Matthew Chovanec: When the Moist Summer Breezes Blow

Matthew Chovanec reviews Darf Publishers’ new edition of Mohammed Hussein Haikals Zainab, translated by John Mohammed Grinsted

Lower Egypt in 1885. Source: egyptianstreets.com

Darf Publishers out of London are reissuing the “classic” 1913 novel Zainab by Mohammed Hussein Haikal in John Mohammed Grinsted’s English translation. This is part of their effort to bring world literature into English. They have previously released a wide range of titles from Arabic-speaking countries as well as others in Africa, with a special focus on Libyan literature. Any effort to translate and publish more work in English is admirable, and Darf should be commended.

Given the effort to advocate and promote Arabic literature, however, why choose Zainab?

Why would any advocate of Arabic literature recommend reading a 1989 translation of an Egyptian novel written before the First World War? In the single moment of attention we could hope to wrestle away from the global English reading community, given a chance to have them look beyond Mahfouz or the copy of the Yacoubian Building they somehow got their hands on, why would we use our elevator pitch to have them read a book older than the radio? Shouldn’t our loyalty at the very least be to a living author?

There are many wonderful translators working right now, bringing us amazing novels that were just written, but Arabic is still so relegated to the margins of world literature that there is little attention to spare. Should we be saving our energy to cheerlead for Elias Khoury or Hoda Barakat to get one of the big international prizes?

There are the Arabic counterparts to these literary competitions as well, founded to help bring more attention to Arabic novels, but they often make things worse. Some capitalize on erroneous name associations, or throw around large cash prizes, but let geopolitics (or God only knows what else they’re judging by) get in the way of any serious regard for craft. They often cast light on unpolished authors while dependably missing the most interesting Arabic novels actually being written.

Even if the intended audience is much more modest than the over-indulged jet-set literary consumer, free to choose between Ferrante, Murakami and Mo Yan, but instead is the reader who already has a genuine interest in the Middle East and its history, why still would we recommend Zainab? Certainly we can’t advocate for its claim to being the first Arabic novel, as is mentioned in the now dated introduction, and every other dusty history of the emergence of the Arabic novel.

Elliott Colla has convincingly argued that the book’s crowning had mostly to do with it being in the right place at the right time during the Nasserist-era efforts to come up with a national literary canon. Its two different movie adaptations helped as well. Zainab was not the miraculous invention of the novel as a genre out of thin air, or even the first to ascribe to all of its standards.

Zaynab was not the first text to take up an interest in women and peasant romance, nor did it mark a significant departure in terms of sentimental plot, the description of the Egyptian countryside, the development of character, or the use of colloquial dialogue,” Colla wrote in 2008. It was one book among countless others of its kind being printed off for an emerging Egyptian reading public.

Putting aside the troublesome premise that one of the world’s greatest literary languages was somehow missing a crucial genre, deficient in the face of European civilization until 1913, the criteria which were used to choose Zainab as inaugural novel seem completely arbitrary considering what we are willing to call a novel today.  It’s no doubt a holdover from the good old days before cultural relativism, back when the old guard could still try at stuffing things into European moulds (fitting that the first to declare Zainab as the genesis of the Arabic novel was none other than HAR Gibb).

Even in Sabry Hafez’s 1993 “The Genesis of Arabic Narrative Discourse”, the search for origins beyond looking either at the evolution of the Maqama or its import through Western translations doesn’t go far enough in rejecting the reductionist aesthetic criteria of what makes an Arabic novel a novel. From our vantage point here in 2017, you could call Majma’ al-Bahrain a novel. At last count, the starting line has been pushed all the way back to 1855  for Shidyaq’s Leg Over Leg.

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Orientalism is not wholly to blame. European novels have a strange chronology too. Take the history of realism, for example. According to Ben Parker (and Fredric Jameson whom he’s reviewing),  the criteria that have been used to determine what is meant by a realist novel in the West until now will instantly fall apart under scrutiny. “19th-century realism is already reliably outrageous, phantasmagoric and credibility-straining”, and if you look close enough the only thing Balzac and Thomas Hardy seem to have in common is that they wrote roughly between the years 1830 and 1895.  Just as is the case with the first Arabic novel, elements like character development, the use of dialogue or subject matter are not reliable signposts for the mature narrative.

