A Century of Writing Back: How Salma Khadra Jayyusi Brought Arabic Literature to the Anglophone World

By Dima AyoubJune 14, 2023

A Century of Writing Back: How Salma Khadra Jayyusi Brought Arabic Literature to the Anglophone World
ARABIC LITERATURE lost a larger-than-life figure when Salma Khadra Jayyusi died on April 20 in Amman, Jordan. A literary giant, and an unwavering champion of Arab culture for the better part of a century, Jayyusi leaves behind a legacy embodied in her extensive oeuvre as a poet, critic, translator, anthologist, and scholar who brought the richness of Arabic poetry and prose to life in English.

Jayyusi earned a PhD in Arabic literature from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London in 1970. She was no stranger to the pernicious discourses of orientalism, but it was not until her subsequent move to the United States that she realized how deeply entrenched were American misconceptions about Arabic literature and Arab culture. Jayyusi taught at several prestigious North American and Arab universities but left academia to devote herself entirely to bringing both classical and modern Arabic literature into English, founding her Project for the Translation of Arabic, or PROTA—an acronym that is synonymous with Jayyusi herself.

The idea behind PROTA was born in the late 1970s in Salt Lake City, as Jayyusi recounted at a 1996 award ceremony recognizing her work. “One of my new students,” she told the audience at the Arab American University Graduates annual convention,

hoping to study Arabic, commented negatively on what he called the poverty of Arabic culture and literature. What did he know? I have forgotten this young man’s name. Still, it was his utter ignorance and frivolous nonchalance toward something as vast and rich and sophisticated as the Arab cultural heritage that made me realize the profound injustice that we Arabs have inflicted on our own culture.

Although her student’s ignorance may have epitomized how Westerners have traduced a culture so rich that “its poets were the greatest poets of the world west of India for the first 13 centuries after Christ,” Jayyusi’s lament was for the behavior of the Arab centers of power, who she said “denied this culture the help it needed” to be disseminated. Thus, Jayyusi perceived her own role as one of a literary vigilante, combating the mutilated reputation of Arabic literature and culture in the Anglophile world.

Under the PROTA umbrella, Jayyusi created a canon of Arabic literature anthologies and translations in English, a total of 11 published between 1987 and 2010. She also oversaw the publication of some 40 novels, short stories, memoirs, and plays, and, in the early 1990s, launched East-West Nexus, a project dedicated to scholarly studies and intellectual discourse in English on classical and modern Arab and Islamic culture, with the most prominent publications in the series being The Legacy of Muslim Spain (1992) and Human Rights in Arab Thought: A Reader (2005).

A poet in her own right, Jayyusi began writing poetry early on in her career. Al-‘Awda min al-Nabe‘ al-Halem (“Return from the Dreamy Fountain”), one of the first published Arabic poetry collections by a contemporary Arab woman, was immediately recognized upon its 1960 publication as a significant contribution to the literary output of the time. Her poetry explored the collective predicaments facing the Arab world, from the loss of Palestine in 1948 and the bitter Palestinian refugee experience, to the 1956 so-called Suez Canal Crisis and tripartite aggression against Egypt. In 2021, Jayyusi published her second collection, titled Safawna Ma’ al Dahr (“In Harmony with Time”).

In tandem with her own writing, Jayyusi’s voice was critical to the debate about the renewal of Arabic poetry that dominated the Arab literary scene from the 1950s through the 1970s. Along with her friend Nazik al-Malaika, hailed as the pioneer of the Arabic free-verse movement, Jayyusi contributed to iconic Arab literary journals like Al-Ādāb. Her critical writings on poetic structure and her opinions on the works of major fellow poets, such as Adonis, Badr Shakir Al-Sayyab, Fadwa Tuqan, Muhammad al-Maghut, Yousef al-Khal, al-Malaika, Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, and Khalil Hawi, continue to impact the ways Arabic poetry is talked about today. Her Trends and Movements in Modern Arabic Poetry (1977) arguably shaped the critical discourse on modern Arabic poetry in English.

Jayyusi honored the millennial Arabic poetic tradition by devoting the first major project under PROTA to her anthology Modern Arabic Poetry (1987). A hefty volume featuring the work of more than 90 poets, the anthology both documented the work of already established poets and foreshadowed emerging new voices. This was paradigmatic of Jayyusi’s Janus-faced vision, which maintained an acute awareness of the Arab heritage or past (turath) while remaining laser-focused on modernity or the present day (hadatha).

Questions about the direction Arabic poetry would take in the postcolonial era animated the Arab literary landscape for much of the second half of the 20th century. A fierce debate raged between two groups of writers, each represented by their own literary magazine. On one side stood Al-Ādāb, whose nationalist anti-colonial discourse emphasized the preservation of Arabic literary heritage while also calling for innovation in poetry. In contrast, Shi’r played a more vanguard role, nurturing a break with the classical metered poem by introducing free verse and other forms of modernist poetry. An active participant in this heated intellectual battle, Jayyusi contributed to both magazines. Although affiliated with Al-Ādāb, she held a favorable view of the prose poem and wrote about it extensively. Rejecting the notion that the modernists at Shi’r had developed the form to its fullest extent, she wrote that it would “one day be considered old since everything is constantly changing.”

