Raise High the Support Beam: Theroux is a pillar of wisdom in Arabic fiction.
Raise High the Support Beam: Theroux is a pillar of wisdom in Arabic fiction. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Translator Peter Theroux looks more like the kind of mid-40s suburban guy who invariably has his pocket picked in the marketplace than a world-class expert in Arabic dialects. He dresses simply and has an untanned face—the only hint of glamour about him is a pair of elegant monogrammed silver cufflinks, a detail that echoes the quiet grace of his deft, highly informed translations, including one of Lebanese author Elias Khoury’s novel Yalo, published last month.

“There’s none better,” says his friend and fellow translator, Raymond Stock. “His translations are clear and poetic and read like they’re written in English. You never sense you’re reading a translation; his translations are at the same literary level—or beyond—as the original work.”

Theroux’s interest in Arabic languages and literature began while he was a student at Harvard, traveling to Cairo, Egypt, partly on the advice of his older brother Paul, the novelist and travel writer. He graduated in 1978 with a degree in English literature, then spent another year at Cairo’s American University, enthralled by the depth of the language. “Arabic really is quicksand,” says the 50-year-old Dupont Circle resident. “It’s a very deep and broad language, and there are so many dialects of it. So once you start, there’s almost no limit to where you can go.”

After learning the basics of the language, he moved to Saudi Arabia in 1980, working there as a journalist for five years, eventually landing at the Wall Street Journal. While in Saudi Arabia he first began thinking about translating. Saudi-Iraqi author Abdelrahman Munif’s five-part novel, Cities of Salt, a historical take on the encounter between American oil seekers and Bedouins in an unnamed Arab country, had come out in the mid-’80s and been banned by the Saudi government, but smuggled copies were widely read and discussed. Theroux’s interest in the book was, at first, journalistic—he planned to write a story about the book’s samizdat status. But when he read Cities of Salt in 1984, he found himself attracted to it on another level.

“I think it was the first good novel written by a Saudi,” he says. “They had one written by the former minister of information that was just…” he says, trailing off in disgust. “So I read it and I thought, well, I could translate this as well as anyone else.”

Theroux’s translation appeared in 1987, and his timing was impeccable: The late ’80s was a crucial period for the transmission of Arabic literature to the West. At the time when Theroux was first picking up Cities of Salt, very few Arabic books were being translated into English, and so Western perceptions of Arab culture were mostly shaped by books written by Westerners—Wilfred Thesiger’s Arabian Sands and The Marsh Arabs and T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Modern Arabic writers like Naguib Mahfouz, Yusuf Idris, Tahar Ben Jelloun, and Tayeb Salih were barely recognized outside the Arab world, in often poorly translated editions from small publishing houses.

Then, in 1988, Mahfouz became the first Arabic author to win the Nobel Prize for literature, launching a miniboom for Arabic translation. Publishers realized they could make money “discovering” and translating authors like Fuad al Takarli (The Long Way Back) and Alaa Al Aswany (The Yacoubian Building). Jacqueline Onassis, then an editor at Doubleday, was a strong advocate for translating more Arabic writers, pushing the translation of all of Mahfouz’s work and some of his contemporaries as well.

As the market aligned with Theroux’s interests, he began an extensive and wide-ranging career as a translator, working with Egyptian, Iraqi, Nubian, and Lebanese authors, including Theroux’s favorite, the Egyptian writer Abd al-Hakim Qasim (Rites of Assent), and an Iraqi woman, Alia Mamdouh, who wrote Naphtalene: A Novel of Baghdad. (The latter was “the hardest book I ever translated,” he says. “You have all these garments that don’t have names in English.”) Theroux had moved to Los Angeles in 1985, where he worked as an interpreter as well as a translator and journeyed back to the Middle East regularly as a freelancer for National Geographic. He also wrote his own books, including 1990’s Sandstorms, an account of his travels around the Arab world. He moved to D.C. in 1997, partly to be closer to his family on the East Coast, partly because of the greater opportunities for translation and interpretation here.

