Writing the North African Experience

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Centre for African Poetry: Let us begin by inviting you to humour our ignorance. The title of your 2011 novel is translated Book of the Sultan’s Seal, but we wonder which of the two names we have seen for it in Arabic is more accurate – khutbat al-kitab, or Kitab at Tughra?

Rakha: Kitab at Tughra is the title. Khutbat al-kitab means, literally, “Address of the book”; it’s a formulaic canonical phrase for “introduction” or “prologue”, which here and in old Arabic books doubles as a kind of table of contents; on the surface the novel is modelled on a medieval historical text. It may be worth mentioning in passing that the original sense of kitab, which is the Arabic word for “book”, means simply “letter” or “epistle”: every canonical book is addressed to a patron or a friend, and that’s an idea that is particularly meaningful to me.

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Re Bolaño’s latest novel in English: Woes of the True Policeman

Translating Bolaño: An Interview with Natasha Wimmer

Natasha Wimmer had been working for Farrar, Straus and Giroux for several years when she was presented with the opportunity to translate The Savage Detectives, Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño’s first novel, into English. She hadn’t heard of the author before, but Wimmer read the book in Spanish and was floored. “It was the best book I had read in either Spanish or English in a long time,” she said. Still, Wimmer didn’t think she would get the job: Christopher Andrews, who had already translated Bolaño’s By Night in Chile and Distant Star, was the go-to choice. However, in a stroke of luck, Andrews was too busy to tackle the project and Wimmer took it on. After The Savage Detectives was released in the United States, both the book and its late author became literary sensations. That was in 2007.

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Bruce Andrews: What could be the connection between literature and the digital?

Electronic Poetics by Bruce Andrews

Going electronic. Radical or so-called innovative literary writing faces (& that means faces up to) the facts of life in the digital age. If you have been committed to foregrounding the processes by which language works, to the unsettling & detonation of an established medium — what then? How simpatico is this potential cyberworld as a staging area & as a reading environment? 1 

Raw material: if you use language in its ‘unfinished’ (less thoroughly socialized) state or at a molecular level, the project lends itself to the jammed, disjunctive situations of the screen with its striking dispersions or overlaps. Densities of significance can become visibly spatial, programmatically animated or varying or self-mistranslating.

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An extract from “The Crocodiles”

Extract from The Crocodiles by Youssef Rakha

 

 

24. Today, I’m convinced we were a room no one managed to enter except three lovers. Of them, it’s Moon who figures in memory or imagination, though the last to reach us: the shade for whose sake we left a door ajar. As if the other two got in by mistake. Is it because we never knew from where she came or where she went after it all came to an end? Was it for the sake of the tomboy traits, which were to lead us to covet one woman above all others in our circle? Moon was the closest to us in age and the only poet. Perhaps for her hyper-insubstantiality and her retention—despite the slightness and small size—of a lion’s charisma, perhaps because she was the most changeable and extreme, the one whose behavior it was impossible to predict from one day to the next, we left a door ajar for Moon.

25. In the evening I think on Moon as reports reach me from afar. Very far, it seems. Each time I’m made aware of the army’s thuggery then the lies of the military leadership and their political-media cheerleaders, each time I become conscious of people’s readiness to credit lies, I’m ever happier with my remoteness. Here I shall be cut off and secure; allowed to remember. It’s truly pleasant to be spending my time tapping away with a clear head while Egypt burns, and I reflect that the problem—perhaps—is that it doesn’t burn enough; that over there are those that talk about the threat the demonstration poses to productivity and the importance of getting the economy going even as young men are abducted and tortured; that people run for parliament on the grounds of their familiarity with Our Lord, while Al Azhar’s men are murdered with live rounds. Because of this, because these events, in spite of everything, are limited, and because their significance is squandered with people’s readiness to believe in lies, I feel the necessity of remembering and am content with my remoteness.

26. In the evening I think on Moon as reports reach me and I’m thankful for the file before me on the computer screen as bit by bit it fills with words. I congratulate myself for creating a folder I named The Crocodiles—for this to be its first file—because, since doing so, I’ve lost the urge to descend to the battlefield of Tahrir Square or Qasr El Ainy Street and I feel no guilt. At times—and this is all there is—I am overwhelmed by grief. A biting light flares in my head, blinding and paralyzing me for minutes each time, and I shake and awake to a severe pain in my stomach. An hour later—not a tear shed—comes a burning desire to weep. I know none of those who’ve been killed personally, and though I’ve often put myself in the place of their family and friends—I know some of their friends—I don’t believe I’m grieving on their account. The pain whose light bites into me is a symptom of something else, a thing I don’t know how to formulate. As though you went to sleep in your comfortable home and woke to find yourself naked in the middle of the road. As though we have nothing else but this.

27. I think on Moon and remember that in 12/2010 or 1/2011, following the outbreak of Tunisia’s protests—even as the Tunisian police were killing people in the streets—one of the loyalists of Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali’s government appeared on Al Jazeera asking in a tone of disbelief, “Is the solution to burn the country? Is the solution to burn the country?” Now, a year on from the outbreak of protests in Egypt, I repeat his words with differing sentiments, his voice ringing in my ears as the reports reach me: Is the solution to burn the country?

28. And since I think on Moon… It seems to me, objectively, looking back, that she so engineered her life to obtain the maximum possible quantum of love from the maximum possible number of people, even if the love were—given that Moon was full of it and never made any real effort with anyone, inescapably—superficial and short-lived. We alone, and maybe two or three others, knew her well enough to love or hate her from the heart… But this is a tale for later.

29. In her craving for love bought cheap or at no cost at all, and in being—even her—married and quite ready to love someone other than her husband, Moon was much like the other two; only, it seems to me that she surpassed them in one essential respect. Perhaps she was too clever to take on trust the free and constantly fluctuating affection in our circle. I don’t mean that she stopped striving for it with wholehearted devotion for a single day, but I believe that she, unlike Saba and Nargis, realised it would never benefit her so long as she was not prepared to pay the price. Thus, and following the same logic, it seems she did not convert it directly into an evenly-balanced transaction.

30. Saba gathered people around her by tootling a trumpet the sound of which they admired, then used them on a daily basis, as part of her sense of achievement in life. Nargis reeled them in by depicting herself as a victim of poverty, ugliness and backwardness who had managed to triumph over all these things; she’d acquire them like artworks, piece by piece, then in her time of need brandish them like qualifications and titles in the faces of inquisitors… But Moon did something shrewder, immeasurably so. I don’t know how to describe what it is that Moon did, even after reviewing everything I know of her, but I believe it’s firmly linked to ambivalence. The space for ambivalence with Moon—her vanishing and surfacing, her protean appearance, the importance she attached to secretarial work, greater perhaps even than writing—the space for ambivalence with her was wider than anything else; it was what equipped her to find her ease in a closed room composed of us, myself, Nayf and Paulo, it’s walls constructed from the scrutiny of poetry.

