20 June 12 | Will Evans | Comments

The latest review to our Reviews Section is a piece by Rachael Daum on Gamal al-Ghitani’s The Zafarani Files, which Farouk Abdel Wahab translated from the Arabic and is available from The American University in Cairo Press.

Gamal Al-Ghitani was born in 1945 and educated in Cairo. He has written 13 novels and 6 collections of short stories. He is currently editor-in-chief of the literary review Akhbar al-adab.

Here is part of the review:

The Zafarani Files, a book with a misleadingly objective-sounding title, is, in short, a book full of all the deliciously taboo restrictions of traditional Arabic society, namely sex and lust. Despite having firsthand experience with Arabic culture, this reader, for one, was certainly surprised with the sheer lack of restraint in shamelessly allowing the reader to know everything—absolutely everything—about the novel’s characters. However, throughout his career, the author, Gamal al-Ghitani, has never shied away from taboo topics, and indeed seems to embrace them: these topics range from politics and cen¬sorship to the content of this sexually-charged (and ultimately utterly frustrated) novel.

The book is playful and utterly merciless in its content, immersing the reader into a world of both the tame and illicit that can and does happen between two (and sometimes more!) people under the bedsheets. The novel opens with Usta Abdu going to Zafarani alley’s local sheikh, informing him of and hoping for a cure for his sudden impotence. The language is wicked in its description of the issue.

Click here to read the entire review.

20 June 12 | Will Evans | Comments

The Zafarani Files, a book with a misleadingly objective-sounding title, is, in short, a book full of all the deliciously taboo restrictions of traditional Arabic society, namely sex and lust. Despite having firsthand experience with Arabic culture, this reader, for one, was certainly surprised with the sheer lack of restraint in shamelessly allowing the reader to know everything—absolutely everything—about the novel’s characters. However, throughout his career, the author, Gamal al-Ghitani, has never shied away from taboo topics, and indeed seems to embrace them: these topics range from politics and cen¬sorship to the content of this sexually-charged (and ultimately utterly frustrated) novel.

The book is playful and utterly merciless in its content, immersing the reader into a world of both the tame and illicit that can and does happen between two (and sometimes more!) people under the bedsheets. The novel opens with Usta Abdu going to Zafarani alley’s local sheikh, informing him of and hoping for a cure for his sudden impotence. The language is wicked in its description of the issue:

When [Usta Abdu] was engaged to be married, but before signing the contract, his fiancee, as she then was, had asked him specifically, “Can you water the soil, daily?” Refusing to believe his nod of affirmation, she had tested him thoroughly. For many years, apart from the days of her period, he had not ceased. She would fall ill and lose weight if he failed to mount her each and every day. This passing of a dry, unproductive week had been terrible, especially since his condition was showing no signs of improvement. He was getting so tense and his nerves were so bad that he now thought twice about going home.

It soon comes out that all the men in Zafarani have fallen under the same spell cast by the sheikh him-self. No man in Zafarani has the ability to please his woman, much to the shame of the men and the lamentation of the women in the alley. Any man who sets foot in the alley is likewise doomed, thus isolating the inhabitants. Not until later is it revealed that the sheikh has cast the spell upon its mem¬bers to “shock” the world and force it into a less “primitive” phase of existence. The sheikh promises that Zafarani is only the beginning, and soon the whole world will feel the effects of his magic.

All the happy and tragic sides of relationships are explored in the pages of this novel. From the old married couple, to the old man named Radish-head married to a fourteen-year-old white girl, to the man whose lover left him for his best friend, to the university student who cannot find herself a mate, to the abused divorcee who finds contentment outside of sex, no facet is left unexamined. More than that: even homosexuality, in the baker and the voice of the sheikh, is explored, if hastily. Interesting also are the reactions of those in the alley to the affliction that has come over the men. Some disobey the sheikh’s orders and leave; one woman, the sex-addicted woman referenced above, takes to the streets to escape death; one man loses his mind and believes he is a general on par with Hitler and Rommel; and another woman finds she does just well enough without it, asking her lover only to sit with her in the sun in a park. Al-Ghitani spares nothing and exposes his characters and readers to all, offering a spectrum of reactions, thus challenging the reader to guess what his own would be.

