It is wrong and inhuman to impose the Jews on the Arabs. What is going on in Palestine today cannot be justified by any moral code of conduct. The mandates have no sanction but that of the last war. – Mahatma Gandhi, Harijan, November 26, 1938
The Nakba, or the day of catastrophe, marks the date, May 14, 1948, when the Israelis moved into Palestine, exiled the Arabs in their own land, evicted them from their homes, and made them political refugees in their own country. Since that day, seventy years ago, the date has taken on a grave significance, as the story of Israel’s occupation of Palestine has turned graver by the year. The graves of Palestinians have multiplied, including the graves of children.
Sahir Abu Namous is one such name we remember from 2014. His tiny, maimed body was found in the rubble of his home, after an airstrike by Israeli forces in the northern Gaza Strip. Diaa Mahmoud, a cousin of Sahir’s father, Salman, who reported the deaths of twenty-two children from the airstrikes, said: “It’s a catastrophic situation here.” Catastrophe is not just a date marked in history and commemorated every year; it is part of the Palestinian condition. In his address to the people in May 2001, the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish said with bleak irony that “the Nakba is an extended present that promises to continue in the future.”
In the airstrikes of July 2014 that killed Namous in Tal al-Zaatar, there were reports with photographs of a dozen Israelis on a hilltop outside the Israeli town of Sderot, cheering their military while having popcorn. Allan Sorensen, a Middle East correspondent from Denmark, described one such image, posted on Twitter, as “Sderot cinema.” It was a rare privilege for these Israelis to be spectators of war, to consume the cinematic experience of territorial nationalism served live. War is the best proof of security and, one presumes, of prosperity for people in Israel. The securitization of space has taken on a particularly bizarre form in the borders between Israel and Palestine. Barbed wire and checkpoints convey not just radical separation but intense paranoia. The periodic evictions of Palestinians and the Israeli army breaking into their homes at will, often evicting entire villages, is a norm of war. But what sort of war?
Catastrophe is not just a date marked in history and commemorated every year; it is part of the Palestinian condition.
The French writer Christian Salmon, who visited Ramallah along with seven others from the International Parliament of Writers (a group that included Wole Soyinka, Breyten Breytenbach, Juan Goytisolo, Russell Banks, and Bei Dao) in March 2002, observed in his article “The Bulldozer War” how the Israeli army used bulldozers as effectively as tanks to dislodge the Palestinian people from their homes. Salmon found the problem in the West Bank one of “exophobia, a fear of the outside world” in an “age of agoraphobia, a fear of open spaces.” This caused, in Salmon’s acute insight, “not the division of territory but its abolition.” Salmon calls the phenomenon “endo-colonialism,” which he defines as the colonialism of “an inward-looking variety that seeks more than the appropriation of enemy territory.” The fortification of Israel had to take place in equal proportion to the vulnerability of Palestinian lives. It is offering your enemy the fear you inhabit. It is the fear of meeting the enemy without a shield. It is a fear of vulnerability, and of what vulnerability may cause. Perhaps it is just not the fear of harm but also the fear of love. You are barred from loving the enemy.
The Israeli occupation, I would argue, slightly differing from Salmon, abolishes territory by dividing it. The divided territory exists artificially. It is also unavoidably porous. The enemy and you share the same divided space that you lay claim to. The division, forcibly created by Israel, entitles it to abolish it at will. It does not follow any decree by law but exists in the realm of the occupation’s surplus. Occupation has no law. Occupation exists as a territorial necessity that is established by force. But this force is not the force of law. It is the force of war, for it involves the seizure of land, not any peaceful sharing by agreement or contract. It is using the force of the military. In this sense, the law of the occupation is established by pure violence. In his November 1938 article on Jews in Palestine, Gandhi questioned the biblical sanction of a land in “the shadow of the British gun.”
The division between Israeli and Palestinian habitations is marked by a dual language: Israel is a nation, while Palestine is a “territory.” But it is a territory in the vocabulary and logic of the Israeli state. Palestine is a territory for Israel; having reduced the definition of its status to a lawless land of lawless inhabitants, they can harass and mutilate with impunity. The theft of land creates its own justification, which can only be established by the force of fear. The fear of war extends to the war of fear. The fear of Palestinians keeps Israeli fears alive, but here’s the tragedy: Israel wants to keep this fear alive (within itself and among Palestinians) so that the logic of war exists. Fear is the justification of war.
Even though an event of horror is incomparable in terms of suffering, the form of horror, if repeated elsewhere, is comparable.
Israel is a state founded on violence, with a dual origin: the repercussions of the Holocaust and the military takeover of a people’s land. These two actions are ironically intertwined. The Jews, compelled to flee Germany and other parts of Europe, terrorized Palestinians into fleeing their homes to make space for the settlers. The victims of Nazi terror, fleeing in desperation, committed desperate violence against other people. It’s that “big moment” in history, in the words of late Finnish poet and aphorist Paavo Haavikko, “when the oppressed becomes the oppressor.” In such moments, Haavikko wrote, “history takes a deep breath.” Jews, who deserved justice, showed no accountability for their own injustices in Palestine. Maybe years of living in Europe made the Jews forget that Jerusalem belongs to two peoples.
Catastrophe returned in the month of May, not far from the unforgettable date in Palestine’s calendar and memory. On May 14, 2018, as the United States embassy officially opened in Jerusalem, 40,000 Palestinians protested at the borders, and over 770 were wounded by gunfire and bombs. The town of Gaza was back to arranging funerals, amidst worldwide condemnation of Israel’s actions. The US is the hawk-eyed bird of the world, a capitalist hawk, infringing upon nations and other people’s lives and memories with crude lures and imperialist designs on offer. Since the US has nothing to do with the rich history of Jerusalem, the only way it can make its presence felt is by opening an embassy building whose aesthetics resemble a capitalist fortress, a place where deals are done. Jerusalem does not represent a sacred place for the US but merely a strategy toward symbolic hegemony. It is a move to disenfranchise Palestine from its historic ties with Jerusalem.
The sacredness of grief finds its ethical value only when the other is welcome to receive it. To violate that relationship is to reduce and expunge the value of one’s grief.
The late Portuguese novelist José Saramago, speaking to journalists in Ramallah while among the contingent of international writers visiting Darwish in 2002, said: “What is happening in Palestine is a crime we can put on the same plane as what happened at Auschwitz. . . . A sense of impunity characterizes the Israeli people and its army. They have turned into rentiers of the Holocaust.” Horrors and tragedies are incommensurable. They can’t be compared. They are unrepeatable. Yet Saramago compared the two events on a similar “plane” to perhaps indicate that even though an event of horror is incomparable in terms of suffering, the form of horror, if repeated elsewhere, is comparable. Israel has turned Palestine into Auschwitz. To exploit grief as a property to inflict harm on others is to treat grief as a convertible item. The sacredness of grief finds its ethical value only when the other is welcome to receive it. To violate that relationship is to reduce and expunge the value of one’s grief.
Saramago predictably drew a lot of opposition and outcry on his comparing the situation in Palestine to the Holocaust. But he stubbornly reiterated his carefully picked words. Today such a grim view has grown in justification, since Israel has kept its guns and bombs blazing in Gaza, irreparably harming a beleaguered people. In an emotional response to Al Jazeera on May 14, 2018, the inconsolable Palestinian American poet and writer Ibtisam Barakat said, “I cannot see the Palestinian experience in separation from the Holocaust. The Palestinian experience happened right after the Holocaust, in order to move people outside of Europe and give them a national home. Basically, the Holocaust has moved land, moved language, moved hands, but it continues. A people were facing genocide in Europe, and now a people are facing genocide in Palestine, with the same forces at play. . . . It just changed places.”
Exploitation has changed hands like money, like power, changing the names of oppressor and victim, but retaining the form of horror. The name holocaust can no longer be the monopoly of one people. Its singularity has been broken (and extended), ironically, by the people who suffered it first. The holocaust has come to be the name of a violence that has taken newer, technological forms where history has posed the nastiest challenge to a modern philosophical (and ethical) problem: How to invoke an ethics that overcomes the problem of race or racist thinking.
In a radio program in 1982, responding to a question on Palestinians by Rabbi Shlomo Malka, the Jewish ethical thinker Emmanuel Levinas said, “There are people who are wrong.” Levinas did not treat the Palestinians as “other,” denying them a place in his discourse of ethics or justice. This is precisely how Israel treats Palestinians, as a competing political mass, an enemy. The enemy has no face. Jewish ethics violates its premises, loses face, facing the question of Palestine, denying the Palestinian her face. By territorializing the idea of home and identity, refusing to grant the neighbor his land, it is Levinas’s people who are in the wrong.
Are you on the edge of your seat waiting for the announcement of the 2018 Man Book International Prize winner? Ease back and brush up on the shortlist with reviews and interviews of the translators and nominees.
