Creating Arabic-speaking foreigners in fiction

Introduction

I’m an academic linguist turned novelist, and my academic training has been tangled with my creative practice ever since I tried to write fiction.

This article began out of curiosity. After I completed a trilogy bristling with Arabic speakers, it occurred to me that I’d achieved the technical effects of making them sound foreign virtually on autopilot. I started drafting a blog post trying to analyse the techniques I’d used to create foreignness.

Around the same time, I was reading Cormac McCarthy’s fiendishly challenging The Crossing with its swathes of untranslated Spanish dialogue. McCarthy brought me up with a start: His treatment of foreignness was a universe away from my own.

I had to look more widely. I put my blog post aside.

The framework

I made a fresh start with an article called How authors create foreigners and foreignness in fiction, where I used examples from Philip Kerr, Michael Mohammed Ahmed, Agatha Christie, Cormac McCarthy and Ernest Hemingway to develop a framework of propositions about how authors create foreign characters in fiction. In summary, what I proposed was:

Foreignising is manifested in voice—that of narrator, author or character.

The purpose of foreignising varies according to voice.

Foreignising techniques include:

  • Foreigner talk
  • Untranslated terms and dialogue
  • Definitions, including: Explicit definitions, Implied definitions

With a set of propositions to hand, I was in a position to return to my trilogy. and to further develop the framework.

The Siranoush Trilogy

The trilogy comprises a series of stand-alone novels, Cairo Mon AmourBury me in Valletta and The Sunset Assassin, set in Egypt, Malta and Australia respectively between 1973 and 1978. Each novel is written from alternating points of view of the key protagonist Pierre Farag and several others, all in close third person. This allowed me to foreignise the protagonists’ inner thoughts as well as their dialogue. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll stick with Pierre rather than bringing in the other characters.

Pierre is a half-Armenian and half-Coptic private detective from Cairo. He is inadvertently entangled in an espionage plot during the Yom Kippur War, which launches him on a chain of perilous scrapes across the world, ending on a crocodile farm in remote northern Australia. I portray him as an Arabic speaker since I know quite a lot about Arabic (my Armenian is so poor that I remained silent on that dimension of Pierre’s linguistic world).

Dialogue, inner thoughts, and a hall of mirrors

Foreignising dialogue is relatively straightforward, notwithstanding the mental tricks the reader has to unconsciously perform: If the character is supposed to be speaking in a foreign language, the author naturally composes the dialogue in English, but may choose to play some tricks to make it sound Arabic-flavoured, Russian-flavoured, etc. But if the character is speaking in English, the writer might tweak it with some foreigner talk using nonstandard grammar, odd vocabulary choices or even spelling out an accent.

The fragile notion of ‘inner thoughts’ throws up its own exquisite dilemmas. I frame Pierre’s thoughts for the reader in English, but I tacitly ask you to suspend disbelief and assume they occur mainly in Arabic. But it gets more tricky: I’m asking you to assume those thoughts rattle around his head in perfectly formed Arabic sentences that happen to look like perfectly formed English sentences on the page*.

A hall of mirrors, indeed.

Voice

Based on the proposed framework, I firstly foreignise Pierre as character, typically through his manner of speech; and when he holds the current point of view, I foreignise him as  author, typically through his inner thoughts.

Character

Pierre is pedantically precise in his multilingual skills and restrained in his emotions—a man ‘closed in on himself’, who thinks carefully before he speaks. I often foreignise him by placing tripwires in his English competence. For example, in The Sunset Assasin, he travels to the remote Australian town of Broken Hill to interpret for a Syrian in a court case. But he is told on his arrival that the gentleman has “karked it overnight”.

“Oh dear,” Pierre said, disguising his puzzlement. Perhaps the police sergeant meant the Syrian had changed his plea. “Should I have a word with him nevertheless?”

I’m careful not make Pierre into a caricature through foreigner talk. The ‘bad Arab’ trope is so deeply entrenched in novels and films that I absolutely refuse to propagate it (see further discussion here) .But I justified a drop of foreigner talk in these examples from minor characters in Cairo Mon Amour, the first of which attempts to portray Russian being spoken badly by an Arabic-speaking Soviet Embassy driver:

“Comrade boss. Why Russian lady all go home?”

And in the second case, which depends purely on accent, an Arabic-speaking waitress repeats a customer’s order made in English:

“Tea wiz milk shocolate kek.”

Author

The locus of author is where the hard work of foreignising goes on in The Siranoush Trilogy. Here is Pierre in Cairo Mon Amour on the last ship to leave Alexandria at the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War. He hasn’t had much to do with Americans, and he is shocked at the behaviour of the fleeing US diplomatic staff:

Braying like donkeys, [the Americans] complained that they “only ever sailed in fucking first-class” or “wouldn’t stand for a fucking starboard cabin.” The very air was thick with the ugly English word. It was as if a race of civilised beings had reverted to savagery. The women, Pierre thought, were even more vulgar than the men.

