At least two Ramadan series this year are based around literature:
It’s hardly Ramadan without a new Naguib Mahfouz adaptation. This one is based on a short story, “The Vagrant” or “al-Shareeda,” which was already adapted into a 1980 film starring Najla Fathy and directed by Mahmoud Yassin.
That film, according to IMDB, is about “a bitter divorce between a well educated young woman and an illiterate rich man,but her ungratefulness makes her revisit the past and what he did for her sake to end her poverty despite the gap in their education status.”
In the story, one of Mahfouz’s early works, a woman marries a man who’s sex-obsessed. Soon after the wedding night, he returns to the clubs, and he goes so far as to come home with his girlfriend while both of them are drunk. The wife becomes quasi-homeless, searches for another man who can replace her husband. One GoodReads reviewer said she was really curious to know how they could spin this out into an entire Ramadan series.
This series seems to turn the story into a story of star-crossed love between two Cairenes — Abed Fahed and Nadine Najeem — from different social classes.
According to The National, “This is one of the biggest productions of this year’s Ramadan season. The local drama follows the life of the Emirati poet Al Majdi bin Dhaher (d. 1623) as he works on the first collections of prose that would go on to be described as Nabati poetry. The drama…looks at what would become the UAE in a time when the major sources of income were pearl diving, fishing and boat building.” It appears on abudhabitv.ae.
Also according to The National: “Among the most renowned Nabati poets in the UAE is Al Majidi Bin Dhaher, who died in 1623. His poetry recorded many regional events, as he lived in Ras Al Khaimah. He was known for writing improvised poetry and starting his poems with reference to himself, saying: “Al Fahim Al Majidi Bin Dhaher says” and then continuing his poem.”
English PEN has just officially launched a new “online zine dedicated to international writing”:
The new zine, called PEN Transmissions, promises to feature a new themed issue each month, “featuring original writing and interviews” from around the world.
The magazine launches with two issues. Its first, called “Women 2018,“ focuses (unsurprisingly) on women’s writing. The second, “Hope After Crisis,” promises to “question what happens to hope after a political crisis,” and featured work includes Basma Abdel Aziz’s “A revolution awaiting its name,” with no translator listed. It opens:
People used to call it the ‘Arab Spring’: the Egyptian revolutionary movement, which started in January 2011, following the Tunisian one, spread to other nearby countries, and constituted a huge unexpected mass uprising.
Seven years on from this movement, the flowers have gradually faded, the sunrise we once thought permanent has been replaced with a sunset, and hundreds of thousands of smiles have disappeared into the cloudy atmosphere.
In a prepared release, Theodora Danek, English PEN’s Writers in Translation program manager, said:
There are so many brilliant international writers, and we always want to hear – and read! – more from them. At English PEN we are lucky to be in touch with authors from across the globe. In an increasingly polarised world, we want to give voice to writers who aren’t necessarily heard in the mainstream or outside the borders of their countries. That’s why we created PEN Transmissions: a platform for international writers, both established and new.
English PEN’s director, Antonia Byatt, added that the magazine is meant to be “a place for discovery and sharing – of new writing, of new ideas, of important issues that concern us all.”
On Monday, Lebanese government censors stopped a theatrical reading that was part of Beirut Pride events. Pride coordinator Hadi Damien was held in police custody overnight and forced to sign a statement cancelling the rest of Beirut Pride‘s events:
Three days of Pride events — scheduled for May 12-20, 2018 — had already gone off. A reading was scheduled for the evening of May 14: an Arabic reading of Yann Verbugh’s playtext Ogres, which is billed as a “journey to the heart of homophobia in our world today.” The reading was organized in collaboration with the Zouzak Theatre Company, L’Institute Français, and L’Institut Français du Liban.
Then, organizers said, they received a surprise notice that the reading could not go forward. From a statement:
…at 8:10 pm, I received a call from Zoukak Studio informing me that elements of the censorship bureau at the General Security were in the venue, refusing the reading to take place without prior censorship approval.
Although Lebanese theatrical productions usually pass through the country’s censorship bureau — as highlighted by Lucein Bourjeily’s play Bto2ta3 aw ma Bto2ta2? (Is It Permitted or Not?) — readings generally do not. As Pride organizers wrote in their statement:
It is worth mentioning that the censorship pass is the approval of the censorship bureau at the General Security of any show, from which are exempted text readings. Studio Zoukak had asked the censorship bureau if the reading of “Ogres” required any prior censorship, which the bureau negated.