If anything, it is truly the voice of the narrative that is the most captivating part of this novel. It seamlessly weaves the stories into each other while not allowing the reader to be overly confused by the multitude of names, shifting from one story to the other. The unnamed narrator, the collector of these frustrations, has a chameleon-esque way of moving from voice to voice. Whether it’s making in¬timate observations about how Radish-head’s “breathing would get heavier as he made love to [Farida, his young green-eyed wife], while she would amuse herself by sucking a piece of candy…”, or posing thoughtful suppositions that the sheikh “was born with a full beard and that before coming out of his mother’s womb, he had recited verses from the Qur’an”, or assuming the formal police attendee’s voice writing up the reports that take up the majority of the book—the writing is sleek and smooth as the old cafe-owner’s hookah smoke. This indeed is much of what makes the humour viable in the book: even in the “serious” policeman-voice sections, it is littered with alluded reports from the “Supreme Depart¬ment of Eavesdropping”, the “Supreme Legitimately-Elected Assembly”, and the “Supreme Authority for the Collection of Jokes and Rumours”, being mischievous tongue-in-cheek references to the multi¬tudes of councils and authorities in Egypt at the time.

Concerning the translation of the book, Farouk Abdel Wahab weaves in the references to Arab culture, difficult for a completely foreign audience to understand, smoothly and coherently—almost imperceptively. Simply the direct translations of people’s greetings of “God is great!” and the praising of God in many instances does much to allow the American reader into the text. The translator also made a masterful decision to allow many of the idioms to remain the same between the languages: for example, there is no need to find an English equivalent of the Arab saying that translates to, “The bullet that misses you can still give you a headache”. It’s self-explanatory within the context of one of the men of Zafarani worrying that, though he may have temporarily been spared by the sheik, he still ought to see him. The choice to leave it is advantageous in any event, as the role of a gun is prominent with another Zafarani man later in the book (and that a gun is a symbol of manhood does not hurt the case either!). The voicing reads cleverly and smoothly in English, and Wahab surely deserves commenda¬tion for his feat of weaving these voices and happenings together in a way which retains the playful humour of the original author.

It is a shame that it took until 2008 to get this book, published in 1979, translated into English. In our current time it is becoming fashionable to read books with Arab authors, given the political situ-ation in our world. And while al-Ghitani is in fact a political writer, it would do him an unjustice not to remember that his politics when he wrote the novel are quite different than ours today. His sheikh spoke of uniting a world and shocking it into a less primitive, sex-driven state, something fairly universal; however, his characters reference East and West Germany, the crisis of the U.S. in Vietnam, among other timely world issues. The world has changed since then, countries have united and fallen, and politics, while still volatile, revolve on different axes than when al-Ghitani wrote The Zafarani Files. Ultimately, this is a book for those who have some political interest, but are more interested in the humanity of common people—those who are poor and those who are not—and what happens to them when one of the most basic human drives, the drive to reproduce and enjoy doing it, is taken away, as the characters, in their ensuing madnesses, betrayals, and coming-togethers, are mirrors for the reader to hold up to himself.

22 March 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Elizabeth “Six” Mullins on Mona Prince’s So You May See, which is translated from the Arabic by Raphael Cohen and available from the American University in Cairo Press.

For those of you interested in knowing more about the novel and its translation, I highly recommend checking out this interview with Raphael Cohen:

ArabLit: How would you describe إنى أحدثك لترى in an elevator pitch?

Raphael Cohen: So You May See is a self-reflective account of narrator Ayn’s long, stormy, and ultimately eternal love affair with Ali. It is a psychologically and symbolically complex work which attempts to inverse traditional views of women. It is also frequently funny and with a declared mystical interest. The novel has two long sections involving Ayn’s journeys in the Sahara and a parallel love affair in Sinai which are closer to ordinary narrative.

AL: Which parts did you find funniest?

RC: I thought both sections involving goats were funny–the goat in the desert and Apollo, the Corsican’s attempt to marry Ayn with the seven-goat dowry. That whole scene in fact. Also the parts where Ayn turns her hand to magic.