Ahmed Saadawi, Frankenstein in Baghdad, trans. Jonathan Wright (Penguin)
Some thirty-five years ago, the guest-presenter in my translation workshop at Oberlin College, Vinio Rossi, a dear friend and colleague, introduced us to the poetry of Giovanni Raboni (1932–2004).[i] Asked to bring a short text, given the constrictions of the course, Vinio began with brief remarks about major issues of translating from Italian and Raboni’s work in general, against the background of Italian literature. He then handed out “the literals” to the first section of “More Interviews,” a five-part sequence, the others of which are entitled “The Washerwoman,” “Surgeon,” “The Fortune Teller,” “The Baker”:
If you seek you find. If you want to save some wood, instead of nailing it into a square or an isosceles triangle or a circle, you can make it into a cross.
When Vinio was alive, during one of our cocktail hours at Presti’s bar, we’d always get back to the immediate aftermath: after Vinio had finished walking us through the literals, a student in the front row crossed herself dramatically, then burst into tears and asked to be excused. Only later did we learn she’d been having a crisis of faith, and thanked us after our co-translations were published for connecting her with “a deeply Catholic poet.”[ii]
Vinio was instrumental in helping us launch Charles Wright’s Montale translations in the Field Translation Series, knew of Raboni’s debt of gratitude to Montale, his several books of poems that were making an indelible mark, and his stellar career as a translator as well. So over another glass of Presti’s best chianti, knowing I’d been collaborating on translations of several European poets, Vinio proposed writing to Raboni about any interest, inasmuch as it seemed very few of his poems existed in English, in our trying to collect enough for a Selected. Not only did Raboni write right back, he said he’d be delighted to set aside some time if we wanted to get to Milan so we could say, he joked, “the translations have been approved by the author!” As it has in other blessed instances, Oberlin College generously provided a travel grant, Vinio booked us on Al Italia, and next thing we woke up in Rome, eventually making our way to Raboni’s door in Milan after a quick trip to Bologna. Vinio had been corresponding with Alfredo Rizzardi, a professor and something of a dean at the university there, whose work he’d been following and translating ever since he came across some early Rizzardi poems, in English! They’d appeared in Poetry, which we found intriguing.
What a way to get over jet lag: bask in the delightful, generous, otherworldly company of “Alfredo!”: after wining and dining us sumptuously in Bologna, he zipped us in his little roadster up to Urbino, where he also taught, having arranged for us to give a talk on co-translation to a gathering of literature students. En route, he stopped for gas. “ALFREDO!” shrieked the woman working the pumps when she recognized him, threw her arms around his neck, and whispered what sure seemed like sweet words, first in one ear, then the other.
“Why don’t you also call me ‘Alfredo’ from now on,” he grinned.
After wining and dining us sumptuously in Bologna, Giovanni zipped us in his little roadster up to Urbino, where he also taught, having arranged for us to give a talk on co-translation to a gathering of literature students.
Thanks to Vinio’s virtually native Italian, we somehow bumbled our way through the talk we’d not taken sufficient pains to organize. While attending to university business, Alfredo had turned us over to his chief assistant, a graduate student of sorts at the time. It’s no surprise, as I google Gabriella Morisco now, to see what an impressive scholar she’s become, with special expertise in American and English literature. She dazzled us with her range of reference, incisive comments on things literary, and her English likely had a deeper vocabulary than ours.
As if to make up for not having attended our talk, Alfredo invited us for a nightcap at his lodge on one of Urbino’s hills. Aware of Field magazine’s use of postcards for covers, after quite a few brandies he pulled something of a shoebox down from a shelf in the library and wondered if we’d like to “use” one for a future magazine cover. As if reading a card catalog, we flipped through the astonishing collection: mostly cards actually penned by writers, among them the card we eventually chose for a possible Field cover: James Joyce’s handwritten card sent from the Zurich Zoo to his grandson Stephen, then five years old, living in Paris. “I’ll only charge you $200 for a one-time use, but you’ll need to insure it for $1,000 when you send it back,” Alfredo said, topping off our snifters with a decent local cognac. We’d not have gasped if we’d known the Joyce-card/Field issue would sell out, surely thanks to the card’s provenance—Field covers had already become something of a collector’s item!—and especially for his charming, invented tale about what the three monkeys in the image are up to, sitting at a table and slurping soup.[iii]
Inserting the card into a padded envelope, Alfredo handed it to Vinio with some remarks in Italian I missed out on, which Vinio couldn’t later recall due to a few too many passes at the cognac bottle, he pleaded. Though not a Field editor, hence with no authority, Vinio, typically generous beyond the call of duty, urged Alfredo to send some poems to Field so they could perhaps appear in the same issue bedecked by the JJ card. I quickly added of course we’d be happy to “consider” any he’d like to try us out on. . . . Generously driving us to catch an early train to Milan the next day, Alfredo said to be sure to greet Raboni for him.
As if reading a card catalog, we flipped through the astonishing collection: mostly cards actually penned by writers, among them the card we eventually chose for a possible Field cover: James Joyce’s handwritten card sent from the Zurich Zoo to his grandson Stephen, then five years old, living in Paris.
We called Raboni from the Hotel Milano Scala, where he’d booked us a room for only $99 a night, though the price list on the door said $239. We figured he had connections, which he didn’t deny; as he wouldn’t, for future “breaks” we enjoyed during our stay. “Let’s use first names,” he said, before advising us to keep the large windows in our room open as much as possible to hear any strains from an opera at La Scala close by, which especially gladdened Vinio, a huge opera fan. The shank of the evening still ahead, Giovanni suggested we soon meet in the cozy, beautifully appointed cocktail lounge at the hotel, where he said we wouldn’t mistake him for one of the opera singers who hang out there. “I’ll be an older guy, quite slight, with a scruffy mustache and beard my friends say makes me look even more wigged than usual. But you won’t be able to yank them off,” he laughed, alluding to the Carole Lombard and Jack Benny film, To Be or Not to Be, a favorite we shared!
Waiting for Giovanni, we were sipping aperitifs in the lounge when suddenly the double doors burst open, and in strode a large figure dangling something of a large white handkerchief from his hand, followed by a wedge of an entourage, marching to his tune, and headed to a more private lounge in the back, set off by heavier doors. “Guess who just walked inches by us,” Vinio said, and didn’t wait for an answer because it was clear I didn’t know. “The great Pavarotti, that’s who! In my younger years, I’d have schemed to get his autograph.” Vinio reminded me we’d seen Pavarotti’s picture on a poster tacked to a kiosk. If I’d kept better notes, I’d mention the opera.
Spotting us before we caught sight of him, Giovanni waved the small wave one does to children, and eased into a leather armchair across from us. We began with a toast to “a possible collection of his selected poems.” Tenting his hands, he promised to vet all translations, now and by mail once we returned, as well as help clear the rights to translate. No email back then, so we understood the endeavor would take considerable time, especially given our day jobs; his as an editor for Mondadori, still one of Italy’s premier publishing houses. A superb translator himself, he was also devoting himself to a number of his own alliances with foreign poets whose work he wanted to ferry into Italian, as well as “getting after” his own poems. We gave him a copy of questions we had about the versions we’d brought for review, which he took time to pore over before raising his glass a last time and folding the sheet crisply, tucking it into his jacket pocket as if it were a handkerchief. Clinking glasses one last time, he proposed we take a day or two just to be in one another’s company, get a “feel for each other’s predispositions, how we shared the same air” (almost an exact phrase from one of his poems, Vinio and I realized and shared a nod); “and I trust you’ve got sturdy walking shoes,” he added. “I’d like to tour you around the landscape of some of my poems,” he said softly, without a trace of self-importance.
We should have trained to be the walking companions of Giovanni, who taking tinier steps soon left us gasping a yard behind. Our tongues hung out every time we passed espresso bar, but mindful of having asked for precious time of one so engaged in the literary life of Milan—not to mention Italy and other lands as well—we didn’t beg for mercy, just doubled down on espressos when Giovanni finally said it was time to drink something. He led us to the “establishment” of a friend, who simply tore up the bill when we went to pay.
We’d written in our introduction to The Coldest Year of Grace that Giovanni’s poems “seem at times spoken by a prosecuting attorney building a case against waste and corruption in secular and religious circles.” Leading us through the landscapes, he seemed a sort of modern-day Virgil. Given his eye for searing detail, you wouldn’t want to face him as a defendant he was prosecuting before a jury. When Giovanni saw I had something of a sketchbook going—I’d laid it on the bar’s table—and learned I especially wanted to bring back images of churches for my wife, he suggested I might want to do a quick “portrait”—a favorite word—of the defunct square bordered by the church of San Lorenzo and a porno movie house. We then moseyed on to the Naviglio, a large basin fed by a canal he’d fished in as a lad. “No one of right mind would eat anything caught there now, of course,” he grinned. “It’s a Lethe no one ever gets to the other side of.”
