Sexuality in Emerging Translated Modern Arabic Literature

Published date19 January 2024
Date19 January 2024
AuthorIbrahim Abu Elrob
Subject MatterSexually Explicit Language,Translation,Hybridity,Modern Arabic Literature, The Corpse Washer ,Sinan Antoon,
Between Mimicking and
Dismantling the Eurocentric
Narrative in The Corpse Washer
Ibrahim Abu Elrob
Submission date: April 30, 2023; Acceptance date: September 12, 2023;
Publication date: January 19, 2024
© 2024, Ibrahim Abu Elrob. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of
the Creative Commons Attribution Licence (CC BY) 4.0
licenses/by/4.0/, which permits unrestricted use, distribution and reproduction in any
medium, provided the original author and source are credited.
Abstract: This article addresses the question of how The Corpse Washer (2013) by Sinan
Antoon employs the translation of sexually explicit language to present a “resistant and
hybrid cultural identity.” Adopting a postcolonial framework, the article explores the
kinds of literary, linguistic, and translation-related interventions Antoon exerts to provide
a hybrid-discourse to the hegemonic Anglo-American discourse of Arab sexuality, particu-
larly through the creative and conscious self-translation of his novel.
Keywords: Sexually Explicit Language, Translation, Hybridity, Modern Arabic Literature,
The Corpse Washer, Sinan Antoon,
The US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the “War on Terror” narrative after the
September 11 attacks have reinforced the Orientalist myths and fantasies that
chiefly represent the East as lascivious and violent. As a response, a number of
Arab intellectuals have utilized translation to intervene and write back in English
Ibrahim Abu Elrob is a PhD student in linguistics at The Graduate Center, CUNY, NYC
ASQ 46.1 Produced and distributed by Pluto Journals
as they have been cognizant of its role in establishing “a cultural turn.” This article
brings about a hybrid reading of sexuality and identity construction in the trans-
lated modern Arabic literature, witnessing postcolonial themes of Orientalism,
imperialism, eroticism, and politics of representation. It showcases a transcultural
negotiation whereby the Arab writer and translator purposefully mediates the sex-
ual representations and practices (their histories and narratives) to and through
the Other. The current study is primarily concerned with analyzing how Sinan
Antoon’s self-translated novel The Corpse Washer (2013) ”voyages in” (Said,
1993) the Western narrative of the sexual to create a “Third Space” (Bhabha,
1994) that serves as a terrain for formulating an in-between self-identification
with particular attention to sexuality.
The article addresses three issues about Antoon’s work. First, Antoon, the
acclaimed Iraqi writer and translator of the novel, Baghdad-born and US-based, is
well aware of the colonial ambition that dominated the Orient for centuries and which
“its pretensions encompassed defining who the subject people to be colonized were,
what their past was, and the content of their culture that colonial thought had dissemi-
nated” (Massad, 2007: 2). These colonial objectives were embodied in the travelogue
writings, paintings, and distorted translations rendered by infamous Orientalists such
as Richard Burton. For instance, the latter infamously reported inaccurate anthropo-
logical information and grotesque portraits of the sexual lives of Arabs, Africans, and
East Asians. The following is one of numerous false and outrageous depictions of
Arab women; “[d]ebauched [Arab] women prefer Negroes on account of the size of
their parts”, Burton writes (1886a: vol.10, p.177). These anthropological representa-
tions aimed to exoticize the colonized populations and later to legitimize the colonial
force over their lives. Furthermore, Antoon talks about “[…] a cultural amnesia in the
Arab and Muslim world in terms of its attitude towards sexuality” (as cited in Omar,
2010, para. 16). He imputes this cultural amnesia to “the problem in translation as
there is a tendency to exoticize the [sexual lives of] Arabs” (ibid), particularly in the
translated modern Arabic literature, which still carries sexual images and symbols
that perpetuate Orientalist depictions of the Arabs.
Secondly, The Corpse Washer, Antoon’s second novel and the topic of this
article, stands out as a deliberate product of the sociocultural “rewriting”(Lefevere,
2004) of the original Arabic text. Upon translating this novel into English, Antoon
applies several translation techniques that are indicative of his ideological stand-
points and of his experience as an exiled Iraqi who suffered from occupation and
forced migration outside his homeland. On winning the Saif Ghobash Banipal
Prize for Arabic Literary Translation of the aforementioned novel, he stated:
I think of the sentence when I translate, concentrating on the mechanics while
letting the poetic manifest itself through the body of words. It’s challenging but

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