According to organizers, they considered holding the reading elsewhere. Then Beirut Pride coordinator Hadi Damien was told to go to the police station, where he was held in detention overnight:
We discussed the idea of moving the reading venue to a private residence, for the political symbolism of the move, its resistance nerve and for the respect of the effort invested on the evening. The discussion was interrupted when elements from the Vice Police entered the hall, asking me to immediately accompany them for investigation.
There, Damien was confronted with an aggressively badly translated version of the Beirut Pride program. The lineup of events was set to include poetry readings, sexual-health workshops, iftar, and more. Afterwards, the Public Prosecutor apparently offered him two bad options:
The first one is to cancel all the events of Beirut Pride that are scheduled until May 20, sign a pledge that assures the activities will not take place and to release me after I sign a residence document off. The second alternative is to cancel all the events of Beirut Pride that are scheduled until May 20, and not to sign the above-mentioned pledge, so I be referred to the investigation judge who will interrogate me on the basis of articles pertaining to the incitement to immorality and to the breach of public morality for coordinating the activities.
According to the AP, “There was no immediate comment from the police.”
Poet Saleh Diab recently edited a bilingual, French-Arabic, anthology of Syrian poetry:
By Daniel Behar, Hussein Bin Hamza
Saleh Diab. Photo credit: Michel Nachef.
Saleh Diab’s recently published bilingual anthology in French and Arabic consecrates the Syrian contribution to Arab poetics and world poetry. This selection was compiled and translated over the course of more than eight years. In this interview, Diab presents his views about the place of Syrian poets in modern Arabic poetry, discloses his criteria of selection as an anthologist, and addresses the importance of translating poetry of high aesthetic merit from Syria in the current context of the proliferation of shallow media images of the country and its arts. He also speaks of his own personal investment in reading and translating these poems, offering by the way a poetic theory of translation.
The interview was first published March 20, 2018 in Ḍaffa Thalitha, the cultural supplement of the UK-based news platform al-Arabi al-Jadid and is translated with the author’s permission. I have also added seven poems from the anthology in my own translation into English.
PhD Candidate, Harvard University
Saleh Diab: My anthology tries to throw light on Syria’s most beautiful face
By Hussein Bin Hamza
Since the beginning of his career, Saleh Diab has been busying himself with poetry. Not only in writing, but also in reading poetry and keeping up-to-date with it, in studying the history of Arab poetics and its modern developments that went off in various currents and included varieties of experiences and idioms. Saleh, who lives in Paris, published several collections of poetry: A Dry Moon Watches over My Life (1998), Greek Summer (2006), You Go for Me with a Knife, I Go for You with a Dagger (2009), and I Went Through My Life (J’ai visité ma vie, 2013). Aside from his own work, Saleh has also translated and written scholarship on poetry. He wrote a Doctoral Thesis on modern Arabic poetry, a Master of Advanced Studies thesis on “Arab Women Poets after Nazik al-Mala’ika”, in addition to a Master’s thesis on “the Body in the Poetry of Arab Women.”
His latest book, Contemporary Syrian Poetry (Poésie Syrienne Contemporaine, Le Castor Astral, 2018), recently appeared in French from Le Castor Astral (with a beautiful, expressive cover by the artist Youssef Abdelke). It is an anthology of modern Syrian poetry, and as anthologies tend to do, the book has already begun to draw responses and controversy. I talked to Saleh about this anthology and the ways in which it proposes to read Syrian poetry today:
Hussein Bin Hamza: What is the importance of publishing an anthology of Syrian poetry today?
Saleh Diab: The book claims the title of “Contemporary Syrian Poetry”, and so, this anthology cuts across a country called Syria, and opens up to the Arab world in its entirety. The horizon is distinctly an Arab horizon. Its importance lies in the fact that it tries to fill a gap, pave a road yet untraveled by French readers and scholars, a different road leading to modern Arabic poetry. Syrian poets opened crossings and paved paths, molded styles and discovered untouched poetic terrains in Arab poetics. Had we omitted three of them: Adonis, Muhammad al-Maghut and Nizar Qabbani, Arabic poetry would have probably looked very different today. The three of them crumbled traditional literary trends and invented new poetic sensibilities, initiated deviations, and started esthetic and artistic coups. However, in my mind, there is no stylistically particular Syrian poetry distinct from the poetry written in neighboring Arab countries. There are no multiple Arab poeticities. There is only one Arab poeticity. Individual poets, in multiple poetic idioms, are included in this poeticity. Syrian poetry had been formed in close connection with poetry in Lebanon, Iraq and Egypt, and is therefore part of an all-inclusive picture which is the picture of Arabic poetry. An anthology of poetry written in Syria is a poetic event on an Arab scale, and not an exclusively Syrian affair. And yet it presents a different image of Syrians, an image expressing the most beautiful gifts they gave to the Arab world and the world at large.