What began to strike us was the concordance between the voice of his poems and Giovanni’s natural way of speaking. Both voices shared a similar sharpness of silence, a way of breaking off into fragment and allusion, half turning away from both subject and object, to focus, not only on what is essential, but equally what must be ignored, or suffer oblivion by drowning in the inconsequential. Catching us flagging with a sudden glance back at us, Giovanni broke off the tour: “Let’s take tomorrow as well to enjoy each other’s relaxed company before we hover over the poems in my cramped study. Some friends are helping restore The Last Supper and will let us watch a bit, if you don’t mind sitting on some splintery planks and getting a fine coating of dust, not to mention some in our lungs!”
What began to strike us was the concordance between the voice of his poems and Giovanni’s natural way of speaking. Both voices shared a similar sharpness of silence, a way of breaking off into fragment and allusion.
Ecstatic at the prospect, we assured him our behinds had trained aplenty sitting on bleachers at sporting events. We promised to return the favor if he’d do us the honor of appearing at Oberlin at some point. “Something else to drink to,” he said when steering us back to the hotel, joining in a salute to Pavarotti on his kiosk.
All my bones and muscles still recall the grooves and bumps and, yes, splinters, in the plank as we watched the crew restoring The Last Supper: imagine sitting for some three hours as in an upside-down operating theater, watching three souls poised high above on ladders, a woman and two men in white lab coats, who’d daily, excruciatingly, painfully clean an area the size of a postage stamp with delicate instruments carefully laid out on a tray on the ladder’s side-extension, attended by others in gray lab coats below ready to assist with any request. At one point, I had the temerity to nibble on a dry roll I’d stashed in my pocket to head off an occasional siege of hypoglycemia, only to have the whole theater shut down and everyone look my way. Giovanni politely helped me brush some crumbs off the plank into my handkerchief, morse-coding me with pats on my knee: n-e-v-e-r-d-o-t-h-a-t-a-g-a-i-n-p-l-e-a-s-e. On the way out, he whispered that any such sound as I’d made could easily be taken for something fluttering down from Leonardo’s brushstrokes.
Our nerves a bit frayed, Giovanni asked if we’d mind taking a shortcut back to the hotel through Musocco, the cemetery where his father was buried, whom he’d not visited in some time; and where, as he’s written in “The Baked and the Raw,” room is made by stacking the dead one on top of the other, sealed in a piece of wall. They move one section after another, he said wistfully. “This month it’s section 49, where my father lies.” Looking up at a stack of slabs, Giovanni pointed to his father’s, its plaque dull in the slanting sun’s rays, his father’s name clearly in need of polishing—something he liked doing himself. He was, however, so tied up in projects, he sighed, that he’d perhaps have to tip a groundskeeper to ladder up and give it a shine. To give Giovanni a moment alone, Vinio motioned me back a few steps. We turned up our collars against the dusk’s chill while watching Giovanni slightly sway back and forth as if in a reverie. Noticeably slowing down for the last stretch back to the hotel, he split off when it was clear we could find our way back alone. “Get a good night’s sleep for what you’re in for tomorrow,” he said matter-of-factly.
Well aware of Raboni’s reputation as a translator himself—his Baudelaire and Proust versions were widely celebrated—we knocked on his door the next morning with some trepidation. Having graduated to a warm hug, we were led into his study, a mini-museum of paintings and sculpture. His elegant desk, piled high with journals and books—he was known for his interest in young writers—looked out on a small park with bountiful trees. A quiet place to read and think, what an ideal, interior space to find your way to soft-spoken poems. “Speak from a distance or just be quiet,” Raboni took as an epigraph from La Fontaine’s Fables.
What he emphasized again and again was to locate the voices of the poems, making sure that they don’t sound “translated or stiff: I want the poems to live in your American English. Make sure they read naturally, spoken by an actual human being!” So much of the rest of our time together consisted of him reading us the originals to fine-tune Vinio’s hearing them deeply, as he was my conduit into the sounds of their music; and my reading what we’d come to back home while Giovanni and Vinio listened for any slips and slides to the voices. In the days left, Giovanni also cleared up a few passages where we’d gotten lost and kept reassuring us that we were tracking the poems like well-trained bloodhounds, whose trainer of course he was in spades.
Well aware of Raboni’s reputation as a translator himself—his Baudelaire and Proust versions were widely celebrated—we knocked on his door the next morning with some trepidation.
Finally, the day before departing, we relaxed over a final toast to “us three monskeyteers.” (We’d shared the Joyce card with him.) All the questions we’d come with, as well as others that came up while working together, Giovanni answered more deeply than we’d bargained for. More importantly, we’d apparently gained his trust; and knew he was now committed to making sure we’d eventually have a viable manuscript to circulate, so worries something might go amiss gradually ebbed. He sent us back to the hotel with a final surprise: “I’ve arranged a small dinner later tonight, invited a few friends I’d like you to meet, so I’ll pick you up around eight. No need to rent a tuxedo, or even polish your shoes: just come as you are!”
Again, if I’d only kept better notes! If Vinio were alive, he’d surely know the name of the restaurant Giovanni seemed to have reserved for our final “banquet,” as the dozen of us gathered to wine and dine, and then wined some more past midnight, without any other patrons in sight. Though Giovanni introduced us at some length to the other guests, whose own accomplishments he enumerated as if presenting them for an award, all I recall is that they were prominent writers, artists, and editors. Having had way more to drink and eat than usual, all that’s left now is a blurred image of the night’s parameters. And if only a tape had been made of final remarks, especially Giovanni’s and concluding with Vinio’s “thank you” back, delivered in his best Italian! Knowing he’d likely be asked to say something too, Vinio had gone to the lounge at the hotel to write out his remarks. If Vinio had stuck to the script, like a good politician who’s taught to “stay on message,” I’d not have much more to add. However, to this day, I’m told, people still talk about Vinio’s slip of tongue, which brought the house down. Everyone laughed so loud and so long, tears came streaming forth as well, so that even I joined in, with absolutely no clue of what Vinio had said to prompt the torrent.
No one said anything else of any real moment, I recall, just kept exchanging laughs till they died out as well. Driving us back to the hotel, Giovanni kept telling Vinio something, patting him on the arm, as if to say, it seemed, “Don’t beat yourself up”; as Vinio’s expression, frozen from the moment the laughs began, remained distraught. I knew enough to wait till he might be willing to recount what had happened, about an hour into our flight back.
“Okay, keep your seatbelt buckled,” Vinio began. “Remember the dessert? Well, a friend of Giovanni’s had specially brought figs from his grandfather’s farm for the centerpiece, about the choicest figs you’d ever eat; not to mention what the pastry chef would do with them.” I did sort of recall I’d never quite had anything like them. “Well, in the middle of my little thank-you speech I thought it might be amusing to end on a note of what a beautiful dinner we’d been treated to, and what a finishing flourish, the ‘figa’ concoction. . . . Sober, I damn well know the Italian for ‘fig,’ and it sure ain’t ‘figa’![iv] I’m leaving it at that. Your Italian might find it useful for other contexts, when you get around to adding it to your vocabulary.”
Translator’s note: Biljana Jovanović (1953–96) is a largely untranslated but highly regarded Serbian feminist writer. Jovanović was a Serbian intellectual who grew up in late Yugoslavia and studied philosophy and literature at the University of Belgrade. She was an early and active member of a number of important human rights groups in Yugoslavia, beginning in 1982. Her public profile was formed by a series of public engagements ranging from her early opposition to the death penalty to her pro-democracy writings, demonstrations, and “happenings” in the 1990s. She was also an organizer and participant in major antiwar campaigns and demonstrations in 1991 and 1992, and she helped found a “flying” (underground) workshop/university in 1992.
Jovanović wrote in almost all major genres; she published poetry, three novels, four plays, and a number of nonfiction pieces, mostly connected to her time in the anti-Milošević opposition of the 1990s. She died in Belgrade at the frighteningly young age of forty-three. Widely known among intellectuals and activists for her feminist and antiwar work, she was also an innovative and courageous writer of fiction and drama. Although her literary work has not yet received its deserved institutional recognition in Serbia, this is beginning to change, with a small but growing number of scholars in Belgrade, and beyond, now taking up her work from literary and theoretical perspectives in addition to celebrating her contributions to civil society.
Although Jovanović was a Serb, she referred to the language in which she wrote as Serbo-Croatian. This was very common during her lifetime (a bibliography of her works with their original Serbo-Croatian titles can be found below). Other than my recent publications, none of her fiction exists in English translation.
