Tom McDonough first met Raja Alem in 1997, in the Saudi Arabian port city of Jeddah. She had already published seven novels in Arabic, and her reputation in contemporary Arabic literature was similar to Nabokov’s in ours: masterful, erudite, witty, and somewhat dangerous.
I flew home with the manuscript of a novel Raja had written—this time in her classroom English. Though the prose was not entirely comprehensible, it was clear that she was the genuine article—a serious writer with a compelling vision. I rewrote a few pages and faxed them to her. Raja faxed right back, delighted. Parenthetically, she mentioned that she’d started embroidering my initials in Arabic on a bolt of black velvet, and asked me to supply her with my mother’s unmarried name, an ingredient necessary for the completion of the Bedouin spell she was casting to ensure the success of our project. We’ve kept up our collaboration for more than ten years.
Saudi Arabia, like Ireland, is mostly a country in a movie. The Mecca that Raja grew up in during the 1970s was a medieval city. She was raised in her grandfather’s house near the Holy Mosque. Her grandfather was the Sheik of the Zamzam Water Carriers. Zamzam is the well in Mecca’s sacred mosque, and also the name of the healing waters that flow from it. During the oil boom of the 1980s, the holy city was entirely rebuilt, extinguishing an intricate culture whose problems were sorted out according to neighborhood codes rather than merciless geopolitical forces. Our most recent book, My Thousand and One Nights , is a pilgrimage to a Mecca that no longer exists.
Raja has also written plays, poems, children’s books, and quite a bit of journalism. Her stories are braided strands. Her storytelling strategies may be at variance with ours, but her concerns are much the same as those of our canonical romans: How dangerous is love? How lethal are women? Can spiritual labor keep up with the ever-increasing demand for immortality?
Raja Alem It’s Ramadan here; we’ve been fasting for fourteen days. The first two days we were in Paris. Our last night there, we went to a Chinese restaurant to break our fast. We had shrimp appetizers, shrimp soup, shrimp in black-bean sauce, and almost-but-not-quite shrimp dessert. We ate so much shrimp we got dizzy.
Last night I went to Mecca with the Dark One [Raja’s sister Shadia, an artist] and our friend Mona. Mona is the curator of the modern art department of the Institut du Monde Arabe; she’s a Saudi who’s lived in Paris for 24 years, married to an Iranian. Her two sons were born in Paris. She recently found religion, and this created a gulf between her Frenchified husband and her French sons, who regard Mona as backward, even though she travels everywhere and keeps up with the latest developments in art and culture. You might say she’s the adventurous one; the husband doesn’t know much about anything except buying designer clothes he can’t afford.
We’re circumambulating around the Kaaba, Mona, Shadia and I. We’re here for the ceremony called al-omrah, where you go round the Kaaba seven times, praying, then walk between the hills of Safa and Marwa seven times. You break your ihram by cutting a lock of your hair.
“Oh my God, what if I die suddenly in Paris?” Mona says out of the blue. “There’ll be nobody to wash my body. I’ll be all alone and dead there.”
I’m stunned: a Muslim woman dying in the West—this is a nightmare? Such an idea never crossed my mind, but now that Mona has raised the possibility, I believe it is a dilemma. How is it possible to live in a city, but impossible to die in it?
The Holy Mosque was mobbed. You mix in with the human mass, let it drag you along. You meld into the breathing and the sweat.
When we went outside again, our shoes were gone. The guard told us that the cleaning people come by every hour to sweep the shoes away so the entrance to the Holy Mosque isn’t blocked. There are many entrances, and millions of shoes are swept away every day.
We went to the Intercontinental, a five-star hotel facing the mosque. We walked barefoot through the very grand and intimidating lobby. We took the escalator up to the restaurant, where the headwaiter glanced at our feet and asked us to please study the menu. I smiled and asked him, “Study what? The specials? ” “No, madam.” “The minimum charge?”
“Yes, ladies, the minimum charge….” Ever so slightly, he bowed.
Tom McDonough How must you have felt while dining at a fancy restaurant in the holy city, which has become so different from the city you spent your childhood in?
