If Hillary can make it in Arabic, will Rousseau?

Nouri Bookstore, one of the main book dealers in Damascus, bulges and buckles with Arabic translations of Western texts - mostly books on computers, medicine, and cooking. On prominent display: a book by former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke with the very loosely translated title "My Awakening, the Jewish Control over USA"; a copy of Hillary Clinton's autobiography, and other works on Sept. 11 and the Iraq war.

But writers like Rousseau and Descartes are relegated to a small corner in the back - symbolic of the Arab world's lack of access to the West's great thinkers and philosophers. According to a United Nations report last fall, Spain translates in a single year as much as the Arab world has translated in the past millennium.

Syrian author and publisher Ammar Abdulhamid hopes to change all that. If he has his way, comparisons between nomads and cowboys, Arab thinkers and French philosophers, Islamic art and modern art, will become common chatter in Damascene restaurants and cabs. The key, he says, is a translation movement that will put ordinary Arabs in closer touch with Western literary and philosophical traditions.

Last year, he gathered a staff of five and launched a nonprofit publishing group and website, Dar Emar.

Despite more pressing concerns in this part of the world - illiteracy, poverty, and peace - a few Arab publishers and academics are determined to kindle cerebral passions. Stacking shelves with more foreign books is central to their goal. Moreover, they say, such efforts are not merely a playground for a small clique of intellectuals but an urgent matter for the region's future.

"We are definitely in a chaotic moment that will certainly crystallize," says Dimitri Avghérinos, editor of Maaber, a highbrow Syrian webzine that covers everything from nonviolent resistance to ecology. "Translation should play a crucial role in that - especially translation of classics."

Last fall's UN report - the second annual Arab Human Development Report (AHDR), a critique of Arab countries by Arab intellectuals - calls on the Arab world to "regain its historical prowess in translation," referring to early Islamic history when translators were the heroes of an intellectual flowering.

The translation movement is taking hold slowly. In Beirut, a regional publishing center, the Arab Organization for Translation was formed last year with a goal to produce high-quality translations of academic texts. Only 10 percent of all Arabic translations meet academic standards, the director says.

In downtown Damascus, Cadmus, a small publishing outfit, offers Arabic translations of political, historical, and philosophical works free of charge online. And Dar Al Mada, a Damascus-based publisher, struck a deal last year with newspapers in seven Arab countries: With each subscription, customers get a free copy every month of world classics such as Aesop's Fables.

Syria's ambitious Abdulhamid hops in conversation among the US Civil War, the French Revolution, and ancient Greece with the ease and swiftness of a channel surfer. Abdulhamid's interest in Western philosophy goes at least as far back as his undergraduate days at the University of Wisconsin. When he came back to Syria in 1994, he translated a book on American film for the National Foundation for Cinema here. Although the work was commissioned, officials deemed the finished translation "too American" for the Syrian public.

While no book on Syrian film is likely to top US bestseller lists, many academics and intellectuals - including the AHDR authors - criticize modern Arab culture and scholarship as especially insular. The last surge in translation took place in the 1950s, but they say the rise of Islamist movements and authoritarian regimes slowed the movement. No official record of the number or types of books translated into Arabic exists, and several publishers dispute AHDR figures.

Islam encourages all Muslims to engage in more cultural exchange with the West, says Salah Kuftaro, head of the Kuftaro Islamic Foundation in Damascus. He cites a saying of the Prophet Muhammad "Seek knowledge even in China."

Still many academics, intellectuals, and bookstore owners say getting ordinary Arabs to curl up with French philosophers, let alone Arabic philosophy, is wishful thinking. Part of the problem, is simply a lack of bibliophiles.

"Stop 10 people in the street. If you find one person who reads, I'll give you $10," laments Ammar Abd al-Aal, a worker at the Light of Damascus Book Center. "Out of 100, you'll find two people who read."

Some say illiteracy and the widespread need to hold several jobs keep most Arabs from spending a few spare liras on pages of abstract musing.

"There are too many problems that are more important ... things that affect daily life, that should take priority," says Damascus researcher Hassan Abbas. "That doesn't mean we shouldn't translate, it's very important." But he says even students - perhaps the segment of society most given to waxing philosophical - are too busy trying to make ends meet.

Censorship offices in 22 Arab countries, high shipping costs, and the lack of distribution companies don't help. The result is: In a region that once used to pay authors the weight of their books in gold, a work that sells 5,000 copies now qualifies as a bestseller.

According to many observers, to the extent that Arabs have time and money for purely intellectual pursuits, most are focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Until America's foreign policy changes, many Syrians say, few will be curious about American philosophers.

"I don't really foresee a possible new renaissance unless real peace is established [in the Arab countries]," says Nafez Shammas, head of the English department at Damascus University.

But for Abdulhamid, the goal of translation is public dialogue, which he considers necessary to any real change. He's in the process of publishing Arabic versions of Dutch works with help from the Netherlands. He's also applying to the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington for funding to translate US works.

Among the projects percolating in Dar Emar's brand new office in the upscale Mezzeh district is an anthology of Western philosophy published with commentary by Syrians - not professors, but cab drivers, waiters, students. Abdulhamid insists: "You need to popularize the books."

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