In Pada Avala (1978; Avala Is Falling), her smash breakout success, a young woman named Jelena Belovuk challenges the expectations that people from teachers to parents to bus drivers and doctors have for her; this fictional biography is also, in its form and style, a huge challenge to the prevailing standards in the Yugoslav literary world, which centered on realistic description, especially of war-related themes. The “Avala” of the title refers to a mountain south of Belgrade that is home to some of Serbia’s most important nationalist monuments and shrines; it is also the site of the main mental hospital for the region, and its “falling” is the unexpected fulfillment of a prophecy from a traditional Serbian folk song, which can be interpreted as a victory over patriarchy. Jovanović’s use of stream of consciousness in her characters’ thinking and speaking, as well as intertextuality in description and plot advancement, alarmed some critics, but it also heralded the arrival of an innovative new writer who was determined to “break the sequence” of more or less traditional concerns of earlier women writers who basically served the state’s agenda.
This book is now recognized as much more than “jeans prose,” although the fame the book achieved under that characterization (used originally by critics, publishers, bookstores, and the public) eventually pushed the book to cult status. It was recently reissued in a colorful new edition, to considerable fanfare, in Belgrade. Jovanović is now considered a major avant-garde writer, whose stylistic innovations were as challenging as her women-centered themes. – John K. Cox
* * *
The biographer of Jelena Belovuk, in the manner of all pedantic and responsible biographers, has taken down everything that the flutist Belovuk said to him over the course of their friendship. It is necessary to add here that Jelena’s biographer, although he participated in her life, but of course not in the same way as Jelena herself, was unable to avoid arbitrariness and contradictions, as well as lies. – B. J.
Introductory Remarks by Jelena’s Biographer
What an assignment! Above all, to record. All handbooks worthy of their salt and intended for those who compile the biographies of famous people mention: date of birth, position of the stars, family origins, connections to their surroundings, and telepathic proclivities. I feel that the efforts of people who construct the fame of others are similar to the work of mice and moles: circular burrowing through the earth—canals, precise organization, carefully sealed holes—hiding places. The main thing in this entire enterprise, which is nonetheless less barren than I myself am, one should try to establish the relationship of Jelena Belovuk to Jelena Belovuk; and the relationship of Jelena Belovuk to what isn’t Jelena Belovuk. Above all, dig through a hole, prepare the edges of it well, and then probe the interior structure!
We are obliged to employ the same procedure from the other end, too! To wit: before beginning to form judgments about Jelena Belovuk, throw out all your assumptions about her body or her mind. Query and investigate for yourself and in yourself all the feelings that could be both love and hatred, including in her person (as if the point of this were a general revision of your possibilities). Therefore explore yourself in Jelena Belovuk; and yourself over against Jelena Belovuk.
I feel that the efforts of people who construct the fame of others are similar to the work of mice and moles: above all, dig through a hole, prepare the edges of it well, and then probe the interior structure!
Only then will it be acceptable for you to wonder:
Who is Jelena Belovuk?
Who are the parents of Jelena Belovuk?
Is Jelena Belovuk’s lover an influential person?
What does this Jelena Belovuk really want?
Where is Jelena Belovuk?
And now, really concretely:
My precision is the precision of a watchmaker; but what follows is the vaguest of nonsense, fabrication, falsehood, whispering behind people’s backs and along their backs, along the spine, so to speak, about Jelena Belovuk, the least precise woman in existence on the planet! One has to keep in mind, like money or some little thingamabob in your pocket, this: my responsibility in this regard is void; events are more than truthful; I bear none of the blame for that.
The man who was sitting at the end of the park by the Yugoslav Drama Theater could have been the Chilean, Bautista van Schouwen,[i] judging by his external distinguishing features: oval face, uneven haircut—longish in the front, dark; the plunging, symmetrical sideburns; the nose bent but regular; wide nostrils; with a thick unibrow filling the space between his forehead and nose—most unusual-looking. Bautista’s right arm rested (bent at the elbow) on the shattered backrest of the bench; his fingers were lightly touching his brow—for the most part, this is exactly how Bautista sat. In his other hand (from this distance it looks to be painted dark blue), the man who resembled Bautista holds an unlit cigarette (the way I myself do it) in an awkward way—between his middle and fourth fingers. On his lips (I believe that I see) a crooked smile, but it could also be a wince—a dark edge—the lines of desire on lips make the same shadows—an unfinished arc, bent the same way in a spasm as in a smile, on people’s lips, in Chile.
One has to keep in mind, like money or some little thingamabob in your pocket, this: my responsibility in this regard is void; events are more than truthful; I bear none of the blame for that.
From all of this it still isn’t possible to conclude that the figure of the person on the bench, at one end of the park, is the figure of a thirty-year old man![ii] Bautista’s appearance, however, has also deceived his pursuers, the police and women who came after him in groups.
Viewed differently—I approach the bench flamboyantly if unsteadily—his physique took on more importance: the way his eyebrows met like that was an indication of energy; while the shadow across his left cheek from the base of his nose to its tip was a reflection of mysteriousness—although it was a bit of physical legitimacy; but with Bautista the definite shadow on his cheek is surely (as if it were me with the stationary blue-gray on my face, hands, across my stomach, inside my head, inside my belly) the result of life and amour taken by surprise, in ambushes, in hallways sometimes and in the secret living quarters of well-appointed buildings.
Now I am barely one step away from Bautista’s unmoving body. My purse slips off my shoulder; I wave it around like the clapper of a bell—I make it go in uniform orbits; one amplitude—pure lust from me through the pocketbook touches Bautista’s clenched knees. I observe him: he has attractive lips, maybe a touch longer and curvier than mine; I can see a faint scar, looking like it’s penciled on, coarse, from the edge of his beard over the underside of his chin to his Adam’s apple.
“Can I sit here?” I ask him; and without waiting for an answer I put my purse down by his feet and have a seat, so close to him that all it would’ve taken was a single movement of my head and my lips would have found themselves on his cheek . . . his firm cheek . . . and then with just a twist they would slide over onto his mouth.
In this position I could see his scar clearly; it looked like a cut from a knife; red, somehow more like purple! Maybe they used hot tongs to leave tracks on him, their sign . . . to what end, for what kind of evidence?
I asked him: “Did they try to kill you?”
“No, they didn’t. . . . You know, the scar . . . it’s from . . . a pruning knife . . . you know, back in the village!”
Bautista grinned; he moved his head away a little and let down his arm . . . he appeared to have caught on to my intentions. In our new position, Bautista could observe me. . . . But he didn’t do it! He looked off to the side somewhere, dejected, from under his lowering eyebrows, and smoked his cigarette.
There can be no doubt that Van Schouwen escaped Valparaiso, fled from that prison hospital, banged up as he was, bruised, swollen, half-dead; it was probably during his escape, while he was running, that he fell against the barbed wire strung around the walls of the prison hospital, and that’s what pierced his neck, without touching that knot of life—his Adam’s apple. I noticed that his neck was covered with a sharp, stiff beard, but the scar was uncovered and, what’s more, his face was smooth, shaved clean.
“Did you trip and fall?” I ask him, and while doing so I deliberately touch one of his knees, the knee that looks shattered—like it’s forked and thorny. Bautista moves to the edge of the bench, my hand slides unexpectedly, and my little finger, like a long, bent fishhook, is left hanging on the fabric of his pants—a possibility that contact could be established, gently and with no sound, by subterfuge.
Bautista raises his right arm again and leans his twisted torso firmly on his planted left hand. He turns his face to mine (of course that’s completely the result of my strategy); his eyes, like two bloodthirsty black beasties, rush in the direction of my stomach, the lower part of my stomach, and plunges down (skates by on) my left leg, grazing the side of my shoe, its rubber sole, the ground . . . and it loiters for a few seconds on the purse that lay turned on its side close to his legs. (What did you expect? The slide of his corneas was provided for in my project!)
He snarled: “No, they were forcing me to finish my work before dusk; and in the rush, with me being so terribly worn out and agitated, this . . . accident happened to me.”
“So that means . . . they didn’t chase you? Go flying after you like the Furies? Weren’t there bullets, dogs, guards, daggers, rapiers, lots of people?”
“I ran as if my life depended on it . . . exactly as if they were chasing me!”
“Maybe you saw Ricardo . . . or Jorge? They must’ve been somewhere. Behind you . . . I think they also escaped from . . . Valparaiso?!?”
Not startled in the least by my curiosity, which otherwise, in other circumstances, could have been interpreted as ill-breeding, Bautista declaimed in an ironic voice:
“I lost my head while I was running, and your face came to me in a vision . . . and heaven and earth had transformed into amplified interlocking pulsations and heartbeats . . . and I saw you! As far as I can recall there was you, and nothing but you, before my eyes . . . but . . . Ricardo . . . and someone named Jorge . . . I didn’t . . . didn’t see them anywhere!”
I had again dropped my hand onto his knee (that was, of course, part of the plan); as tenderly as I could I drew it up toward Bautista’s crotch, enthralled, for real, by the wonders of his escape and trying to imagine the equally attractive faces of Jorge and Ricard, who did not make it this far—to this bench at the end of the park by the Yugoslav Drama Theater. I felt under my fingers the hard wool of his sweater, and then his shirt, which was unbuttoned down to the middle of his chest; I fingered a button.
