9 September 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Antoon gives us a remarkable novel that in 184 pages captures the experience of an Iraqi everyman who has lived through the war with Iran in the first half of the 1980s, the 1991 Gulf War over the Kuwaiti invasion, and then the 2003 war.

Jawad is the youngest child from a Baghdad family. His father, like his father before him, is a traditional corpse washer—an honored and necessary role for their Shi’ite Moslem community that eschews embalming for immediate burial. The elder son was in training to be a doctor when drafted and killed during war.

The focus on Jawad tracks his relationships with his father, who starts the gradual training of his son at age eight (as he had with the older son) in the ritual of corpse washing; with his mother, widowed over the course of the novel; and with two different women with whom he is romantically involved. Both his father’s death and the crises of war limit Jawad’s practical future. He longs to be an artist, a sculptor, and completes a university degree to that end, with much tension between son and father. His father’s death, the economic realities of war, and finally his sense of duty, bring him back to the family business.

In Western literary terms the novel is a contemporary form of tragedy. At two different phases of his life Jawad becomes involved with a woman. Each relationship ends, not without love between Jawad and each woman, but without conditions that can lead to marriage. Jawad does not have hubris, but is instead contained by the situations so much out of his control. Like the statues of Giacometti that Jawad admires, he is stretched and distorted by the existential circumstances in which he finds himself, trapped in a way, but not without insight by the conclusion of the novel that gives him a some small sense of meaning and purpose in a profession centered around death.

Interestingly, Antoon brings in the reality of war, often in a matter-of-fact way, as background and context. He neither dwells on it, nor ignores it. This isn’t a novel centered on brutalities, battles, and direct conflicts between the occupied and their occupiers. The same approach applies to the corpses, with the exception of two toward the end of the book; one might expect graphic detail that would personalize all involved—the dead men, the relatives who brought them, the corpse washer, and by extension, the reader. Again, this is not a novel of outrage against the depredations and horrors of war in a visceral manner. Instead, the personal lives of Jawad, his family, his friends, and community members are warped by the unrelenting backdrop of conflict after conflict.

Antoon writes in two different, alternating styles. One is grounded in realistic portrayals in a time of distortion:

I was startled as I uncovered the face of one of the men I washed yesterday. He looked exactly like a dear friend of mine who’d died years ago. The same rectangular cheek bones, and long nose. The skin and eyes were coffee brown. His eyes were shut, of course. Their sockets were somewhat hollow. The thick eyebrows looked as if they were going to shake hands. But, I said to myself, I’ve already seen him dead in my arms once before. The name on the paper was Muhsin. The distinguishing mark that this person, who looked so much like my friend, had acquired was a bullet hole in the middle of his forehead. It looked like a period which had put an end to the sentence of his life. One of the men who brought him to me said he was a shop owner and was killed in a robbery. Thank God, I thought. It’s not a sectarian killing. But does it matter to the dead how and why they die? Theft, greed, hatred or sectarianism? We, who are waiting in line for our turn, keep mulling over death, but the dead person just dies and is indifferent.

The short declarative sentences even when describing the horrific have a certain flatness of tone. Note how Antoon brings by economy of detail into one paragraph the role of corpse washer, the personal (a dead friend), violence, art-making that is life (the period at the end of a sentence), the everyday—a shop owner with friends, sectarian divisions, the finality of death.

The other mode is poetic leading to the surreal. Jawad’s first love, Reem, has just written from Amman revealing that she and her family had left Baghdad because she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and she has had a mastectomy:

I see Reem standing in an orchard full of blossoming pomegranate trees the wind moves the branches and the red blossoms appear to be waving from afar. Reem waves as well and her hands say Come close! I walk toward her and call out her name, but I can hear neither my own voice nor the sound of my footsteps. All I hear is the wind rustling Reem smiles without saying anything. I am closer and I see two pomegranates on her chest instead of her breasts. She notices that I am looking at them and smiles as she cups them with her hands from below. Her fingernails and lips are painted pomegranate red. I rush toward her, and when I reach her and hug her, the left pomegranate falls to the ground. When I bend down to pick it up I see red stains bathing my arm. I turn back and see Reem crying as she tries to stop the fountain of blood gushing from the wound.

Antoon does quite an interesting thing as the novel progresses, as he removes the boundaries between the surreal and real-world encounters. An example: when male relatives bring just the decapitated head of a loved one for burial. The routine of washing comes up against the ghastly. Conversely, what seems real becomes revealed as dream: a description of Jawad waiting in line to get his visa to travel to Amman—a plausible step in the progression of the plot—when a suicide bomber ahead in line detonates, and Jawad is covered in blood, and then awakens. Dream and reality, the mundane and the surreal, blur.

This merger of reality and dream comes together in the second love affair Jawad has, with his cousin who has come with her family to live with Jawad and his mother. Over a succession of nights the two insomniacs grow closer and eventually become lovers. When it is time for her family to leave and for Jawad to step forward in one last opportunity to ask for her in marriage, he balks. This is a night-time relationship and cannot be sustained in something like ordinary life, the light of day. Death and Jawad’s duties toward the dead have overtaken him.

Significant roles and symbols interweave to tie the novel tighter together: an uncle in self imposed exile because of Communist sympathies and the impotence of political parties; statues in many roles and anecdotes; normal human institutions such as universities contending with the not-normal.

Pomegranates, like those referenced in the Reem dream sequence already cited, are part of Islamic religious symbolism. One must eat all the small pieces, the arils, of the pomegranate because one will always be from a tree in paradise. Beside the building where the corpses are washed is a small garden watered by the run-off from the washing ceremony. At the center of this garden is a pomegranate tree, beloved by Jawad’s father and eventually by Jawad, who sometimes rests beside it and talks to it. Two twigs from the tree go into each coffin as a symbolic way of easing the journey of the dead.

At the end of the novel Jawad has accepted his place as a corpse washer. The crucial moment comes when he is turned away at the border with Jordan; single men are not allowed to cross. While waiting for his turn at the border he sees a TV showing yet another bombing and the scene of dead bodies. He wonders, with all the conflicted realities with which he struggles, who might tend the bodies. While his sense of vocational call in the moment might be muted, and is a call always caught up in the troubling reality of death, here, however, is a moment where Jawad sees his place in his world.

The novel concludes with Jawad sitting beneath the tree, listening to a nightingale sing, until it is scared away by the arrival of another corpse; Mahdi, his assistant, breaks this silence:

It started singing with a gentle sweetness—as if it knew I had complained that paradise was far away, so it had brought its sound right here . . .

The living die or depart, and the dead always come. I had thought that life and death were two separate worlds with clearly marked boundaries. But now I know they are conjoined, sculpting each other. My father knew that, and the pomegranate tree knows it as well.

Mahdi opened the door and said, “Jawad, they brought one.”

The nightingale fled. I sighed and said, “Okay, I’m coming. Just give me another minute.”

I am like the pomegranate tree, but all my branches have been cut, broken, and buried with the dead. My heart has become a shrunken pomegranate beating with death and falling every second into a bottomless pit.

But no one knows. No one. The pomegranate alone knows.

9 September 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is from Grant Barber on Sinan Antoon’s The Corpse Washer, from Yale University Press.

Grant is not only a keen bibliophile, and an Episcopal priest living on the south shore of Boston, but has reviewed for Three Percent for forever, basically, and sometimes also performs as Chad’s stunt double at conferences.

Here’s the beginning of his review:

Antoon gives us a remarkable novel that in 184 pages captures the experience of an Iraqi everyman who has lived through the war with Iran in the first half of the 1980s, the 1991 Gulf War over the Kuwaiti invasion, and then the 2003 war.

Jawad is the youngest child from a Baghdad family. His father, like his father before him, is a traditional corpse washer—an honored and necessary role for their Shi’ite Moslem community that eschews embalming for immediate burial. The elder son was in training to be a doctor when drafted and killed during war.

The focus on Jawad tracks his relationships with his father, who starts the gradual training of his son at age eight (as he had with the older son) in the ritual of corpse washing; with his mother, widowed over the course of the novel; and with two different women with whom he is romantically involved. Both his father’s death and the crises of war limit Jawad’s practical future. He longs to be an artist, a sculptor, and completes a university degree to that end, with much tension between son and father. His father’s death, the economic realities of war, and finally his sense of duty, bring him back to the family business.

In Western literary terms the novel is a contemporary form of tragedy. At two different phases of his life Jawad becomes involved with a woman. Each relationship ends, not without love between Jawad and each woman, but without conditions that can lead to marriage. Jawad does not have hubris, but is instead contained by the situations so much out of his control. Like the statues of Giacometti that Jawad admires, he is stretched and distorted by the existential circumstances in which he finds himself, trapped in a way, but not without insight by the conclusion of the novel that gives him a some small sense of meaning and purpose in a profession centered around death.

For the rest of the review, go here.

3 September 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Thanks to a Three Percent fan who sends me periodic updates on titles I’ve left out of the translation database, I just found out about Humphrey Davies’s first-ever English translation on of Leg over Leg by Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq.

Originally published in 1855, this sounds like the sort of crazy, language-centric, unconventional type of book that I would love:

Leg over Leg is the semi-autobiographical account of Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq, a pivotal figure in the intellectual and literary history of the modern Arab world. His adventures and misadventures provided him with opportunities for wide-ranging digressions on the intellectual and social issues of his time, including the ignorance and corruption of the Lebanese religious and secular establishments, women’s rights, the manners and customs of Europeans and Middle Easterners, and the differences between European and Arabic literature. In Leg over Leg, al-Shidyaq also celebrates the beauty of the Arabic language.

Akin to Sterne and Rabelais in his satirical outlook and technical inventiveness, al-Shidyaq produced in Leg Over Leg an unprecedented sui generis work. It was initially widely condemned for its attacks on authority, its skepticism, and its “obscenity,” and later editions were often abridged. This is the very first English transaltion of the work and reproduces the original edition, published under the author’s supervision in 1855.

It’s quite possible that this jacket copy is pure exaggeration and that the book totally sucks, but my god does this sound like the sort of thing a bunch of my readerly friends (Scott Esposito, Stephen Sparks, M.A. Orthofer, etc., etc.) would know about and have reviewed. Unfortunately, all a quick Google turned up was this listing for an event that took place in 2011.

That’s a pretty sad commentary on something.

One big stumbling block is that the publisher, the Library of Arabic Literature, which I just found out about approximately 3 minutes before starting to write this post, is selling Leg over Leg in two volumes for $40 EACH. I’m no scholar, but $80 for an obscure Arabic work of literature from the nineteeth century is probably pricing yourself out of the market. (That said, the sales rank on Amazon is #624,733, which is better than some books I’ve seen.)