In Bury me in Valletta, Pierre reflects on finding his arch-enemy Colonel Dimashqi confined to an iron lung. He inwardly reflects with baroque verbal ornamentation:

… was this an evil dish cooked up from British duplicity and Egyptian bald-faced guile? Oh, the tricks of la perfide Albion.

And here, Pierre experiences a Wimpy Bar for the first time in 1975:

He’d seen the English seated before these Wimpies through the window of the ‘Bars’ where they were purchased: Flat anaemic buns containing a strip of grey meat, next to desiccated yellow potato chips.

Numerous other examples of the author voice occur in the following section, where we turn to foreignising techniques. As we will see, the discussion will elaborate the framework set out in the introduction.

A learnable set of Arabic terms

I chose a small set of Arabic words—initially defined and then left in the original—for the reader to learn through repetition and prompts. Several of these occur through the entire trilogy, e.g. khawaga ‘foreigner’, bawwab ‘doorman’, shabkah ‘network’, sharmouta ‘bitch’. The whole set amounts to about ten words in total, with no more than eighteen instances of a word in any of the books—just enough in my reckoning to garnish the text without overloading the reader. The words bawwab and shabkah, for example, are part of an important plot device: Pierre’s work as a private investigator entails maintaining his ‘network’, which includes Cairo’s doormen, his eyes and ears on the city’s apartment blocks.

Here’s how I embedded an explicit definition into Pierre’s inner thoughts:

He had spent most of the previous evening consulting his shabkah, as Fawzi called it; well, you could call it a ‘network’ if the word adequately described the troupe of misfits, malcontents, blackmailers, and square pegs in round holes who fed him scraps of information, shreds of rumour and dollops of sheer spite.

There’s a really smart trick here (I modestly aver): shabkah in line 1 is the signal for us to pretend Pierre is thinking in Arabic; the quote marks around ‘network‘ in line 2 signal that the pretence is briefly lifted.

Sometimes I tutored the reader obliquely with an implied definition, again in those slippery inner thoughts:

And then what if the lawyers discovered that he had been keeping the sharmouta in luxury all this time? How would she bear the shame?

Zouzou Paris, a ‘bitch’? Well, she would say that. Everybody else did.

Let me round off my set of learnable Arabic words with ya’ni, the Arabic conversational filler roughly equivalent to ‘I mean’ or ‘you know’, which occurs about a dozen times in Cairo Mon Amour. Here I put it in the mouth of Major Fawzi, a man who relishes his prowess in the English language:

“My dear friend Pierre Farag,” he began, “has persuaded me that your situation presents opportunities for all of us to profit. We have ya’ni put our noggins together in your absence.”

“Noggins?” Bellamy wasn’t sure whether Fawzi’s quaint English was part of a sophisticated act or simply the result of a diet of Noel Coward and P.G. Wodehouse.

Well-known Arabic expressions

I also added a handful of Arabic expressions like In shaa’ Allah, inserted without translation in the hope that the reader will recognise them without help. Habibi and habibti, as Zouzou and Pierre address one another, fall into this category, occurring consistently untranslated throughout the trilogy.

Crosslinguistic puns

These can be pressed into foreignisation service if you’re lucky enough to find one or two. In Bury me in Valletta, Pierre and his wife Zouzou are involved in a conspiracy involving Stash, a political extremist who poses as a hippy; I have Pierre use the word khunfus (beetle) eleven times to describe Stash. It’s a colloquialism used in Egypt in the seventies, supposedly because hippies were associated with the Beatles. It comes in for some handy wordplay when Stash is found murdered:

“So the khunfus is a police informer,” Zouzou said. “Squashed like a cockroach.”

Cultural motifs

Soon after this remark, Pierre’s wife Zouzou has a glass of karkady, which by now the reader has learned is hibiscus flower tea. She yearns for a glass of this comforting drink at times of stress; the further the couple stray from Cairo, the stronger the yearning. I’d categorise this further as a cultural motif that pervades the trilogy. I had fun in The Sunset Assassin when a Sydney journalist visiting Zouzou mistook karkady for Ribena.

Another such cultural motif was kushari, the hi-carb Cairo street food; I used a kushari stall repeatedly as a meeting point; much more colourful that meeting at the Post Office! The reader’s tuition was delivered by an English speaker through an implied definition:

“As long as I don’t have to eat that horrible kushari stuff. If I have to make a run for it, I don’t want a belly full of lentils and macaroni.”