I looked at his profile and asked, pitifully:
“Did it hurt . . . a lot?”
He, Bautista, answered me with scornful movements of his lips: “Only later, when I stopped in the woods, above that weird village. I felt a sharp pain in my lungs . . . and I think my heart started skipping beats—for a moment.”
The things that Bautista talked about! I asked him about his scar! No doubt it hurt him, so what was up with that “only later” business? And it must’ve spurted blood, too, for a long while, Bautista’s blood . . . dark, aromatic . . . but—why does he talk that way . . . about the woods his heart his lungs? Maybe they stomped on him, beat him . . . boots on his lungs . . . so yes, that’s that. Actually it is!
All of a sudden, for no obvious reason, Bautista asked what my name was. Strange! He must’ve known it from before! What is even more odd: my hand rested regally on his shoulder (this detail wasn’t provided for in the script; it was spontaneous and unfathomable); love, on account of sudden intimacy like this, emerges as equally possible and impossible. A few minutes. So indeterminate: hope and betrayal in the bodies and movements (not the thoughts) of Jelena Belovuk and Bautista van Schouwen; it’s all totally straightforward, run-of-the-mill, on a broken-down park bench (the backrest) at the foot of the park! Bautista was an unmoving monument; a statue from an unknown sculptor. (No shocker here: unknown people always deal in famous ones.) An unwound and rewrapped Egyptian mummy, on a bench, in the middle of the Balkans, but from Chile (the international field that is archaeology); I tell him that. He laughs and wants to kiss me.
Love, on account of sudden intimacy like this, emerges as equally possible and impossible. A few minutes. So indeterminate: hope and betrayal in the bodies and movements (not the thoughts) of Jelena Belovuk and Bautista van Schouwen.
“Have you heard of the last name Belovuk, and my first name, the given name Jelena?”
“Of course I’ve heard of it!”
He then abandons the idea of a kiss. That man! That Bautista, the man who looks like Bautista, the Chilean, and anyway he said it so tranquilly. I told him, with my legs asleep up to my belt, that I was Jelena, the Belovuk, a flutist, and I also told him:
“. . . You know, I play at parties, special events, promotional gigs, commemorations, and sometimes I do piano actually (I’m so conceited), and there are the regular old meetings, not always, though, regular old meetings of associations of scouts, hunters, mountain climbers, kite enthusiasts, and the like.”
And Bautista, bewildered:
“What do you mean by promotional gigs . . . and is there music at a commemoration?!?”
I told him briefly about how group members promoted themselves for president, vice president, treasurer, corresponding secretary, recording secretary, etc., especially the ones who were the best in that discipline. But he was even more clueless after my explanation, and he asked:
“What kind of . . . what did you say . . . associations . . . What are they?”
I whispered to him, bringing my lips (they were moist in the corners, and I know that Bautista saw this and wouldn’t be able to resist it) close to him: “People who use various things have banded together, and enthusiasts, exhibitionists, adventurers, in fact everybody, absolutely everybody, you know the ones who love to get undressed, feel each other up, kiss, and pinch one another in grottos and caves, and mountaineers, you understand mountaineers . . . in a shared association, you know, in this country everybody, and I mean everybody, partners up, and music and merrymaking at commemorations, well, that’s the new regulation thing here, d’you see?”
“And Jorge and Ricardo played the flute”—one couldn’t tell which one of the two of us said that. But then I said, more softly than just before:
“Do we wanna . . . hey, Bautista?”
Bautista didn’t wait; he didn’t think twice (and after all, all of South America was flowing through his thin veins); his hand grabbed my right breast convulsively, powerfully, as if it were a Chilean banner of liberty. He clenched and tugged, pulled in the direction in which Ricardo and Jorge had run, a long time ago. Then my breast flashed between us, for a ragged part of a second, but I didn’t doubt my eyes.
I felt a quiver, piercing, like a needle or a thorn (semi-passion), in actuality an asymmetry, for Bautista was pressing the tip of one of my breasts. The experience would have been completely satisfying if Bautista had taken hold with the same force, the same grip (positioning of his hand) on my other breast too, and in the same spot—a fruitful political alliance. Two Chilean hands, dark-skinned, for my two little fires, at their peaks, right on the edge of the nipples (it’s like we were in the Andes); would Jorge and Ricardo have also been this unsymmetrical, if they had been sitting . . . across from me? I pressed my fingers to Bautista’s scar, and just for an instant he grimaced in major pain (this political alliance is indestructible); gruffly, convinced of his power and superiority (an alliance between two member states always works to the disadvantage of at least one of them), Bautista spoke:
“Your nipple is so tiny that it fits comfortably into the gaps between my teeth, and even more comfortably in the gaps where I have no teeth; so spacious! This is unfortunate. Women in Chile have nipples big enough to plug up the mouth of any loser, for good.”
We stood up from the bench absurdly stuck to one another (in the eyes of other countries not party to the agreement, an alliance is always a ridiculous tie, and a bit sad, too), wet and smiling; once again I pressed on his scar (the spoils of the stronger country) and said:
“Bautista, the women of Chile have taken on a really big job then.”
Translation from the Serbian By John K. Cox
Translator’s note: From Pada Avala, by Biljana Jovanović (Beograd: Prosveta, 1978), 7–9, 28–32.
Works by Biljana Jovanović
Pada Avala (1978 and several later editions)
Psi i ostali (1980 and later edition) [English excerpt here]
Writing for the Boston Review, Joseph Vogel looks back at James Baldwin’s final nonfiction book, The Evidence of Things Not Seen, as a precursor to the Black Lives Matter movement and the myth of a postracial modern society.
The British royal wedding is tomorrow, and in an unexpectedly moving piece, Naomi Fry of the New Yorker sees Meghan Markle’s father as a bittersweet representation of the average person.
We’re riding high on the speculative fiction train, given our latest issue, and in our obsession we came upon this great podcast out of Australia called, and we’re loving this: Galactic Suburbia. It’s an exploration of sci-fi, fandom, and other fantastic morsels from the internet.
Finally, while we’re on the subject of podcasts, McSweeney’s and The Believer host an excellent arts-and-culture one every other week. It’s called The Organist, and they co-host it with LA’s premier public radio station, KCRW
Theologians may quarrel, but the mystics of the world speak the same language. – Meister Eckhart
We live in unexemplary times, maddened by fear, murderous ignorance, and mistrust of one another. Even though Muslims make up around a fourth of the global population, or around two billion souls, for many, the faith has become besmirched with backwardness and violence. Islamophobia is a widespread, too painful reality, and hate speech is not without its cost. It is a proven fact that hate crimes against Muslims are on the rise, from bullying in the classroom to racial slurs, as well as more grave offenses, such as mosque burnings, even murders. Which is to say, hate and violence (on either side) begin in minds and hearts before finding their way to our lips and, soon enough, translating into heinous actions against (oftentimes, dehumanized) Others.
As an immigrant, Muslim, and writer living in Trump’s alarming America, as well as a citizen of our increasingly polarized world, I will not deny that speaking out on behalf of Islam has become something of a burden and sweet responsibility. I find that I must begin most conversations on this subject, including this one, by stating the obvious: “Terrorism has no religion and most victims of terrorism are moderate Muslims.”
It’s tiresome to be continually on the defensive, which does not always bring out the best in us or the most charitable, gentle responses. A German Muslim scholar, when asked about the connection between terrorism and Islam, went on this rant:
Who started the first world war? Not Muslims. Who killed 6 million Jews in the Holocaust? Not Muslims. Who killed about 20 million Aborigines in Australia? Not Muslims. Who sent the nuclear bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Not Muslims. Who killed more than 100 million Indians in North America? Not Muslims. Who killed more than 50 million Indians in South America? Not Muslims. Who took about 180 million African Muslims as slaves obliged them to leave Islam, 88% of whom died and were thrown overboard into the Atlantic Ocean? Not Muslims . . .
Which is not to say that I believe, as a Muslim community, we are entirely off the hook either. I agree with many theologians and scholars of Islam who call for profound self-examination and a better understanding of the faith, such as Hamza Yusuf’s formula for “a renovation of the abode of Islam . . . to make new again, repair, reinvigorate, refresh, revive our personal faith.” It seems self-defeating and willful to deny that something is rotten within the Muslim community, and that we need serious housekeeping.
I find that I must begin most conversations on this subject, including this one, by stating the obvious: “Terrorism has no religion and most victims of terrorism are moderate Muslims.”
As I said, we must begin, of course, by declaring to ourselves and the world in no uncertain terms, Not in Our Name, This Violence. There is a damning quote, by Canadian author Robertson Davies, that sums up how I feel about so-called “religious” fanatics in a handful of words: Fanaticism is overcompensation for doubt. To distance ourselves from the blasphemous-murders-who-would-sabotage-faith, we need to embody the peace, love, forgiveness, and sacrifice we find in the spirituality that sustains us, and extend it to those who do not know any better.
