Dr Adam Talib joined the MLAC department in 2017 as Assistant Professor of Arabic Literature. In this interview, he talks to Katie Condon about his research, Orientalism, and adapting to life in Durham.
What were you doing before you came to Durham and how did you end up here?
I went to UCLA and studied medieval French and medieval Arabic. I studied Comparative Literature, which doesn’t exist in the UK, and as part of comparative literature you study three languages, so my languages were English, French and Arabic. At UCLA, I took a couple of classes which convinced me that I wanted to be a medievalist. Also, there were only a couple of Arabists at UCLA, and the one that I worked with was a medievalist. So, I essentially became a medievalist for lack of a better option, even though I always thought I was going to do modern literature. When I spoke to people in the comparative literature department at UCLA, I was told that comparative literature doesn’t really have much room for medievalists, so their advice to me was to go into Area Studies, which is when you get a degree from the department of French or the department of Spanish or whatever, so that’s what I did. I graduated from UCLA and I moved to Cairo for the first time when I was 22 and did a Masters there, I lived there for 2 years…
Was that your first time going to the Middle East?
That was my first time going to the Middle East, yes. I had gone to Pakistan, which is not really the Middle East, a couple of times as a child, but yes that was my first time in the Middle East. So yes, I went there, I lived there for two years. Then I came to this country, I went to do my PhD at Oxford, that was my first time living in Europe; I was in Oxford for three years plus, I had a year in Germany, and then shortly before I was finished I was offered this job in Cairo, so I went to Cairo for five years and I taught there, and then I made this decision to come to Durham and I’m still…I’m still processing that decision.
Was it a shock? Coming from Egypt to Europe?
Yeah, it’s very quiet here. It’s very quiet, the people are very quiet… In addition, there’s just not very much going on and the weather is horrible. So, it is a shock, it’s a very different place. It’s also like, I mean, I went from studying classical Arabic literature in the most populous Arab city to studying classical Arab literature in the North East of England. The professional dislocation is profound because I was a specialist, handling the prestige material of that society… even if the society didn’t care about classical Arabic literature, like they don’t actually want to read it, but they’re glad that someone is looking after it, in a professional capacity. Whereas here, I don’t think that Durham has ever had a medievalist, I mean, recently. So, there’s been this professional dislocation, since I’ve gone from being at the centre of the conversation to like the farthest periphery of the conversation, which is interesting. But one thing that I’ve gained is that now I’m back in a comparative literature department. I haven’t been in a department like this since I was an undergraduate. This is my first attempt at actually working with colleagues who work on a variety of different languages and literatures. That’s been interesting, that’s been a big positive. But otherwise I’ve experienced the move as a profound shock, and you know, there are lots of benefits to being here but there are also drawbacks.
Did you always want to go into academic research?
I mean, growing up I didn’t know a single person with a PhD. My college girlfriend’s dad, her dad was a professor at Berkeley, I think he was the first person I knew outside of a professional context who made his living by doing teaching and research. By the second year of university, I think by then I was already kind of [aware that] academic life is appealing to me. I don’t have to wake up early, I don’t have to wear a suit, I’m my own boss, I don’t have to work with other people, like those four things were the most important things. The lifestyle really appeals to me… I love all the kind of structural aspects of the thing, and I think when you’re younger that’s all you see. You see there’s an academic discipline, its rich, it has ideas, I can think and write, and it has these other benefits. The thing you’re less aware of as a student is that you know, you don’t get paid very much and you don’t get to decide where you live. I mean the pay is one thing, like I don’t care so much about that, but you don’t actually decide where you want to live, so you have to kind of follow the job to where it takes you, and it takes you funny places, like the north east of England. So yeah, I don’t know if I always wanted to do it…
It just kind of happened?
Well I wasn’t a big reader, like I didn’t read until I was 14 or something. I would never sit down and read a novel until I was 14, I’ve been an obsessive reader ever since. I wasn’t that bookish until I was 14 and then I was very bookish. Now I can’t imagine doing anything else. But then, here’s my little bit of life advice for you, you have to be really careful about this. Most of us, in this intellectual field, we like being good at things. I’m not in this job because I like a challenge, I’m in this job because I don’t like risk. What happened was at some point when I was a kid, I was good at reading and I was good at languages and somebody said to me, “Oh, you’re good at reading and languages and writing” and I sort of said to myself, “Oh, well that validation feels really nice, so I’m just going to keep doing this thing that I’m good at because I can get validation for doing it” and I’m still on that reward structure. The corridor is not full of risk-takers, its actually full of very risk averse people, who are good at one thing when they were very young and are hooked on the validation, if that makes sense.
And so, what’s the advice that we should take from that?
Just to be aware of it. Just because you’re good at something and you like being told you’re good at it doesn’t mean that that’s what you should do for the rest of your life. Does that make sense? It’s a very hard conversation to have with yourself because you have to say: I’m good at this thing: am I doing it because I like being told that I’m good at it, or because I actually enjoy it. And in my case, I do enjoy it, but I have met a lot of people, like colleagues, and classmates, who didn’t…
And so, what are you currently working on?
So, I’m currently working on a million things but none of those things are particularly interesting…. I’m trying to write a book about representations of sexual violence in classical Arabic literature. That’s my current intellectual question.