Unique Arabic words and phrases

Items occurring only once or twice in the trilogy were popped in with a definition when I felt I needed to remind the reader that the language in use is Arabic; I’m obsessively careful to know who is supposed to be speaking what in any piece of dialogue. This example is the sole instance of masri where I used an editorial definition to explain the meaning, and to confirm that Pierre is thinking in Arabic:

If anyone had bothered to ask him, “What are you?” he’d have said “masri”, ‘Egyptian’.

And in the next case, we have some brinkmanship between two Arabic-speaking British diplomats, this time with the implied definition tactic applied to a unique Arabic phrase:

“You’ve got some nerve. Bloody nerve, I’d call it. I don’t know why I don’t take you outside, point at you and yell gasus isra’ili.”

“Perhaps I am an Israeli spy, Don. Walk out the door and give it a try.”

And the following implied definition of a unique word occurred when Pierre’s nemesis Dimashqi asks Pierre’s forgiveness as he lies gasping in an iron lung. I have Pierre implicitly define bashar in his inner thoughts after the stricken Dimashqi utters the word in dialogue:

“I can offer a token of expiation.”

“There is no need. You have my forgiveness.”

“But still, we live in this material world. We are bashar, with debts to pay and accounts to be settled.”

Bashar– human? The man had lived the life of a devil. What kind of token could stand in expiation?

And here’s another tactic—a repeat definition of a unique expression, when the English version is uttered immediately after the Arabic phrase:

Allah yarhamuh.” The woman looked away, and then said, “I had a son too.”

“He died?”

“Nineteen sixty-seven.”

Allah yarhamuh, God bless his memory,” Lucy said.

Translated and repurposed Arabic proverbs

I threw in two of these for exotic effect:

“Ha! They whine about the breeze around their turbans, but what about the farts in their drawers?”

To quote the note background notes to Cairo Mon Amour, the ‘breeze around their turbans’ remark is my modification of an Egyptian proverb in J.L. Burckhardt’s Arabic Proverbs, (Curzon Press, 1994, p.3). The translation of the original reads, ‘If the turbans complain of a slight wind, what must be the state of the inner drawers?’

The second is my modification of another of Burckhardt’s proverbs. In the original (p. 114), ‘The owl has become a poetess’. I refashion this as:

“So with the help of his movie cronies the owl became an actress, as the old saying goes.”

I should add that Johann Ludwig Burckhardt died in 1817, so I’m not sure that the originals would be recognised in contemporary Egypt. But that’s not the point; the repurposed versions are an Orientalist-inspired strategy to add exotic flavour to the text.

Let me add one more related device, the translated foreign simile, an example being ‘as confused as an ant’. I think this works in foreignising the text simply because English does not use this simile.

Conclusion

I hope you’ve enjoyed this article. I haven’t set out to establish an exciting new academic subdiscipline that will bridge linguistics and fiction writing; I learned long ago that they don’t march in step, but they do have interesting encounters from time to time.

While I was writing this article, I was conscious that I had focussed solely on writing in English. I’d love to hear from linguists or authors about how languages other than English create foreigners. Let’s start a conversation.

I’d also love to hear more generally from other linguists who write fiction: Right now I’m the sole example I know!

*I should make it clear that the notion of ‘inner thoughts’ discussed here is not underpinned by psychological theories about inner speech proposed by scholars such as Vygotsky.

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You can find details of my novels here.

Copyright © 2022 by Stuart Campbell

One thought on “Creating Arabic-speaking foreigners in fiction

  1.     It is interesting how you solved these polylemmas by making lemonade. My characters speak a conlang that implies telepathy. I used some dream-like metaphors, but I did take time to define a few words to sprinkle around. Each word took a page to explain. Each was more like a parable. Now I think I want to actually write the fictional language in some way.
        My idea is that a word would be a trigger for a thought. A word would represent a concept, a parable, or a story. These would be standardized and memorized by native speakers. Except for the fact that it’s not standardized, people sometimes speak this way by allusion. If two speakers are both familiar with a particular movie, they will say that a situation is like a particular scene in that movie. If there were a vocabulary of memorized scenes, it would only require that a standardized set of parameters be selected and memorized so that a prefix and suffix would modify certain aspects without making the word too long. I’ve noticed that a lot of expressions are coined, become fads, but disappear quickly before they becoming codified. Pejoration destroys a lot of expressions that might have been useful if formalized. I heard a speaker talk about ‘climate change’. But I think he is virtue signaling his cry-wolfing like Chicken Little. And I’ve noticed that people in making analogies are ‘World-war-2’–ing their opponents by changing a few parameters of an event. It would be interesting to elaborate on some visual tendencies such as the Hopi calling a bridge a “crossing tool.”

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