Also, this cover:

Why such a shitty marketing/pricing job? Well, all it takes is a click on the “About” tab to get all the answers:

Supported by a grant from the New York University Abu Dhabi Institute, and established in partnership with NYU Press, the Library of Arabic Literature aims to publish key works of classical and premodern Arabic literature in parallel-text format with the original Arabic and English translation on facing pages, edited and translated by distinguished scholars of Arabic and Islamic studies. The Library of Arabic Literature includes texts from the pre-Islamic era to the cusp of the modern period, and will encompass a wide range of genres, including poetry, poetics, fiction, religion, philosophy, law, science, history and historiography.

In other words, no one who cares about reaching a general reading public. Awesome.

Maybe this book is as unique and interesting as it sounds. Maybe one day a reader-oriented press will publish a classy trade paperback version. Or maybe years will go by and English readers will still never have heard about this and will assume all Arabic literature is 1001 Nights and Aladdin.

12 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Lili Sarayrah on Thani Al-Suwaidi’s The Diesel, which is translated from the Arabic by William Maynard Hutchins and available from ANTIBOOKCLUB.

Lili was in my publishing class last semester, studies at the Eastman School, and is working towards her certificate in literary translation.

This is the first ANTIBOOKCLUB book that we’ve reviewed, but they seem really interesting, and hopefully we’ll have a chance to cover them more in the not-too-distant future.

Here’s the opening of Lili’s review:

“Neighbor, what can I say? All the fake moans of this world rail against the toil of ephemeral things. My moans, however, rail against the insanity of their toil in a time that we ignore and that ignores us, a time that is paralyzed, hand and foot, and that consumes only the fruit of pride. While we live out our days, time laughs from inside a dance circle. Donʼt be afraid. Who knows? Perhaps it will transport us to another region of this existence. There we may confront time with just the same number of moans, which we will transmute to laughs until they die away. Why donʼt you say something?”

Thus ends the two-page-long first chapter of The Diesel, the shortest and most experimental Arabic text that I have ever read. It was published in Beirut in 1994 but didnʼt make it into English until 2012. Because of its extremely sensitive subject matter it was dubbed “the shock novel” by the Arab news station Al-Jazeera, and even though itʼs been nearly twenty years since it was published, The Diesel is still highly relevant to the state of Middle Eastern affairs today. The author, Al-Suwaidi, was born in the United Arab Emirates in 1966, and this first and only novella was written in between two poetry collections (the style of The Diesel is itself both poetic and disjointed). His words are compact and carefully chosen, but at the same time follow the protagonistʼs stream of consciousness. The author explains that his style “is based on the oral culture found in the region. Therefore we cannot say that this literature is essentially a new literature; we say instead that the novel constituted a revolution in popular storytelling.”

Our protagonist is a young boy who remains unnamed until he comes of age and develops his identity as a wildly famous transgender entertainer known as “the Diesel.” See? Controversial. The setting is a small traditional Arab village by the sea which is torn between the old way and the pull of the new generation as led by the Diesel himself. The plot is subtle and woven into so many layers of description that it takes a while to find it.

Click here to read the entire book.

12 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

“Neighbor, what can I say? All the fake moans of this world rail against the toil of ephemeral things. My moans, however, rail against the insanity of their toil in a time that we ignore and that ignores us, a time that is paralyzed, hand and foot, and that consumes only the fruit of pride. While we live out our days, time laughs from inside a dance circle. Donʼt be afraid. Who knows? Perhaps it will transport us to another region of this existence. There we may confront time with just the same number of moans, which we will transmute to laughs until they die away. Why donʼt you say something?”

Thus ends the two-page-long first chapter of The Diesel, the shortest and most experimental Arabic text that I have ever read. It was published in Beirut in 1994 but didnʼt make it into English until 2012. Because of its extremely sensitive subject matter it was dubbed “the shock novel” by the Arab news station Al-Jazeera, and even though itʼs been nearly twenty years since it was published, The Diesel is still highly relevant to the state of Middle Eastern affairs today. The author, Al-Suwaidi, was born in the United Arab Emirates in 1966, and this first and only novella was written in between two poetry collections (the style of The Diesel is itself both poetic and disjointed). His words are compact and carefully chosen, but at the same time follow the protagonistʼs stream of consciousness. The author explains that his style “is based on the oral culture found in the region. Therefore we cannot say that this literature is essentially a new literature; we say instead that the novel constituted a revolution in popular storytelling.”

Our protagonist is a young boy who remains unnamed until he comes of age and develops his identity as a wildly famous transgender entertainer known as “the Diesel.” See? Controversial. The setting is a small traditional Arab village by the sea which is torn between the old way and the pull of the new generation as led by the Diesel himself. The plot is subtle and woven into so many layers of description that it takes a while to find it. The descriptions themselves are challenging to follow:

A man standing on the shipʼs deck seized a white abaya, which he wrapped around his head, and then kneeled silently, facing us. Meanwhile, all the sailors had dropped their drawers and lined up beside that man, who seized a long stick then and tapped the meaty appendages of their bodies. These were all dead, but even so strange rays emanated from them. I wasnʼt really freaked out, because these rays were a reflection of the seaʼs light on their bodies.

This writing is so abstract that the only name that comes to mind is Tahar Ben Jelloun, a Moroccan poet and author whose first language is Arabic but whose works are written entirely in French. Ben Jellounʼs style is similarly stream of consciousness and focuses on gender issues as well (his protagonists include a baby girl raised as a boy) but his plots are still much more structured.

Aside from the fact that the Diesel is a strong transgender character, gender roles is a persistent issue throughout the text. Women are championed by the Dieselʼs sister, who mates with the sea and then names each of her children so that their “lineage is reckoned by female descent, not male.” Other sensitive issues include not only the fact that the Diesel is repeatedly raped by a male wayfarer in a mosque, but that his father endorses it. Later he is also ordered to sleep with a 70 year old woman. Also, a woman rapes her son-in-law using a stick in her mouth after her daughter accuses him of attempting sodomy. These scenes are actually not gruesome at all, but have such a matter-of-fact tone to them that itʼs easy to see why it was banned in the United Arab Emirates for ten years after it was published.

William Hutchins is the translator, and his introduction says that “Al-Suwaidi has portrayed a world heading for collision, a world that many in the Gulf region have worked hard to conceal.” Hutchins has produced an excellent translation through working with the author, completing extensive research of Arabic texts with similar themes, and utilizing his own extensive experience in translation and knowledge of the language. Since Al-Suwaidiʼs writing is so strange, Hutchins must have been forced to play a more pivotal role in the process rather than simply acting as a functional translator. I find the result to be quite successful.

By the end of the work, I realized that the Dieselʼs music had become so popular that the people used him as a symbol to rebel against the ruling powers. This prediction of revolution makes the work even more timely, and certainly more controversial in the Middle East. I would avoid the highly explanatory introduction until youʼve finished it so that the style of the writing may surprise you over and over again. The deliberately disjointed wording is, I think, supposed to reflect an identity crisis that the Arabs have experienced for some time now and that is still playing out as I write. This novella undoubtedly deserves attention for its highly unique execution and relevant subject material, and I would unhesitatingly recommend it to anyone.

17 August 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Sarah Two, on Bensalem Himmich’s A Muslim Suicide, which is translated from the Arabic by Roger Allen and is available from Syracuse University Press.

Here is part of her review:

It is a well-known phenomenon that widespread condemnation of a book will only serve to increase its allure. It then follows that when Ibn Khaldun (a Fourteenth Century historian) attempted to ban Escape of the Gnostic, he may have been doing the text a favor. In a legal opinion, Ibn Khaldun wrote, “the decision regarding such works and their ilk should involve taking all copies and putting them in the fire, then washing one’s hands so that all traces of their contents are erased.” The author of the clearly controversial Escape of the Gnostic, Ibn Sab‘in, is the narrator and focus of Bensalem Himmich’s novel, A Muslim Suicide (translated from the Arabic by Roger Allen). Born in Andalusia during the Reconquista, Ibn Sab‘in practiced Sufism, a mystic dimension of Islam that encouraged self-examination as a means to spiritual enlightenment. A firm proponent of separating religion from the state, he also cautioned against the growing trend of fanaticism in the Arab world. In his day, Ibn Sab‘in’s beliefs were scandalous enough that he was forced to flee first his birthplace, and then his adopted home of Maghrib. He eventually made his way to Mecca, where he supposedly slit his wrists and bled to death in the sacred Ka‘ba. This provocative death inspired Roger Allen’s title for the English translation, a choice that he justifies in his afterword. Though the original Arabic title translates to “This Andalusian,” Bensalem Himmich initially wished to call it “Suicide Inside the Ka‘ba” and requested that the Allen restore some of the controversy.

The novel opens with a lament: “Woe is me! Woe is me for what I have lost, leaving a huge void inside me. I have been asked to explain the nature of this loss by a voice that I’ve grown used to hearing in my dreams.” Indeed, Ibn Sab‘in’s tale is held together by his yearning for the loss of Al-Andalus (Muslim Spain), the loss of his beloved philosophical manuscript, and the loss of “spiritual nourishment” in the Arab world. In the first third of the novel, the missing manuscript is felt most acutely, and Ibn Sab‘in copes with his grief by seeking out sex. This came as a bit of a shock to me, given that he is characterized as a devout Muslim. Still, it is consistent with his character as he makes it clear that though he is religious, he feels no obligation to live the life of an ascetic. As a partial explanation of his promiscuity, he observes that the deterioration of the Spanish state has inspired sexual boldness in its women, even those of faiths that promote chastity. As a result, Ibn Sab‘in encounters Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and polytheist women who color his life with both sexual intercourse and religious discourse.

Click here to read the entire review.

17 August 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour | Comments

It is a well-known phenomenon that widespread condemnation of a book will only serve to increase its allure. It then follows that when Ibn Khaldun (a Fourteenth Century historian) attempted to ban Escape of the Gnostic, he may have been doing the text a favor. In a legal opinion, Ibn Khaldun wrote, “the decision regarding such works and their ilk should involve taking all copies and putting them in the fire, then washing one’s hands so that all traces of their contents are erased.” The author of the clearly controversial Escape of the Gnostic, Ibn Sab‘in, is the narrator and focus of Bensalem Himmich’s novel, A Muslim Suicide (translated from the Arabic by Roger Allen). Born in Andalusia during the Reconquista, Ibn Sab‘in practiced Sufism, a mystic dimension of Islam that encouraged self-examination as a means to spiritual enlightenment. A firm proponent of separating religion from the state, he also cautioned against the growing trend of fanaticism in the Arab world. In his day, Ibn Sab‘in’s beliefs were scandalous enough that he was forced to flee first his birthplace, and then his adopted home of Maghrib. He eventually made his way to Mecca, where he supposedly slit his wrists and bled to death in the sacred Ka‘ba. This provocative death inspired Roger Allen’s title for the English translation, a choice that he justifies in his afterword. Though the original Arabic title translates to “This Andalusian,” Bensalem Himmich initially wished to call it “Suicide Inside the Ka‘ba” and requested that the Allen restore some of the controversy.