31. Around the time the The Crocodiles were founded, Moon’s poems had begun to make a shy appearance in our circle. We conceded they were considerably better than the other works by women, but for all that, up until 2001 when she became part of our lives without our being conscious of the change, we paid her no mind beyond a passing nod of admiration.

32. “Blood” (one of Moon’s first poems): Today, too,/ the vivid red poppies/ open inside clothes,/ unseen by all but you,/ and louder than the swish of speeding cars outside/ Edith Piaf’s voice/ informing me that this pain’s/ your child I never bore.// Why does the music remind me that they’re not roses,/ that their purpose is to prettify the drug,/ that they seem innocent and are evil?// Every month,/ with a joy greater than can be comprehended by your dissection,/ the deception pleases me/ as I moan until you pity me a pain/ that leaves me weak and craving,/and while you lick my tears, within me vicious laughter detonates/ as I kill another/ of your children.

33. Now, it feels like Moon is fundamental and still present, so much so that I can’t believe she had not yet appeared by the end of Millenium Eve; that at dawn on 1/1/2000—while we were on our way back from the huge official party called “Twelve Dreams of the Sun” held on the Giza Plateau, at dawn on 1/1/2000—life still barely held a thing called Moon.

Translation by qisasukhra.wordpress.com

قصائد مسموعة

 

قصائد مسموعة-Video poems

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Nine Poems in English, Illustrated

Out of the blue, which is occasionally a beautiful blue, a reader of Kitab at Tughra gave me an unexpected and very dear gift: nine of my poems in English, beautifully translated. By way of gratitude and to celebrate, I spent the evening making black and white, square format pictures with the poems at the back of my mind – with the intention of producing one picture for each poem. I think of Sargon Boulus as, truly moved, I post these texts with thanks and acknowledgements to qisasukhra

***

The Angel of Death gives counsel to a bereaved parent

 

Barely a minute and you tread with dimmed eyes:

Is your patience exhausted in a minute?

Listen,

There is nothing in all the universe that will show you mercy

Nothing that will halt the saw’s stroke through your bones.

Sit a while

And do not tax me,

Don’t make your misfortune a plea to me

When you know

That I am under orders:

I bear on my shoulders Earth’s lamentations

A thousand times redoubled.

Do not assume that I possess the meaning of anything,

For when blood stains the asphalt

I see a dark blotch, nothing more,

Though I feel all that’s felt by you plus

All those like you.

I’m the one who keeps you company, moment by moment,

Unable to delight in your delight

Because I know your pain entire,

Even in your moments of acutest pleasure.

All I can promise you now

Is that when you look

You shall not find a trace of the dead one in the bed

And as a supplementary service from me,

You shall not find a bed in the room,

Indeed, there’ll be no room there,

And you will stand with nothing before you,

Nothing at all,

And all I ask in return?

Remember

That life is nothing but waiting for me,

Me, who grinds hearts utterly,

Not for a single moment spared

The sound of their beat.

 

 

Alexandria

 

For Mohab Nasr

All these years my friend

As though we’re here by mistake

Waiting until the roads clear

To drive unlicensed trucks

And face the border guards

With forced laughter and cash.

We dream of places that were they found

We’d be no good for, my friend,

Forced to mix with the statues

To swap their talk with them

To be jammed in among them

With frozen limbs, looking and not seeing,

Our heads bowed down at home

We excuse ourselves from going to the quarries

That we might try reproducing in secret,

Mourning our endangered line.

All these years plucking up the courage

To declare we are not statues

And then collapse in pieces from their plinths,

Dead with flattened heads,

With eyes bulging out like mother-of-pearl,

With holes in our bones.

How is it, my friend, after all these years

All we can utter is croaking?

 

The Angel (A god who renounced his faith)

 

You asked me what I would like to be in your eyes,

I said: God.

For a time I granted you favours and punished you.

Were you fleeing my grief, when you failed to tell me

That you had a cuckold Lord bestowing gifts upon you all the while?

How you could not accept my seal stamped on your brow

When you were so set on veneration?

And did you think creating you was such a little thing?

Son of a bitch,

Why let me plow when you meant to burn the fields?

 

 

The Angel (Your picture)

 

Sleep now, as though you’d never in your life occupied a frame,

As though your hands had never set even this picture in a frame,

As though they had not arranged cuttings that float

In an inch of water which you made a sea.

Not your crooked leg among the runners

Nor your teeth clamped on the shoulder that carries you,

Nor a victim, naturally: You’ve never in your life been a victim.

Sleep, despising those you call “coherent”,

Believing that your feet tread a path you forged.

Don’t for one moment ask about the handful of dust

You are wont to throw in the faces of those that call you to account,

Staggered by the abuse; how vulgar it was.

Forget that your air is not your own, that you breathe

With an army of respirators, that you

Are like the moneymen: every step calculated.

You are a beast in your strength; you’re in demand…

Your contemporaries really are spiteful: you are resplendent with tragedy

A pioneering presence on every screen.

Sleep and hug, like the downy pillow, the certainty

That you’re the genius, alone in a society of retards.

Pay no mind to the frame you put around your picture

Nor that once you thought it ugly. Pay no mind

To the fact your picture was ugly, ugly

Enough—once you’d framed it—to burn.

 

 

Coffee on the way back from the airport

 

When the light blinded us, I said to you: Morning’s taken us by storm

And you were muttering, your eye to the glass.

You said: The day’s come much quicker than I expected.

You said: Here is bad, but there is worse;

No. Here is worse than there.

You said: Although I… Although she… Although all these things…

I’m optimistic, then noticed that your coffee

Was no longer crowned with steam.

You were muttering, like I was a mirror or tape recorder,

Just an old container

That traversed the distance with you

Your eye to the glass, from which the night departed

With sudden harshness.

In the 24-hour café:

Another departure hall? The seats on their heads

Legs in the air and your strained face giving out

The same feel as the empty furniture,

The furniture they flip to wash the floor.

You were exactly like the airport:

You did not want to be up at this hour

Where the chairs are flipped and the officers yawn, disgruntled

As they stamp the passports.

You said: How do places get smaller!

You said: How many stamps and visas in my passport?

How many meaningful journeys?

You said: Perhaps life’s more fun south of the equator.

This is how you were muttering when the light blinded us.

I said to you: Morning’s taken us by surprise it seems

And you said: The day’s come quicker than I expected,

Much quicker than I expected.

