Interview and Book Recommendations by  Professor Roger Allen, Professor of Arabic and Comparative Literature, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA USA

by Sue Braunschweig






Right: center Naguib Mahfouz and right Prof Allen




First I want to say it’s extremely humbling to have a chance to ask you some questions and get your book recommendations from a “giant” in the field of Arab Literature.  

BIO:  In 1968 Roger Allen emigrated from his native-city of Bristol in England to the United States and took a position in Arabic language and literature at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia(a position he still holds as Professor of Arabic and Comparative Literature). This position is actually the oldest professorial post in Arabic (as a separate language in its own right) in the United States, dating back to 1788. At the university he has taught many generations of students, now including some of the most distinguished members of the younger generation of specialists in Arabic literature. (source:


Why is it important that readers read Arab literature in translation?

Because literature has always be able to say the otherwise unsayable, particularly in contemporary cultures where any kind of alternative discourse is regarded by the authorities as being  inimical and therefore in need of suppression.  In a world in which “news” and “facts” are completely manipulatable (and more often than not manipulated), literature becomes the most effective mode of insight into another culture and the values of the people  who live within it and try to reflect their values and concerns through the medium of literary genres.

How did you become interested in Arabic literature?

I went to Oxford University to study Classics initially, but switched to Arabic after one year. I was almost immediately attracted to its literary tradition.  When Mustafa (M.M.) Badawi arrived in 1963 as the first ever specialist in modern Arabic literature, I began my studies with him and went on to complete the university’s first doctorate in the subject in 1968 (on the early modern Egyptian writer, Muhammad al-Muwaylihi–subsequently published as a book: A PERIOD OF TIME).

How did you get the idea to translate Nagib Mahfouz.  I understand that you were the original translators of Nagib Mahfouz.  Did you have the opportunity to meet him? Can you remember your meetings? Tell us what happened.

Actually translation was his idea, at our first meeting in 1967. I had accepted an invitation to go to see him at his office in the Egyptian Cinema Administration so I could talk to him about my dissertation topic (see above).  Among other things, I told him that I liked a story that he had recently published (in the newspaper AL-AHRAM).  He asked me if I would like to translate it, and, of course, I said YES!  I made a list of the works I would like to translate, and he signed it.

My first published translation of his works (done with an Egyptian colleague, Akef Abadir) was the short-story collection, GOD’S WORLD (1973), which was mentioned by the Nobel Prize Committee in 1988.

Actually two people had translated MAHFOUZ into English before me: Phillip Stewart had submitted his translation of CHILDREN OF GEBELAWI (now published) as a BPhil thesis at Oxford in 1962, and Trevor Le Gassick’s translation of MIDAQQ ALLEY [he spells it “MIDAQ,” with one “Q” instead of two!] came out in Beirut in 1966.

Over the decades I met Mahfouz many times; my favorite time was when I went to his Tuesday night session with his friends (including other novelists–Jamal al-Ghitani and Yusuf al-Qa`id, the poet, `Abd al-rahman al-Abnudi, and others) on a houseboat moored on the Giza side of the River Nile (I’m attaching a photograph of one of those occasions, the last time I saw him before his death). Whenever I came, he always reminded me that I had sent him a copy of GOD’S WORLD in 1973 and it had reached him on his birthday!  Above all, he had a terrific sense of humor, and was always ready with “one-liners”…


Which of your translations are you most proud of?

My favorite is ENDINGS, a translation of a novel  by `Abd al-rahman Munif, but I also like my most recent MAHFOUZ ones: KHAN AL-KHALILI and THE FINAL HOUR, and the works of Moroccan authors, Salim Himmich and Ahmad al-Tawfiq.


Are the number of translations limited by a shortage of translators or by the market or other reasons?

A combination of both, I think. Certainly there are now more translators than ever before 9and they are better qualified), but I suspect that “the market” (and in particular the miserable degree of interest among anglophone readers in non-Western literatures in general–when contrasted, say, with the equivalent degree of interest in a country like France or Italy) is primarily responsible for the volume of translation from Arabic that appears.  The situation with regard to pre-modern Arabic literature is even worse…


What should be translated that isn’t yet?

