarely and often fitfully. And since the universities and normal schools don’t teach it, it is also usually not taught in high school social studies classes. There is a two-tier system in the Arab world. The elite knows English or French, whereas the majority of the population functions almost entirely in Arabic. Most American outreach to the Arab world focuses on the English-speakers, the ones who least need it!
What is not available in Arabic is startling. American political thought is almost completely absent. You cannot go into a bookstore and get Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony, John Dewey, W. E. B. Dubois, or Martin Luther King. I was told the story of how a Lebanese professor went looking for the Arabic text of the US constitution and could not find it. Of course, it exists. I complained to a State Department official about this sort of thing, and he replied that he used to give out pocket copies of the constitution in Arabic to visitors to the US embassies in the Middle East all the time. He didn’t seem to grasp that the text is not in the bookstores or in the libraries, and so is essentially inaccessible.
There is also little history, even recent historical works that are accessible and get on the US bestseller lists. Despite the obsession with the Israel lobby, there are no good translations of recent histories of the American Jewish community, or of solid histories of the Holocaust by American historians. It is like a black hole. If Arabic speakers do not know English or French, they only know about the United States what is in the Arabic newspapers or on television and radio– mostly US soldiers killing Arabs in Iraq or US money and weaponry being used by Israeli troops against Palestinians. The US government in its wisdom even abolished the Arabic service of the Voice of America soon after 9/11!
American literature has been well translated, but it most often does not stay in print. Ihsan Abbas’s masterful translation of Moby Dick, his life’s work, appears to be out of print. I visited dozens of bookstores and went to the Lebanese Book Fair in December, 2005, and never saw a copy. Since American studies are not taught in high school or in university in Arabic, there is no engine driving demand for such translations. That is why a charitable foundation will have to kickstart things. In my consultations in Beirut with publishers, I found a lot of interest, and am assured we can find good partners with high production values.
I think the Lebanese book fair, which had thousands of volumes, had maybe 30 translations of American works. Mostly they were recent political books, like those of Bob Woodward and Richard Clarke. Michael Moore’s Stupid White Men seemed to be popular. There were also works of Jack London, Toni Morrison, and Edward Said. It was almost haphazard, and very, very minor. None of the works translated by the State Department programs in Cairo and Amman were to be found. In contrast, the Goethe Institute had a whole booth. One Saudi publisher had brought out short biographies of great American businessmen, including Bill Gates, but that sort of book is mainly popular in the Gulf. In the Levant, it was the political books that did well. But “well” is relative. One publisher told me that he would typically print an Arabic translation of an American work in 3000 copies, and would sell 1000 in the Levant (mainly Lebanon and Jordan), then send the other 2000 to Riyadh in Saudi Arabia, where there was more interest in the US.
In the OCLC catalogue, I found an old translation of the autobiography of Ben Franklin, published in Cairo in the early 1950s before the freeze set in, which is now a rare book. It is on the shelf at the American University in Cairo, and I’d love to have a volunteer do a quality photo offset so that we could then bring it back out. I’m also eager to do a volume of Thomas Jefferson’s basic writings. There are lots of other possibilities, for translation and bringing things back into print. But we have to start somewhere, and the basics are largely lacking. I’d like to build in money for distribution to bookstores and to libraries (Egypt’s neighborhood library system has been expanding, in part owing to the efforts of Suzanne Mubarak).
So, let me launch some challenges. Philadelphia is now celebrating Franklin’s tricentenary. I visited the exhibit and found one book shelf with Franklin’s autobiography in various languages. None of them were Middle Eastern languages. Can’t the Franklin Foundation, or other Philadelphia donors, or just the people of Philadelphia (other Pennsylvanians and indeed other human beings of all sorts welcome, too) come up with the paltry few thousand dollars it would take to bring back out Ben Franklin’s autobiography in Arabic and distribute it? Does Philadelphia have any sister cities in the Arab world to whom it could be presented as a gift in honor of the tricentenary? Can any readers from Philadelphia put us in touch with funders?
What about Virginia and especially Charlottesville? Don’t they want Thomas Jefferson available in Arabic? Can anyone there help with putting us in touch with funders?
Of course, these challenges are not limited geographically. This is a project that I think a lot of Americans, and a lot of world citizens, are going to care deeply about.
Earlier on when I announced this project, some kind journalists showed a great deal of interest. Now’s the time for some stories, folks.
Checks can be sent by land mail to Juan Cole, 1029 Tisch Hall, Department of History, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1003.