The novel opens with a lament: “Woe is me! Woe is me for what I have lost, leaving a huge void inside me. I have been asked to explain the nature of this loss by a voice that I’ve grown used to hearing in my dreams.” Indeed, Ibn Sab‘in’s tale is held together by his yearning for the loss of Al-Andalus (Muslim Spain), the loss of his beloved philosophical manuscript, and the loss of “spiritual nourishment” in the Arab world. In the first third of the novel, the missing manuscript is felt most acutely, and Ibn Sab‘in copes with his grief by seeking out sex. This came as a bit of a shock to me, given that he is characterized as a devout Muslim. Still, it is consistent with his character as he makes it clear that though he is religious, he feels no obligation to live the life of an ascetic. As a partial explanation of his promiscuity, he observes that the deterioration of the Spanish state has inspired sexual boldness in its women, even those of faiths that promote chastity. As a result, Ibn Sab‘in encounters Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and polytheist women who color his life with both sexual intercourse and religious discourse.

The novel takes a turn toward adventure when local officials (among them, his brother) threaten to imprison Ibn Sab‘in and his followers if he does not leave Spain. Intimidated by his unorthodox religious beliefs and vocal criticism of concessions to Christian Spain, they escort Ibn Sab‘in to Maghrib (modern day Morocco). Thus begins a long series of hasty flights and days spent hiding from government thugs. In Maghrib, however, he finds some respite and meets his wife, a wealthy widow who surpasses all his previous lovers in beauty and faith. In her loving household, Ibn Sab‘in writes his most famous work, Escape of the Gnostic:

bq For me the word escape [budd] implies a number of notions: a line of poetry, the fulcrum of a millstone, a firm principle, or you might even say that it and its synonyms all blend together to produce a single meaning, namely the loftiest ideal… the only path toward it involves uncovering its signs and secrets in the persona of an ever-striving humanity. Whoever knows himself knows his Lord, as the prophet hadith puts it. The “gnostic” of my title is one who realizes that adjuncts and additions are mere coincidentals, or rather fantasies. Time consists of periods and moments; place mere sectors and partialities; and all of them collapse into something inferior to both unity and genuine cognizance.

It is passages like this one that make A Muslim Suicide remarkable and characterize it as a work of fiction rather than a biography. Himmich manages to distill the essence of Ibn Sab‘in’s philosophy and imagine how it could have been produced by a living, breathing man.

Part of Bensalem Himmich’s success in this ambitious endeavor must be attributed to the fact that he himself is a philosopher. Full of allusions to scholars and political figures that influenced Ibn Sab‘in, this book represents not just his life but the intellectual climate of Sab‘in’s day. Himmich manages to strike a balance between making the novel accessible and upholding the complexity of thought and rhetoric one would expect of a narrator noted in the field of philosophy. I am reminded of the choice that translators make between bringing the source text closer to the reader and bringing the reader closer to the source text. In the process of translating the language and culture of Ibn Sab‘in’s era for a contemporary audience, Himmich chose to bring the reader closer to the source. This choice is appropriately reflected by Roger Allen’s translation into English. Unfamiliar as I am with Muslim Philosophy, I appreciated the addition of a glossary to provide background information.

A Muslim Suicide requires attentive reading, but it rewards with moments of ecstatic, poetic prose. In one of my favorite passages, Ibn Sab‘in addresses his followers:

I refuse to countenance the slightest degree of shirking or contempt. The reason is that the only genuine sense of relief I feel involves resisting the corpse that stays crouched on top of the chest of the living person and combatting those symmetries whose outmoded tyranny I can measure within the framework of ever-ascending and existential essentials of life. Beyond all that, my overriding task and indeed the very essence of my being involves turning my life into an incredible work of art, albeit incomplete – needless to say.

The notion of “resisting the corpse that stays crouched on top of the chest of the living person” encapsulates Ibn Sab‘in’s internal struggles throughout the book. From fighting the urge to give into the void he feels upon losing his manuscript, to working against the spread of Christian Spain, to running from murderous fanatics, to praying for unity with God in his final moments of fever-wrecked life, Ibn Sab‘in seeks always to combat that which would pull him into a forgettable, faithless existence. And that, needless to say, is life turned into art and a life worthy of a reader’s attention.

7 August 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Quantum Sarah on Elias Khoury’s As Though She Were Sleeping, which is translated from the Arabic by Marilyn Booth and is available from Archipelago Books.

Here is part of her review:

Elias Khoury’s As Though She Were Sleeping (Archipelago, 2012) is a love story, a family tragedy, and a journey through Levantine cultural history. Considering the radical stance of Khoury’s other works – notably, Gate of the Sun, the first “magnum opus” of the Palestinian people – this novel is a more conservative project. The year is 1946. Milia, an apolitical Beiruti dreamer, leads a “double life”: by inhabiting her dreams as fully as her waking life, she can speak with the dead and prophesy the future. Mansour, her wayward Palestinian husband, flees the harsh reality of his country by burying himself in sensual pleasures: ancient poetry, Milia’s beauty, and Levantine cuisine. As political turmoil in the region escalates, Milia finds herself increasingly trapped by impending catastrophe and fears for her newly-conceived child. To cope, she turns to the dream world for insight, trekking backward and forward in time to converse with deceased family members and saints.

As Khoury explores Milia’s life and dreams, he points to the many paradoxes of living in the “holy land.” After all, this is the same soil where Cain murdered Abel. Its inhabitants inherit not just a rich cultural tradition, but also a dark and complicated legacy of madness. Mansour discovers that “. . . he had begun to loathe this land in which he lived. Can anyone truly live in a country saturated with legends and miracles and prophets? This is a country that drives anyone who lives here insane, he would think” (241). And Milia becomes increasingly obsessed with the fantastic tradition of fathers killing sons. Abraham planned to slaughter Isaac; God sacrificed Jesus; Milia’s grandfather Salim nearly murdered his only son with a thrown rock. Will Milia’s son be next?

Click here to read the entire review.

7 August 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour | Comments

Elias Khoury’s As Though She Were Sleeping (Archipelago, 2012) is a love story, a family tragedy, and a journey through Levantine cultural history. Considering the radical stance of Khoury’s other works – notably, Gate of the Sun, the first “magnum opus” of the Palestinian people – this novel is a more conservative project. The year is 1946. Milia, an apolitical Beiruti dreamer, leads a “double life”: by inhabiting her dreams as fully as her waking life, she can speak with the dead and prophesy the future. Mansour, her wayward Palestinian husband, flees the harsh reality of his country by burying himself in sensual pleasures: ancient poetry, Milia’s beauty, and Levantine cuisine. As political turmoil in the region escalates, Milia finds herself increasingly trapped by impending catastrophe and fears for her newly-conceived child. To cope, she turns to the dream world for insight, trekking backward and forward in time to converse with deceased family members and saints.

As Khoury explores Milia’s life and dreams, he points to the many paradoxes of living in the “holy land.” After all, this is the same soil where Cain murdered Abel. Its inhabitants inherit not just a rich cultural tradition, but also a dark and complicated legacy of madness. Mansour discovers that “. . . he had begun to loathe this land in which he lived. Can anyone truly live in a country saturated with legends and miracles and prophets? This is a country that drives anyone who lives here insane, he would think” (241). And Milia becomes increasingly obsessed with the fantastic tradition of fathers killing sons. Abraham planned to slaughter Isaac; God sacrificed Jesus; Milia’s grandfather Salim nearly murdered his only son with a thrown rock. Will Milia’s son be next?

Khoury definitely sounds notes of sincere frustration, bitterness, and disenchantment in this novel. However, that doesn’t stop him from luxuriating in the depictions of the region’s poetry, dress, and cookery. He describes kibbeh arnabiyyeh, a Levantine specialty, in rich detail: “One needed serious training to appreciate [the dish] fully. Tahini was cooked with seven different citrus fruits, onions were cut to resemble wings, the chick peas all but melted in the tahini mixture with its swirling colors from pale to brown. . . “ (118). This tonal ambiguity allows readers to experience at the linguistic level the same mental dilemma that Mansour, Milia, and many Levant-dwellers experience every day. Theirs is a land steeped in sanctity, but also in violence; a region consecrated by divine power, but defiled by human madness; in short, a land both loved and feared.

Before long, this same madness invades Mansour and Milia’s once-happy marriage. (Toward the beginning, it’s clear that Khoury is a true romantic: “But look at me – I love you without knowing you. I feel you, who you are, from inside, and that’s enough,” (24) Mansour waxes, wooing Milia.) But when his brother Amin is murdered in a border skirmish, Mansour insists on returning to Jaffa to take over the family business. Milia intuitively objects, sensing her child will be born into a maelstrom of bloodshed: “Milia’s nights now filled with oranges that looked like bombs,” Khoury tells us. “- the color red everywhere, covering faces and objects” (223).

Ostensibly apolitical, Milia doesn’t have the power of rational logic on her side. “Tayyib, tayyib,” Mansour chides, dismissing dreams as fickle excuses that give her “the freedom to interpret matters however she liked” (80). True, Milia lives her life “as though she were sleeping,” but isn’t it the prerogative of the dreamer to interpret the dream? And Milia undeniably discerns the truth through her visions, correctly predicting her Aunt Salma’s death and her ex-lover Najib’s infidelity.

Throughout the book Khoury treats narratives with extreme suspicion. By sympathizing with dreamers like Milia, he cautions against dominant, rational interpretations of reality. This becomes especially clear when Khoury re-narrates sections of the Bible, provocatively throwing its authoritative status into question. At one point Khoury even goes so far as to implicate a comparison between Milia and Christ:

“[Milia] wanted to say, None of this has anything to do with me. . . Lord, how different people become mixed inside me. I don’t know who I am anymore.

He was like that, too, said Tanyous the monk. As he went to the cross he did not feel that he was himself. He felt everyone becoming a part of him. He tried to keep his memories apart but he saw everything together. He became mother and father, the Sitt and the Sayyid, Lady and Lord and lamb. Because he was everything he could say nothing. If he could have talked, what would he have said? And if he did have things to say, who would have understood him? And if he found someone who did understand, who would believe?” (305).