And here’s the opening of Six’s review:

From the beginning of Mona Prince’s So You May See, I was clear about what the narrator, Ayn, was trying to accomplish. She writes, in no uncertain terms, “I will write about you and me, about our love story.” She explains that she will “subsume it within a travel narrative” so that the changes and discoveries within herself and within her relationship would mirror the changes in landscape. She explains that she will add sex, politics, and some psychoanalysis to the narrative, to enact a “tried-and-tested recipe for fame.” Essentially, Ayn’s prologue acts as a sort of thesis statement, a road map for the novel, a set of promises that sometimes read like a contract, or vows:

“I will write my love story just as it is, incomplete, and from my, sometimes less than objective, point of view . . . I will make an effort, in accordance with my ability or my understanding, to make room for the perspective of my co-partner in the story . . . I will write passages based upon moments I lived through without adhering to a specific form. The passage may take the form of a narrative, a prose poem, a quotation from other texts, or a letter. A section may be long, one line, or one word; in the literary register or colloquial; with a fair deal of sarcastic asides or critical interventions that sometimes undermine what I’m writing.”

What choice did I then have but to examine the entire novel in terms of whether or not it delivered on these promises? From then on, for better or worse, reading So You May See became more of an assessment of the terms it had set for itself than an open-minded exploration of the text.

Click here to read the full review.

22 March 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

From the beginning of Mona Prince’s So You May See, I was clear about what the narrator, Ayn, was trying to accomplish. She writes, in no uncertain terms, “I will write about you and me, about our love story.” She explains that she will “subsume it within a travel narrative” so that the changes and discoveries within herself and within her relationship would mirror the changes in landscape. She explains that she will add sex, politics, and some psychoanalysis to the narrative, to enact a “tried-and-tested recipe for fame.” Essentially, Ayn’s prologue acts as a sort of thesis statement, a road map for the novel, a set of promises that sometimes read like a contract, or vows:

I will write my love story just as it is, incomplete, and from my, sometimes less than objective, point of view . . . I will make an effort, in accordance with my ability or my understanding, to make room for the perspective of my co-partner in the story . . . I will write passages based upon moments I lived through without adhering to a specific form. The passage may take the form of a narrative, a prose poem, a quotation from other texts, or a letter. A section may be long, one line, or one word; in the literary register or colloquial; with a fair deal of sarcastic asides or critical interventions that sometimes undermine what I’m writing.

What choice did I then have but to examine the entire novel in terms of whether or not it delivered on these promises? From then on, for better or worse, reading So You May See became more of an assessment of the terms it had set for itself than an open-minded exploration of the text.

That being said, as an exploration of a relationship and of the love within it, So You May See definitely came through, to the point of feeling near-obsessive. Or perhaps that was just the nature of the way Ayn feels about Ali. I went into the book expecting a character’s thoughtful reflection on her true love—and in a sense it was. However, for a story about two grown adults, the plot seemed quite childish: two people meet at a party, they swiftly come together and go through a honeymoon stage, one of the two repeatedly distances himself emotionally, the other keeps coming back for more heartache, all the while exploring her other sexual options in a seemingly unhealthy way. Most of the time I was irritated with Ayn. I feel like this is not the ideal way to feel about a novel’s protagonist, but when Ali revealed that he was going to marry another woman, and Ayn continued to insist he was “a gift from the Lord that I didn’t know how to treasure,” what else is there to feel? Sweetie, I wanted to scream, he’s marrying someone else and you blame yourself? What’s wrong with this picture?

Plot frustrations aside, sometimes the actual writing was just bad. I’m not an Arabic or translation expert, so I’m not sure if I ought to blame Mona Prince (author) or Raphael Cohen (translator) but at times I felt like I was reading the work of an amateur. But Liz, you might well interject, isn’t the whole novel supposed to be the work of an amateur writer? Isn’t Ayn supposed to be someone just trying her hand at writing? Yes, I would answer, but there are some phrases, such as “Do you know what my bank balance is from my past drug dealing?,” that do not appear to be the intentional affectation of beginner’s prose. In other places, the writing seems to evoke nothing but laziness: “I scratch him, kiss him, bite him. He gets turned on and does likewise.” Scratching, kissing, and biting are supposed to be frenzied expressions of lust, right? So why does the scene read flat?