HBH: Do you think the anthology is an esthetic, poetic intervention in response to what is happening in Syria in the past seven years? Was this your intention, and if so, how?
SD: When I started working on the anthology, I had no political purpose whatsoever. I was thinking about it long before the war. In the beginning, I started translating poems by Arab poets into French to assess the measure of their poetic strength in a different language. For the last ten years, I have also been translating Arab poets into French and vice versa for the purpose of poet gatherings here in France. During a conversation with my thesis mentor, he pointed out to me that a gap in the French library needs to be filled by producing an anthology of modern Arabic poetry in French, and that’s what I have been working on for years.
As any anthology, my selections aim to preserve and consecrate a certain poetics, to single it out and dwell on it, to include it and exclude other things. What stood before me was how to present the most dynamic models in a poetic movement and among poetic texts in Syria over a century. I did not merely choose poets by name, and did not randomly select poems to go with each poet, but carefully selected poems that spoke to me, poems I’ve grown friendly with. I hung many of them on the walls of the rooms where I lived, and many have remained in my memory. I was determined to present French readers with what was most innovative in the Syrian poetic lab. I selected them after reading the full works of each poet, with precision, care, and inventiveness like someone arranging a bouquet of flowers, coming back home in the evening after a walk and setting it on the table. That’s what the Greek term “anthology” originally means.
But in the face of human savagery and the collapse of all moral values, the pathetic role changes between victims and executors, martyrs and mercenaries, the widespread organized barbarities, the exploitation of the poor as firewood in the war’s furnace, I wanted to present these Arab esthetic achievements through their Syrian example and its human depth in defiance of the proliferation of greedy political propagandists and blood merchants in the media presenting shallow kitsch as great Syrian literature. I wanted to convey to French readers a voice other than the fake voices spread by politicians, NGOs, and certain political parties. The other voice, which is being purposely erased, and which I celebrate, is the real Syrian poetic voice. It is the face of Syrians and their name.
HBH: Are French readers also the target audience for this vision, in particular since that the book is published in a French press that specializes in poetry?
SD: Of course. But the translations are not meant solely for those who can’t read Arabic. They are also for readers versed in Arabic poetry, who make themselves into translators while reading, since the book is printed in both languages.
It is very important, of course, that the book is printed in a publishing house that specializes in poetry, with distribution in both France and Francophone countries, a non-partisan publishing house which has been one of the central publishers loyal to poetry for over forty years. That gives the book a good name, a sense of recognition from poetry specialists and the literary community outside the ideological interests and the profit-seeking tokenization of the Syrian tragedy. It is also supported by the National Book Center (CNL) that consists of expert reader professors, who allowed the book to see light. I’ve prepared for French readers those poems in which the imprint of translations from European poetry is most visible. Hopefully, these foreign texts will be received so that they can have an afterlife through their French reader, who is invited to see the other, the foreign, up-close, and enter deep into the other’s culture through poetry. In the wrinkles of these poems we may find the esthetics of European poetry, but the Arab poets drank it all up and sank it in their own poetics. To re-introduce it in Arab form to its French readers involves us in a process of role-exchange between self and other. That’s one of the traits of translation. Here the languages meet on an equal level where there is no dominating and dominated language.
HBH: As in any selection or any anthology, some experiences are embraced and some are put aside. What happened in this anthology and according to what standards?
SD: Of course, certain esthetic and artistic criteria preceded the choices I made. These criteria are a fruit of my subjective reading and my personal views on poetry. I do not measure poetry by ideologies. This is an anthology, but it is also a unified book, and it should be read from start to finish. I chose the names based on chronologic succession, pausing to examine the relative poetic position occupied by the experience of each poet. Like any anthology, it presents the reader with a number of deliberate choices. It is an anthology, not an encyclopedia or lexicon or a comprehensive survey of each and every poet. A bouquet of chosen poems and choice depends on taste. I chose poets for whom poetry was an existential concern, poets who raised fundamental questions about its meanings and techniques, who addressed the relation between poet and self, poet and world, poet and cultural heritage, absorbing the poetic accomplishments of predecessors and contemporaries, those who turned esthetic achievements into personal ones and tried to go beyond these achievements each in his own way, poets who gave personal experience a central place in their poetics. The language of these poets is free from direct, provocative sloganizing, whether ideological, sexual, religious, or morally didactic. These poets put their heart, soul and life into their poetic experience and saw poetry as an act of belief, a dynamic identity open to the future. They went a long way in inventing new forms of expression. I set aside those texts that read like rhetorical or sentimental writing exercises, and those whose language was too descriptive or too much like newspeak.