 

 

A homicide

 

This heavy lamp with the tapered rim

Like a medieval instrument of torture.

Have you seen it squatting innocently between our beds?

(Thus spoke my friend who is staying with me in the room

Where the sea sounds like cars on the Corniche

And in the weave of the blanket I’m sleeping on

The memory of a lifetime spent between Cairo and Alexandria

On the rails.)

I will wait until sleep overtakes you (he went on)

Then raise it high in the air above your head

(And I tried remembering

Why it was we had to take the last train

After nights of unjustified sleeplessness

So that no sooner did we reach our room

Than each lay down on his bed

And there was nothing in the world to warrant waking.)

I’ll wait until sleep overtakes you (he repeated)

And screaming the scream of a suicide bomber on the brink of the deed

Will relieve my hand of the lamp’s weight, over your head.

 

 

Stallion

 

For Ahmed Yamaani

 

A little before dawn I come out of the 24-hour café looking for a newspaper stand where I might find the magazine with my picture in it. I walk a long way through the pitch-dark streets and pass kiosks whose occupants I question, but I don’t find what I want. No one’s with me at the café: I left my laptop open on the table and in my bag hanging from the back of the chair are my house-keys and ID card. Even so, when a white taxi stops for me I get in next to the driver straight away and he drives the car down streets ablaze as if with daylight, though it’s nothing but the orange street lights that have proliferated to a terrifying extent. An hour or more goes by with neither of us speaking, then he stops in a place not pitch-black or ablaze and when I hand him the fare he opens his zipper and takes out his erect black cock. As though I had returned to the 24-hour café, I find myself in the midst of a group of young people, huddled in sixes or sevens around cars from which comes trance music, either talking to one another or standing silent. I feel they’re my friends, or that I’m one of them, but I’m surprised that we’re all males—not a girl or woman among us—and I recall that I haven’t seen a single woman, not in the café, not in the street, not even in my imagination. Then I catch sight of my bag, which has my house-keys and ID in it, on the shoulder of a munaqqaba who’s striding along on the other side of the street and the corner of the laptop’s poking out of the bag’s opening. I try catching up with the munaqqaba but she gets into a white taxi that stops for her and takes off and where I expect to see my picture in the magazine I find a picture of a naked girl who in no time is lying on the café’s table sighing, caressing my forehead, her cunt growing wet, as she says: “Isn’t it awful to be a man in this town?”

 

The claim

 

My thinnest girlfriends always complain

Of gaining weight, which confuses me

When I think of fat girls.

But then I remember

That I’ve never suffered from loving my lover,

Except when it provides a good excuse to leave her,

And I reflect that things are less important

Than they seem, if we look at them

Long-term,

Which eases my terror a little.

So I say to myself that the world is really like this:

The thin fear fat,

The fat love food,

Lovers never suffer for the right reasons

And everything does not ride

On everything.

 

Love (Marriage)

 

But you did not endure all this only to hear the terrible rap of a door closing and know how much you yearn to hide the thing before you, the awful thing that you don’t want to see. At this point, that which gives the world meaning becomes just part of the world, terror takes its own life and the same story ends or begins.

***

Poems by Youssef Rakha

Translations by qisasukhra.wordpress.com (The text may vary slightly on qisasukhra, but there is no such thing as a final draft)

KENYON REVIEW (MINI) INTERVIEW

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With my late father, Elsaid Elsayed Rakha—lawyer, disillusioned communist, and incredible anti-patriarch, 1981

*

What have you learned about the writing process in the last five years?
I’ve learned too many technical things to list here, and they’re all the more difficult to list because it happened mostly in Arabic. But I also learned to pool different kinds of writing – journalism, literary nonfiction, poetry, historical research, erotica, and humor – to bring together my first novel, the Book of the Sultan’s Seal (forthcoming in English translation with Interlink). The result is a kind of pastiche, but maybe all novel-writing is pastiche. It’s not so much mixing and matching styles of writing as juxtaposing ways of looking at the world through mimicking the corresponding languages in which that world reveals itself, through people – the challenge being to maintain a unified and presumably compelling whole.
Since the novel was published it’s been called both an achievement and a pointless experiment: I’ve learned to accept that too. Not criticism per se – was it Ingmar Bergman who said that all criticism is poison? – because you can’t take in poison, but the fact that part of the value of a serious book is that some readers won’t like it. It’s always more interesting to ask what someone likes or dislikes about your work than whether or not they value it as such. Sometimes what is wrong with your book is simply that another writer feels superior (or inferior) to you, or that a person you’ve known doesn’t want to be a character, or to be that character. So your purpose in asking is never to change course to suit a wider variety of tastes. It’s to check your intentions against people’s expectations, taking their positions and underlying assumptions into account. I don’t tend to invent characters, I tend to reinvent and change real people; it’s not always possible to cut all relations with people I’ve written about, and I’m sure as hell not going to mess up my work just so that they stay happy with me!
More importantly, perhaps, in the last five years I’ve learned not to pay too much attention to Cairo literary-intellectual circles, which are limited and limiting spaces. While making up a sizable part of the very tiny proportion of Egyptians actually interested in literature, these circles are so incestuous and inward-looking and small-minded they can make writing, let alone being a writer, seem like a hateful exercise – a bad habit, almost. Now even if it is that, writing – even Arabic writing, even writing for oneself, without ambition – should never feel quite so despicable…

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Kenyon Review Essay Out

 

Cairo Map by Piri Reis, 15th century

An Excerpt from Youssef Rakha’s “In Extremis: Literature and Revolution in Contemporary Cairo (An Oriental Essay in Seven Parts)”

Youssef Rakha

 

Theorem

Here is a suitably exotic Sufi folk tale from the Nile Delta:

The imam of the Friday prayers bumps into a little old dervish at the entrance to the mosque. The dervish, evidently with no intention of joining the others in prayer, is tapping the ground with a stick, again and again intoning, “God can create the world in the shell of a hazelnut.” Enraged as much by idle talk as impious behavior, the imam beats up the dervish; then he rushes into the mosque baths to perform his ablutions in time. But no sooner does he step into the water than he finds himself in the middle of a great lake in some faraway land; touching his wet body, the imam realizes he has been transformed into a woman. The woman is rescued by a fisherman who happens upon her in the water and takes her in; and when his wife dies, the fisherman marries the strange woman from the lake. First she gives birth to a boy, then another boy, then a girl. One day she goes out to do the washing in the same lake, and as soon as she steps into the water, she finds herself in a mosque bath, in a country she seems to remember: she has been transformed back into the imam, who has just enough time to finish his ablutions before starting the prayers. On his way out of the mosque the imam passes the little old dervish, who has not performed his prayers, tapping the ground with a stick and intoning, “God can create the world in the shell of a hazelnut.” The imam rushes up to him and bends down to kiss his hand, shouting, “Truth, truth! You speak the truth!” And winking at him, the dervish says, “You had to give birth to two boys and a girl before you could believe it, didn’t you.”