Though far-fetched, the comparison is moving: what if prophets really did live this way, in a perpetual state of self-doubt that Biblical authors conveniently edited out? Milia certainly has much in common with the version of Jesus that Khoury imagines: like him, she frequently feels that she “can say nothing,” struggling to translate her dreams into language. To her, words are like “wraps that hid things. . . As if the bodies of the words veiled the meanings” (111). Through Milia’s struggle, Khoury implicates an ironic, frustrating linguistic paradox. Though words possess great potential to express beauty and meaning, they can also be used equally well to lie, inhibiting the truth instead of freeing it. In Milia’s experience, language is cloying, artificial, and useless. She knows calamity is coming, but what can she do? Putting her dreams into words seems to trap them and obscure their true meaning. And if she could tell about them, who would believe her?

In a nightmare come true, the book closes with a cathartic extended dream-sequence. Milia graphically envisions a dark future ahead: “. . . the smell of blood. Blood in the streets. Mansour stands before his workshop, which lies in ruins, the machinery soaked in blood and wet with severed limbs” (366). This is just one example of the hundreds of eerie dream-spectacles crowding the novel’s pages. Clearly, something is haunting this book – whether it’s the imminent 1948 Nakba, the general tragedy of the Levant, or the death of smaller stories in the face of predominating interpretations.

Fascinating, chimerical, and complex, Khoury’s As Though She Were Sleeping is a hymn to the Levant and its war-ravaged people. By re-envisioning Biblical events and testifying to the truth of dreams, Khoury questions the power of authoritative, ‘rational’ versions of events. His is an ode not just to Mansour and Milia, but to all people whose lives have been forgotten, and to all the small stories obliterated from history by larger, ruling narratives.

3 July 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Sarah Young, aka Sarah Two, on Sayed Kashua’s Second Person Singular, which is translated from the Hebrew by Mitch Ginsburg and is available from Grove Press.

This is Sarah Two’s first review for threepercent. Her introduction can be found here. Later this week, both Sarahs (Sarah Two and Quantum Sarah) will be featured in a review that they co-wrote.

Here is some of Sarah Two’s first independent review:

Like the two protagonists of his most recent novel, Second Person Singular (translated from the Hebrew by Mitch Ginsburg), Sayed Kashua is a Jerusalem-educated Arab Israeli. He is a columnist for Haaretz, a liberal newspaper, and the creator of the hit sitcom, Arab Labor. Kashua’s work is often controversial, especially among the Palestinian population of Israel, both for his humorous use of cultural stereotypes and presentations of Muslims engaging in drinking and pre-marital sex. His writing for Arab Labor was described by The New York Times as irreverent toward Jewish and Arab Israelis alike – a style that is subtly present in Second Person Singular.

Contrary to what the title might lead us to expect, half of the book is written in the third person and half is written in the first person singular, but none of it is written in the second person singular. The third person thread chronicles the story of a nameless man identified only as “the lawyer”; the other thread is told from the perspective of a social worker whose name is eventually revealed, but withheld for much of the novel. The lawyer’s drama hinges on his discovery of a note in his wife’s handwriting and the consequent paranoia that she might be cheating on him, while the social worker’s conflict centers on his experience as a caretaker for a paralyzed, vegetative Jewish young man. The two plot lines, if not exactly intertwined, are related, yet the stronger connection between the narratives lies in the two characters’ painstaking efforts to blend in with their Jewish colleagues.

Click here to read the entire review.

3 July 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour | Comments

Like the two protagonists of his most recent novel, Second Person Singular (translated from the Hebrew by Mitch Ginsburg), Sayed Kashua is a Jerusalem-educated Arab Israeli. He is a columnist for Haaretz, a liberal newspaper, and the creator of the hit sitcom, Arab Labor. Kashua’s work is often controversial, especially among the Palestinian population of Israel, both for his humorous use of cultural stereotypes and presentations of Muslims engaging in drinking and pre-marital sex. His writing for Arab Labor was described by The New York Times as irreverent toward Jewish and Arab Israelis alike – a style that is subtly present in Second Person Singular.

Contrary to what the title might lead us to expect, half of the book is written in the third person and half is written in the first person singular, but none of it is written in the second person singular. The third person thread chronicles the story of a nameless man identified only as “the lawyer”; the other thread is told from the perspective of a social worker whose name is eventually revealed, but withheld for much of the novel. The lawyer’s drama hinges on his discovery of a note in his wife’s handwriting and the consequent paranoia that she might be cheating on him, while the social worker’s conflict centers on his experience as a caretaker for a paralyzed, vegetative Jewish young man. The two plot lines, if not exactly intertwined, are related, yet the stronger connection between the narratives lies in the two characters’ painstaking efforts to blend in with their Jewish colleagues.

In the passages following the lawyer, the narrator strikes an almost satirical tone. The lawyer’s every action seems calculated to raise his esteem in the eyes of his family, peers, and even perfect strangers. Whenever a friendly rival upgrades his sports car, the lawyer must buy a new one that is even better; he keeps an office in an expensive Jewish neighborhood despite the fact that all his clients are Arab Israelis; when he goes to buy a book that embarrasses him, he asks the cashier to giftwrap it. Once a month he and his wife take part in a couples’ night, complete with overpriced sushi and post-dinner discussions of predetermined topics.

Yet just when you think the book could be a mockery of the lawyer for trying too hard to conform to Western culture, it careens off in another direction. When the lawyer irrationally concludes that his wife is unfaithful, he assumes a more convenient ideology to suit his rage:

Experience had taught him that he was a conservative. Yes, a conservative, and from now on he would not be apologetic about it. What an idiot an idiot he had been when he spoke out, time and again, against the treatment of women in the Arab World, saying that it was widespread misogyny that held these societies back.

His outbursts, while disturbing, seem less like genuine expressions of feeling and more like attempts to react the way that he thinks people in his situation should react. I appreciated the dark comedy in this half-instinctive/half-intellectual neurosis, particularly in small moments, such as the time the lawyer googles “why women cheat.”

There is less comedy present in the sections detailing the life of the social worker, in part because his first person narration provides fewer opportunities for satire. Unlike the lawyer, he does everything he can to fade away from notice, positive or negative. His ethnically ambiguous name and physical appearance, as well as his fluency in both Arabic and Hebrew, allow him to slip between cultures and witness more of the ugly prejudices present in Israeli society. Van drivers rant to him about Zionist “collaborators”; Jewish university students joke to him about the “token Arabs” in their programs; modern Muslim Jerusalemites scorn conventional women that wear hijabs. It is no wonder that he feels embarrassed wherever he goes. In a crowded Jewish nightclub he expounds:

I want to be like them. Free, loose, full of dreams, able to think about love. . . the who felt no need to apologize for their existence, no need to hide their identity. Like them… To feel like I belong, without feeling guilty or disloyal. And what exactly was I being disloyal to?

The last question of the passage comes across both as a genuine inquiry and an attempt by the narrator to justify his behavior. This ambivalence runs through the entire novel as the two men take great measures to feel comfortable within Jewish circles of the Jerusalem community, yet feel uncomfortable about having taken those measures. The implication seems to be that they lose something un-nameable – maybe even unrecognizable – in the process of assimilation. Still, it is unclear whether or not this ineffable sacrifice is worth grieving.

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.

2 May 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

With the Best Translated Book Award announcements taking place Friday, May 4th at 6pm at McNally Jackson Books it’s time to highlight all six poetry finalists. Over the course of the week we’ll run short pieces by all of the poetry judges on their list of finalists.

Click here for all past and future posts in this series.

Hagar Before the Occupation / Hagar After the Occupation by Amal Al-Jubouri, translated by Rebecca Gayle Howell with Husam Qaisi

Language: Arabic

Country: Iraq
Publisher: Alice James Books

Why This Book Should Win: We’ve never had a winner from Iraq, or even from Arabic, and it’s about time.

Today’s post is from Jennifer Kronovet.

The following are some poem titles from Iraqi poet Amal Al-Junouri’s fantastic book of poetry: “My Neighbor Before the Occupation,” “My Neighbor After the Occupation,” “Bones Before the Occupation,” “Bones After the Occupation,” “Photographs Before the Occupation,” “Photographs After the Occupation.” These titles suggest that a stark dichotomy will be illuminated, that time and war work in such a way that there is a clear before and a clear after, that the Iraq before American and British occupation is a set place distinct from a solid present. Yet, through their spoken clarity, their lyrical beauty and complexity, and their specific observational longing, the poems in this book eradicate the myth of such dichotomies. Instead, this place, Iraq, is a place of perspective, of shifting, complicated change known to us through a way of seeing that cuts through the simple. In “My Mouth Before the Occupation,” Al-Junouri writes that her mouth “tried to say no, but couldn’t / I was afraid // Instead, my tongue led me to this curse: / protests that silenced me // then seeped from me, eternal.” Then

My Mouth After the Occupation:

shouts No! Fearless,
though my tongue fears arrest

I’m terrified of losing truth
and look—it’s already gone

Exiled with God’s tongues

She doesn’t say no before the occupation; she does after—but still there’s fear and loss, there’s a way in which words still leave one behind. In Hagar Before the Occupation / Hagar After the Occupation, we see how the political writes itself on everything that is personal—one’s speech and body, one’s sense of freedom and of love. Rebecca Gayle Howell’s translation, with Husam Qaisi, is stunning in how it creates a powerful, contemporary voice speaking to us directly with warmth and suffering, and yet also carries over the poems’ connection to Arabic literary traditions. The language of the poems marry present and past, which is a feat of translatorly skill and innovation.

28 March 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The International Prize for Arabic Fiction—also known as the Arabic Booker—was announced yesterday as a sort of kick-off for this year’s Abu Dhabi International Book Fair.

This is the second time Jaber has been shortlisted for the prize, which, when you think about the fact that this is only the fifth iteration of the award, is pretty remarkable.

Here’s a bit about the book and Jaber himself:

After the 1860 Civil War in Mount Lebanon, a number of fighters from the religious Druze community are forced into exile, travelling by sea to the fortress of Belgrade on the boundary of the Ottoman Empire. In exchange for the freedom of a fellow fighter, they take with them a Christian man from Beirut called Hanna Yacoub; an unfortunate egg seller who happens to be sitting at the port. The Druze of Belgrade follows their adventures in the Balkans, as they struggle to stay alive.

Lebanese novelist and journalist Rabee Jaber was born in Beirut in 1972. He has been editor of Afaq, the weekly cultural supplement of Al-Hayat newspaper, since 2001. His first novel, Master of Darkness, won the Critics’ Choice Prize in 1992. He has since written 16 novels, including Black Tea, The Last House, Yousif Al-Inglizi, The Journey of the Granadan (published in German in 2005), Berytus: A City Beneath the Earth (published in French by Gallimard in 2009) and America, which was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2010.

