During a recent visit to Minnesota from my adopted home in Cairo, I went to my mother’s public library in search of a translation of superstar-poet Mahmoud Darwish.
Darwish, for those unfamiliar with his work, is one of the great forces in contemporary Arabic poetry. Although he died in 2008, his voice continues to resonate: Two translations of his final work recently came out, In the Presence of Absence (Archipelago 2011), trans. Sinan Antoon, and Present Absence (Hesperus 2010), trans. Mohammad Shaheen. If I were to name two unmissable contemporary poets who wrote in Arabic, they would be Adonis (in the Khaled Mattawa translation) and Darwish.
So I was stunned to find that, when I plugged Mahmoud Darwish’s name into my mother’s public-library system, that there were no entries, not in the entire county. Not in the neighboring county, either. Instead, I was referred to works by Nonie Darwish, an inflammatory political commentator of no particular linguistic or intellectual merit.
As I searched for other Arabic literature in translation, I was thwarted at nearly every turn. Wonderful translations of work by Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury (often mentioned as a contender for the Nobel Prize, my recent review of his most recently translated novel in the Star Tribune here), Egyptian novelist Radwa Ashour, and Moroccan novelist Bensalem Himmich, for instance, are highlights of the global literary canon. In the public-library catalog? No.
How do we get more of these great books in Minnesota’s public libraries? It’s fine to have inflammatory critical works available for those who need to read that point of view, but, for goodness sakes, we should have a few beautiful things in the libraries, too.
You can go see Elias Khoury at 7 p.m. Thu., Open Book, 1011 Washington Av. S., Mpls., tickets $10 general audience, $5 students.