 

The point of this story is to illustrate faith in the mystery of God’s omnipotence. But in a way it also says a lot about politics, language, and context: the relation of the observant to the enlightened, the cynical to the visionary, and appearance to substance.

In contemporary Egypt — and, more broadly, the contemporary Arab cultural sphere — the imam and the dervish stand, respectively, for power- and knowledge-based literary endeavors. The contrast between the two figures recalls the difference between writing as a means to some political end and writing as an end in itself: an exercise in transcending the political. While the imam’s rigid and down-to-earth, strictly rational orientation makes him seem right and relevant, the dervish’s subtle, unorthodox and imaginative approach to worship leaves him powerless, lacking the social support he needs to be taken seriously. Yet in the grander scheme of things — once you step out of that tiny point in space-time that forms these particular Friday prayers — it is the dervish who turns out to be more knowledgeable. It is he who has something to say about God’s omnipotence, not the imam who by observing God’s commandments to the letter — going so far as to oppose the nonobservant dervish — reduces that omnipotence to a ritual.

This is just one of the ways in which the imam-dervish duality may serve as a model of the convergence of politics and literature in contemporary Egypt — which takes on new relevance in the light of the Arab Spring. Once you substitute faith with writing, and the mystery of God’s omnipotence with “knowledge of the Arab world,” it becomes clear that the story of the imam and the dervish might show how politically driven interest in the Arabic novel appears to be commending dervish-like Arab authors while what it is actually saying is that, if not for their anthropological use to an imam-like Western reader, such Arab authors must automatically be relegated to obscurity.

Only the vulgarly politicized imams of contemporary literature seem to have a chance in the West — and they can tell the West nothing it does not already know.

Two assumptions are made every time the topic comes up: that Western readers will turn only to a novel tagged “Arabic” for “information” about “an unknown culture”; and that the only possible recommendation of a novel so tagged will be the tag itself. You begin to wonder if the effective ban on the entry of Arabic literary works into the Western (and, de facto, world) canon — in place since the “discovery” of modern Arabic writing during the first half of the twentieth century — might after all originate in the same place as the impulse to keep Third World immigrants out of the West and to endorse the majority of those who are already there as by and large peripheral to the world of ideas.

In an article on the Arabic novel published in the New Yorker in January 2010, “Found in Translation,” Claudia Roth Pierpont cites the West’s “long history of indifference,” raising the concern that a reversal of this tendency may prove to be “a corrupting force.” In that case, the alleged translation boom will result in westerners ending up with mere copies of Arab images they have already selected (the consequence of commercializing Aboriginal art in Australia is what comes to mind).

Pierpont concludes that this is unlikely to happen because “the Arabic novelist stands, almost by definition — as a thinker, a conduit of intellectual life — in opposition to the retrogressive forces in the modern Arab state.” And while this is almost never technically true — even though many of them do take a nominally oppositional stance, Egyptian novelists from Yusuf Idris (1927–1991) to Tareq Imam (b. 1977) have been employed and/or lionized by cultural arms of the regime itself, arguably the most retrogressive force of all — the statement does strike a sympathetic chord.

Surely the sensibility of writers anywhere will be at odds with conservatism and duress, which even after the so-called revolution of January 25 proves to be more stifling in Egypt than in the West. But while Cairo may indeed reflect a society “in extremis,” to use Pierpont’s phrase, its writers “routinely constrained or assailed,” what Pierpont seems not to realize is that it is also a place where an urban minority has written and read vernacularly inflected Arabic continuously for some ten centuries: a place in which, until the 1980s, the highly evolved writing regularly produced has remained untouched by the prospect of translation into English.

Reading “only versions of what we want to hear” is precisely what Pierpont has been doing; in this she seems no different from the majority of Western readers of Arabic literature outside the academic arena. But the “corrupting force” that placed Pierpont in that position is far more complex than she might imagine, the privilege of the “larger markets” provided by translation into English making up only a tiny fraction of its composition.

. . .

Read the rest of this piece by purchasing the Summer 12 issue of The Kenyon Review.

 

 

E-cards for Mohammad Rabie

Mohammad Rabie, Kawkab ‘Anbar, Cairo: Kotob Khan, 2010

BOOKSHOP: When a book signing ends up feeling like an engineers’ reunion, it makes you think not of structure but of paranoia. There is the architectural analogy, that is true (and in Arabic an architect is literally an “architectural engineer”). But by now it is something of a cliché: the stringing together of narrative is, anyway, nothing like the construction of buildings; character, dialogue and pacing, the poetry of scene and sentence, have little to do with design. Of course, engineers deal with electric circuits as well as building plans, pistons and pulleys, drills, computers, equations, frames and frameworks, all kinds of objects that can have metaphorical relevance to the writing process. But metaphors only go so far most of the time, and for many of us writing is a profession in its own right – in danger of being taken over! A month or so ago, a shortish novel longish by recent young-writer standards, Kawkab ‘Anbar (the name means “Amber Planet”), drew into the Kotob Khan Bookshop, where it emerged during a workshop with Yasser Abdel-Latif, what seemed like a range of people interested in new writing. The main speaker was a critic but apart from one dentist (the promising young poet Ahmad Nada), almost everyone turned out to be an engineer – civil, mechanical, hydraulic, electrical. For a moment it seemed as though a mafia of those lever-wielding un-poets were ambushing the literary sphere, infiltrating writerly circles all across the city, befriending with a view to replacing true writers and eventually, well – eliminating them. I would not stand for it! Thus I directed my malicious glances to the person at the centre of all this, the author of the book, Mohammad Rabie: born in 1978, a practising, yes – practising civil engineer since his graduation from university in 2001, to his friends he is actually known as Rabie, since there are too many Mohammads in this part of the world. For a moment Rabie did look like the don of some magic realist mafia. The beauty of paranoia is that it impounds reason. It was only a moment, but for its duration I was convinced there really was a mafia who gathered at construction sites to draw up plans of attack for literary world domination. I seemed to forget that Rabie was among the most personable people of his generation I had met, a writer with talent regardless of what else he does, totally innocuous.