I did not consider gender either. Poetry is a literary genre and not a social condition. There is nothing poetic in making one quota for men and another for women. There was only one quota and that was poetry. Arabic poetry is indebted in its spaces and forms to many translations that were lifted to the status of originals. True poetry is universal in nature. I think that I chose the poems whose humanizing vision and language structures intersect with my reading in world poetry. There are poems in dialogue with translations from Rilke, Ritsos, Vaptsarov, Saint-John Perse and Attila. I translated what I liked. A translator is a crossroads, a transmitter of thoughts, poetic values and cultural goods. From “there” to “here”. But translators must find something precious to translate, something of poetic value urging them to insert the other into the self and open the “here” onto “there”, the other onto the self and vice versa, in a process of back and forth between two cultures and languages. I’m frankly baffled by the objections of some people to my selection on moral grounds, by the grumbling about the absence of X’s relatives, friends or loved ones, and by the complaints that I didn’t include enough of Y’s poems, or the demands that I drop a quarter of the anthology because Z has a political dispute with the one of the authors. No one can take my place and read these poems like I did. Taking that away from me would be like robbing me or changing my title. They are asking you to play active part in a book which carries your signature, the anthology of your precious flowers which you want to dedicate to your loved one. These poems called out for me to translate them with their rich offering of poetic value and esthetic merit. Translation requires humble men and women who will hug other people’s poems with affection and celebrate them as if they were their own.
HBH: It should be noted that you decided to include almost none of the poets of 1960s. Why?
SD: I did not construct the collection generationally. In my opinion, poetry has nothing to do with this kind of periodization. I think, though, that what by agreement is called “the sixties generation” of Syrians can be divided into three groups: the first group is of poets who derive from the esthetics of the Adonisian poem and recycle it. These poets do not interrogate his poetic language and go beyond it, but simply imitate it. The second group intersects with “resistance” poetry and has artistic structures similar to those of Nizar. These poets went in the direction of socio-historical writing with clear messages. In my opinion, these are two traditionalist groups that wanted to be derivative rather than creative or generative. They re-used what had already been produced with formal variations and took on forms of expressions drawn from predecessors or contemporaries. As for the third group, these are the poets who displayed genuine poetic consciousness and whose writing goes beyond the two other groups. They looked to writing as an extension of their bodies and souls. This would be the group of Syrian poets who budded and flourished in the free air of Beirut. They discovered new poetic forms, developed new methods of writing, and opened up to the world. Until now when I read the poems of this group I sense their faithfulness to poetry. They saw poetry as a kind of inner creative process whereby ordinary seeing transforms into vision that establishes a connection with inner life, reassembles the world and creates it anew. This group posed fundamental questions about the identity of Arabic poetry, the relation of poet to self, poet to world, poet to language and turāth. Questions of life and death that embrace the cosmos. The poet is revealed in their poem as responsible not only for himself but for the entire world. Their poetry speaks to me even today.
HBH: From the eighties and nineties, you decided for the work of poets emerging from the University of Aleppo forum. Why didn’t you include any poetic experience from the third millennium?
SD: I don’t consider poetry through the generational lens. Badawi al-Jabal’s poems speak to me far more than those of the third millennium. Again, the anthology is not constructed generationally. The city of Aleppo served in the 1980s as a literary workshop that greatly enriched Syrian literature, and the University of Aleppo literary forum is, in my opinion, the last Syrian experimental lab in terms of poetry and literature. The forum’s poets showed a sharp poetic consciousness and despite the paucity of their poetic production, they wrote poems of lasting value. Their poeticism interrogated the poetics of Shi‘r magazine as well as the poetics of the seventies, or what is known as the poetics of orality [al-qasida al-shafawiyya]. They also benefited from some of the poetic experiences in Lebanon of the late 1970s, opened up to translated world poetry, and re-connected with the Arab cultural heritage. The strongly posed questions of genre: prose, poetry and turāth, the relation of poetry to reality, the task of the poet and his relation to politics and esthetics. Their poems are timeless, belonging to human time and human place. They were not seeking after fame or publication because they thought that a poet can write only one book of poetry in his lifetime, or even one poem that carries his language and particular esthetic stamp.