And from the press release:

As well as winning 50,000 US Dollars, Rabee Jaber is guaranteed an English translation of his novel, as well as increased book sales and international recognition. In the past five years, all winners of the Prize have secured English publishing deals for their novels, with three former winners—Youssef Ziedan, Abdo Khal and Mohammed Achaari—to be published in English in 2012.

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.

16 January 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This morning, Banipal announced that Khaled Mattawa has won of the sixth annual Saif Gobash-Banipal Prize for Arabic Literature for his translation of the Selected Poems of Adonis, published by Yale University Press.

They also named Barbara Romaine as the runner-up for her translation of Spectres by Radwa Ashour (published by Interlink), and “commended” Maia Tabet for her translation of White Masks by Elias Khoury (Archipelago).

The press release contains a ton of info about all these books and translators, so rather than crib from this, I’m just going to post it all below:

The Judges’ Announcement

THE WINNER

Khaled Mattawa for his translation of Adonis: Selected Poems

Khaled Mattawa’s translation of this selection of Adonis’s poetry is destined to become a classic. It is a monumental piece of work, a long-overdue compendium of works by one of the most important poets of our time, a contribution to world literature that demonstrates the lyricism and full range of Adonis’s poetry. The translations are supple and fluent, flexible yet accurate, consistently sensitive to the poet’s nuances, and beautifully render into English Adonis’s modernist sensibilities. Anglophone readers will gain a new appreciation of why Adonis has so often been likened to TS Eliot and Ezra Pound, with the freshness of his lines and imagination liberated from the self-conscious archaism of other translations, and allowing his unique reworking of the legends of East and West, the arcs of love and death, to spring forth. This book should ensure that Western readers recognize the significance of Adonis’s contribution to world poetry.

Adonis is internationally known as a poet, theoretician of poetics and thinker, a patriarch of modern Arabic literature whose poetry resonates with universal dimensions. Known for his biting criticism of the dominating influence of Islamic ideology on modern Arabic literature, his influential, daring and experimental works of poetry enjoin the present with the past while giving perspectives into the future. Adonis’s poems in their original Arabic are not easy, in fact they are difficult and complex. They are multi-layered with history, myths and ideas, rooted in metaphors, symbols and surrealist images, and wide-ranging in genre and styles – all woven within a fine and concise language.

It was an immense challenge that faced the talented poet-translator Khaled Mattawa in translating Adonis’s poems to English or, as is often said in the Arab world, to the “language of Shakespeare”, and he has succeeded most eminently. Adonis: Selected Poems is a substantial and comprehensive volume covering over half a century of Adonis’s works from 1957 to 2008. Khaled Mattawa has brought Adonis’s poems to the English language with a musicality and aesthetic sensitivity that echo their innovative, conceptual and stylistic complexities – and in doing so he has created an original, powerful and lyrical poetic work in English. In a word: stunning.

On learning the news director of Yale University Press John Donatich commented: “It is very gratifying to see Adonis and his wonderful translator Khaled Mattawa receive this prestigious award. I know from personal experience how many readers have been so moved by these Selected Poems; it is so important that other people discover the work.”

RUNNER-UP

Barbara Romaine for her translation of Spectres by Radwa Ashour

Radwa Ashour’s Spectres is an ambitious and moving blend of autobiography, history, politics and fiction telling the story of Egypt since the 1950s through the experiences of two women who are each other’s ghostly doubles. This experimental novel, which is political in the best sense, needs a confident translator, and has found one in Barbara Romaine. Her impressive translation renders the metaphorical power of Ashour’s story with grace and subtlety, skillfully reflecting the shifts in time and the different voices and registers. Fluent and refreshing, Romaine has done a brilliant job.

COMMENDED

Maia Tabet for her translation of White Masks by Elias Khoury

First published in Arabic in 1981, White Masks was one of the first novels that dared to address the civil war in Lebanon, the terrible atrocities, and the war’s reflection in the daily lives of the people. Bringing home the dreadful reality of civil war, it is a fascinating investigation into investigation itself, telling the story of the murder of one man during the Lebanese Civil War, and showing the chaos and incoherence of history as it emerges, and the importance of personal stories to counteract and contain the messiness of history. Elias Khoury’s language is smooth and poetic, and finds its parallel in the masterful translation of Maia Tabet which brings the immediacy of the story to life, without sacrificing the nuances of Khoury’s moral and philosophical questions, transposing the colour and originality of the Arabic into wonderfully lucid prose.

28 November 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Monica Carter on Nawal El Saadawi’s Zeina, which is available from Saqi Books in Amira Nowaira’s translation.

Monica is one of our contributing reviewers, and runs the wonderful Saloncia World Literature. She lives in L.A., and you can read all of her Three Percent reviews by clicking here.

As Monica alludes to in her review, El Saadawi is an incredibly important figure (see her Wikipedia entry) who is not just a writer, but also a psychiatrist and activist. She’s been jailed for her views, and fled to the U.S. at one point to avoid harassment and political prosecution. She’s taught at Duke University and the University of Washington in Seattle, and is probably most well known among English readers for her novel Woman at Point Zero.

Monica’s not completely sold on this new novel, and it sounds like it runs into some of the trappings that come with writing an explicitly political novel.

Here’s the opening of her review:

In terms of contemporary Egyptian history, there is no doubt of Nawal El Saadawi’s positive impact on the rights of women in Egyptian society as well as her impact on the human rights movement in general. She has been imprisoned for her beliefs and forced to flee her country due to threats from Islamists. As an accomplished medical doctor and a high profile political figure in Egypt, not only has she cast a light on the various forms of oppression plaguing Egyptian women, but also her reach can be felt worldwide in terms of establishing the basic tenets for feminism. Throughout the years, she has written works ranging from stories to memoir with significant success.

In her latest work, Zeina, El Saadawi weaves her beliefs into a story of two women, Bodour and Zeina, who are forced to confront the patriarchal oppression of the society in different ways. Though this is a noble aim, the danger with writing novels that are tethered so strongly to a belief is that the story usually suffers. This is the case with El Saadawai’s novel.

Bodour is a prominent literary critic imprisoned in an unhappy marriage. But before her marriage, during her university years, she fell in love with a political activist, Nessim. After a night of illicit passion, Nessim is taken away as a political prisoner and later Bodour discovers that she is pregnant; she has the baby and abandons it. The child, named Zeina Bint Zeinat, is destined to live life on the streets. Bodour marries Zakariak al-Khartiti, an ambitious journalist. Zakariah and Bodour establish successful careers and they give birth to a daughter, Mageeda. As life would have it, Zeina and Mageeda attend the same school and become best friends. Mageeda grows up to be a literary critic like her mother and Zeina grows up to be a famous singer and entertainer. Meanwhile, Bodour continues working on her novel, The Stolen Novel, which is really her attempt at self-understanding. The novel, strangely enough, is stolen. This novel comes to a close when Zeina ultimately becomes a symbol for the people during the revolution in Cairo and Bodour attempts to live the life she truly wants to live.

Click here to read the full piece.

28 November 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In terms of contemporary Egyptian history, there is no doubt of Nawal El Saadawi’s positive impact on the rights of women in Egyptian society as well as her impact on the human rights movement in general. She has been imprisoned for her beliefs and forced to flee her country due to threats from Islamists. As an accomplished medical doctor and a high profile political figure in Egypt, not only has she cast a light on the various forms of oppression plaguing Egyptian women, but also her reach can be felt worldwide in terms of establishing the basic tenets for feminism. Throughout the years, she has written works ranging from stories to memoir with significant success.

In her latest work, Zeina, El Saadawi weaves her beliefs into a story of two women, Bodour and Zeina, who are forced to confront the patriarchal oppression of the society in different ways. Though this is a noble aim, the danger with writing novels that are tethered so strongly to a belief is that the story usually suffers. This is the case with El Saadawai’s novel.

Bodour is a prominent literary critic imprisoned in an unhappy marriage. But before her marriage, during her university years, she fell in love with a political activist, Nessim. After a night of illicit passion, Nessim is taken away as a political prisoner and later Bodour discovers that she is pregnant; she has the baby and abandons it. The child, named Zeina Bint Zeinat, is destined to live life on the streets. Bodour marries Zakariak al-Khartiti, an ambitious journalist. Zakariah and Bodour establish successful careers and they give birth to a daughter, Mageeda. As life would have it, Zeina and Mageeda attend the same school and become best friends. Mageeda grows up to be a literary critic like her mother and Zeina grows up to be a famous singer and entertainer. Meanwhile, Bodour continues working on her novel, The Stolen Novel, which is really her attempt at self-understanding. The novel, strangely enough, is stolen. This novel comes to a close when Zeina ultimately becomes a symbol for the people during the revolution in Cairo and Bodour attempts to live the life she truly wants to live.

The fact that El Saadawi chooses journalism, literary criticism and entertainment as the professions for her characters seems no mistake. It is difficult to escape the cult of media in our current society and it’s control over our perceptions. Oddly enough, the disdain that El Saadawi shows for literary critics is the profession she gives to two of the female characters in the novel. Mageeda hates the cache of her family name as well as her profession, which she considers “parasitic on real literature and art, like tapeworms living off the human body.” El Saadawai also gives Mageeda and Bodour short and thickset bodies and harangues the reader with their disgust and shame at their body shapes throughout the novel. The happiest character in the book, Zeina, is tall and slender and, as the entertainer, she captivates audiences wherever she goes. Although Zeina doesn’t give much thought to her appearance nor does she attempt make it more than what it is, her plain and simple appearance defies the expectation that to make herself up to be an object of beauty for men. Perhaps trying to impart upon the reader the depth and breadth of male influence on body image of women, El Saadawi aims to present Bodour’s and Mageeda’s self-loathing as a representation of the damage done. Yet she stops short of either character exploring this idea or overcoming it.

Along with the hatred of their own bodies, El Saadawi examines the effects of genital mutilation as a manifestation of society’s hatred of women’s bodies. Bodour suffered genital mutilation at an early age and “since the day she was born, she had been repressed and oppressed.” Bodour experiences shame at her own sexual feelings as well as resentment towards her husband who seeks physical satisfaction from prostitutes. Since the patriarchal society in Egypt teaches women to be shy and submissive to their husbands, disgraced by their own sexuality, the culture inherently builds a dynamic of infidelity into the institution of marriage. Clearly, Bodour and Zakariah al-Khartiti are an unhappy couple, but both are painted with such broad strokes, al-Khartiti is loathsome and Bodour falls into a role of victimization. Without the nuances of a complex relationship, it’s difficult to empathize with Bodour besides the obvious oppression she experiences due to her culture.

In the end, there is a sense of resolution, of hope, but the means of each character’s journey to get there is murky. The main character of Bodour’s novel—Badreya—is the person Bodour really longs to be. The narrative jumps frequently between Bodour and Mageeda’s childhood memories and the present day and since parts of the novel are told through dreams and scenes, determining storylines is a arduous task.