I spend a lot of time in bookshops. I read the blurbs on the back covers, sometimes the introductions as well. I think hard before I buy. I hate crowded bookshops where I feel no sense of privacy. That’s why Kotob Khan is the perfect place for me. I also hate bookshops where attendants materialise the moment you walk in asking you what you want. It’s insolent. But as I say Kotob Khan was a perfect place to do this. Yasser Abdel-Latif did not interfere very much at all. Since the beginning he was careful about giving the participants just as much autonomy as they needed. Still, I think he managed to slip in ideas and sentences. There were parts he was largely dissatisfied with and I worked on those. What he insisted on was that there should be a dramatic line linking the events in the book, which is what I set out to do from the beginning. All of which was of course very helpful to me; and I think the fact that the participants thought alike and had a similar orientation was the main factor behind the success of the workshop. I think that any text with dramatic lines is a novel, but that is not why I set out to write one. The novel isn’t always the ideal format. The short story is another appropriate format. The novel is appropriate for multiple characters and many events. It is also a genre that suits chatter and gossip. The characters allow the writer to say all that they want indirectly, and there is space for imagination: to create cities and documents and languages, perhaps an alternative history. But the short story is extremely enjoyable for me. Concision and economy of means are two things I particularly enjoy; and the story is appropriate for describing a moment or a situation or a day in the life if its hero. The decision to write a novel is made after a few pages, perhaps before you start writing, but I think the time frame remains the principal factor. That is why this book is a novel, in the end, because that is the way the idea developed and the way I imagined it would spread over time. Sometimes I imagine a new form even more economical than the short story, through which to condense events that are spread out over long periods of time to the greatest extent possible. But all my attempts at achieving this form have been miserable.


CYBERSPACE: Until March 2008, there was in fact another Mohammad Rabie who was not an engineer: the author of outrageous novels about sex and religion in contemporary Cairo which he Xeroxed and handed out by hand. That other Rabie died in a Camus-ian accident at the age of 33. This Rabie, by contrast, is actually a blogger; he started out on the internet – a consequence, perhaps, of his background being non-literary. But the existence of another novelist born in the same year with the exact same name seems if nothing else pertinent to the kind of writing the author of Kawkab ‘Anbar is interested in practising. Unlike his namesake, Rabie is less interested in the immediate affects of language as he is in its ability to create a sustainable world. Unlike so many Arab writers – the vast majority, in fact, from the Sixties until recently – he wants to tell a story. He wants to use his imagination, engage with a concept or an idea, breathe life into a calculated structure. He does not want to evoke, imply, explore the possibilities of language as such. He does not want to wax lyrical, much less rhetorical. He does not want to wax. His object is a tale, and the function of reality – language as well as people who emerge through its use – is to flesh out that tale. In this as much as his cyber presence as a blogger and a micro-blogger (many were saddened when Rabie, shortly after the aforementioned signing, deactivated his Facebook account), Rabie is representative of the closest thing to a generation or a movement since the prose poets of the Nineties: writers who might be called the Twothousanders but not only because they started publishing after 2000. People like Nael El-Toukhy, Ahmad Nagui and (to a lesser extent) Mohammad Kheir and Mohammad Abdelnaby also share something more profound. They are all internet-savvy, down-to-earth agents of subversion as interested in things as they are in people and as closely connected to pop culture, communications technology and the global media as they are to literary history. Kundera is their Balzak, Mahfouz their Greek tragedy. They are cynics and jokers and glorifiers of what they refer to (admittedly often with ignorance) as kitsch. By and large they eschew poetry; and until the Egyptian quasi-literary blogging craze fizzled out, many of them professed to eschew print publication. They may not always have as much access to non-Arabic culture as they claim or desire, but their position is truly postmodern in the sense that they own and disown many histories at once; they don’t have a problem revolving around the commodity as a mode of being; they don’t have a problem with commodification. In short, they live mentally in our times – and they try to do it unselfconsciously.

I think the appropriate literary climate is one that is free of groups, schools and especially this concept of generations. Anyway it is the critics’ job to classify, I cannot claim to belong to a particular generation myself. As for my link with technology, I write directly onto the computer, but the initial ideas I jot down by hand, on a piece of paper, in a pocket notebook – that doesn’t matter, but it has to be on paper. I read the news online, I think the internet is a more efficient medium for news and short articles. But it can be a disastrous medium as far as literature is concerned. Paper will live on for a long time yet. Now there are e-book readers and I don’t see a difference between them and books, they have the advantage of taking up less space and weight. But visually they are very like books and they don’t have the distractions of the computer especially when it is connected to the internet. On the whole the only reason you would resort to electronic publishing is if you are unable to publish on paper. But the internet is completely inappropriate for a novel. A short story, a poem may work on the internet but nothing longer. My blog was an experiment that lasted for a long time. I had wanted to write a large text and the blog was my training ground. I thought I would use to train until it was time to write that large text. I had no preconceptions about what would happen to the novel after it was published. I didn’t think much of sales but I wanted it to be translated into other languages – imagine the translator’s predicament when they work on a text that finds fault with the very act of translation! Otherwise I was worried about the responses to it but those have been mostly encouraging. A few months after I completed it I already feel the novel has wrenched itself away from me and acquired its own being. It’s like a child of mine who’s grown up and leads their own life. My presence online was very important, it worked as indirect publicity for the novel. Many were waiting for it after I announced several times that it would be coming out. I wasn’t aware of what I was doing, I was present on the net, frankly, because I was used to being there. But my friend Marwa Rakha eventually drew my attention to the fact that it was good publicity.

LIBRARY: Kawkab ‘Anbar is the story of the eponymous, little known library (named after its original owner’s wife), a public endowment in Abbassiya on the verge of being demolished to make way for a new underground Metro line. It is told by Shahir, the endowments official who is sent there on a month-long assignment to put together a report on the library – a perfunctory, routine procedure intended to facilitate the forgone conclusion of its demolition by establishing that, all things considered, there is no reason for it to remain standing. Shahir is a young intellectual who, aware of the Kafkaesque futility of his task, is nonetheless quickly caught up in the mystery and madness of what turns out to be a Borgesian space of astounding quirkiness, initially through the existential endeavour of giving his task the semblance of credibility by searching in the library for anything of value. since he is “an old reader”, as his boss describes him in the opening, he looks – a little too earnestly for comfort – among the library’s uncannily surprising collection, eclectic as it is obscure. A string of clues leads Shahir to the two impossible ideas at the centre of the story (impossible, I mean, in the Borgesian sense, although Rabie does not delve as deeply into philosophy). First, there is a book written in a private or a nonexistent language, Luij al Sayrafini’s Creatures, translations of which have nonetheless been produced. Secondly, there is a device or a machine – invented and installed here by the owner – which is capable of producing a perfect translation of any and every book, including even Sayrafini’s, into any and every language. Rabie’s point is that, while it is possible to imagine these two things, their existence would anyway be pointless if not downright evil. He does not say it in so many words, but translation is a form of multiplying knowledge, and as such it is essentially an abomination, like Borges’s mirror, a curse. The story is also told by Dr Sayed: an arguably unnecessary complication, this, since Shahir’s voice alone would have made the essentially plot-driven, murder mystery-like narrative easier to follow. Dr Sayed is an older scholar, a cryptologist from the age of Nasser whose presence justifies all kinds of forays back into the Sixties, with passages on the real-life culture minister Tharwat Okashah, for example: an encyclopedic intellectual enamoured of both translation and classification. He is an obsessive and venomous, Dr Sayed, a quaint old cynic who enjoys watching others suffer. He knows Kawkab Anbar’s secrets but does not reveal them to Shahir. His voice gives a grotesque impression of the characters Shahir must tamper with on the way: among others, the library director, an old bureaucratic rival of Shahir’s boss; and the elderly translator who for many years has been reproducing, at first by hand, his own copies of the strange tomes that live here …