For those who wish to throw out the luminous baby, Faith, with the sordid water of current events, it is wise to recall the timeless words of a religiously inspired proponent of nonviolence, the great Martin Luther King Jr.:
Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.
Meantime, for those who wish to deepen their understanding of the Muslim faith and its ecstatic dimension, I recommend Omid Safi’s Radical Love: Teachings from the Islamic Mystic Tradition (Yale University Press, 2018) as a fine point of entry. A leading scholar of Islam, Safi’s Radical Love arrives on the troubled scene with a peace offering, to clear the good name of a much-maligned, widely misunderstood religion. Showing Love to be at the very essence of Islam, the Divine, and, by extension, everything in existence, Safi’s stirring collection of excerpts then goes on to expertly illustrate how grossly terrorists (in the news and political office) have misperceived the faith.
Which is to say, in the scorching heat of public debate on whether all Muslims are dangerous and should be banned from the civilized world, this book serves as an oasis. Safi presents us with a cool spot to sit and reflect on a religiously inspired state of bliss that, of necessity, precludes violence. After all, in honoring Beauty—as the Quran does, unmistakably, by declaring that God is beautiful and loves beauty—we learn to better appreciate the sanctity of life, all life, and recognize violence, any violence, as the cowardice, failure of imagination, and heresy that it truly is (irrespective of who tries to manipulate which holy text to suit their devious ends).
It is remarkable, for example, during this historical moment of Islamophobic panic, that a thirteenth-century Sufi mystic, Mawlana Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Balkhi (known as Rumi in the West), is not only a best-selling poet but the most popular poet in the US! This is doubly interesting, since Rumi was also a refugee who lived in a turbulent time of religious persecution, not entirely dissimilar from our own. For the millions who appreciate Rumi’s poetry, Safi’s anthology offers an opportunity to better understand the Arabic/Persian traditions that produced him as well as the Muslim holy book, the Quran, that is fertile soil for Rumi’s soul and art.
After all, isn’t it another form of (insidious?) Islamophobia, given Rumi’s current stature in popular culture, that the appreciation of his art should come at the expense of erasure of Islam from his work—as though this beloved, mystical poet is only palatable to the masses if entirely dissociated from the seeming stain of Islam?
Safi’s own translations, here, seek to rectify this subtle violence, by making clear the ongoing conversation with Islam, or love letter addressed to the Divine, that inspires Rumi’s poetry:
The mystics of Islam see themselves as being rooted unambiguously in the word of God . . . their poems and stories are “Qur’an-ful,” filled with both direct and indirect references to scripture.
Showing Love to be at the very essence of Islam, Safi’s stirring collection of excerpts expertly illustrates how grossly terrorists have misperceived the faith.
Selections from the holy Quran are featured in Safi’s Radical Love alongside sacred sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (Hadith Qudsi), emphasizing self-knowledge and mercy as a counterbalance, one hopes, to the ugliness and ignorance that blaspheme in the name of Faith:
The remembrance of God brings serenity to hearts. – Qur’an 13:28
To know God intimately intimately know yourself “He who knows his own soul knows his Lord” – Hadith Qudsi
Also featured in this fine spiritual compendium are mystical utterances and teachings of Divine love by celebrated Sufi poets, such as Attar, Hafez, and other key Muslim mystics, carefully selected and translated by Safi.
Rumi was also a refugee who lived in a turbulent time of religious persecution, not entirely dissimilar from our own.
Page after page, we encounter these “intimates of God” (awliya’, in Arabic) all love-drunk, engaged in the alchemy of transformation and advocating the hard work of overcoming ego and seeking Divine intimacy:
Love of a human being is an ascension toward love of God. – Ruzbehan Baqli
My heart takes on every form a pasture for gazelles, a cloister for monks, the idol’s temple . . .
I follow the religion of Love: Whichever way this caravan turns, I turn. – Ibn ‘Arabi
Before reviewing this book, I had just completed another rather intriguing book on Islamic mysticism, entitled Ahmad Al Ghazali, Remembrance, and the Metaphysics of Love (2016), by Joseph E. B. Lumbard. The titular mystic, Ahmad, whose life and work are under study in this radical book, was the younger brother of Abu Hamid Muhammad Ghazali, regarded by many as the most important Muslim theologian.
Yet, according to both Lumbard and Safi, the path of radical love in Islamic mysticism found its most articulate spokesman in the lesser-known Ghazali, whose “Sawanih” (a short meditative prose text) Safi refers to as “the love child of Platonic dialogues and Shakespearean sonnets in a Persian Garden.”
All this beginningless and endless love, naturally, circles back to the Divine, who is quoted in Safi’s book as saying:
I was a Hidden treasure and I loved to be intimately known So I created the heaven and the earth that you may know Me Intimately. – Hadith Qudsi
Safi separates his book of teachings into four parts: “God of Love” (“not just in God, but as God”); “Path of Radical Love” (“meditations on this overflowing”); “Lover and Beloved” (“the dance of love, being and becoming”); and “Beloved Community” (“how to achieve this in the here and now”).
“Here and now” are words that Safi repeats quite often throughout his short, passionate introduction, in case readers mistakenly assume that mystics are only concerned with the next world:
To be a mystic on the path of radical love necessitates tenderness in our intimate dealings, and a fierce commitment to social justice in the community we live in, both local and global.
Again, Safi underscores this important point by circling back to the source, the Quran: “This is God’s command: love and justice.”
Think of this book as an extended hand, holding an olive branch. Or, in Safi’s words,
I invite you to join us on this journey of love. May you find in these poems, in these luminous and fierce teachings of radical love from the heart of the Islamic tradition a mirror—one to reflect to you the beauty of your own soul.
"Il cantico del-respiro genera promesse" by Agostino Arrivabene (2014, Oil on Wood)
Sufism is the heart of Islam. It is both the husk and flower of the faith.
We live in confusing times, where Islam and its practitioners need their friends. Sufism, generally speaking, remains relatively untarnished in the public imagination. But “What is Sufism to Islam?” a friend asked me the other day. The short answer is that it is its mystical branch. Books, of course, can be composed on this subject—and they have, including the valuable one currently under review. But, I think it’s safe to say that Sufism is the heart of Islam. It is both the husk and flower of the faith.
Yes, mysticism is not for everyone. One must crawl, first, before one can fly—hence the suspicion ecstatics provoke, in those who do not soar (even within the faith itself). Sufism, in turn, is the (open) secret of Islam, the poetry and beauty, when you’ve boiled everything else away (dogma, etc.). I did not think that I, a recovering existentialist, would find myself one day slipping through the back door of Islam. Yet, led by an abiding longing, I crawled like a refugee to Sufism, for succor and inspiration. To paraphrase Rumi, I let myself be silently drawn by the strange pull of what I love, and it did not lead me astray.
As Safi reminds us in his helpful anthology:
Radical love is channeled through humanity. It has to be lived and embodied, shared and refined not in the heavens but right here and now, in the messiness of earthly life.
It is difficult, I think, in times like ours, not to become radicalized . . . by Pity. May this book help heal and illuminate broken hearts and open hardened ones. I leave you with one parting quotation, which features at the opening of this love manual, by a pioneering teacher of love in the Islamic tradition, the aforementioned Sufi mystic, Ahmad Al Ghazali:
I will write you a book on Radical Love provided you do not bifurcate it into Divine Love and Human Love
In the days before his death, Sergio Pitol had been much on my mind: the sordid stories of neglect splashed across Mexico’s leading newspapers; court battles for his guardianship; accusations of theft and embezzlement; all this while the Maestro lay bedridden, a prisoner in a neurological dungeon, dying.
As I write this, I remember Pitol, the boy, who was also bedridden for long periods of time, where books were his only solace, among others, the adventures of Jules Verne, from whom he acquired the love of travel, which would eventually take him around the world, away from his native Mexico for twenty-eight years.
I think of his close friend of almost all his life, Margo Glantz, who wrote a afterword for my translation of The Magician of Vienna (Deep Vellum, 2017).
I think of the photo of him, together with Carlos Monsiváis and José Emilio Pacheco, the three Musketeers, in 1950s Mexico City, sitting on the floor, surely talking about the book that Monsiváis has in his hand.
I think of the adventures of these three great friends that fill The Art of Flight (Deep Vellum, 2015), the first volume of Pitol’s Trilogy of Memory, which I had the honor of translating.
I think of a trip to Mexico City three years ago, where I attempted to retrace the steps of Pitol in the Zona Rosa, of landing in front of the Bellinghausen restaurant, where Pitol lunched and dined, recalling the amusing episode he recounts in The Art of Flight, as tears welled up in my eyes as I tried to imagine him there some forty or so years before.