RA If you happen to be a native of Mecca, as I am, and you’re walking around the holy city, you are expected to cover your face. Otherwise you’re taken for an outsider, a foreigner with odd ways of thinking and behaving. It felt strange, sitting in that glass building looking out at Mecca and my past, which felt as if it’d happened in another world—the old Mecca that has been destroyed. There was no trace of the pretty pebbles that used to cover the sahin, the great courtyards inside the mosque. Instead there was marble and more marble—cold, impersonal slabs. I can’t conceive of being buried in a marble coffin. It’s the same with prayer; you need warm soil to absorb it.
I remembered the question an American friend asked me not long ago, speaking about our living in Paris for much of the year. We were sitting in a café on the Île de la Cité.
“Do you feel like an exile?” she asked.
“No!” I said. I looked away at the dreamy gold reflections on the Seine. The question disturbed me. What does “exile” mean in a globalized world? To feel you’re an exile, you have to have a country you belong to. I belong to a stream of thinking rather than a piece of land, to a current that runs everywhere. My country is all over the globe.
Now, in Mecca, I felt I belonged, not to the ceremonies performed by thousands of bodies but to a spirit that was reaching out to me alone. I somehow felt that I was seeing beyond things, past the glare of the full moon, feeling the elation you experience when you reach the power behind things. Or maybe it was about the way the moonlight mingled with the longings of the pilgrims.
Do you think I’m schizo when I say I’m fasting or dining in a Parisian restaurant one night and performing al-omrah in Mecca the next? Do you think the pilgrims circumambulating the Kaaba are weird, alien to your New York environment?
TM I’ve got a great sentimental attachment to the Mecca I’ve never seen. My first reaction to your dining in Paris one night and at a fancy restaurant in Mecca the next was envy and regret, because I will never, as a kaffir [non-Muslim], be able to enter the holy city and see the sights you see. And hear and smell and taste. About Mecca I will always feel a certain forbiddenness.
The Mecca that I’ve seen while working with you reminds me of the New York I grew up in. It reminds me of striving, congested humanity, of riding the subway and squeezing into a seat between other riders, sneaking looks at other passengers, imagining their unimaginable lives. And always, everywhere, the struggle for space, the most valuable, dreamed-of thing in America. Growing up in New York City in the 1940s and ’50s, when New York was very much a collection of ethnic villages, taught me the language of cities. The dialect is similar in New York and Paris and Calcutta and, I imagine, old Mecca. The citizens of genuine cities have a telltale way of carrying themselves, a self-regarding strut. I don’t know that I could feel at home in the new Mecca, though; architecturally, it sounds like a mall city in Arizona.
As for your fasting and other practices that might seem foreign to me, such things do not feel foreign or strange to me at all. Brooklyn Catholics observed many fast-days. And if you want strange or alien, consider transubstantiation or the virgin birth or any number of other hyperventilated doctrines I was taught as a child.
These days, if I want to sense the divine, I go trout fishing—which lately, in my country, has become a subset of theology. When I want to think about the divine or restore my sense of religious awe (I am afflicted with the habit of belief), I dip into one of the semipopular books about astrophysics or particle physics. I am a born-again string theorist.
We should have actual copies of My Thousand and One Nights in a few weeks. I feel like an expectant father, pacing up and down, fretting. When people ask me what we do and how we work together, I sense a puzzlement that would not be there if you were writing in Spanish or if I were a woman. Sometimes I think we’ve gotten to know each other too well, like a couple married fifty years, finishing one another’s sentences, anticipating every reaction, savoring the flat-footed jokes, the coy deafness, the microdivorces, the astonishing strengths.
But whatever glamorous claims might be made for it, translation remains the orthodontics of literature. Writing about our collaboration in a diplomatic, novocained way does not get to the heart of the matter, which is that there is no bridging the gap, no healing the wounds between your world and mine, no glossing over the centuries of insult. Our mutual histories are more than normatively vicious. But maybe things are not so terrible. Because nor, between you and me, is there war. There is, every now and then, a mirage of perfect meaning.
Since 9/11, so much of America has been about pretending to win. However credulous or incredulous one is supposed to be nowadays, I believe certain things now that I felt too safe to believe as a child. One of the things I believe is that as long as you and I are translating, your people and mine may have something to do besides going to war for embarrassing reasons.
How would you describe your Arabic prose style? What are your hopes and expectations about how the poetry of your Arabic moves into English?
RA It’s a madhouse here. We’re getting ready for all kinds of guests for the Eid festivities, which we’ll celebrate in two days, after breaking our fast of Ramadan. So I’ll be on hold for at least a week. We can resume our conversation as soon as this occupation of our territory ends.