In my opinion, the problem of third millennium poets, as you call them, is first and foremost with reading. They have not read carefully enough the history of the modern Arab poetic movements, starting from Gibran and Rihani passing through Shi‘r magazine and the Iraqi innovators, and ending with the Kirkuk group and other Syrian and Lebanese poets. Their writings reveal the limitations of their poetic consciousness. The main stumbling block in their discourse is the ways in which they use language and poetic speech. They write in esthetic molds that have already been tried and exhausted. Their writing is conformist in this sense, and recycles phrases, patterns, sentences and methods that have been used up.
HBH: In the anthology’s French section, your translations seem to give off a whiff of artistic composition. The mere preference for certain kinds of experience is a bias informed by personal taste. Translation thus elevates personal taste to the level where it merges with artistic composition, or in the lesser estimate, carries over esthetic molds. Does the pleasure of publishing this book lie there in the end?
SD: The translator is the author’s double and his shadow-figure. He plays a kind of shadow game of mirroring with respect to the original. The translator has to follow in the footsteps of the poet, to keep pace with him [literally: to stay hoof to hoof with the poet]. Translating, he both reads and writes. Or more precisely, he labors to attain an image from the original poem. Reading and writing meet in the process of translating. The translated text belongs to the author but the image belongs to the translator. That’s why there is a copyright law to protect the rights of translators, because this image is the property of the translator, not the author. Translation is a form of writing. It allowed me to enter the most intimate mihrāb (prayer niche) of poets and see what concerns them and matters to them in the finest detail of their creative work. It made me read their texts deeply and understand them. I would not have been able to translate them with ordinary reading. Perhaps I had a certain desire to possess the poems I love through translation. Maybe I was dreaming I could become all the poets I translate. In translation reading and writing cross paths and come together, a meeting enshrined in love. I have created versions of the poems and have tried to come as close as I can to the original texts. I’ve made an effort to infuse the spirit of the poems in different bodies of language. I have caused them to transmigrate and live in other bodies.
Ultimately, I think that the horizon of this anthology is distinctly human. The poems I chose do not belong to a specific time and place, but to human place and human time. When I read them, I don’t think of form and content, but of an enormous existential joy. The poems are no longer verbal constructs in language but amulets interpreting for me a mysterious world, to which I find no final explanation.
By Saleh Diab
Translated by Daniel Behar
We have a country
where we left our friends
tangled together in sorrows
or picturing snow
hoping for the hilltops of their solitude to whiten
What can we do
underneath a foreign sky
but listen to forgetfulness
as it embroiders our lives
but regret adequately
in the open air
and dry up
From: A Dry Moon Watches over My Life, Beirut, 1998
Place of Refuge
By Nazih Abu Afash
Translated by Daniel Behar
Whenever you see a group of people agree on the Word of Truth,
know for sure that you – you, the singular person – will be the scapegoat.
He discovered suddenly that Gaza had a sea — a big sea, too. It was blue — like a dark-colored painting — and in the evening the sun resembled a giant orange plunging into the watery abyss as it disappeared into the sea.
This book, a harrowing a memorable chronicle of family life during a siege, was written during the 2014 bombardment of Gaza. The excerpt on LitHub opens:
The children have barely slept in days. Nor has anyone. Sometimes a couple of hours just isn’t enough, especially when the little sleep you get is stretched thin with anxiety. Worry plays like a lightning storm behind your eyelids whenever you close them. Only when that stops do your hands start to relax. Then, finally, sleep starts to gather around you, slowly, like a gentle whirlwind, circling you and your loved ones.
‘I do not want to be a number’ – Atef Abu Saif in The Slate.
‘The Children Have Barely Slept’ – Atef Abu Saif in Guernica Magazine.
‘We wait each night for death to knock at the door’ – Atef Abu Saif in The Sunday Times.
‘Life Under Fire: Five Days in Gaza’ – from Atef Abu Saif’s war diary in The Guardian.
‘Eight Days in Gaza: Life and Death in the Gaza Strip’ – from Atef Abu Saif’s war diary in The New York Times.
3. Discussing Book of Gaza, the collection of Gazan short stories he edited, and to which he was also a contributor (2014).