I meant the idea of translation itself, it is not a metaphor for anything else. I imagine that a complete, perfect translation is nonexistent. It is not something that people disagree much about that translation is always faulty to some extent, or that some translations are injurious to the original text. I don’t mean to imply that the text is holy. I mean simply that the ideas in a given text, which are easily understood and habitual if not stereotypical in their own language, might come across as something completely different or offensive once they have been rendered in a different language. Cultural interaction will happen anyway, but I think it happens in a more effective way through interaction with the other language without the medium of translation. That is not of course to say that translation is unnecessary, but it can certainly misrepresent a culture, or it can give rise to a deformed cultural understanding and actually obstruct rather than enhance hybridity and intercultural awareness. In translation it is much easier to stumble. This is of course the central tenet that I wanted to play with in the novel. There was no particular reason to use two voices, although I would not have wanted an omniscient narrator. But it just happened that way. First it flowed in the voice of Shahir, for weeks I worked on it in that voice. But then the voice of Sayed arrived and it forced me to work it in and give up on Shahir temporarily. But it was not technically necessary, there are ways to introduce perspectives into the texts – you add discourses or digressions, even footnotes as in the case of Mohammad Mustagab. Perhaps it is simply that writing the characters in their own voices, in as many of them as you can, makes them more alive. I do not have a clearly defined project as such because my ideas are always changing. Some ideas dog me for a long time but then they evaporate and seem naïve. Other ideas do not evaporate, and they may be just as naïve and laughable but if you think long and hard enough about anything it makes that thing highly valuable to me. I was surprised when friends told me about influences they thought they could see in the book: Naguib Mahfouz, for example, and then Saramago in All the Names, Eco in The Name of the Rose. All three are among my favourite authors in fact so it makes me proud for people to liken my work to theirs. Mahfouz was well organised and very patient which are things that I lack and would benefit from a great deal. Eco has encyclopedic erudition that is obviously beyond me but his writing is also extremely professional and I doubt if I will ever attain that level. I would also mention Orhan Pamuk in My Name is Red, Haruki Murakami in Kafka on the Shore, Salman Rushdie in Midnight’s Children, Gamal El-Ghitani in Khutat Al-Ghitani and Ibrahim Abdel-Meguid in Virgo. It amazes me how much the Iraqi writer Ali Badr and I can think alike, which is why I try to read everything to find out if it’s been done before. For a while now I’ve been preoccupied with the idea of the historian: if the translator falsifies unwittingly, the historian does it on purpose, more or less and, well – just imagine the possible implications of that fact for fiction.

Review and interview by Youssef Rakha


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Scribo ergo sum

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On New Year’s Eve, one completes another book (yes, the speaker is an author of books). One knows it will probably be published, possibly even translated to a language more literarily alive than Arabic. Yet, though one has wholly lost faith in the so called intellectual community since the so called revolution, one expects little interest on the part of the general public — in itself a contentious construction, “the general public”, but this is not the point. Even in that better world of intellectual vitality, of profit-making publishers and many-storied bookshops, of faces glued to highbrow paperbacks on the Metro, what one has written will at best remain marginal and exotic, a taste of the Third World, an object of anthropological rather than literary interest (could this explain the fact that otherwise intelligent critics in the Anglo-American world have used terms like “great Egyptian author” to describe the barely literate writer of predictably “best-selling” fictionalised tabloid journalism?)

Such peremptory disappointment has nothing to do with the content of the book completed, alas. Never mind the fact that books which sell are usually more stupid than those which don’t — even in the aforementioned better world. It would actually be satisfying to have a space, any space in which, after writing and publishing something, you faced serious censure of ideas expressed or style of expression, a space in which any attention at all was paid literature for its own sake — not as part of the increasingly complex glorified PR that forms the substance of so much “intellectual” activity in the Arab world. As it is no such space exists even in private, where a given “intellectual” will typically have too much to read and too little time beyond that dedicated to the kind of lucrative sucking-up-cum-backstabbing that goes for journalism and/or academia. In this year of our Lord what you have is a minister of culture highly keen on cowing in to “Islamist pressures” before such pressures have even been exerted, a bunch of die-hard pedagogues-to-be choking on the word “revolution”, and a self-sustained, English language-powered fantasy of “the emerging Arab literary scene” in which talentless women, complacent shit-stirrers and prehistoric ideologues, not to mention bland imitators of the writing of past decades, frenziedly elbow each other out of what little shelf space is available for “Arabic literature in translation” outside the mainstream markets, up to and including all manner of prizes awarded if not through nepotism then arbitrarily.

On New Year’s Eve — by facing up to the Lie that is Arabic literature on the Arab bookshelf — one is reminded, again, of the fact that one completes a book neither for an audience nor for a peer nor even a translator but for that rare specimen: the like-minded literate Arabic-speaker eager to be part of that old epistemological exercise, eminently enjoyable but never easy, of trying to make sense of the world through words. One willingly gives up none of the attendant benefits — publication, translation, PR or even awards — but it is for that rare thing, the Arabic reader, that one endeavours to share what one is proud to have accomplished.

THREE POEMS AND A PHOTO

from Roberto Bolaño’s Romantic Dogs

GODZILLA IN MEXICO

Listen carefully, my son: bombs were falling
over Mexico City
but no one even noticed.
The air carried poison through
the streets and open windows.
You’d just finished eating and were watching
cartoons on TV.
I was reading in the bedroom next door
when I realized we were going to die.
Despite the dizziness and nausea I dragged myself
to the kitchen and found you on the floor.
We hugged. You asked what was happening
and I didn’t tell you we were on death’s program
but instead that we were going on a journey,
one more, together, and that you shouldn’t be afraid.
When it left, death didn’t even
close our eyes.
What are we? you asked a week or year later,
Ants, bees, wrong numbers
in the big rotten soup of chance?
We’re human beings, my son, almost birds,
public heroes and secrets.