My youngest aunt passed away, and that meant going to Mecca for three nights in a row for what they call al-qira-ya, the Recital, where the men gather on the street to accept condolences and drink coffee and nibble on dates under huge canopies, with lights strung between the houses near the funeral home—one lamp on and the next off, to indicate a funeral (if all the lamps were lit, that would mean a wedding)—while inside the women receive their share of condolences.
It’s exhausting, listening to all those stories about death and life. Life is much stronger than death: people keep laughing and planning for the future while escorting someone to the grave; they chatter away as if words were magic charms.
My aunt was the character called Zubayda in My Thousand and One Nights. Her real name was Aminah, which means “honest.” I kept wishing she’d live long enough so I could bring her onstage to reenact the book. She was very rich. “Whenever I feel like it,” she used to say, “I just stick my finger down my throat and puke gold.” Zubayda made her exit before getting a chance to criticize or love or make fun of her portrayal in My Thousand and One Nights. The dead don’t have much say in things.
I still have a big question: what picture of our world do you carry in your mind? How do you and I sound in our translated books? Not to each other, but to others. Do we sound folkloric?
TM How do we sound in translation? On a word-for-word basis we sound fine. In the case of My Thousand and One Nights, since it bears an Arabic pedigree, there is another dimension to “how do we sound”? It’s hard for Anglophones to approach the book without expecting to learn something about “the Arab mind”—as if it were possible to define the consciousness of millions of diverse people and tether it, like a cartoon balloon, to the head of a generic veiled woman.
You are a musical writer in one of the most musical languages. In recognition of this and in deference to the incantatory tradition of Qur’anic recitation that means so much to you, I did my best to make My Thousand and One Nights sound right when read aloud. The late Norman O. Brown, one of the last celebrity humanists, suggested that the artifact of Western culture that most resembles the Qur’an in sonority and wildness of language is Finnegans Wake—except the Qur’an is not just for literature majors.
The possibilities of English, to a writer whose mother tongue is English, feel limitless. Everyone’s mother tongue feels infinite. So follow me here: if one’s mother tongue is infinite, then great works written in other languages exist in separate galaxies. Ergo, translation is a subgenre of science fiction. (Beam me up, Raja.)
Folkloric? Well yes, I do think that some of your writing is folkloric—not all of it, but a lot. In the academic world, “folkloric” is a good word. But every place else, “folkloric” is dismissive, condescending. It suggests that the work under discussion is a quaint subliterary fairy tale formulated to amuse children and other semiliterates. Put another way, it suggests that the work is insufficiently acquainted with European psychologizing, and does not pay tribute to the naturalistic strategies of narrative laid down in the 19th century. But this folkloric handicap has less to do with your writing than it does with Arabia as it is seen by the West.
There is a type of writing that falls between the folkloric and, let’s say, the analytical-literary—for example, the work of Joseph Conrad and, recently, J. M. Coetzee and Cormac McCarthy. These writers frequently make use of situations that strike their audience as folkloric or “exotic.” What is going on here is an examination of the white European’s migratory, imperializing conscience. Brilliant as these books are, I can’t help feeling now and then that I’m listening to Germans of a certain generation bemoaning the hazards of boxcar construction.
You want folkloric? Try Moby Dick.
RA My Arabic prose style, like the Empty Quarter, is a wilderness from which no one emerges alive. There’s no way to bring my Arabic into English because what starts out as, say, a two-word sentence in Arabic, with all the historical and mythological allusions, might call for a lengthy paragraph in English. That would kill the narrative flow. Most times I don’t even bother playing around with Arabic stems when translating, so a lot of things get lost or discarded—the hidden music, the magic spells.
Sometimes, when I try writing in English, my demons follow me there too, chanting their talismans. I write in English in order to force myself to write more straightforwardly, to pull away from the ancient desert culture, to reach another world accessible to readers of English as well as Arabic. The fact is that my people are drifting away from their own culture, and many of them no longer have a clue about what I’m writing about. So I find myself looking for new ways to communicate, for other languages, and English was the first one that came to hand.
Translating my worlds with you feels like living together, each of us throwing ourselves into the other’s world. Translation is an out-of-body experience. I feel like I’m watching the Raja of my childhood, along with all the aunts and grandfathers who aren’t here anymore, resurrected now in another world, speaking another language, a simpler, more direct tongue. To translate them, transport them from then to now, I needed to understand them. I do understand them better now.