Atef Abu Saif discusses Gazan literature and The Book of Gaza - YouTube
The reader, Nassir al-Sayeid al-Nour writes, “is submerged in the various fluctuating characters’ names, memories, ambitions and existential mess” in Egyptian author Mansoura Ez Eldin’s Shadow Specters (2017):
By Nassir al-Sayeid al-Nour
The acclaimed Egyptian novelist Mansoura Ez Eldin, in her 2017 novel Ikhyla’t Alzil (Shadow Specters), interleaves imagination and true events, and thus conquers the status quo of reality, such that it doesn’t matter whether a narrative event is historically or imaginatively presented.
The novel’s ostensible starting point is a comparative narration in two dimensions: the physical space between Cairo and Prague, and the psychic space between the main characters (Adam, Camelia, others). Ez Eldin’s works have focused thematically on place as a main discursive stream, fueling the entire text. The pivotal role of place in making a narrative body articulates its own story and underpins the gravity of the unfolding series of events, which she meticulously inscribes.
Characters in the novel have been virtually created to be thrown into their uncertain destinies in the present, in history, and possibly in the anticipated place. The reader is submerged in the various fluctuating characters’ names, memories, ambitions and existential mess. In so doing, just a single bunch on the Vltava River creates a constellation of secret lives sprung out to the other parallel places such as Cairo, Seattle, and Dresden. A complete set of historical events contextualize the main theme. Indeed, the writer emphatically invests her experimental tool without completely disassociating from the conventional novelistic writing standard. It is, however, common practice for a writer to be challenged and pressured by background knowledge into fostering a narrative structure, without which the entirely narrative project would fatally collapse.
It is embedded in Camellia’s memory that we find place, which is a blatant position of connecting with other genres in respect to chronological events. The novel manages to constantly drive the narrative to accompany the thematic conflicts, shaped by the main characters, who are in turn shaping the novel’s imaginative worlds. It is an attempt to create layers of writing from within so implicitly that it’s as if the narrator tirelessly tried to express what can be conceived of as inner text, disclosing that “I have been thinking that writing is essentially something like chasing and playing with a mirage, by transforming the physical reality into an imaginative, elusive one…”
While the second such quotation depicts a surrealistic image, it sparks a dichotomous linking of two different axes in the novelistic discourse, underlining the chronotope concept coined by linguist Mikhail Bakhtin—a combination of time and space inside the novelistic discourse.
Ez Eldin has mapped a narrative mosaic, embracing a rich space inhabited by various elements to include places, events, and objects in encyclopedic manner. Detailed descriptions are useful in clarifying supporting components and in making a novelistic text readable and audible; this justifies the overlapping images presented in this novel, where a range of taxonomy of trees, birds, customs, mythology and cultural motifs are all synchronously at work.
The novel examines the writer’s own technique of sorting out a representation of reality without imitating it, as a way of reproducing inartistic and other undesirable or narrative-less elements. In particular, the novel manages successfully to bring the non-imitative to become fully narrated, giving life to expository relationships between the narrative characters and their adopted common habits in writing that describes events more powerfully than the events themselves. Eventually, Ez Eldin shines a spotlight on the vague and esoteric events and characters that all develop logically, by the light of their own worldviews.
Nassir al-Sayeid al-Nour is a Sudanese translator and researcher.
Best-selling and boundary-challenging Kuwaiti novelist Bothayna al-Essa gave a commencement speech at Kuwait University this spring. In it, she spoke about her personal journey with literature and how she found her voice:
By Bothayna al-Essa
Translated by M Lynx Qualey
Life is unpredictable. When I was asked to give this commencement speech, I smiled. Perhaps my life hasn’t gone exactly as planned, but let me begin at the beginning.
I was a bookworm, so naturally it wasn’t hard for me to get excellent grades. When you get excellent grades, the system classifies you. And suddenly, the world is separated into two groups: the Department of Science and Mathematics, for those with excellent grades, and the Department of Arts and Humanities, for those who don’t want to make much of an effort. Or at least that’s how it seemed to us then. Hard sciences were inexplicably “superior” to the human sciences. Math was the master of all knowledge, and literature and philosophy were for those who didn’t earn a place in the other colleges.
