I want to see more rising scholars with large and diverse language sets and really transnational interests – 5in10 with Margaret Litvin

Margaret Litvin is a historian of modern Arabic (primarily Egyptian) literature and theatre. Since 2014 she has been Associate Professor of Arabic and Comparative Literature at Boston University. Her first book, „Hamlet’s Arab Journey: Shakespeare’s Prince and Nasser’s Ghost “ (Princeton, 2011), examined the many reworkings of Shakespeare’s Hamlet in the theatre and political rhetoric of postcolonial Egypt, Syria, and Iraq. More recently Litvin has focused on reconstructing the tangled legacies of Arab writers’ experiences in Russia and the Soviet Union. Her research has been awarded an Alexander von Humboldt Fellowship (2016-8), that she will spend between Europe in the Middle East—The Middle East in Europe (EUME) in Berlin and the Center for Near and Middle Eastern Studies (CNMS) of the Philipps-Universität Marburg.

Margaret Litvin, Photo by Cydney Scott for Boston University

What was intriguing to you when you were a child? What is it that you always wanted to know about the world?

As a child I was fascinated by the life stories of people I met, their ways of speaking, the different things they valued. But I also remember wondering about the various identities people can have (religious, ethnic, national, linguistic, cultural) and the way not all identities have the same shape or take up the same space in people’s lives. For instance, what did it mean to be a Jewish refugee from the Soviet Union in Cold War America? How was I supposed to respond to the kid who chased me around the classroom in third grade, making machine-gun noises and shouting “The Russians are coming!”? For the same reason, I was curious about translation. I didn’t start studying Arabic until graduate school, but I was always learning languages.

These interests came full circle as I was researching my first book (on Arabic adaptations of Shakespeare’s Hamlet). It turns out some of the most resonant texts for Egyptian and Syrian writers came from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. It was funny for me to see my Arab interlocutors mentioning some of the same plays and movies that had been important to my parents back in 1960s and 1970s Moscow.

How would you explain your current research to a stranger in an elevator?

My book project, “Arab Writers, Moscow Dreams,” explores a century and a half of connections between Arab intellectuals on one hand and Russian and Soviet culture on the other: literary reception, translation, adaptation, and writers’ experiences of study abroad in Russia. In the Levant these cultural ties go back to Czarist times, when many Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society schools were established in Syria-Lebanon-Palestine. During the Cold War these relationships were expanded and transformed: many students in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq, including some future writers and filmmakers, were invited to study in the Soviet Union or elsewhere in the socialist bloc. The book examines the Arab rewritings of some key Russian texts and writers, as well as some literary traces of the study abroad experience. Through all this I’m looking for an interpretive lens more subtle than “influence.” In every generation, you find that Arab intellectuals weren’t just passively influenced by Russian literature or Soviet culture – they took what served them and made creative use of it. With each Russian source (for instance, I’m tracing the reception of Leo Tolstoy’s brutal novella The Kreutzer Sonata), you need to ask what local itches it scratched, what hungers it fed, and what rhetorical and artistic resources it offered to Arab writers in different places and times. And in the case of study abroad, it’s important to reconstruct people’s experiences of, say, living in a Moscow dormitory with Russians, other Soviets, fellow Arabs, and other internationals. What were those years actually like, and what literary traces did they leave?

Which stations of your academic journey were extremely formative to you?

I was lucky to study abroad in France in high school – that year taught me how to read and teach literature, the old fashioned “explication de texte,” but also something of the loneliness and strangeness of being abroad, a mood my Arab sources on Russia keep returning to. In college I met Maria Menocal and took her course on “the Medieval Storytelling Tradition.” I didn’t understand the course very well at the time, couldn’t grasp what was at stake. But about ten years later it was like a bell went off – I finally realized how much her way of thinking about adaptation and cultural flows had inspired my own. And graduate school at the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought was just paradise. My dissertation committee consisted of four men over sixty, all from different disciplines, none interested in formalities. They more or less told me: Skip the dissertation, just go write the book. I try to bring that attitude to undergraduate advising now. When a student starts talking about PhD programs, I ask: Do you feel motivated to write a book that I would want to read?

Finally I should mention my department at Boston University, because it’s an unusual place. We are called World Languages and Literatures and we teach ten languages and their literatures: German, Russian, Hindi-Urdu, three East Asian, and four Middle Eastern. Some of my closest colleagues do things like Japanese! But most of us somehow work on translation or literary flows. Our conversations in the hallway are amazing – it’s like a Silk Road of ideas. Not only have we “provincialized Europe” by putting our department’s center of gravity so far east. We have also avoided (so far) some of the other provincialisms and perhaps tensions that can grow in departments organized around a single region, and some of the methodological gaps of “World Literature” in the singular.

How is it to do research in Germany?

The scholarly community seems very hospitable to the kind of cultural history that I am trying to do. The Turning Points research group led by Friederike Pannewick in Marburg, one of the co-hosts of my Alexander von Humboldt fellowship, is doing important, fine-grained work on cultural practices and social change in the Arab world – it is a wonderful group of people with whom to think about the interpenetration of culture and context.

And Berlin, where I’m based at EUME, is incredibly fruitful and fun so far. Russian and Arabic-language culture are both vibrant here, for different reasons. In my first week here I was introduced to a Syrian-born classical violinist trained in Moscow. Then I met a Syrian filmmaker who was born in Russia because her parents were both in graduate school there – her father was at film school in Moscow. People I’ve met in Berlin have helped inspire me to add another chapter to my book project, documenting the most recent creative reformulations and afterlives of Arab-Russian cultural ties. The collapse of the Soviet Union was definitely not the end of it.

If you had one wish, what would you wish for the further development of your subject?

May I have two wishes? First – and this is slowly coming true – I want to see more rising scholars with large and diverse language sets and really transnational interests, so that being able to work in Arabic and French and Russian (or Arabic and Chinese, or Russian and Georgian and Arabic and Chechen, or whatever) would not seem unusual. It needn’t be perfect fluency: even a halting grasp of another language can shift your whole scholarly outlook. As I said, I think the field’s turn to literary history and to translingual and transcultural phenomena is already pushing young scholars this way.

But the other wish is that, as this happens, we don’t only focus on “literature that travels.” Sometimes I think Arab writers who don’t travel, whose work doesn’t get translated, who can’t socialize easily with European or American academics – deserve more attention than they get. I hope that along with us comparatists, the new generation will still have real specialists who choose an area, fall in love with its language, commit to its literature, and dig deep. Scholars and critics from the region itself, writing either in Arabic or in European languages, can also bring that kind of expertise. In recent years, political turmoil has driven many Arab intellectuals to the west, including some writers and literature specialists. Once they find their footing, I think this infusion of scholars – people migrating for the saddest of reasons – could make a real difference.

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Citation: Margaret Litvin, I want to see more rising scholars with large and diverse language sets and really transnational interests – 5in10 with Margaret Litvin, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 29.07.2016, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/4797.


Stefanie Rentsch

Dr. Stefanie Rentsch ist wissenschaftliche Referentin am Forum Transregionale Studien Berlin und leitet dort den Bereich Publikationen und Öffentlichkeitsarbeit. Blogs: trafo.hypotheses.org, academies.hypotheses.org Stefanie Rentsch is head of publications and communication at the Forum Transregionale Studien Berlin. Blogs: trafo.hypotheses.org, academies.hypotheses.org

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