Born in the 1920s in the city of al-Salt, near Amman, Jayyusi spent her childhood in Akka, Palestine. Her parents were educated Arab nationalists who instilled in her an appreciation for culture as fundamental to success and fulfillment in life. With their encouragement, Jayyusi attended Schmidt College in Jerusalem before moving in 1945 to study Arabic and English literature at the American University of Beirut. There, she met her husband, Burhan Jayyusi, a Jordanian Palestinian diplomat, and together they traveled and lived in many different cities and cultural centers: Jerusalem, Rome, Madrid, Baghdad, London, Khartoum. A true cosmopolitan, Jayyusi said she thrived in every place she called home. It was in Baghdad, where Jayyusi immersed herself in the literary culture of what was then the center of Arabic poetry, that she released her debut poetry collection in 1960. It was also there that she established lasting connections with Iraqi cultural institutions that would later fund PROTA’s first anthology.

Jayyusi’s lengthy acknowledgment pages in the translations she published reveal the vast and extensive network of personal and institutional connections she had across the globe. She secured support for PROTA from sources as diverse as King Juan Carlos I of Spain, Prince Talal bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, the Ford Foundation, the Iraqi Ministry of Culture, Kuwait’s Arab Banking Corporation, Naomi Shihab Nye, Edward Said, and Hanan Ashrawi, to name a few. Still, she frequently bemoaned the time and energy needed to maintain these connections, often at the expense of her own work as a translator and publisher.

Deeply committed to the notion of disseminating Arabic literature in English—in order to render Arabs legible to the English-speaking world—Jayyusi often found herself frustrated by the lack of formal recognition for these efforts in the Arabic-speaking world. Jayyusi, who had a leading role in the nomination of Naguib Mahfouz for the 1988 Nobel Prize in Literature, was dumbfounded to discover that the Nobel Library of the Swedish Academy housed a grand total of four books by Arab authors. Without her advocacy and recommendation to the Nobel committee, the course of Arabic literature in translation would look very different today.

In the late 1970s, when Jayyusi established herself in the US academy, the term “postcolonial” was gaining currency. Postcolonial studies became a discipline thanks in no small part to the critique of orientalist constructions of “the East” put forth by Jayyusi’s friend and colleague Edward Said in his groundbreaking book Orientalism, which appeared in 1978. The following year, Jayyusi gave a lecture at Barnard College titled “The Status of Arab Writers Today,” precipitating the institutional buy-in of Columbia University Press. The press’s director, John Moore, invited Jayyusi to produce the first English-language anthology of modern Arabic literature. In doing so, Jayyusi naturally chose to focus on poetry, to signal the form’s centrality to the literary tradition of the entire Arabic-speaking world. Modern Arab Poetry: An Anthology appeared in 1987 and provided the impetus for subsequent anthologies like the Anthology of Modern Palestinian Literature (1992), also published by Columbia UP.

As a young immigrant growing up in the diaspora, I found that Jayyusi’s translations made palpable an absence that was otherwise unconscious—what the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish would name the “present-absent.” I was studying postcolonial literature at the turn of the millennium and found that Jayyusi’s body of work, which featured diverse voices spanning centuries, awakened in me the pain of neglect and the realization that even fields like postcolonial literature had marginalized the literary output of Arab writers. Although the late 1990s was a time when anthologies were considered a radical space for so-called minority literature—providing a platform for marginalized voices and showcasing a collective process rather than individual achievements—Jayyusi recounts how her efforts to put Palestinian literature on the literary map were met with strident pushback from Zionist intellectuals at Columbia. It took me more than a decade to fully comprehend the weight of Jayyusi’s Anthology of Modern Palestinian Literature and the significance of a work that not only insisted on the presence of Palestinian creative output but also historicized Palestinian literature so overtly by focusing on the “modern”—suggesting that Palestinians also had a premodern existence.

The determination and dedication of Jayyusi will be a hard act to follow in the two-pronged battle that she fought: against the deeply held Western misconceptions about the Arab world and its culture, on the one hand, and the general apathy of Arabs toward their own literary heritage within the official Arab world, on the other. The world of Arabic literature in translation is often defined in terms of the pre- and post-Nobel eras, and we are indebted to Jayyusi for allowing us to even delineate the field in this way. While her contributions have been momentous, more remains to be done to disrupt the uneven power relations embedded in the world of Arabic-to-English literary translation and publishing. Jayyusi broke new ground, establishing the function of translation as a bridging act between cultures: with the bridge established, there remains for us now a reckoning with the legacy of colonialism that perpetuates a dynamic wherein the Anglophone Western world remains the center of gravity.


Dima Ayoub is an assistant professor of Arabic and C. V. Starr Junior Faculty Fellow in International Studies at Middlebury College, where she was formerly director of the Middle East studies program. Her forthcoming book, Paratext and Power: Modern Arabic Literature in Translation, examines the history of Arabic to English translation since World War II through the technology of paratexts.

LARB Contributor

Dima Ayoub is an assistant professor of Arabic and C. V. Starr Junior Faculty Fellow in International Studies at Middlebury College, where she was formerly director of the Middle East studies program. Her forthcoming book, Paratext and Power: Modern Arabic Literature in Translation, examines the history of Arabic to English translation since World War II through the technology of paratexts. Her most recent publications have appeared in Critical Inquiry, Journal of Translation Studies, the Journal of Arabic Literature, Middle Eastern Literatures, and in an edited collection from Bloomsbury Press, Multilingual Literature as World Literature (2021).


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