Realism was instead a period of uneasy transition between two types of narrative: the traditional forms of storytelling like the Bible or medieval romance, and new strategies for describing experience and sensation which were emerging in the 19th century. This struggle between showing vs. telling also had to do with the effort to illuminate historical processes: the attempt to make sense of the social world on the one hand, and the attempt to fully describe personal sensory experience and habits of mind on the other. The harsh truths of life vs. intense self-awareness.  It is more helpful to think about realism not as the unmistakeable presence of a set of classic features, but as an open-ended compromise, a tension arising between these narrative approaches.

We could say the same of the first Arabic novels: the long shift from

حَدّثَنَا عِيسَى بْنُ هِشَامٍ قَالَ

to

ولم يمض وقت طويل حتى أحسست كأن ثلجاً يذوب في دخيلتي

***

Arabic novels in the beginning of the 20th century were struggling to show peasant realities, to advocate for social reform and the rights of women, and to do so using some other voice than that of stern journalistic didacticism. The solution, as noticed by many, was often sentimentality.

For his part, Haikal brought a heavy dose of nostalgia to his writing of Zainab, composed while living abroad in Paris. His recollections of the Egyptian countryside often haze over the harsh realities of rural ignorance and exploitation: meandering passages about the harmony between female beauty and the dawning of a new day interspersed with details of primitive wage labour and the ills of arranged marriage.

It was one of those wonderful sleepless nights when the moist summer breezes blow and shining stars glitter in the sky. The farm labourers compensated for their inability to travel like the rich by going instead to the most beautiful plots of land where they would substitute their blankets for the protection of the sleepless moon.

Countless summaries of the book have pointed out the abundance of pastoralism in the novel, the way they unnecessarily crowd in around the tragic plot of Zainab’s arranged marriage and Hamid’s pontifications about social progress. But why should we be so put off by these passages, or consider them extraneous? As John Mohammed Grinsted says, “the often beautiful descriptions of nature help the narrative to flow at a natural pace and gives the reader the feeling that he or she is actually experiencing some of the day to day events with which the story is inextricably interwoven.” To paraphrase Jameson, they are the attempt by the author to balance linear story-time with impersonal presence: realism’s attempted compromise.

It’s important for us to be reminded of this attempt at striking a middle ground, to remember that it is what lies behind what we might so often dismiss as sentimentality: it was an attempt to share an authentic experience which was at the same time a social injustice. In this regard, Zainab is particularly successful. The novel makes even the passages about weeding cotton fields feel visceral and personal.

Zainab and her sister stayed behind, waiting for Ibrahim who would accompany them to Sayyid Mahmoud’s lands in order to weed the cotton fields. They were hoping today to clear the land to the west of the canal or, as the chief clerk had said: ‘From Section 20 to Section 14 … by Tomorrow!’

The reader can wince at the expectation of weeding so much land, the immensity of the task and the paltry wage to be gained for it,  because they have already sat in the same field on a star-filled night. Written in a more innocent age, at least as far as novel writing goes, Zainab is allowed be earnest and patient with its descriptions, and indulgent with its feelings. We could stand to learn from the novel today, with most fiction now either keeping its ironic, over-written distance or becoming mass-market melodrama. To read Zainab is to remember a time when the novel was (relatively) new, when novelty could excuse such unabashed sentimentality as:

Her beauty mingled with the beauty around her so that existence itself seemed to admire her and she in turn became ever more enamoured with her love for the world.

There have been many recent debates on sentimentality in literature, and attempts to rehabilitate it. If given the proper attention, perhaps sentimentality could continue to hold open the creative tension in works like Zainab, which attempt to take readers to a troubled social world and hold them there in the moment; to put them in the fields.

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By merit of its publishing so many books from Africa  (I myself admit I’d never before seen a book by an Eritrean author), Darf clearly seems committed to advocating for voices from the Global South. All of us interested in Arabic literature are aware of how often we find ourselves promoting novels which are mainly vehicles for bearing witness to the horrors of war and mass migration, or evidence to counteract prejudice and cultural misconceptions. But without the authenticity of feeling, these types of novels can quickly become souped up versions of journalism.

Reading Zainab in translation is a helpful way to remember that it is supposed to be a special ability of the novel’s, as it originally emerged, to hold up sobering facts and experiential intensity in a delicate balance.