Translated by Laura Healy

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On Fawwaz Haddad’s The Unfaithful Translator

The Butterfly Dream

Fawwaz Haddad, The Unfaithful Translator, Beirut: Riyad El-Rayyes, 2008, 488 pages

In the third or fourth century BC, the Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi dreams he is a butterfly – so vividly that when he wakes, he wonders if he may in fact be one. In that case, he reasons, at this moment I must be dreaming that I am a man, which would make me a butterfly all along.

Zen koan, Sufi riddle, nursery rhyme: the trope has proven particularly popular in the post-modern literary imagination, where the constructed and the factual tend to intersect and overlap at a rudimentary level.

In the case of Al Mutarjim Al Kha’in or The Unfaithful Translator by the Syrian novelist Fawwaz Haddad, improbable events and brazenly forced plot turns – one could draw up a whole inventory of accidents and coincidences – keep the artificial side of the exchange near the surface of consciousness, a la Brecht, but at the same time, intimate descriptions of the cafes and streets of Damascus, true-to-life dialogue between the characters and the way they respond to public events like the fall of Baghdad are historically rooted and empirically tenable – to the point of being exact.

This potentially jarring medley of fact and fancy jazzes up a more or less predictable story line and gives the fundamentally moral message of the book subversive zing. But, more importantly, it manages to do so without upstaging the idea of a dual world in which dreams can be confused with reality:

Carried away by his creation, the writer wonders if the characters in his book might actually be creating him. He wonders if the alternate reality presented to him by literature might not turn out to be the real world, and his own life an invented fiction.

Like Bishop Berkeley’s claim that the tree would cease to exist if there were no one to perceive it, the Butterfly Dream is a quaint, insolvable question of little application. Yet by producing one of the language’s first coherent, full-length meta-novels, Haddad gives that central idea unprecedented and culturally specific edge. Finally the Butterfly Dream has been nationalised.

Zhuangzi, a more or less mythical figure, is now reincarnated as the Damascus-dwelling, post-millennial literary translator-cum-cultural editor-cum-ghost writer Hamid Salim (whose silent doppelgänger is of course Haddad himself): a no less mythical (or at least mythicised) figure. In his own very different way Hamdi recalls the one statement to which the Chinese philosopher’s entire contribution tends to be reduced:

Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man.”

***

As a budding poet Hamid is discouraged by the establishment critic Mohsin Ali Hassan, an autocratic Ustaz who rides the wave of “engagement theory”, making his name and gathering around him an obsequious circle of acolytes by promoting literary engagement as “a life raft to save literature from the communist octopus”. Mohsin advises Hamid to write novels, but instead the young intellectual – unbeknown to the older critic and to his chagrin – turns to the age’s most relevant intellectual endeavour: translation.

Despite his bookish inattention to matters of immediate concern – which results in his wife leaving the house (taking the children with her), and gives him the undeserved reputation of a suspicious snob among his neighbours – by the time the book opens Hamid has had a relatively successful career as a translator of English works of fiction. He is widely believed to be competent, and makes enough to support himself and his family.

The translator spends his time tortuously labouring over every last phrase in the book he happens to be working on. His talent, imagination and sense of cultural, not to say national identity force their way into the process in the form of perilously creative glosses on the original words, sentences and even entire paragraphs or sections of the book he is “transporting”, to borrow a traditional Arabic expression for translating.

But no one seems to notice that the results are inaccurate or compromised. (The dual implication is that few critics know enough English to realise, and that they would not care if they did, so long as there was nothing about the realisation to advance their careers or help them promote the party line.)

Then, in a moment of postcolonial fervour, Hamid alters the ending of a novel by an African author that he has been translating. He makes the hero break up with his western partner and return to his country instead of marrying her and staying on in the west (as he does in the original). But even then, it is only by coincidence that his climactic act of betrayal is exposed: the novel happens to win an international prize and it is consequently summarised in the Arabic press, so people notice the discrepancy between the original and the Arabic version they have read.

However cooped up in his ivory tower, Hamid has been unable to avoid the small-mindedness of the establishment, and a few months ago he defended himself against an unprovoked attack on the part of the influential if patently ignorant journalist Sherif Hosni (at some level, the Syrian equivalent of a party hack). This is Sherif’s chance to pounce back.

Sherif sets about discrediting Hamid, and he proves so efficient that in a matter of weeks Hamid can no longer find work anywhere. For a while he goes hungry because he cannot afford to buy food.

And so, through a string of encounters, reunions and recollections, amorous and detective scenarios, assumed names and identities, Hamid embarks on a series of secret jobs under three different pseudonyms (Halafawi, Hafalawi, Halafani), which take on the form of alter egos whose overbearing presence increasingly torments him.

Finally, on the point of throwing the last of his secret employers, the long unproductive author Samir Farout, over a bridge, Hamid is approached by a man who manages to stop him in his tracks. When he asks where that man came from – in the meantime Samir has managed to crawl away – the reply is, simply and shockingly, “Reality”. There is nothing in the novel to suggest that this visitor from outer space is Haddad, the author, but it is tempting to read the ending as if it were.

Now I do not know whether I was then Haddad dreaming of Hamid, or whether I am now Hamid, dreaming of Haddad.

***

And yet there is more to this enormously multifarious book than the Butterfly Dream. The notion of translation is a strong metaphor for what it means to be an intellectual in the Arab world: someone who is able to bring otherwise inaccessible culture or truth into the arena of the everyday.

Perhaps a more effective rendition of the title is Translator Betrayer (Arabic does not differentiate between the adjective and the noun), since the book is less about Hamid’s betrayal of the texts he works on than the Arab intellectual betraying his “historical role”, to borrow an expression from the nationalist rhetoric Haddad targets with his satire.

Irony upon irony: Hamid is betrayed by the Literary Mafia represented by, among others, the critic Jamil Halloum (according to Hamid’s old friend Sami, an uneducated middle-man with connections in criminal and intelligence circles, they are capable of murder in their relentless drive to cut short the rise of any genuine talent that may threaten their position).

But members of that mafia may in turn be betrayed by someone like the university professor Hakim Nafie (a possible ally whose agenda does no always chime with theirs).

Hakim becomes Hamid’s first secret employer when his scheme to improve the grades of one of his female students in return for sexual favours is discovered by Hamid’s deformed friend Mahmoud. So Mahmoud forces Hakim to employ Hamdi in order not to expose him.