“Coming out” in another language is a way of shedding inhibitions. All the things that made me feel ashamed lost their morbid grip on me and became acceptable. I’ve never read any of my books published in Arabic; it makes me feel completely naked. Reading them in another language, though, I feel alive in a poetic way.
I wonder what Aunt Jummo would say. She never had any children of her own. Not to have children is not to have a history; nobody will remember you. Does Jummo feel remembered now? Her cries to Shadia and me when she gripped my arms and said, “Raja, I don’t want to die. Hold me.” Her stark white hair cascading over my arm, scented with rose water and medicinal herbs…. Does she hear herself now, in English? Is she alive?
Have I told you that things are improving here? Some of my Arabic books are no longer banned—not all my books, of course; the crazy ones are still smuggled around in vans. Four out of ten of them are out there on the shelves for everyone to buy, which somehow feels like less fun. I miss that thrill of thinking outside the range of permissible books, of feeling publicly exposed and being smuggled around right under the nose of official banners and seals.
TM I went fishing for an hour and a half this morning on the Esopus, which is named after the Greek god of rivers. This is possibly the last time I’ll go fishing till next May. It’s going to rain hard tonight, the waters will rise and get muddy, and by the time they clear, most of the rivers will be closed for the season.
I got totally skunked this morning—not so much as a nibble. I did, however, snag quite a number of the pretty colored leaves that were being blown onto the water.
RA I’m not sure why I’m writing you this time of night. I’m seeing the streets of Mecca from my childhood, where no woman could walk without covering her head; seeing women’s eyes peeking out at life through chinks in the dormers and seeing the houses you could stare at day after day without ever seeing a single soul look back at you. Oh, once in a while you might see a man’s face pop up and disappear, but never a woman’s, because decent women were never supposed to be seen at the window: they’d be disgraced if they were. And if a man so much as glanced up, the woman would put an old shoe in the window, sole facing the street. Which meant, “Fuck off.”
The streets were flooded with pilgrims all dressed in white. Since women pilgrims were not considered actively female, this gave them a chance to mingle, during the month of haj, in a seasonal jungle of no gender. Occasionally they’d appear on the roofs of their homes or on the staircases, doing odd chores to help the pilgrims. It was a pretend-savage stage in which gender didn’t exist. My father kept to himself in his personal zone of broadmindedness, but my aunts were determined to keep us barricaded in the forbidden zone, the haram.
Shadia and I wanted to read. We sent the Yemenite servant boys to buy books for us, supplying them with long lists. We selected the titles we wanted from the covers of books we already had. This is how we came to know Gorky, Rimbaud, Shakespeare, Sartre, Hegel, and Kant, and got acquainted with Greek mythology, Russian and French novels, Latin classics.
I remember going to school with European novels in my bag. If you got caught with even one page of a book other than a textbook—and the teachers were forever surprise-searching our bags and cubbies—you could be expelled in disgrace as a disciple of immoralists. Going to school with forbidden books was like crossing a swamp full of starving crocodiles and blood-sucking leeches.
I could spot the girls who were readers right away; I could smell the words on them. We girl readers were great at wriggling behind the steel-caged enclosures where books were kept, smuggling them out and looking spotlessly innocent. At home we had enough privacy to read two books a day (I’m not exaggerating); I read Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago and Gorky’s The Mother in the same day. It wasn’t that my father forbade reading. The rule was simply: No reading on school days.
I can’t remember exactly when I first sent an essay to the Riyadh newspaper. The next thing I knew, the paper had devoted half a page to my first piece. I can’t remember why I didn’t ask my father’s permission; I never even thought of asking. It just happened, like getting up in the morning with sleepy eyes and saying, “Good morning, everybody.”
Maybe my father knew, way back when, that his love was more important to me than sitting doll-like on those wooden classroom benches, with the big girls pushing me around and stiff-necked teachers demanding blind obedience and stuffing our poor aching heads with nonsense.
The newspaper editors assumed I was an elderly Sufi gentleman, possibly a non-Saudi. When it came out that I was a woman, they said, “Oh sure, we’ve been hearing this all over. It’s that Raja Alem. Decent writer, actually. Clever. Too clever. She’s a hag, of course.”