Another minor point of issue was the sprinkling of poetry throughout the text. From the beginning, it was obvious that Prince/Ayn (for, at the moment, I do not know on whom to blame ineptitude) was not a poet. Lines like “a kind of familiarity, of spontaneity, that made our bodies’ union natural / as if we’d been together in another, past life” are riddled with cliché. Others, like “because you’re linked to me with an umbilical cord,” feel clunky and awkward in the midst of shorter, succinct lines. Above all, the poetry is unremarkable, nothing to publish, nothing I would read if a book of it were presented to me, which begs the question, Why is it there? Surely the prose would survive on its own, and the inclusion of poetry does not make the text experimental, as I believe Prince believes it did—poetry plus prose in the context of one work does not equal nouveau-writing.

To be fair, though, there are some moments of beauty that shine through the mediocrity. Ayn’s dreams about her teeth falling out and her insistence that they mean Ali’s impending death ring with the truth of irrational love worries. Phrases like “he drip-feeds me his beauty,” and “she is still shepherding her wilderness” ring with the patience of waiting for the right image and expression of that image. Passages like “We will wake up at dawn one day to the sound of bombs falling on Baghdad. The tears will gel in our eyes in mourning for the civilizations of Mesopotamia. We will await our turn” are haunting and lovely. I only wished there were more of them to enjoy throughout the novel.

Like I mentioned before, Ayn outlines her entire novel before the plot even begins, promising readers a love story and the specifics of its construction. Her final declaration of intent, though, is not to accurately capture the specifics of her relationship with Ali. Instead, she declares, “What concerns me now is to gamble at writing as I gambled at love: with even greater audacity, I will go wild with writing like I went wild with love.” Ironically, this assertion is the perfect embodiment of the novel; when you gamble, sometimes it pays off and you take home the jackpot. However, more often than not, the casino takes your money and you have little to show for your efforts. In this case, I’d have to say that So You May See went bust.

25 June 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In our ongoing effort to both make translators more visible, and to provide as much interesting information about international literature as possible, we’re launching a new semi-regular series in which translators talk about something they recently worked on. This could take a few different forms—why they chose to champion this particular work, what interesting translation conundrum they ran into, etc.

The first piece in this series is by Arabic scholar and translator Chip Rossetti and his recent translation of Saint Theresa and Sleeping with Strangers by Bahaa Abdelmegid, which was recently publishing by American University in Cairo Press.




Saint Theresa and Sleeping with Strangers by Bahaa Abdelmedig. Translated from the Arabic by Chip Rossetti. (Egypt, AUC Press)

When Chad asked me if I’d like to write about why I chose to translate two short novels, Saint Theresa and Sleeping with Strangers, by the Egyptian author Bahaa Abdelmegid, I had to think for a minute. To be honest, I didn’t initially set out to translate either book in its entirety. In the fall of 2008, I was taking a graduate school seminar on literary translation, and was looking for a final project—a chunk of a novel or some short stories I could sink my teeth into. I approached my former colleagues at the AUC Press to ask if they had any novels on their “wish list” of Arabic fiction that still needed a translator. As it turned out, Bahaa Abdelmegid’s novel Saint Theresa was at the top of their list.

I found it an engaging story about the interlocking lives of four characters during the Sadat era in Egypt, particularly the coming of age of two young women who were childhood friends. One of the characters is a sympathetically portrayed Egyptian Jew, who had turned down the Mossad’s overtures to him to spy for Israel, but who finds himself under suspicion by the authorities after the Six Day War. It also touches on the emergence of radical Islam in the 1970s and relations between Copts and Muslims. The anchoring image in the book is the church of Saint Theresa in the lower-class neighborhood of Shubra where the characters grow up. (Saint Theresa’s is an actual church—in fact, there’s a Cairo Metro station named after it.) The novel ends with a violent death and a miraculous pregnancy, the latter perhaps caused by an apparition of the Virgin Mary on the church steeple, which draws neighborhood crowds. The author is clearly alluding to a famous apparition of the Virgin that occurred nightly at the top of another Cairo church for a few years during the late 1960s. Thousands of Egyptians—both Muslims and Copts—claimed to have seen it, including then-president Gamal Abdel Nasser.

After I had translated the opening chapters for the course, AUC Press asked me if I would be interested in translating the rest of the novel. And if so, would I also be interested in translating another short novel by the same author? The second novel turned out to be Sleeping with Strangers, which was set partly in present-day Egypt, and partly in Boston. As a native Bostonian who lived for a few years in post-September-11th Cairo, I was immediately hooked.