Also, even though Zeina’s name is the title of the novel, she is the character who El Saadawi treats almost as a goddess who manages to withstand rape and molestation without much thought and floats in and out of scenes as a dancing, singing phantom. As an adult, Zeina is not married nor does she fall prey to the overtures of forceful men. Her talent has freed her from the oppression that most women face on a daily basis.

As for the translation itself, one wonders the extent of the challenge and about the role of the translator. There are many repetitive descriptions, passages and clichéd phrases and it would need a bit of restraint to not alter the words of the author. Irrespective of the skill of Amira Nowaira as a translator, El Saadawi’s prose doesn’t lend itself well to highlight her competences.

With all the contributions that El Saadawi has made to her country and to the rights of women, her novelistic efforts is one of her many accomplished pursuits. The goal of Zeina is to raise the awareness of the unfair treatment of women in society. Although her novel may not represent her tireless devotion to the equality of women and the end of their oppression, her life does and that is enough.

30 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

M. Lynx Qualey, who runs the excellent blog Arabic Literature (In English), wrote an interesting, useful article for Al-Masry Al-Youm entitled New Life for New Libyan Lit which discusses the future of Libyan literature post-Qadhafi:

While Egyptian authors embraced social realism in the 1960s and 1970s, many Libyan writers shied away from it. Some authors did write in a realistic style, such as Abdallah al-Ghazal in his “Toyota War.” But many others continued to rely on symbolist techniques, from metaphor to animal fables. Unlike the 1990s generation of Egyptian authors that rebelled against social realism, in Libya “the 1990s generation literature was born from fear of punishment. They just needed to…[avoid] putting themselves in trouble with the regime,” says author Mohamed Mesraty.

It was only in 2003, Mesraty said, that young Libyan authors began to re-emerge, adding that Libyan authors who live and write abroad have experienced greater creative freedom.

But even novelists who write in English seem to have been affected by a fear of Qadhafi. Hisham Matar’s second novel, “Anatomy of a Disappearance” released earlier this year is a deftly written realist work that foregrounds a kidnapping by the Libyan regime. Still, there is something exceptionally careful about the way “Anatomy” is written, as though the narrator were afraid of turning over too many stones, naming too many names, asking too many questions. [. . .]

Things are clearly changing for Libyan letters. In the months since 17 February, new newspapers and poetry have appeared. But Mohamed Mesraty says that there is still a long way to go.

“Even after the fall of Qadhafi’s regime, we still need to fight for freedom in a society that never had it,” Mesraty said. “The fear starts from the family, neighborhood, and general readers. … The liberal Libyan author in Libya is also afraid of the other authors who won’t understand his writing.”

Revolutionary poetry has been the first post-Qadhafi writing. But Gheblawy feels that this sort of poetry will die out relatively soon, making way for a new style of poetry, which, he has predicted, “will become more descriptive, with a sense of narrative and detail of the daily life of Libyans, and less focus on language and style.”

Gheblawy hopes that many authors will also bring out works they’ve been unable to publish during the Qadhafi years. Gheblawy and Mesraty both lauded new, more realist tendencies in Libyan fiction. Younger authors – such as Beirut39 winner Najwa Binshatwan and Razan Naim al-Maghraby, who was longlisted for the 2011 International Prize for Arabic Fiction – have begun writing scenes of ordinary city life.

Gheblawy believes the general trend will be away from short symbolist works and toward longer poems and novels.

It will be interesting to see what develops—and hopefully some of these works will make their way to the U.S. . . .

28 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Last week, The Millions posted a very interesting piece by Pauls Toutonghi entitled Six Egyptian Writers You Don’t Know But You Should. Toutonghi opens by describing a very common problem:

In Cairo, in March, the city had a surplus of intellectual energy. Literature, it seemed, might just be at the vanguard of Egypt’s social change. [. . .]

I spent an afternoon at the Cairo’s Diwan Bookstore, talking to writers about their hopes — and anxieties — about the future. Just across the 6th of October Bridge in the Zemalek neighborhood, Diwan had an extensive collection of contemporary Egyptian novels, essays, and short stories. I bought a half-dozen books.

When I returned to to Portland, Oregon — I noticed the conspicuous absence of these books on the shelves of my city. Even at Powell’s, arguably the greatest (and largest) independent bookstore in the country, I couldn’t find Mansoura Ez Eldin’s first novel, the critically acclaimed, widely read Maryam’s Maze.

He then goes on to name 6 Egyptian authors—none of whom are named Naguib Mahfouz—including these two, which sound interesting to me:

2. Mansoura Ez Eldin. A journalist, activist, and writer, Ez Eldin has published two novels. One, the slender volume, Maryam’s Maze, is a masterpiece of imagination and literary form. Her story, ”Déjà Vu,” was also featured in Emerging Arab Voices — the bilingual reader published by Saqi Books in April of this year.

Ez Eldin’s account of the first days of the revolution appeared in The New York Times, in late January of this year — weeks before Mubarak’s resignation. “Silence is a crime,” she wrote. “Even if the regime continues to bombard us with bullets and tear gas, continues to block Internet access and cut off our mobile phones, we will find ways to get our voices across to the world, to demand freedom and justice.”

Maryam’s Maze tackles the issues so central to the experience of modernity in a metropolis like Cairo: Isolation, pollution, bureaucracy, madness. Awakening — like Kafka’s Gregor Samsa — in a world that she no longer recognizes, Maryam struggles to regain any semblance of her former life. It is a haunting book.

and

4. Muhammad Aladdin. A young lion of the Cairo literary scene, Aladdin began his career as a graphic novelist — publishing the youth-oriented, serial zine, Maganin (Mad People). Possessed of a mordant sense of humor — as well as an occasional passionate earnestness — Aladdin has begun publishing his work in American magazines.

His story, “New Lover, Young Lover,” appeared in The Cairo Portfolio in Issue 9 of A Public Space.

During the height of the revolution, Aladdin kept his friends apprised of his situation with his trademark wit: “Hello, am fine, just five rubber bullets in my leg but nothing serious.”

Only 31 years old, Aladdin has published five novels and over a dozen short stories.

You’ll have to check out the whole article for write-ups on the other four.

11 April 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Details about the Second Annual Young Translators’ Prize (brought to you by Harvill Secker and Foyles) are now available online:

The Harvill Secker Young Translators’ Prize was launched in 2010 as part of Harvill Secker’s centenary celebrations. It is an annual prize, which focuses on a different language each year, with the aim of recognising the achievements of young translators at the start of their careers. For the 2011 prize Harvill Secker has teamed up with Foyles, and the prize is kindly supported by Banipal. This year’s chosen language is Arabic, and the prize will centre on the short story ‘Layl Qouti’ by Mansoura Ez Eldin.

Egyptian novelist and journalist Mansoura Ez Eldin was born in Delta Egypt in 1976. She studied journalism at the Faculty of Media, Cairo University and has since published short stories in various newspapers and magazines: she published her first collection of short stories, Shaken Light, in 2001. This was followed by two novels, Maryam’s Maze in 2004 and Beyond Paradise in 2009. Her work has been translated into a number of languages, including an English translation of Maryam’s Maze by the American University in Cairo (AUC) Press. In 2010, she was selected for the Beirut39, as one of the 39 best Arab authors below the age of 40. Her second novel Wara’a al-Fardoos (Beyond Paradise) was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (the Arabic Booker) 2010. She was also a participant of the inaugural nadwa (writers’ workshop) held by the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in Abu Dhabi in 2009 and was a mentor at the second nadwa in October 2010.

The winning translator will receive £1,000, a selection of Harvill Secker titles and Foyles tokens.

To enter, you have to be between the ages of 18 and 34 on July 29, 2011. (God damn it, I hate not being eligible for “young” prizes.)

Anyway, you can download the entry form here, and the Arabic text here.

Good luck!

15 February 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Similar to years past, we’re going to be featuring each of the 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist over the next month plus, but in contrast to previous editions, this year we’re going to try an experiment and frame all write-ups as “why this book should win.” Some of these entries will be absurd, some more serious, some very funny, a lot written by people who normally don’t contribute to Three Percent. Overall, the point is to have some fun and give you a bunch of reasons as to why you should read at least a few of the BTBA titles.

Click here for all past and future posts.

Touch by Adania Shibli, translated by Paula Haydar

Language: Arabic
Country: Palestine
Publisher: Clockroot
Pages: 72

Why This Book Should Win: Only book translated from the Arabic on the list; Clockroot Books deserves more attention and praise; she is “The Most-Talked-About Writer on the West Bank.”

Today we finally get another publisher involved, as Hilary Plum of Clockroot wrote this post.

In 2008 when Pam and I were starting Clockroot—a new imprint of Interlink Publishing for literature in translation—we readied ourselves for questions such as: how do you decide what translations to publish? What works to translate? I don’t know if we expected anyone out in the world to ask us this, or whether we were really asking ourselves. In any case, we had our answer prepared, having stolen it from Adania Shibli, who when asked by the Guardian what Arabic writers should be translated into English replied:

I remember a story from four years ago in Ramallah. One night the Israeli army stormed a building in which somebody I knew lived. Everyone was told to get out. After a few hours, the army announced it wanted to blow up the building and gave the inhabitants 20 minutes to go up to their rooms and retrieve what they could. When my friend went up he didn’t know what to take; he had all of his life there, he was totally lost. He finally went to the washing machine, emptied it and went out with the washing, leaving everything else behind to be blown up a few minutes later.

In the same way, I could never say which text to have translated from Arabic into English; if I did, it might be the least important.

It’s the better story to say that on reading this we decided that the texts we should translate should be Adania Shibli’s. In some way this must be true—we signed on both of Adania’s novels without being able to either in full, relying on tantalizing pieces that had been published in translation in magazines, and a stunning essay translated and introduced by Anton Shammas in the 2007 Words Without Borders anthology.

As publishers, we have to do what we can for our books, let our hands get dirtied in “the market,” or maybe we should just call it the world. A few years ago Ahdaf Soueif wrote an article in which she hailed Adania as “the most talked-about writer in the West Bank”—a phrase we of course used in publicity, and which several reviews noted as ultimately maybe regrettable hype. Of course it’s hype, we replied, but we would like people to read her books—actually, of course, we didn’t reply, how could we? Which is no doubt why I am doing so here. The point is, on behalf of our authors sometimes we must deny ourselves the freedom and rigor of expression that we value in our authors. (In a recent interview, when asked “Do you feel that you represent the new generation of Palestinian authors?” Adania answered, “No. (In fact I hardly represent myself and most often fail to do so.)” and proceeded to discuss exile in the internet age, the late work of Darwish, Palestinian literature as “the literature of the last breath that never ends.”)