I think of the Edificio Río de Janeiro in Colonia Roma, often called the “House of the Witches,” which I stumbled upon by accident but immediately identified as the setting for Pitol’s novel Love’s Parade, which won the Herralde Novel Prize.
I think of Luz Fernández de Alba, a former student and now scholar of Pitol, who lives in the very house that belonged to her teacher and who looked for me at the Palacio de Minería Book Fair after learning that Pitol’s translator was there. “I had to meet you,” she told me, “to say thank you because I know he cannot.”
I think of Elena Poniatowska, his friend of fifty years, who regaled me with stories at her home in Chimalistac, during that same visit to Mexico City in March. I think of the look of sadness that filled her eyes when suddenly she spoke of the bleak reality of his illness, which had robbed him of language.
More than anything else, I think of my relationship with the man I considered my teacher, whom I’ve had the enormous responsibility of translating into English, and whom, unfortunately, I was never able to meet.
I think of his family, his cousin Luis, to whom he dedicated the beautiful story “Cemetery of Thrushes,” the translation of which I am now revising, of his nieces María and Laura, especially Laura, with whom I’ve maintained a pleasant correspondence about her uncle and to whom I had written two days before he died to tell her that my translation of The Magician of Vienna, the third volume in his Trilogy of Memory, had been longlisted for the Best Translated Book Award.
But more than anything else, I think of my relationship with the man I considered my teacher, whom I’ve had the enormous responsibility of translating into English, and whom, unfortunately, I was never able to meet. I think of the only communication I had with him, an email surely typed by his secretary, which arrived directly from his personal account: “Your interest in my work fills me with happiness and gratitude. I would love nothing more than to see my Trilogy of Memory translated into English, a language that I adore and in which none of my books exists.”
The responsibility of introducing a writer of Pitol’s importance to an English-speaking readership has never weighed on me more. I will not attempt to explain here—in fact, there is no clear explanation—why Pitol’s books had not been already been translated when, five years ago, WLT’s managing editor, Michelle Johnson, sent me an article she’d read in Granta, “The Best Untranslated Writers,” penned by the Mexican novelist Valeria Luiselli.
* * *
In the hours immediately after his death, messages of condolence came from all over the world, from readers, fellow translators, and writers. “We know how much you loved him, and we are very sorry for him and for you. We’re sending hugs,” wrote Alberto Chimal and Raquel Castro, whose words have filled the pages of WLT in my translation.
“Dear George, yesterday I wanted to write to congratulate you for being on the longlist of the BTBA. Today I am writing to tell you that I am very sorry for Pitol’s death, with whom the bond of translation and friendship unites you,” consoled the talented young Mexican novelist Daniel Saldaña in an email.
But the consolation that has touched me most is one sent to me by a reader who discovered the Maestro through my translations: “Thanks for everything you did so that I could read him; I would be sad, now, if I hadn’t.”
* * *
In the days following his death, the eyes of the entirety of the literary world were finally, rightly, on Pitol, with fitting obituaries in the New York Times and the Washington Post, testaments to his import, with passing references to the works I have translated. Before, my books were known only to devotees of translated literature.
The literary firmament has lost one of its most brilliant stars, but the brilliance of his work will never be extinguished.
Suddenly, interest in his Trilogy of Memory seemed to be growing exponentially.
Suddenly, I recalled every doubt, every second guess I’d had as I translated his books.
Suddenly, the Italian adage traduttore, traditore was no longer a joke, a mere play on words; it had become my accuser. I would be discovered. My deception would be exposed. I wasn’t a translator; I was a traitor.
The literary firmament has lost one of its most brilliant stars, but the brilliance of his work will never be extinguished. I am humbled if I have had even a small hand in that.
* * *
In a piece entitled “Farewell, Sergio Pitol,” which I had the honor to translate for the Paris Review, Elena Poniatowska eulogized her friend:
He was a magician, perhaps the one in his book The Magician of Vienna, the man with a thousand eyes that fly like doves toward every horizon, carrying letters in their beaks, crossing every ocean. This is why one hears a rush of wings around Sergio Pitol.
The great Spanish poet Federico García Lorca concludes the elegy for his friend, the bullfighter Ignacio Sánchez Mejías, with these poignant verses: “I sing his elegance with words that moan / and I recall the sad breeze through the olive grove.” Just now, as I think of those lines, I can hear a sad rush of wings.
Dr. Francine Burk, who is currently recovering from an illness, is offered a position at a prestigious research institute to prove her Theory of Bastards, a theory that has earth-shattering implications. This novel is a blend of science fiction and dystopia and explores the consequences of unimpeded technological advancement.
by Elizabeth Tan
(The Unnamed Press, April)
This novel begins with the story of Elena Rubik’s sudden death, explores the lingering electronic footprint she leaves behind, and goes on to probe the lives of other members of this society—a piano teacher, a voice-over artist, a model. These narratives fit together to form a cohesive, satirical comment on society, technology, and capitalism.
by Bethany C. Morrow
(The Unnamed Press, May)
Although this novel takes place in 1925, it reimagines a world with one key difference—the existence of a procedure developed to extract human memories and place these into creatures called Mems, who store traumatic human memories and replay them over and over until they expire. The exception is a Mem called Elsie, or Dolores Extract No. 1, who can create her own memories. This novel explores what it means to be a human through the effects of memories and trauma.
by Gabriela Wiener
Trans. Lucy Adcock & Lucy Greaves
(Restless Books, May)
This is a first-person account of the author’s experience infiltrating a dangerous Peruvian prison, participating in swingers clubs, traveling through Paris with prostitutes, and going through a harrowing egg-donation process. Chock-full of robust human experiences, the heroine of this essay collection explores a diverse set of themes like immigration, maternity, fear of death, ugliness, and sexuality with an engaging forthrightness.
On the Effects of War
The Baghdad Clock
by Shahad Al Rawi
Trans. Luke Leafgren
This story takes place in 1991 Baghdad in the center of the first Gulf War. During an air raid, a young Iraqi girl meets another girl, Nadia, as they are hiding in a shelter. They become fast friends, but as they grow up in a war-torn town, they feel the harsh effects of international sanctions. Watching as friends flee the country, they are forced to face the new reality that is their lives.
Non-Oui is a biographical novel that tells the story of a woman from Split, Croatia. In her youth, Grandma Nedjeljka, or Non-Oui, as she was called (a literal French translation of the syllables of her nickname Ne-Da), falls in love with an Italian soldier, Carlo, at the end of the Second World War and later moves to Sicily to marry him.
The short novel is written in the form of a diary, an exchange between Grandma Nedjeljka and young Nedjeljka, her granddaughter and namesake. Their conversation in Croatian, Grandma’s mother tongue, unfolds in a nonlinear structure, encompassing a broad range of times and places between 1938 to 2016, moving back and forth from past to present and between Castellammare del Golfo in Sicily and Split, Croatia. Their imagined conversation reveals the lives of these two different women, and the deep cross-generational bond between them, as they discuss cross-cultural love, private life, and family as well as the public sphere of war, politics, and migration.
June 7, 2009, Castellammare del Golfo
When she was alive, Grandma Nedjeljka remembered everything, events from her past and everyday events up until June 2009. Or, more precisely, until June 7, 2009. Until then, the date of my twenty-first birthday, she was still a normal grandmother, mother, and mother-in-law. Old, but normal. Very old, but vital. Evidently, Grandma and her brother got their mother’s genes and could expect to live to ninety. I was turning the age considered a legal adult in America. The orange tree was blossoming and we were sitting at the wooden table beneath it. I was with Mama, Papa, Margherita, and her boyfriend—a serious boyfriend—Pietro. He was twenty years older than Margherita. She was eighteen, he was thirty-eight. A quite pleasant and open guy, but too old! “He’s so old, where did you dig him up?” Grandma would say whenever he left. “Magi’s a child; he’s an old man!” She also never missed the opportunity to turn to Papa and say: “Find Margherita a proper boyfriend! A young girl shouldn’t be going around with an old man!” For Papa, what Margherita dished back was even more unpleasant; she would laugh and say, “I assure you, he’s young, don’t you worry!” and Papa would feel guilty that Margherita had found herself such an old boyfriend. Though, he did once say, “I guess better old than nothing,” probably alluding to me who, at twenty-one, had yet to bring a young man home. Margherita had made a joke about me that day: “Well, now that Neda is ‘forever young,’ she doesn't need a husband.” “Which Neda?” Grandma asked, and we all laughed. “You,” I said to her devilishly, although everyone else yelled, “Neda, not you, you’re eighty-six years old, Neda’s only twenty-one. And, you’re Nedjeljka, Grandma Non-Oui.” And then, as I recall it, Grandma started shouting: “I’m twenty-one years old, I’m Neda, and today is my birthday!” “But Grandma,” I said trying to calm her, but she screamed at me, “Grandma?! What do you mean, Grandma? I’m a young woman, I’m twenty-one years old, my name is Neda, my mother has a stand in the market, my father is a fisherman, we live in Split.” “Of course, of course, that’s nice, Mama,” our father said trying to smooth things over, but she started in on him, too: “Mama? What do you mean ‘Mama’? I’m a young woman and I’m not married. Carlo is waiting for me on the Riva!”