In Mecca, writing what I wrote and publishing under my real name was like dangling from the top of a minaret for everyone to see and criticize. I should add, though, that intellectuals had great respect for women authors.
I woke up on Nov. 9th to find four copies of My Thousand and One Nights waiting outside my bedroom door. I laid them all out on the breakfast table so Mama could look at them. It was a brilliantly sunny morning. She didn’t say anything. She just let her eyes rest on the books, trying to read their spirits.
Shadia just shouted, “Raja, a spider—step on it!” I stepped on the poor creature without thinking. I killed a holy thing. I recall a hadith of the Prophet that goes, “Don’t kill spiders; they are soldiers—God’s soldiers.” We are surrounded by God’s soldiers and the holy…the wood you split for your fire, the food on your table, the loving in your bed.
The following is a Web Outtake and was not published in the print edition.
Outtakes from BOMB 103, Spring 2008…
Read two of one thousand and one possible outtakes from a conversation that appears in BOMB’s Spring 2008 print edition, between Raja Alem, Saudi Arabia’s Nabokov, and Tom McDonough, her translator and collaborator.
“Aunt Zubayda died with a needle in her vein.”
Raja Alem Zubayda and my mother ran a substantial business making keffiyehs, the headdresses worn by pilgrims. She told us that one time she stepped on one of her sewing needles and it traveled from her foot up to her body, found its way into her knees and her hip, and gradually damaged her organs. The older she got, the more abbreviated the Epic of the Needle became, until all she would say was, “Oh, that needle I stepped on….” Toward the end it was just “The needle….” She’d flutter her eyelashes and sigh, as if suggesting that her story had become too world-famous to be recounted in detail. But she never abbreviated the moral, she ended the story with: “You work yourself to death. Your love of life—that’s what drains the oil in your lamp.”
When Mama got the phone call with the news of her sister’s death, she fell back into the time of My Thousand and One Nights and started thinking again in her mother tongue, Khazar, which everyone assumed she’d forgotten years ago. The amazing thing is that for my mother and her sister death is merely an excursion. If you happen to be dead, like Zubayda or my father, Mama will still talk to you and do all sorts of things to please you. Mama talks to Papa all the time, addressing him formally, teasing him with his formal title—Mohammed Alem (Mister Alem)—which is what she called him when they made love or were fighting. We still talk about him every day when we sit down to eat.
Mama brings out an elegantly presented juicy melon. Shadia and I ask, as if surprised, “Oh, where did we get that?”
“Mohammed Alem,” Mama says matter-of-factly. “He bought it this morning, plus two big cartons of fruit. He wanted to see you, Shadia. But I told him you wouldn’t come downstairs.”
Mama puts special emphasis on Shadia not wanting to “see” her dead father because whenever Mama is cranky or not feeling well she threatens us with, “I’m going to speak with Mohammed Alem about this! Call the driver! I’m ‘going to Mecca’!”
There’s no mistaking the quotation marks in her voice. “Going to Mecca” is our family code for “going to die.” I deflect Mama’s threat by saying, “Wait, Mama; never go without me. If anybody ‘goes to Mecca,’ we go together.”
A while ago Mama bought herself a Mercedes SUV. She was cruising north by the shore of the Red Sea at two in the morning (she kept checking to make sure Sony, her driver, wasn’t nodding off), fiddling with the shiny stereo controls and singing along with Abdulmjeed Abdullah, her favorite folk singer, when she turned to Shadia and announced, “Raja and I are ‘going to Mecca’ to show Mohammed Alem our new car. Are you coming with us, Shadia darling?”
It came as a bit of a shock, intoxicated as I was by the aroma of the new leather seats and thinking about how sweet life is, to hear my mother inviting us to die with her so she could show our dead father her new car.
“Oh no, not me,” Shadia said. “You two go ahead and enjoy yourselves, please. I’ll stay right here.”
You shocked me when you said you’re a kaffir. You are no such thing. Because kaffir means someone who believes in nothing, and here you are, trout fishing and reading about astrophysics, which is precisely what I was talking about when I told you about feeling a power behind things while I was circumambulating the Kaaba. There are many ways of reaching the Beyond.
As for our translation project, I think it’s more about eagerness to communicate than translating books. It’s about being open to one another. There were times when we were working on the books when I felt like I was wringing my heart out looking for a way to explain things, trying to find parallel words and worlds. I never imagined that I’d wind up working with someone who is not the least bit familiar with the ideas and beliefs in my books. But strangely, or luckily, the more I tried to explain things to you the less I felt there was any barrier at all.