All publishers know: when the world calls for hype, you hype. But how do we get the taste of all this hype out of our mouths, how do we get to talk again about literature, about falling in love? And—because, after all, our own feelings should not be that important—how do we shield our writers from all this hype, all this world? How do we hold a space open for Adania and her writing in English translation, under the weight of such labels as “the new generation of Palestinian writers,” a “Palestinian woman writer” (picture here all the tired stereotypes of “Muslim women speaking out,” that sort of thing—these will be lingering in the shadows, in the US of 2011 we can’t be free of them, they’re there). Let’s try to answer all these questions at once, for Touch. Because the answer isn’t so hard—_Touch_ holds open its own space, and luminously:

Everyone managed to find black outfits to wear, except the little girl. The search for a black outfit for her, followed by an attempt to improvise one, nearly made the family forget their grief, so it was decided that this task should be left to her.

The closet door was always half open, because no one fixed it or showed any interest in fixing it.

The girl removed all the clothes from the closet and placed them in the small space between the closet on one side and the beds on the other. The pile of clothes remained multicolored, despite what the constantly angry art teacher said, that all colors mixed together would make white.

A pair of dark blue velvet pants and a wool sweater that had in addition to the dark blue other little colors won the almost-black outfit contest. After she put them on, she found a hole in the pants near the left knee.

On the way to the mosque, she bought a bottle of cola with a red ribbon on it. The liquid inside it was black, or closer to black than to any other color around her. She continued on her way, holding the bottle in her right hand and hiding the hole in her pants with her left.

She was the last to arrive at the square of the mosque. When she got there, she found that the mother had fainted and had been taken to an ambulance parked out back, so she headed in that direction.

The back door of the ambulance was open, but she could not get to it, because a huge crowd of women in black created an immense wall between her and the door. She could not even get a glimpse of the mother’s shoes. As the crowd of women in black got bigger and bigger, she, in her dark blue clothes, got pushed further and further back, unable to resist. Her right hand was holding the bottle and her left was covering the hole. She could not remove her hand, or everyone would see the hole.

The pushing became harder and harsher, and each time it would force her hand away from the hole, so she would press on it harder and harder, using all her strength, including that in her right hand. That hand now had weakened its hold on the bottle, and a little black liquid leaked out with each step she was pushed backward.

At the end of the square, the wall of the mosque rose behind the girl, keeping her from getting pushed back any further. She stood there looking toward the ambulance, which had no white left, after the black drape of women wrapped it. But above, on top of the ambulance, the red light kept spinning inside itself, not veiled by anything, switching regularly from dark red to light red. She waited for its regular return to dark red, so that it would look like the red label on the empty bottle in her hand.

Translated from the Arabic by Paula Haydar

In years of reading literature in translation, of reading Arabic fiction—really just in years of reading—Pam and I had never read anything quite like Touch. Its spare, idiosyncratic beauty, the slow pace of the girl’s encounter with the world, so slow as to be merciless, to break your heart, but no, you must go on steadily, as she does. When I think of the novel, I don’t remember particular phrases so much as a feeling, something like: the side of a fist rubbing away the breath fogged within a car windshield—outside, it’s just night. Can I say that this is a book like that? And then add that, also, it’s not—if as publishers we can only offer so much, it’s nice to remember that at least we’ve offered each book the chance to go out and speak for itself.

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.

25 January 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

When I was in New York last week for sales calls and publicity meetings (which is why the blog has been so slow . . . But I’m back! And excited about life, the BTBAs, books, and everything, so expect an onslaught of material for the next few days . . . ), everyone was all abuzz about the fact that the New Yorker ran an enormous article on Arabic literature in translation. (Of course, they also used the ages-old “Found/Lost in Translation” title for which there NEEDS TO BE A MORATORIUM, but so be it.)

Claudia Roth Pierpont wrote this piece, which is basically a run down of recently published works of Arab literature. She doesn’t mention The Zafarani Files, which is a personal favorite and is on the BTBA longlist, but the titles she cites all sound rather interesting. I highly recommend reading the whole article, but in shorthand, blog-world fashion, here’s a rundown of the titles covered, with short quotes and links to buy the books at Idlewild:

  • Saddam City by Mahmoud Saeed, translated by Ahmad Sadri (Saqi Books)

For all the horror it details, this is a startlingly warm and humane book. Saeed, despite the incitements of his subject, does not aspire to the Kafkaesque—Kafka, it must be admitted, is among the most impossible of authors to emulate, along with García Márquez—but maintains a specificity of place and history (this happened in Basra, that happened in Mosul) and of the individuals who inhabit them. Set mostly in the run-up to the Iran-Iraq War, in the late nineteen-seventies, this slender novel tells of a mild-mannered Basra schoolteacher who, although cautiously apolitical, is whisked off one day for “a simple interrogation.” His subsequent experience in six levels of hell—six prisons in all—is exactingly described, but the long ordeal is mitigated, both for him and for the reader, by a dose of bitter humor, a share of personal good will, and the mutual trust that he discovers among the prisoners, a trust long since forfeited in the larger prison of the informer-ridden society outside.

  • I’jaam by Sinan Antoon, translated by the author and Rebecca C. Johnson (City Lights)

The title refers to the practice of adding dots—diacritical marks—to various letters of the Arabic alphabet, some of which are indistinguishable without these marks in place. An undotted sequence of letters may signify a number of different words; the correct translation can be determined only by context. The story’s intriguing premise is that a handwritten, undotted manuscript has been found in a file in Baghdad’s Interior Ministry, and a functionary assigned to add the necessary dots and make a transcription: the resulting manuscript forms the body of the book. The text turns out to be the work of a university student whose gift for political mockery got him sent to prison, where he wrote the manuscript—leaving out the dots to avoid further incrimination. Its uncertain readings cause the scribe to offer footnotes to such perplexing references as “the Ministry of Rupture and Inflammation” (“Could this be the Ministry of Culture and Information?”) and to such obvious errors as occur in the well-known song lyric that details how the nation’s leader moves from house to house and “fucks us into bed.” (“Note: the original lyrics read ‘tucks.’ ”)

  • Men in the Sun by Ghassan Kanafani, translated by Hilary Kilpatrick (Lynne Rienner)

“Men in the Sun” is, on the simplest level, a gripping tale that unfolds with Hitchcockian suspense as the reader is reduced to fearfully counting the minutes on the smuggler’s wristwatch. The prose is lean, swift, and—in Hilary Kilpatrick’s translation—filled with phrases of startling rightness: “The lorry, a small world, black as night, made its way across the desert like a heavy drop of oil on a burning sheet of tin”; or, even better, “The speedometer leapt forward like a white dog tied to a tent peg.” The realistic intensity of Kanafani’s world tends to conceal his stylistic ambitions: the intricacy with which he weaves together past and present, fact and delusion, and the alternating voices of his characters, each of whom is drawn with the rapid assurance of a charcoal sketch. But on a deeper level Kanafani’s work is about the desperation that drove these men to such lengths to regain work and dignity; it is about the longing—just emerging in the Palestinian public voice—for the moist earth and the olive trees of the villages left behind in 1948. Most painfully, it is about the awakening of self-recrimination for acquiescence in the loss, as in the thoughts of an old man who has been living “like a beggar” and decides to risk the journey.

  • Gate of the Sun by Elias Khoury, translated by Humphrey Davies (Archipelago/Picador)

A tremendously ambitious work, covering half a century of Palestinian history, it begins with maps of the region dotted with the names of old Palestinian villages, the way big Russian novels begin with family trees: here, through all the narrative advance and obliteration, is what you must keep steady in your mind. Set in a dilapidated hospital in the Shatila refugee camp, in Beirut, in the mid-nineties, the book’s many winding stories are told by a male Scheherazade, a fortyish Palestinian medic whose unceasing talk is intended to rouse a comatose old man, a resistance hero who spent decades sneaking over the Lebanese border into Israel, to carry out attacks that earned him the title the Wolf of Galilee. We do not see much of the attacks; instead, we see the warrior as a lover—not as the Wolf but simply as a man—paying secret visits to his wife, left behind on what has become Israeli land. As a result of these conjugal visits, the hero plants his children in Galilee, before going away again to fight to liberate them.

So great to see a piece like this. Getting info about any international lit in translation can be hard, but finding out about Arabic literature tends to be especially tricky. Hopefully I can write a lot more about the Arab publishing scene—and interesting untranslated titles—next month during the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair . . .

16 January 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the next five weeks, we’ll be highlighting a book a day from the Best Translated Book Award fiction longlist. Click here for all past write-ups.



The Zafarani Files by Gamal al-Ghitani. Translated from the Arabic by Farouk Abdel Wahab. (Egypt, American University in Cairo Press)

I came across The Zafarani Files at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair last March. At a pretty over-the-top ceremony in the Emirates Palace, Gamal al-Ghitani was awarded the Sheikh Zayed Book Award for Literature. (Which I believe is one of the wealthiest prizes in the world—certainly for Arabic writers—and comes complete with gold coin.) For ages I’d been wanting to get more AUC Press books, since, like most Americans, I hadn’t read very many works of contemporary Arabic fiction. And since the jacket copy for The Zafarani Files hit on the magical combination—“wicked humor” and “darkly comedic novel”—I thought I’d give this a try.

As mentioned in the review I wrote, I really didn’t know what to expect when I started this on the long flight from the UAE to JFK. I certainly didn’t expect an incredibly funny, inventive novel about an impotence curse . . .

The novel is made up of a number of different “Files” about the residents of Zafarani. These “Files” a written from a mysterious point of view, a cloaked observer who knows quite a bit about residents and the goings-on. And they have a sort of police file vibe, occasionally opening with a run down of a particular character’s vital characteristics:

Name: Hussein al-Haruni, also known as Radish-head [. . .]

Current Address: Number 3 Zafarani Alley

Distinguishing Marks: Height 127 cm; head elongated, curved, pointing upward, narrowing at the top like a sugar cone or radish; eyes round like marbles, pupils always cast down as if in consternation; lips parted, and sometimes visible, a very fine line of saliva threading its way from mouth to chin.

Following these brief descriptions is usually a little story about that particular character’s relation to the rest of the people in the neighborhood. About some recent developments in his/her life. Especially in his/her sexual relationships . . . See, at the start of this book, a number of men in Zafarani Alley have encountered a little problem. This bit about Usta Abdu Murad, a driver for the Cairo Transit Authority who is married to a former dancer, sets out the basic problem and puts the plot in motion:

The Usta spoke quickly and, just as his wife had instructed, came straight to the point, saying that his marital life was in jeopardy, that his home was falling apart, and that he didn’t know what to do. He was no longer able to fulfill his conjugal duties, and this had already lasted a week. When he 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.

