Matthew Chovanec: On Its Own Fucked-up Terrain

Matthew Chovanec reviews Yasser Abdel Hafez’s The Book of Safety, for which Robin Moger won the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize in 2017

Rohan Daniel Eason (copyright One Peace Books), from a children’s illustrated Kafka. Source: wired.com

Arabic novels are so frequently described as Kafkaesque or Orwellian that you’d be forgiven for thinking that the two authors were themselves Arab. It is a small wonder that noone has yet tried to uncover their secret Arab origins by etymologizing their names (قفقاء and الروال) in the way that the Turks have for Shakespeare. It is true that both of their names have become literary shorthand for a type of writing dealing with dystopia, oppressive bureaucracies, and the horrors of totalitarian society. It is also true that Arab societies have continued unabated to live through dystopias, oppressive bureaucracies, and the horrors of totalitarian society. But the label flattens out what is particular and new about so much excellent Arabic writing, and suggests that everything you need to know about the daily experience of living in a dysfunctional and cruel system can be captured by the term  “nightmarish”.

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55: Yasmine, Robin, Mohieddin

Poem 55 from a correspondence in translations of Ibn Arabi’s Tarjuman al-Ashwaq, between Yasmine Seale and Robin Moger. The first two translations are made independently and each subsequent rendering written after the other’s previous version has been sent and seen.

Khusraw discovers Shirin bathing in a pool from a 16th-century Khamsa by Nizami. Source: Wikipedia


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Y(i)

 

Distance, and desire ruins me. To meet

is no relief. Come or go, desire hardly cares.

 

Meeting him, unreckoned

things happen. In place of healing,

another ache of longing.

 

Because to meet him is to see

a person whose beauty grows

ever more abundant, proud.

 

All I can do is match my love’s ascent

To his loveliness on its measured scale.

 

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Tam Hussein: The American

Christopher Anderson, Kunduz, Afghanistan, 2001. Source: magnumphotos.com

“What do you reckon that is?” Abu Imad said, tapping the scope. He looked at me, rubbing his bushy beard thoughtfully. He wanted me to make the two-meter journey to take a look.

“I’m all right here to be honest,” I said, looking at Abu Imad’s powerful frame. In my experience, God creates two types who stay on for the long haul. Either the rugby player variety or the wiry knife wielding sort, used to taking down bigger opponents. Abu Imad belonged to the former.

“Come,” he insisted, “come.”

I didn’t really feel like giving him my opinion. I didn’t want to entertain the mad shit bouncing around his head. What’s it going to be? Either some mountain goat or a hardy plant that has somehow emerged out of this cruel valley where we’d been stuck for years. What new excitement could this brother show me? We hadn’t progressed against the enemy, not because we were weak but because the commanders were arguing sometimes over strategy, sometimes over tactics, most of the time over honour and on rare occasions about God. In spite of them, we held this crag. We were mountain lions in courage and mountain goats in stubbornness.

“Come,” he pleaded, “check it.”

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Valentina Viene Translates Ali Jazo: This Is Your City

John Vink, Phnom Penh, 26/11/2001. Source: magnumphotos.com

Abandoned bags are tossed about by the noon breeze.

Tree leaves, narrow pavements,

.

children next to shoes,

teens, out of school, are smoking.

The curls on their foreheads are so shiny

they look frozen and stiff.

.

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Robin Moger: From Ibn Arabi’s Turjuman al Ashwaq

I wish I knew

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Claudia Gerhard. Source: strkng.com

I wish I knew they knew what heart

they held. That my heart knew

what pass they tread. You wonder

Are they safe?

Or perished?

.

The enamoured are

in love adrift

ensnared.

 

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This is Robin Moger’s version of the first poem in Turjuman al Ashwaq

Robin Moger: Wadih Saadeh’s Dead Moments

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Gueorgui Pinkhassov, Bluewater Commercial Center, London, 1999. Source: magnumphotos.com

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Suddenly the sunbeam disappeared. I believe a cloud is passing over the house. Sunbeams disappear for two reasons alone: clouds hide them or it is night. And being morning, most probably a cloud is passing.

Maybe soon it will rain and I will be able to watch the rain from the window. Life is so beautiful: that circumstances allowing one can watch the rain. Mine is a water sign and I imagine that now and then a planet up in space melts and flows down in front of me. Happy notion. I pick it up and approach the window. I open the pane and look out at the cars, the arid asphalt, the weary labourers. Why do these labourers get tired? I used to get tired myself sometimes and the sweat would flow, but then I turned my back on it and for years I rested. Sweat of the brow is hateful; shameful in fact. Disgusting: rising from sleep to make oneself sweat. A car goes by leaving a light cloud of dust behind it. A cat asleep on the corner opens then shuts its eyes. I close the window and slowly make my way back.

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Writing the North African Experience: Interview with Youssef Rakha

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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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