And I was a bookworm: not just hungry for novels and stories, but for textbooks, too. From my first to final encounter with my supervisor in high school—from the moment she’d looked at my “excellent” grades—she decided that I must study science or mathematics. At the time, I thought: Who am I to challenge the system? The system has my best interests at heart. I must be good at science and math, even if my heart throbs with joy from the phrasings in Arabic class, or when tasting a new word in English, or even in French. Even if I loved that astounding human invention they call language, I had been classified. I was in the Department of the Sciences, with those fortunates on whom the future of humanity depended.
When I’d finished high school, it seemed only logical that someone like me should study medicine. Since this was what everyone expected from me, who was I to let them down? When teachers, family members, and friends all told me that I was a future doctor, who was I to question what everyone else could see? I decided to study medicine, in the beginning, to avoid the public humiliation of a lesser specialty like linguistics, psychology, philosophy, or—God forbid—literature and literary theory. I could see their heads shaking when I imagined what would happen if I, God forbid, gave up their rosy dreams about my life. My life. Who am I in the end? The important thing is society, and society had already decided that I would be a doctor. Their dreams lay heavily on me, because these were the dreams of the many. I did not discover my dreams until later.
In med school, things were well-suited to a book worm. My grades were either excellent or very good. But in English class, I had a panic attack as we read about the nomenclature of the finger joints, and I learned the names of each. I wondered if I had to memorize, from that day, the names of my knuckles. No problem, I could memorize them easily, but then, if I did, then we’d go on to the names of the bones, cartilage, glands, and hormones… When would I read something I loved? The idea that I couldn’t read novels broke my heart.
I disrupted class that day. My English teacher, Professor Huber, asked me to take a walk, since I was creating a disturbance. Suddenly, I’d become the troublemaker in the classroom. When I stepped out of the room, I breathed a sigh of relief, and I realized I’d been suffocating for a while. But I said to myself: Get ahold of yourself! You have to find the will to keep going. You’re not the type who surrenders. You belong here, everyone says so.
I decided to rediscover my motivation. Back then, I didn’t know that I was trying to borrow the motivations of others, to continue on the path they’d set out for me. The only idea that seemed reasonable, at the time, was to visit the morgue and sit among the bodies, so I could find within me the voice that called out for me to save humanity from disease. And so there I was…sitting among the bodies that had been purchased from Eastern Europe, the bodies of the poor, their families having been forced to sell them to med schools for a few dollars. There was a woman’s body, and it seemed to me that she would’ve been very beautiful when she was alive. She had thin hands with long, soft fingers. I looked at her carefully, wondering: Why don’t I feel I’m in the right place, as everyone says I am?
I left the morgue. In truth, I was thrown out. The anatomy professor arrived with a group of fourth-years and asked if I were a student in his class. When I answered that I wasn’t, he shouted, “Get out of here!” And I did. I left the morgue, the med school, and the fate they’d decided for me.
And while I’d forever abandoned the dreams and aspirations the community had for me, I still didn’t know what to do. And to be honest, I was ashamed at the idea of people saying I’d switched from studying medicine to studying literature. That would be a true defeat from the point of view of the system, and, those days, I was still suffering from the illness of caring about what others might think.
I chose to study business administration, as it seemed to me the middle ground between the world of science and the world of literature. It was a place that was respected and acceptable, which was something I needed in those days of vulnerability and fear. And one secret reason, that I’ve never told anyone, is that I could sit in the last row of class and read the novels I love, while at the same time maintaining excellent grades. I studied business administration, read novels in secret, and kept my head above water.
Even in those days, my literary self was a source of shame. It was something I didn’t want to announce, even though it was clearly apparent, even in passing discussions. It appeared in my language, lexicological choices, and narrative ideas. Everyone knows when they’re in the presence of someone who reads. It was an identity that had long been denied.
I received my bachelor’s degree in finance. I went on to do my MBA, because being a government functionary would force me to play solitaire for six hours a day, in addition to what you’d already know about gossip and small conversations that went nowhere. This was nothing like books, where each line took you somewhere, but… Then reality tightened its grip on me.
I felt my heart tense every time I pressed a finger to the machine where we signed in and out. For eight years, I did things I didn’t like: management reports, committees and teams, liquidity analyses, asset ratios, surpluses and deficits, shifting from a cash-basis system of accounting to an accrual system. I knew these things, and knew them well, but I didn’t like them. It took me sixteen years to acknowledge what I wanted to do with my life: to read and write literature. No more, no less.
Courtesy of Takween.
I resigned from my job. I grew Takween: It’s become a bookshop, a publishing house, and a platform for dialogue. I spend all the hours of my day among the books. I read books, write books, talk about books, and sell books. Sixteen years later, I got the job of my dreams, but I think it all began on the day that teacher kicked me out of class, and I sat among those bodies in the morgue.