“[D.C.] is a very opportune place,” he says. “[Besides the Middle East], I’ve only ever lived in Boston, which is where I was born, and Los Angeles, where I spent a lot of my working life, and in D.C. And Washington, D.C., is probably the best for the availability and interaction of a lot of cultures, and it doesn’t really advertise itself that way.”

It was in D.C. that Theroux began working on his translation of Khoury’s Yalo. Khoury received positive reviews for his most recent novel published in English, 2006’s Gate of the Sun, which delves into the lives of Palestinian resistance fighters in a Beirut refugee camp. Khoury’s thoughtful approach to the ambiguities of heroism and warfare found him many fans in America, where he is now a visiting professor at New York University.

“Elias is very much a politically engaged writer, but he’s not a polemic writer,” says Lorraine Adams, a novelist and former Washington Post staff writer who is friends with Khoury. “I think of Elias as really trying to speak to the experience of a whole people, or peoples.”

Khoury’s focus on the historical complexity of the Arab nations (he himself is a Christian Arab) makes his work a natural fit for Theroux, with his varied interest in Arabic’s many dialects and its intersections with other languages, like Hebrew and Aramaic. Early reviews have called attention to Theroux’s talents on this front: In the Los Angeles Times, Laila Lalami praised Yalo’s “wonderful translation, one that preserves the idiosyncrasies of Beiruti speech.”

Yalo, too, is a novel about history: the history of a single man but also the history of the Lebanese civil war and the history of Christians in Lebanon and Syria. The novel’s eponymous anti-hero is a former Lebanese soldier who fought in the civil war of the late ’80s and early ’90s. Lost and traumatized after the war, he begins patrolling a sort of lover’s lane in a woods, robbing the men and occasionally raping the women. One of the women, Shirin, becomes Yalo’s lover, and he develops a passion for her that turns nasty. When she accuses him of rape (perhaps falsely, perhaps not), he is imprisoned, tortured, and forced to write his own life history as a confession, an exercise that allows him to retrace his family’s story: his mother’s helpless love for the married tailor who employed her, his grandfather’s life as a Christian priest originally from Damascus whose entire family was massacred by the Ottoman Empire at the turn of the century.

“[W]riting is the only way to remember, otherwise men’s lives would be limited to the present and they would live without a memory, like animals,” Yalo concludes in prison. “I discovered that when I write, the gates of memory open before me.”

“[Yalo] is a book very much about language,” says Theroux. “Yalo has this really strong image of the cuttlefish—I was going to call it a squid because there aren’t that many cuttlefish around here. When it releases ink, it’s like a writer, and then it’s cooked in its own ink. It’s a metaphor for him and how he’s constantly trying to express himself. And is he telling the truth or not? Or how much of the truth is he telling? He’s revealing himself or not revealing himself through language, and I’m not sure how much of the truth he’s ultimately telling.”

Yalo, with its stories of misogyny, rape, and torture, does hit on some of the West’s worst stereotypes of Arabs. But Theroux hopes that the novel’s focus on the complexities of individuals will contribute to greater cultural understanding. In fact, he sees Arabic translation in general as a battering ram against such stereotypes.

“I would like for Arab authors to be able to speak with their own voices from within the region,” he says. “And for us to see the overwhelming percentage of the people who are not terrorists and who fear or hate them as much as we do. It’s an unhappy thought that this part of the world that gave us so much of our culture and the religions that people practice looks so scary. But at a ground level, it’s not so scary.”

The book he’s currently translating, Journey to the Heart of My Enemy, is an account by an Iraqi author, Najem Wali, of a journey to Israel. “One of [the author’s] insights is that, when you see poor Israeli Jews act exactly as poor Shia Muslims behave in southern Iraq, you can tell they are all cousins. And, of course, my perspective is that we are all a human family. We’re their cousins, too.”