But despite (or rather because of) the familiar terrain, Sleeping with Strangers posed its own translation problems. The protagonist of the novel is Basim, an Egyptian ne’er-do-well and womanizer who comes to the U.S. to study, but drops out of college and is eventually imprisoned and deported back to Egypt. I liked the novel, but it had some descriptions of American society and culture that struck me as a bit off-key—details that wouldn’t register for a non-American reader, but would raise an eyebrow in English translation. For example, at one point Basim is imprisoned for failure to pay alimony to his American ex-wife, and is only released when a family friend pays money to “the American authorities.” That plot point struck me as a little implausible, and sent me looking up the current state of divorce law in the U.S.. (Although debtor’s prisons are long gone, Basim’s failure to pay alimony could conceivably be ruled contempt of court, which could explain his jail time. So no harm done, I thought.)

When translating fiction, you’re usually wrestling over “domestication” versus “foreignization”—about how exotic you want to keep a story set in a different cultural and historical milieu. Do you go out of your way to make a text seem familiar and domestic, or do you err on the side of letting undigestible Arabic terms remain in the text? As the amazing blog “Arabic Literature (in English)”:http://arablit.wordpress.com/ “asked recently”:http://arablit.wordpress.com/2010/06/02/how-do-you-translate-inshaallah-foreignizing-vs-exoticizing-the-text/#comments, how do you translate insh’allah into English? When Arabic speakers drop insh’allah into daily conversation, they are rarely using it in a religious sense, so translating it as “God willing” in English may make your characters seem more pious than they really are. In this case, however, the foreign elements were mixed up with a setting—downtown Boston, Harvard Square—that was distinctly domestic.

I didn’t want to turn myself into a cultural gatekeeper, telling the author that he needed to tweak plot points for the English translation, but I did want to make sure the American elements in the novel were at least plausible for American readers. Early in the novel, for example, Basim takes his more naïve Egyptian cousin, Nadir—who is also visiting the U.S. as an exchange student—to a sauna, where both sexes steam themselves fully unclothed, and Nadir is shocked to find a couple fondling each other across from him. The scene highlights Nadir’s culture shock as a modest young Egyptian (and emphasizes how American Basim has become during his time in the States), but it struck me as very unrealistic. (Although my hometown has plenty of local color, I’m almost certain that Boston has no co-ed naked saunas.)

Similarly vexing issues involved one of the most interesting characters in the novel: Basim’s cell-mate, a radical black nationalist named Mado who preaches about the Black Messiah (although he is portrayed as surprisingly uninformed about Islam.) Offended by images of Jesus as a white man, Mado had made a name for himself by going into museums and flinging mud at European religious paintings. He was eventually arrested, Mado tells Basim, for insulting Christianity. While it’s certainly possible to take someone to court for “insulting Christianity”: http://news.egypt.com/en/2010050610665/news/-egypt-news/egypt-christians-want-action-on-insulting-novel.html or “Islam”: http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2010/06/07/the_nights_tale in Egypt, the conviction seemed bizarre in an American context. I suggested to Abdelmegid that an easy fix was to simply say that Mado was arrested for defacing artwork—hurling mud at a painting in a museum would certainly qualify for a stint in prison. For all my concerns about believability, though, the author reminded me that much of what Mado was telling Basim about himself was to be taken with a grain of salt: perhaps he was exaggerating to impress his cellmate, or was mentally unstable. It is a work of fiction, after all. Although there were other places where the author was happy to correct minor issues of “fact” about the American setting, there were some instances—such as Mado’s unreliable version of events—that needed no interference from me. It was a useful reminder of the limits of my role as translator, and of course, the fact that fictional characters are entitled to their own skewed views of the world.

It was exactly that kind of back-and-forth with the author that made translating these novels so enjoyable. Translating literature, I’ve found, is like trying to construct a replica of a building using very different material, like remaking a sandcastle out of two-by-fours: you hope to get the basic structure and architectural features right, but inevitably the material won’t curve the way the original did, or have the same seamless texture. There’s always a fine line between the task of reconstructing a text in another language so that it can speak for itself, and imposing your own views on it. I hope I veered closer to the former than to the latter with Bahaa Abdelmegid’s novels.

....
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