That day, for the first time, I decided to listen to my inner voice and to say no to the dictates of others, no matter how sweetly and lovingly given.
And here I am today, here…at a graduation ceremony, and am I supposed to give you advice? The idea itself is amusing, or perhaps more than that, frightening. Who am I to tell you what to do, and what am I to say? So Darwish said. I’ve lived a life of trials, a series of struggles between right and wrong, until I was able to find that voice, that voice I haven’t lost since that day. It gets clearer every day. It’s a voice I will never lose, because it’s the only compass I have. It tells me constantly: who I am, what I’m supposed to do.
So if there’s any advice I can give you, it’s this: find this voice, and never let it go. Science, literature, business administration, philosophy, art, and cooking are all invaluable manifestations of human knowledge, and what we really need, at a time like this, is for each of us to find a place we love. Everything we say about productivity, change, reform, fighting corruption, and saving the world is impossible without that voice.
Our destinies unfold, or are determined, as much by our courage in doing what we love as in being what we love.
Congratulations on your graduation. The real adventure has just begun…and I wish you all a wonderful journey.
Buthaina al-Essa is the founder of the Takween platform, publishing house, and bookshop. She is author of more than a dozen books, the most recent of which was Everything. She’s won two State Encouragement Awards and been longlisted for the Sheikh Zayed Book Award.
Submissions for the ArabLit Story Prize are set to close May 15. This is a reminder that there is no minimum word count, and that flash and microfiction are particularly welcome:
The ArabLit Story Prize is an award for the best short stories, in any genre, newly translated from Arabic into English. Translators must have rights to the work, and translations must have been previously unpublished.
Stories will be judged primarily on the quality of the translated work as a thing-in-itself, although translators must also submit the Arabic original, as this must be a translation, not a loose adaptation nor a work written originally in English.
Submissions open: February 15, 2018 at 5 a.m. GMT.
Submissions close: May 15, 2018 at midnight GMT.
Submissions address: email@example.com.
Submission materials must include: 1) Cover letter with the name of author, translator, story, and length. 2) The story in translation, rendered as 2000 words or fewer in English, attached as a Word document. 3) The story in the original Arabic, preferably in the same Word document. 4) Some evidence you have the rights to translate and publish this story, such as an email from the author or a scanned note.
Note: It is preferable that you do not put author or translator’s name on the attached works. In any case, names will be stripped off before they are sent to judges.
Questions about submissions can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
The shortlist of five stories will be announced on September 10, 2018.
The winner will be announced on October 10, 2018.
The judges are novelist, short-story writer, and critic Maan Abu Taleb (All the Battles, tr. Robin Moger); award-winning translator Thoraya El Rayyes (co-winner of 2014 University of Arkansas Arabic Translation Award for her translation of The Perception of Meaning); novelist and commentator Ruqaya Izzidien(The Watermelon Boys, forthcoming Hoopoe Fiction).
The prize: $50 to each shortlisted story, an additional $200 to the winner. Shortlisted stories will have the opportunity to be published on the ArabLit website as well as a future anthology.
Winnings will be split between author and translator.
Halasa (1932-1989) is little-translated into English, but continues to have a cult following in Arabic nearly thirty years after his death. From the story’s translator, Thoraya El Rayyes:
Excited to see this out on @commonmag – my translation of a short story about slavery in early twentieth century Transjordan written in 1957 by the notorious Ghalib Halasa – a true badass. https://t.co/8trnfqZN4f
Halasa — a writer, translator, and revolutionary — was born in a small Jordanian village in 1932. For his political activities, Halasa was jailed, at various times and under various charges, by the Jordanian, Lebanese, and Egyptian authorities. He lived a peripatetic life: in Beirut as a teenager, and later in Baghdad, Cairo, and Damascus. He’s the author of seven novels and two short story collections, including Laughter (1971), Sandstorms (1975), and Sultana (1988). Halasa died at the age of fifty-seven in Damascus, Syria.
Halasa’s “The Slaves,” beautifully tr. El Rayyes, opens:
Two men sat near the round threshing floor in the western fields. Each with his rifle on his lap. “What a goddamn year,” Tafish said. He had a skull-like face. Small, sunken, deep-set eyes. Emaciated cheeks with protruding cheekbones. A broad forehead with dark blue veins at the sides. Skin like an aged tortoise.