As it turns out, all the males in the alley are impotent thanks to a curse placed on them by the sheikh that has three parts:

  • Any male whose feet touched the ground of Zafarani would be impaired.

  • Any child born from now on in Zafarani would be, a priori, a loser.

  • Any Zafarani woman who slept with any man, anywhere in the world, would make him impotent, without regard to nationality or religion.

He said that he had excluded one Zafarani man and one Zafarani woman for his own secret reasons, and that he would never reveal their names.

The ramifications of this curse—and all of the ensuing rules the sheikh imposes on the people of Zarafani with the stated goal of “bettering the world”—take on a global scale, as the curse spreads and the goings-on of the alley become more and more shrouded in mystery since no one can actually enter without suddenly becoming impotent—something no one wants.

What most intrigues me about this novel is the knitting together of the various characters and stories. Gamal al-Ghitani creates a wonderful, lively world that is more ironic, funny, and verbally dazzling than any other contemporary Arabic book that I’ve read in recent years.

22 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the next few days, we’re going to highlight a few of the goings on at this year’s BookExpo America, the parties, the panels, etc. I thought I’d start out by highlighting the two events taking place next Friday and Saturday featuring the Arab world, this year’s Global Market Forum focus. Both of these events are open to the public, and are definitely worth checking out.

The Thousand and One Nights
7:00PM, Friday, May 29
Goethe Institute New York Wyoming Building, 5 East 3rd Street

Muhsin Al-Musawi presents his new book, Amal Al-Jubouri reads Arabic and European remixes of “The Thousand and One Nights” (English/German/Arabic) organized by the Berlin-based cultural association west-östlicher diwanh.

New Eyes on the Arab World—Breaking Down Barriers of Fear and Prejudice
7:00PM, Saturday, May 30
The New York Public Library, 42nd Street

Peter Theroux, Raja Alem, Tom McDonough, Muhammed Al Mur & Joe Sacco with Sulaiman Al Hattlan, moderator

Five writers, Arab and American, who have taken innovative approaches to portraying the Arab World to an American audience discuss the challenges they have faced and the successes they have achieved in breaking down the barriers of fear and prejudice through their work. Whether through travelogue, memoir, graphic novel, children’s literature or translation, these writers have widened the lens and sharpened the focus of American readers’ view, setting a new precedent for sensitivity, creativity and insight in literature about the Arab World.

19 January 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

We’re into the home stretch now . . . Over the next five days we’ll be highlighting a book-a-day from the 25-title Best Translated Book of 2008 fiction longlist, leading up to the announcement of the 10 finalists. Click here for all previous write-ups.



Yalo by Elias Khoury, translated from the Arabic by Peter Theroux. (Lebanon, Archipelago)

In many ways, Yalo is the very definition of a “haunting novel.” For the images, the complex characters, the circular way the story is told, the reflections on torture and truth . . . It is a lasting book that will stay in reader’s minds long after they’ve finished it.

Although the novel is in no way “simple,” the plot itself is pretty straightforward. Yalo is on trial for rape. And is also suspected of being involved in a bombing plot. He’s a twenty-something-year-old veteran of the Lebanese civil war, who, following the war, absconded with some cash and a friend to Paris. His friend abandons him in France, leaving Yalo (who doesn’t speak a word of French) to wander the streets. Eventually he meets an arms dealer who proceeds to bring him back to Lebanon to serve as a guard for his house and family. And that’s where the trouble really begins.

Despite the sympathy the reader comes to feel for Yalo, he’s not necessarily a moral, upstanding person. After seeing people drive into the woods to have sex, he starts spying on them, occasionally robbing them, and once in a while raping the women. He gets involved with Shirin this way, a woman whom he claims to love, and who, depending on which version of the story you believe, has some interest in him as well.

Now on trial—thanks to the accusations of Shirin—he’s tortured in ways that are extremely disturbing, forced to write the entire story of his life, and broken, both mentally and physically.

Yalo’s story is interesting enough, but the way that it’s told in this novel is what really landed this book on the Best Translated Book of the Year fiction longlist.

Using some Faulknerian techniques, Khoury tells Yalo’s story in a looping and repetitive, subjective and uncertain, direct and poetic, fashion that is masterful and compelling. Siddhartha Deb has a nice overview of the book in his review for The Nation:

Yalo, the tenth novel by Lebanese writer Elias Khoury, is such a book. Published in Arabic in 2002 and now available in a translation by Peter Theroux, Yalo is set in 1993 and revolves around a single consciousness unable to make sense of itself or its surroundings. Its opening sentence is “Yalo did not understand what was happening,” and its closing line is “And if I don’t find the end of the story, how will I be able to write it?” In between lies a work that is both one story and several, perpetually revised under the torque of history, memory, desire, fear, understanding and loathing.

And Jeff Waxman’s review for Three Percent also points to some of the complexities of this novel:

Necessarily thicker than most of Khoury’s works, Yalo bears more scrutiny and re-readings than his other novels and in this literary masterpiece, translator Peter Theroux has achieved something exceptional. More than anything else, it is about the conflicts of identity and language in a region rife with upheaval and refugees. From his grandfather, Yalo inherited a complex culture, a legacy of statelessness found in the blending of Kurdish Islam and Lebanese Christianity. This blending of cultures includes an array of languages—Arabic, Syriac, Kurdish—all of which Theroux manages to convey without artifice and in impressive English. All of the alienation of tongues since the Tower of Babel is borne through startlingly clear prose. Yalo’s total estrangement may be the most successful of Khoury’s evocations and it is a constant theme in Yalo’s life. He is a haunted man and a man trapped in a crisis of intangible memory and identity. It’s more than the story of Yalo’s arrest, it’s more than the story of his imprisonment or his rapes and thefts. It’s the story of the entrapment of every character, from his lovesick mother to his grandfather the cohno, the priest. They are trapped as we are trapped—trapped in consciousness, trapped by mortality, trapped in a world that is not and cannot be objective.

Although a few of Khoury’s books had been translated into English at the time, it was Archipelago’s publication of Gate of the Sun that really launched him into the minds of American readers. Yalo is a different sort of book (and a bit shorter), and reinforces the opinion that Khoury is one of the great contemporary Arabic writers.

Khoury was able to tour in support of this book, and at least a couple of his performances were recorded and are available online. (C’mon publishers and booksellers, this seems like an obvious thing to do . . .) Specifically, his appearance at the Seattle Public Library is very interesting. And if you’re interested in learning more about Gate of the Sun, I’d highly recommend listening to his appearance on Bookworm. And the Washington City Paper has a really nice article about Peter Theroux, whose translation is impeccable.

27 October 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In the Literary Saloon post about David Tresilian’s A Brief Guide to Modern Arabic Literature, Michael Orthofer quotes this paragraph about the dismal (though not terribly shocking) number of Arabic books translated into English since World War II:

Recently modern Arabic literature seems to have made several long strides all at once. It is interesting to note that in the 20 years from 1947 to 1967 a mere 20 titles from modern Arabic literature appeared in English translation. In the next 20 years the situation improved slightly with 84 titles being published in translation between 1967 and 1988. I do not have figures for the yearly number being published these days, but the position has greatly improved.

In terms of 2008, 21 works of adult literature and poetry were translated from Arabic into English, so the position has most definitely improved. . . . (BTW, I’ll be posting an updated translation database in the very near future.)

3 January 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Following up on earlier announcements, Ed Nawotka writes about Kalima’s ambitious program in today’s International Herald Tribune.

Part of the United Arab Emirates’ Authority for Culture and Heritage, Kalima is a nonprofit enterprise with the goal of translating 100 titles a year into Arabic and distributing them throughout the Middle East. Which sounds like it will be quite a challenge:

Karim Nagy, Kalima’s chief executive, acknowledges the hurdles. The Arabic-speaking world comprises about 300 million people in more than 20 countries. Censorship laws vary, and often there is no strong bookselling community or distribution channel.

“First, we will worry about getting the books translated,” he said. “Then we will work to optimize their distribution.”

To put this program in perspective, Nawokta cites some interesting figures:

About 10,000 books have been translated into Arabic in the past millennium, according to a 2003 study by the United Nations Development Program. The demand has been small, partly owing to the historical tendency to focus most reading on religious texts and classical poetry. About 300 new translations appear each year, so Kalima’s planned 100 titles represents a substantial addition.

Along with Europa Editions new enterprise Sharq/Gharb, the Arab world is about to get in an influx of international literature.

Kalima is still in the process of acquiring rights to its first 100 books, but the current list includes Milton’s Paradise Regained, Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Collected Stories, Alan Greenspan’s The Age of Turbulence, and The Kite Runner.

18 June 07 | Chad W. Post |

One of the most consistently interesting weekly roundups is Susan Salter Reynolds’s “Discoveries” column at the L.A. Times. She’s one of the few reviewers who does an excellent job covering translations from independent presses, usually covering titles that no one else is writing about.

This week’s column is no exception, featuring three books about life in Iraq, both pre- and post-Hussein.

Two of the books she writes about—Outcast by Shimon Ballas and I’jaam: An Iraqi Rhapsody by Sinan Antoon—are from City Lights, and the third—The Sirens of Baghdad by Yasmina Khadra—is from Nan Talese.

All three sound interesting, and taken together, cover a range of emotional responses and political situations.

In Outcast a Jewish scholar who has converted to Islam is appalled to see his works perverted into attacks against Jews.

The Sirens of Baghdad is the story of a student whose life is wrecked during the American invasion, leading him to join a radical group planning a mission that is “a thousand times more awesome than the attacks of September 11.”

A student detained for making fun of Hussein is the protagonist of I’jaam. In jail he writes a sarcastic history of life under Saddam, omitting all diacritical dots, and thereby altering his text and hiding his contempt. (I wish I knew more about the Arabic language . . . )

It’s great to see that Arabic books about Iraq are making their way into English, although it sort of supports by quasi-serious hypothesis that readers are most interested in books from the countries America bombs.

....
I Called Him Necktie
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Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

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Its perfection arises precisely from its imperfection . . . . I have an image in my head. I see. . .

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Reviewed by Will Eells

Floating around the internet amid the hoopla of a new Haruki Murakami release, you may have come across a certain Murakami Bingo courtesy of Grant Snider. It is exactly what it sounds like, and it’s funny because it’s true,. . .

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The Matiushin Case
The Matiushin Case by Oleg Pavlov
Reviewed by Brandy Harrison

The publisher’s blurb for Oleg Pavlov’s The Matiushin Case promises the prospective reader “a Crime and Punishment for today,” the sort of comparison that is almost always guaranteed to do a disservice to both the legendary dead and the ambitious. . .

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