What drew you to that subject area?
I don’t know, lots of different things, I’m very interested in gender and sexuality in the premodern Muslim world, I’m interested in the history of slavery, I’m also interested in obscenity, so I have an interest in these subjects in general… but essentially I had a fight with my partner about the interpretation of a poem, in which, I was doing the traditional scholarly thing of saying, what’s important here is not the content of the poem, but rather the expression of it. And she was like no you idiot…this is a depiction of sexual violence or coercion… why can’t you see it? That fight was in 2013 or 2014 or something, and I’ve just been thinking about it since. It’s been a while, you can’t write a book about a fight but essentially that argument has precipitated a lot of research and thinking about the subject. I’m finally now getting to the point where I can actually write it.
So, you have your research, but you also do translation as well?
I have done translation, yeah. I do translation, but I haven’t done a book since I started teaching essentially.
How did you choose the books you translated?
The first one I read it and I liked it. So, essentially, I finished my Masters and I read a novel, I mean I read several novels, but I happened to find a novel that I liked during my Masters degree and then between finishing my Masters degree and starting my PhD I made a proposal to translate, so I translated that book… So the first one I chose it and the last three I was offered them.
Do you enjoy translation more than research or do you see them as kind of the same?
I enjoy coffee or chocolate... I think of “enjoy” as visceral pleasure, I don’t derive pleasure from any of that. They’re both interesting they’re both different. Translation is not as interesting as research, for me personally. But its fun… no fun’s not the right word… its creative… in a way that research can be creative but often isn’t.
In class we talked about concepts that maybe exist in Arabic that don’t exist in English for example… how do you do get around that?
That’s something that seems like a big issue but in practice it’s never a big issue. There is this phase where everything is a bit exotic and you think to yourself, “How do I translate this exotic concept from one language to another?” But then if you think to yourself, in this society there’s some really exotic stuff happening all the time that we don’t think about; you wouldn’t need to translate it so you don’t think about it. What you might think of as intercultural mediation that you do in translation, you could be doing it here if you were asked to do it… Occasionally I’ll have something a bit funny, like something related to religion or something related to like family practices or domestic practices that I’ll have to find a way to express, but that’s just part of it.
Do you have to be aware of Orientalism in your field of work?
Yeah, all the time. You know this idea of foundation myths?
A foundation myth is an idea that communities have a belief about their origins… like people essentially… we narrate to ourselves a thing. Like you and I have a story of our lives we tell ourselves and that’s how we form our identity, you know like, on any given Tuesday or whatever you’re not you until you’ve sat down and told yourself the story of your life. Does that make sense? That’s how we make sense of the world. So… communities have foundation myths. Communities sort of say to themselves like: the thing that holds us together is this, and they tell a story. In my field the foundation taboo is orientalism. Since 1973, orientalism [has been] the foundational taboo of the field. Everyone practicing, whether or not they actually believe the argument of orientalism, is constantly interacting with that taboo. That affects you on an ideological level and on a practical level, like any taboo. Any Arabist who tells you that they’re not engaging with orientalism is lying. It’s so fundamental to how we see ourselves. And then some people make it explicit or they don’t make it explicit. But one of the really funny things about this place, for example, is that the only place in the MLAC Faculty handbook where orientalism is mentioned is in my first year Introduction to Middle Eastern cultures module. Orientalism is an intellectual and cultural movement of Europe. It is fundamental to British identity construction, it’s fundamental to French identity construction, Spanish identity construction, Italian identity construction, its present in British literature, French visual art, Spanish cinema – its key. It’s a very, very foundational, intellectual and cultural movement in the history of Europe. None of my Europeanist colleagues thought it was worthwhile to mention Orientalism in their module descriptions. So, Orientalism becomes the burden of people who work on the Middle East but actually you know, I work on the medieval Middle East, Orientalism was not an issue for me and the people I study… it’s a European product. But this is the problem its kind of like the myopia of Europe… Europeans and people who study Europe don’t have as deep an appreciation of their complex history as people who have been the victims of Europe. And its just weird, like yeah, that I engage with Orientalism on a daily basis in work and I just find it weird that my colleagues that study Europe don’t.
I’d never thought of that before…
Yeah, it’s crazy! I tell them that all the time…
What were the most important works to you when you were a student?
So, at that age when I was like 20 or whatever and I didn’t really know Arabic yet, the films of Elia Suleiman were extremely important to me, The Time that Remains, and Divine Intervention, and stuff like that, those had a huge impact on me. Seasons of Migration to the North, had a huge impact on me. Midaq Alley had a big impact on me. Also, I mean, its not Arabic but Enfant de Sable by Tahar Ben Jelloun, who’s this Moroccan writer who writes in French, had a big impact on me. Orhan Pamuk, had a big impact on me, again that’s not Arabic. Those were the kinds of things I got into before I could really read Arabic. And then in terms of works of scholarship the work that probably impacted me most as a student is the Crusades Through Arab Eyes. That was really important. In the Eye of the Sun had a big impact on me, which was originally written in English, but that was very good. I mean I’m interested in a particular set of topics that not all students would be interested in… like who knows what Durham students are interested in? No, really like, do you guys like listen to music? Do you watch films? What do you guys do?...