If we’re talking about the pre-modern era, the answer is: almost anything and everything.  For the modern period, much more drama and colloquial poetry.  In fiction, the works of Gulf writers, Tunisian writers (and Maghribi writers in general).  Specifically, more of the works of the Libyan writer, Ibrahim al-Koni, and some Syrian novels, particularly those by Haydar Haydar.


Who are the Arab “writers to watch” in your estimation?

in Lebanon, Rabi` Jabir; in Syria, Haydar Haydar (not all that young, but overlooked); almost any younger female authors.


Fiction or Memoir Recommendations: 3 to 5 each

For greater understanding of women in the Arab World

1.  DUNYAZAD by May Telmissany

2.  THE LOCUST AND THE BIRD by Hanan al-Shaykh

3.  Almost anything by Fatima Mernissi

4.  THE WILES OF MEN by Salwa Bakr

5.  MY GRANDMOTHER’S CACTUS, stories collected by Marilyn Booth


Arabian Gulf Literature

1.  ENDINGS by `Abd al-rahman Munif

2   CITIES OF SALT, THE TRENCH, VARIATIONS ON NIGHT AND DYA by `Abd l-rahman Munif: three of the five novels in his quintet, CITIES OF SALT

3  THE HOSTAGE by Zayd Mutee` Dammaj

4  VOICES OF CHANGE ed. AbuBaker Bagader).  Saudi Short stories


North Africa

1  FOR BREAD ALONG by Muhammad Shukri

2  THE GAME OF FORGETTING by Muhammad Barrada

3  THE POLYMATH by Salim Himmich

4  ABU MUSA”S WOMEN NEIGHBORS by Ahmad al-Tawfiq

5  THE EARTHQUAKE by Al-Tahir Wattar



hard to pick, there’s so much!

1  anything by Mahfouz, of course–and his complete works are now available in English from AUC Press

2  Al-ZAYNI BARAKAT by Jamal al-Ghitani

3  AZAZIL by Yusuf Zaidan

4  GRANADA by Radwa Ashour

5  NO ONE SLEEPS IN ALEXANDRIA by Ibrahim Abdel  Meguid


Middle East

1 GATE OF THE SUN by Elias Khoury

2  THE LONG WAY BACK by Fuad al-Tikirli

3  SUN ON A CLOUDY DAY by Hanna Mina

4  DEAR MR KAWABATA by Rashid al-Da`if

5  WILD THORNS by Sahar Khalifeh


Where do you suggest readers of Arabic literature find new books?

By subscribing to the excellent (London, England-based)  journal, B ANIPAL.  It carries the latest translations, details about authors, and reviews of the latest English translations of Arabic literature.


What translation/projects are you working on now?



Salim Himmich, A MUSLIM SUICIDE (Syracuse UP)

Jurji Zaidan, THE CONQUEST OF ANDALUSIA (Zaidan Foundation, via AMAZON)



Ibrahim al-Koni, SLEEPLESS EYE (Environmental aphorisms), Syracuse UP

Ahmad al-Tawfiq, MOON AND HENNA TREE (UTexas Press)



Salim Himmich, MY TORTURESS

Hassan Najmi,  GERTRUDE (about Gertrude Stein)



Muhammad Zafzaf, A collection of 46 short stories

————————, THE ELUSIVE FOX (novel)



Sa`dallah Wannus, SOIREE FOR THE FIFTH OF JUNE (a play, 1968)


Beyond reading Arab literature in translation, what other steps can readers take to learn about the Arab World or bring greater world understanding (organizations, etc)

Outside of the world of academia, it’s very hard; this country and the Western world in general has a very ambivalent attitude towards anything Arab–to put it mildly.  Universities across the country have Middle East Centers that are mandated to offer “outreach” to the local communities.  I think the major push has to be in schools.  Another avenue is support for, and participation in, the various programs (seminars, etc.) offered by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).


Now that the classroom is potentially world wide do you know of interesting courses in Arab literature in translation that are available online?

There’s nothing online.  Plenty of Arabic LANGUAGE courses, but nothing on literature (at least, yet…).


Thank you Professor Allen for your contribution to the field and bringing us so many translations.


NOTE FROM SUE : UW Milwaukee has an online class Fall 2012:

350: Topics in Comparative Literature 3cr (U/G)

Topic: Arabic Women Writers in Translation Class Number: 26711, Lec202, ONLINE (Professor Seymour-Jorn)