It was hard at first. There came a point when I’d told you more than I ever dared tell anyone about my own people. That’s why I see you as my people now. But I still have a big question: what picture of our world do you carry in your mind? How do you and I sound in our translated books? Not to each other, but to others. Do we sound folkloric? What we are working on is not fantasy, it is the way real people lived their lives.
What is the American mind? The world, especially the Third World, always thought of the American mind as unique, as an example of generosity and openness to invention. The Wizard of Oz is a perfect analogy for the American mind, an infinite source of stunning new ideas. We never thought that America would change from welcoming the world to conquering it. Once America had new ideas, a spontaneity so attractive to so many people. Now it has only armies inciting resistance.
It occurs to me that these emails sound just like those we wrote each other right after 9/11. 9/11 makes us say the same things over and over.
Tom McDonough I’m sorry to hear of the passing of your aunt. It sounds like she’ll always be with you, as your father is always with your mother. What we call “wakes” here have become much less elaborate than they used to be. When I was a kid in Brooklyn, the Italian wakes were distinguished by the overpowering smell of lilies and roses and the wailing of black-dressed women. The Irish wakes were drinking parties at which one of the attendees (the “stiff”) was beyond the need to drink anymore.
When my father died at the age of 81, it fell to me to “make the arrangements.” I’d left the old neighborhood for the wicked life of Manhattan, and I’d forgotten some important neighborhood rules. My father was laid out in an open coffin. Slowly, unsteadily, his cronies tottered into the funeral parlor to pay their respects, wrinkled old Irishmen in wrinkled suits. It took me a while to understand the baffled look on their faces. It wasn’t until one of the old gents whispered to me—“For the love of God, Tommy, where’s the bar?”—that I grasped the enormity of my mistake. I rushed out to a liquor store and bought an armful of whiskey and gin and set the bottles on a table at a discreet distance from the coffin. In a few minutes, everyone was telling jokes and singing and reminiscing about my father’s baseball-playing days.
“The end of the world as we know it.”
RA I’ve got goose bumps all over. Rana, who works as a psychiatrist at Efran Hospital in Jeddah, just phoned: the Department of Employee Relations sent out a memo saying that any female doctor who wants a driver’s license should bring in her identity papers along with permission from her mahrem [male guardian] so the hospital can expedite her driver’s license.
For a while I’ve said that driving is not a big priority for Saudi women. I was so wrong. This is a turning point in our history. Finally I won’t feel threatened when my driver announces he wants a vacation. The first wave of woman drivers is going to face serious opposition. They will be physically attacked. The terrorists will try to frighten us. I don’t care. I’m getting my documents together and soon I’ll be on the road. Expect a period of silence on my part while I deal with this. It’s the end of the world as we know it.
TM As much as I like the image of you behind the wheel of a Porsche, may I suggest you consider buying a pickup truck—something black, high off the road, with a big snarly engine? Whatever you do, please don’t let the Dark One get behind the wheel. The world is dangerous enough as it is.
RA Actually, the Dark One is thinking about getting a Hummer, big and black, with glaring lights, four or five of them mounted on the roof. They use them for hypnotizing falcons and hunting for predators in the desert at night.
Don’t you think we’re entitled to a little silliness, after centuries of restraint? Well, let’s not exaggerate—it’s been more like a half-century, since the formation of the Saudi kingdom. Before that, our grandmothers rode on camels, donkeys, and horses, of course. They were a sort of knights in shining armor.
Mama is about to ask my brother Osama for written permission to drive. She wouldn’t miss it for the world. She thanks God it’s happening in her lifetime, and she thanks God it was Aminah, not her, who died during Ramadan, so she won’t miss out on all the fun. She told her best friend Salima, “Get ready, girl; we’re going to driving school. We’re getting rid of that fat old Mercedes SUV and getting a Mini Cooper. We’ll crash it? So let’s crash it.”
—Tom McDonough is a writer and cinematographer. His books include two novels coauthored with Raja Alem: Fatma (Syracuse University Press, 2003) and My Thousand and One Nights (Syracuse University Press, 2007). He was also the designer and cameraman for Best Boy, winner of the 1981 Academy Award for best feature-length documentary.