Mahmoud is only a beggar- or criminal-turned-Muslim fundamentalist, but he is capable of turning this insane hierarchy on its head (at least for a while, until he is taken in by the police, apparently because another of Hamid’s employers wants him out of the way). He can threaten the personal safety of someone like Nafie.

Mahmoud is a kind of guardian angel who, wandering around the streets of Damascus, his unbearably hideous face wrapped in a scarf, gathers critical information simply by overhearing people speaking to themselves or thinking out load – as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

***

Translation is intrinsically a betrayal whether or not the translator betrays the text, but so is the charge levelled at social and political renegades in the police states of the Arab world: by breaking with the party or the leader, they become khawanah (the plural of kha’in), betrayers of the nation and, more crucially, of their own well-being. They become ostracised and go hungry.

Haddad’s main purpose in this book is to expose, through a self-referential parable sufficiently panoramic to cover the full genus of Arab Intellectual, the corruption and impotence of its full range of species. But hischoice of translation as the profession of his protagonist goes beyond its metaphorical significance. Hamid’s access to English allows Haddad to place his Damascus-bound theatre within a new-world-order context.

He juxtaposes the incredibly pan-Arab biography of Hamid’s childhood love Lailah Shouman with an imagined novel by a fictional American author named Elisabeth Markend:

Laila, also known as the new-wave poetess Lamis Abbas, author of an erotic collection poems, was married to a Palestinian freedom fighter who took her to Beirut and then Tunis, and after he was murdered she returned to take up with an Iraqi sculptor.

Translating Markend’s The Jailed Virgin, a tour de force of global espionage, western-Islamic strife and complicated love that reflects Laila’s “real-life” biography, Hamid is finally defeated by the first of his alter egos, Afif Halafawi, who manages to impose his plan to produce an accurate, almost literal translation against the betrayer’s will.

Before he forges the final plot twist, taking the whole symphony several abrupt octaves up through the paradoxically satisfying anticlimax of someone appearing from reality to prevent a fictional murder, Haddad manages to weave together all three strings of the book:

1) the satirical critique of the Arab Intellectual, a creature unable to translate culture or truth while he attends to his principal task of building petty personal glories by colluding with brute force, whether in the form of dictatorship or crime;

2) the many metonyms for this narrative term, which include Kafkaesque , Joycean and Noir registers, embodied by a cast of archetypes including, poignantly, the ostracised author Samih Hamdi, who is still working on an endlessly gargantuan novel when he dies – the cue for his one remaining heir, his spinster sister, to promptly burn the manuscript; and

3) the idea that reality, especially a reality that revolves around literature, is practically interchangeable with imagination: only through their imaginative capacity for identifying with corruption and oppression, Haddad seems to suggest, do Arab intellectuals become corrupt, oppressed and oppressive, but ultimately powerless to pursue their raison d’etre except at the most hollow rhetorical level.

Considering the size of the undertaking, Haddad’s consistency of tone and the subtle pacing with which he maintains the action, balancing each element against the other, is no mean feat.

***

Since the 1960s, at least, big fat novels like The Unfaithful Translator have been read reluctantly and frowned on for their sheer size. Notwithstanding the popularity of the short story and the novella until the 1990s, the idea is that the full-length novel is a thing of the past, reflecting societies and ways of being – French and Russian if not pre-modern – that are so temporally or geographically distant as to be irrelevant. Whether or not you share this view, there exists a pragmatic argument for not writing them: they do not encourage reading, and so they help to keep the readership small.

This may not be entirely true; the counter argument is that dedicated readers – the only kind who read novels – are unlikely to be put off by a long book; they may even treasure an accomplished intellectual project of this kind once it has captured their attention. The Unfaithful Translator is no breezy read, but the point to be made about it is that it could not have been any shorter: its power resides in the way it weaves together three apparently disparate literary projects, for only against the backdrop of Haddad’s critique of the intellectual community is the Butterfly Dream adequately incorporated into Arabic literature; and only the many intersecting dramas make the critique readable and convincing.

Somehow, despite remaining essentially a work of the mind, The Unfaithful Translator manages to leave a haunting – and naturalistic – impression in the mind. Like many Arab intellectuals in real life, there is something of the Kafkaesque arthropod about its hero, the solitary little man: lacklustre, droning, alienated and alienating. Hamid leads an isolated life, he seems to exist solely within a mental space he carved out for himself, sealed off from physical experience, human contact, and memory. Yet his sheer existence embodies a deep yearning for these very things.


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on TRANSLATION

An alphabet page from Arabic-Hebrew-Latin dict...
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My favourite monster

Youssef Rakha

There is something maddening about translation. Perhaps the right word is “eye-opening”: it makes you realise just how ­impossibly separate the mental categories of two languages can be. I speak, in particular, of Arabic and English, that double-headed monster which, staring long and hard into my intellectual looking glass, I sometimes glimpse laughing at me.

Like an invisible friend – or, rather, a ghost whisperer – that bilingual creature sits behind me every time I attempt to translate my own work, one bloated head over each shoulder, sniggering at my futile efforts to make two things into one, ­reminding me that, by working simultaneously in two languages, all I have managed to do is ­internalise some two centuries of chronic misunderstanding and mutual abuse, with the vague promise that some day, maybe, such chronic conflict will have been resolved – enough for my work to make positive, universal sense.

I write in Arabic, one version of which – the Cairo dialect – is my mother tongue. I also write in English, of course, but Arabic is the language in which I produce the poems, stories and essays that I tend to think of as my gift to posterity. And then, remembering that the vast majority of the world’s readership will have access to no such gift, I panic and berate myself for not making it available in English, which is so much more widely ­understood and appreciated.

That is when I sit down to translate my work. “Good luck,” I can almost hear the double-headed monster yelling every time, his giggles just audible enough in the background. “You will not discourage me,” I ­respond. And, armed with a range of dictionaries and the willingness to take a word out here, replace an expression there, reinvent the flow and the rhythm of the text, I sit down and block out every distraction.

Later, when I have shown the results of this exercise to ­English readers whose judgement I trust all the more because they have no Arabic, they have pointed out so many peculiarities, unclear turns of phrase and incomprehensible allusions that I have had to question my knowledge not only of ­English but of Arabic as well.

Yes, I would think, what on earth did I mean by that?

It would eventually come to my attention that, to really present my works of genius to ­English-speaking posterity, I must rewrite them entirely or, to be more precise, I must write them anew – in English. And then what will I achieve? They will have become something profoundly other than what they are, as estranged from themselves as Arabic is from English.

It is then that, glimpsing the double-headed monster in the looking glass, I have been tempted by violence. So far, I have ­resisted the temptation.

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