When she couldn’t convince us, Grandma began to shout at the top of her lungs, calling us liars, thieves, even fascists.
How strange my birthday was! At first, we thought Grandma was joking and we were joking along with her, but she wouldn’t let up and kept trying to convince us that she was the Neda celebrating her birthday, not me. When she couldn’t convince us, she began to shout at the top of her lungs, calling us liars, thieves, even fascists. We quickly cleared the dishes and the food from the garden table and somehow managed to get her inside. The special Split cake that Grandma had made the day before—working all day in the kitchen, her spattered recipe in front of her—remained in the small refrigerator that Papa had put in the corner of the garden several years before. No one remembered it until several days after my birthday. I think all of us felt our hearts pound in our temples. We went inside, shut the door that led to the garden, and shuffled off to our own rooms. Grandma went to her room, repeating over and over as she climbed the stairs: “Faa-scists. Faa-scists!”
Grandma, why did you call us fascists? You repeated that word in the days that followed and for the six full years until your death. Why was it that that word would pour from your mouth a hundred times a day? Sometimes it would be the only word you said. What really happened that day? An outpouring of unexpected hatred toward all of us, your closest kin, or the final outpouring of illness? Doctor Rinaldo said it was a typical sign of Alzheimer’s and had no connection to concrete causes and consequences. You were simply ill. Old and sick. You must have been sick a long time, but that day the illness appeared in its truest light. Something flipped the switch on your illness during my birthday dinner. You had been lucky till then. At that age, grandmothers are usually in their graves, in an old folks’ home, or critically ill. “Mrs. Nedjeljka Lombardo has a good heart, but her brain is no longer functioning properly, and it will be like this from now on,” the doctor said, “and get worse. Don’t leave her alone for a moment.” “Do we need to sleep with her as well?” Mama asked sarcastically, then immediately bit her lip. “No, she can sleep alone, but lock the balcony door, she’ll never know.”
It was my job to lock the balcony door to your room every night, then hide the key in my room. How hard that was for me to do, and how hypocritical I felt, showing a granddaughter’s love toward you during the day yet at night taking your freedom to the balcony with its beautiful view of the bell tower beside the Holy Mother of God cathedral. Every evening before I left your room, I kissed your forehead, and you would grab my hand that held the balcony key. “Faa-scists, faa-scists,” you repeated with eyes closed, without looking at me, and I felt the palm of my hand sweating as it clenched the key, and my heart pounding in my temples; how I hated myself for playing the role of prison guard. The door of your room, however, was kept unlocked, and during the night you often went back and forth to the washroom several times, because you had either forgotten to turn off the faucet or had completely forgotten to do what you went there for; you just sat and gazed into the night without turning on the light. Meanwhile, in my half of the room, separated from Margherita’s by a tall bookshelf, I would think about everything that had happened, how I had lost you, my grandma, while you were still alive, and how you knew yourself that you were the most important person in my life. We were as close as “ass to panties” as Papa would describe us, and Mama would not neglect to add, “out of spite.”
I would think about everything that had happened, how I had lost you, my grandma, while you were still alive, and how you knew yourself that you were the most important person in my life.
I asked myself whether her illness had any connection to Grandpa Carlo who had died thirteen long years earlier. “Alzheimer’s defies logic,” Dr. Rinaldo said to me. “Don’t try to find reasons for it. It occurs in young people and in old.” Yes, it can’t be Grandpa’s fault; he’s been dead so many years and is buried, alone, in the city graveyard. He died in 1996 when I was eight years old, and my sister five, but he had been mute for the two years prior because of some undetected medical condition, though Grandma told us it was because he had so wanted to teach my sister and me to swim that he would carry us to the beach, down to the bay—anytime it was peaceful, without mafia gunfire—just to warm a bit in the sun, but Margherita and I cried and kicked so much that one day Margherita, the tough little thing, slipped out of his arms and nearly drowned, and Grandpa barely managed to pull her from the water, shouting at me: “Step on her back, step on her back!” Even today it seems I can still hear him shouting, as I, a six-year-old, wet and frozen, cried as I climbed onto the back of my little sister, who was barely three years old. I stepped on her, and from her mouth poured gurgling water and a cry, a cry that could be heard by every person in Castellammare del Golfo, and from that moment he never spoke again; he went mute overnight, he never took us to the beach again, and whenever someone asked him something, he just couldn’t answer—all that came out of his mouth was odd mumbling and gurgling sounds, but no real words.
I stepped on Margherita, and from her mouth poured gurgling water and a cry, a cry that could be heard by every person in Castellammare del Golfo, and from that moment Grandpa never spoke again.
My father and uncles took him everywhere they could think of: first, to the small clinic here where he was known as Carlo and his wife, Nedjeljka, as Neda from Yugoslavia. The first question the nurse asked was, “Did the mafia do something to him?” But since the answer was negative, the simple doctor in the clinic had no other answer to explain why my grandfather had stopped talking so abruptly and merely said: “He had a fright; it’ll pass. He just needs time.” But when the “time” that passed was a whole year following Margherita’s near drowning with its happy ending, Uncle Mario, who lived in Trieste, sent a ticket for Grandpa to sail to Trieste where he would take him to the best doctor in the city, “the American,” my uncle wrote. “I’m sure he’ll know what to do.”
My grandpa set off for Trieste, alone, unaccustomed to traveling with anyone, on his first trip since the war, while Grandma, even though she had wanted to go see her son in Trieste, was, in the end, gripped by fear and stayed home wringing her hands beneath her apron while waiting for the pasta, spread out on the white tablecloth, to dry in the only empty room in the house, the one that had been Uncle Mario’s. But not even in Trieste was there a cure for grandpa’s muteness.
Uncle Mario then sent him to Rome, to their younger brother’s, Uncle Luca, and Uncle Luca went with Grandpa from doctor to doctor, hospital to hospital, but they all said the same thing: “He’s had a fright, which struck him mute, and he needs time for the fear to pass, then he’ll begin to speak again.” There was a nurse in the suburbs of Rome, who had earlier been a client at Uncle Luca’s law office, who took my uncle aside and said to him: “You know that I’m not from here, but I know how to drive away fear: you get an axe, and then the person who has been frightened sits in the doorway to the house facing outside, and then whoever is the head of the house takes the axe and swings it in the doorway right beside the sick person saying, ‘Fear, leave this house, because a person can be a person without fear.’ Do that three times, to the person’s right and to his left, and once in the air over his head, and you’ll see how fear leaves him.” That’s what she told my Uncle Luca to get Grandpa Carlo to talk as he had before: “That’s what people do where I come from. I don’t know about how they do it where you’re from, but why not give it a try, it doesn’t cost anything to try.” Uncle Luca put a sheet of paper in Grandpa’s suitcase on which he had written the nurse’s advice, with a p.s.: “Mama, maybe you understand these things, the nurse is from Yugoslavia.”
“Ah, Nedi, we didn’t do that in Split, but I have heard about it. A long time ago, when I was young, I read a book of folk stories from the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and I read something like that in one of them and it upset me so much that I thought about the story all night: there was a woman who got married and then went off to live with her husband’s family. She was very afraid of his sister who was an evil woman, and one day her husband cut her fear with an axe right in the doorway to their house. From then on, she and her sister-in-law became like sisters. But then the sister-in-law got married and moved away. I thought about this when I read the advice from the hospital nurse in Rome, and I thought we should give it a try, but your grandpa wouldn’t hear of such a thing to drive out his fear, and he just turned and ran out of the room. I think it was also because he was the head of the house and he would have been so upset for his son to suddenly take over that role while his father was still living, but it was also “out of spite,” your mama said, thinking I wasn’t listening. He wouldn’t let us to do it, even though I thought it was the only thing that could save Carlo. I stroked his head, but he silently pushed my hand away; he didn’t want our tenderness or our help, and none of us were brave enough to just put him in the doorway and cut away the fear that had made him speechless.
He died in his sleep two years later—you were already eight years old, and Margherita five—and he hadn’t spoken for twenty-four months, sitting mute in our marriage bed, in the rocking chair on the balcony, here at the table under the orange tree, and in the armchair in the living room, gaping open-mouthed at the television as if every second he had something he wanted to say but couldn’t. He said nothing to me before he died. Nothing. He passed away in silence and left me with countless unspoken words.
Translation from the Macedonian By Christina E. Kramer
Read Full Article
Read for later
Articles marked as Favorite are saved for later viewing.
Scroll to Top
Separate tags by commas
To access this feature, please upgrade your account.