On April 29, 2021, Dr. Shareah Taleghani gave a talk via Zoom entitled “Prison, Writing, and Question of Genre” as the second event of the MENA Prison Forum Talk Series. Her talk took the form of a deep dive into the term “prison literature,” spanning the benefits and challenges of the classification of the genre, the differences in regional uses and historical development, and the implications of the qualities of the classification on the content considered under the term.
“If I wrote a short story that has nothing to do with prison but while I was in prison, would this be considered prison literature just because of where it was written?” This last question from a member of the audience exemplifies the epistemological considerations stirred up by Dr. Taleghani’s talk. She addressed how the meaning of “prison literature” has played an important role in translating and investigating the violations and abuses of prisons in the MENA region. However, she noted that some scholars have found the term has contributed to the fetishization and commercialization of prisons and it’s repressive practices, ultimately legitimizing the reproduction of carceral forms. The recent popularity of TV shows set in prison is an indication of this commodification of the prison industrial complex in the US.
A wonderful element of Dr. Taleghani’s talk and work lies in the fact that her work on prison literature has straddled and engaged with both the genre in the United States and across Middle Eastern countries. For example, she noted that the above critique is situated within the American context of prison literature. In the United States, much of the academic work on prison literature focuses on the prison industrial complex that exists in the United State and its connection to slavery and unpaid labor, as well as racist and socio-economic targeting of certain populations in the United States. In the Middle East, conversely, the genre of prison literature focuses relatively exclusively on the writing and experiences of political prisoners, or prisoners of conscience, while this distinction or focus is not dominant in American prison literature. The differences in the prison environments across these two contexts are vital to consider, when considering “prison literature” as a global genre, despite the connections between prisons in the West and the Middle East as part of similar global trends of incarceration.
Prison literature in the MENA region emerged during the 1950s, 60s, and 70s amid post-colonial political, social, and cultural phases of transition in the region. Dr. Talegahni noted how each [Arab] writer sees the genre differently. For instance, some scholars define it as any text fictional and non-fictional that is written about prisons. Others specify prison literature to texts connected only to first-hand experiences of people who were actually incarcerated, while yet others reject the idea of developing a comprehensive definition that suits all relevant texts.
Beyond definitions, however, prison literature should not be deviated from exposing the snapshots and glimpses of the deteriorating conditions of prisons in the MENA region. Writing in or about prisons indicates the centrality of this genre in reflecting voices and stories that are not usually heard in mainstream media; in fact, they are voices and stories that are actively repressed, silenced, and concealed. Searching for a meaning for prison literature as a genre should be an ongoing process that navigates prisons as sites for examining critical cultural and literary scenes. Prison literature produced out of carceral experiences in the MENA region has a special importance since it presents “flashes of light in darkness,” as Dr. Taleghani put it. Indeed, the absence of alternative non-state narratives and archiving processes that analyze the situation of prisons in the MENA region, together with repression of civil society and human rights organizations, give a crucial significance for novels, memoirs, and poetry in describing modes and aspects of detention in these countries.
Against this backdrop, prison literature in the Middle East could be defined as a reflection and a byproduct of the crisis of Arab democracy. Because it has often emerged in an environment of authoritarian repression, prison literature in the MENA region deserves the recognition and support of not only academics but also activists and human rights advocates. Still, we need to further qualify what should and shouldn’t be included in prison literature: the purpose of which is not to exclude nor to prioritize some writers over others arbitrarily, nor to fall into the trap of “genre-fying” texts to sell them to audiences.
Most importantly, the idea is to make sense of writings that present radical depictions of the conditions of incarceration in the region. Yet prison literature is an ambiguous literary genre, and there is always a possibility for texts to transgress the dominant meanings of this genre. For example, a member of the audience mentioned prison literature from Tunisia that is comedic in nature, therefore straddling a wide range of forms and tones, and breaking some imposed categories of prisoner literature. These contradictions should not be strange in a region in which modes of incarceration are multiple and ambivalent as well. If prisons are integral components and material visible reflections of the power of the modern nation-states, some prisons exist beyond what is ‘seen,’ that is, the institutions of the ruling regimes. Secret prisons, undocumented interrogations, extrajudicial detention and killing, and underground torture chambers are a few examples of what exists beyond the ‘official’ aspects of incarceration. Hence, it can be said that prison literature as a genre can be defined as one that takes into consideration and grapples with the silenced and unrecorded shades of detention, while being careful to not contribute to the normalization and commercialization of physical and psychological abuses. The MENA Prison Forum greatly looks forward to continuing these conversations and debates about the genre and individual prison writings in future talks.
Dr. Shareah Taleghani is an assistant professor and director of Middle East studies at Queens College, the City University of New York. Her research focuses on the intersections of dissent, creativity, and cultural production in the Middle East. She has published articles, reviews, and translations in the International Journal of Middle East Studies, the Journal of Arabic Literature, the Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication, Middle East Report, and Words without Borders, and she currently serves as an associate editor for CLC Web-Comparative Literature and Culture. She is co-editor (with Alexa Firat) of Generations of Dissent: Intellectuals, Cultural Production, and the State in the Middle East and North Africa (Syracuse University Press, 2020) and author of Readings in Syrian Prison Literature: the Poetics of Human Rights (forthcoming Syracuse University Press, June 2021). She is also co-editor (with Ammiel Alcalay) and co-translator (with the New YorkTranslation Collective) of Faraj Bayrakdar's A Dove in Free Flight (forthcoming, UpSet Press, Summer 2021).