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.

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.

28 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

As referenced in this article in the New York Times, the April issue of Oprah Magazine has a special feature on Spring Fashion Modeled by Rising Young Poets. And one of the featured poets? None other than Anna Moschovakis, who is one of the editors at Ugly Duckling Presse (whose collection Geometries by Guillevic is a poetry finalist for the BTBA), author of a new poetry collection, You and Three Others Are Approaching a Lake, and . . . translator of Albert Cossery’s The Jokers, which is a fiction finalist for the BTBA.

Congrats, Anna!

Favorite quote from the piece:

“I use writing as a way of thinking. Poems allow us to hold two ideas that don’t add up.” While she’s drawn to dissonance in her writing, when it comes to clothes Moschovakis most prizes ease.

Love that turn from “dissonance” to “ease” . . .

Also worth noting that this particular issue of Oprah Magazine has a bit with David Duchovny on his favorite books, which include The Crying of Lot 49. Admittedly, I’m a bit surprised at how well done and literary this particular section was. Makes the rest of glossy mag media look illiterate. As if they didn’t already.

16 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.

The Jokers by Albert Cossery, translated by Anna Moschovakis

Language: French
Country: Egypt
Publisher: New York Review Books
Pages: 160


A Splendid Conspiracy by Albert Cossery, translated by Alyson Waters

Language: French
Country: Egypt
Publisher: New Directions
Pages: 224

Why Cossery Should Win: One of the best discoveries of 2010; Cossery would’ve loved the Egyptian revolution; Cossery’s belief in idleness is awesome; Cossery’s belief in hedonism is awesome; both books are hilarious; he has 2-in-25 odds, which is twice as good as any other longlisted author

Today, Bill Marx of World Books and The Arts Fuse takes a look at both books by Albert Cossery that made the longlist.

Led by young people dreaming of freedom from authoritarian control, energized by plots and counterplots placed on Facebook and Twitter, the inspiring revolution in Egypt fits the resurrectionist fantasies of author Albert Cossery (1913-2008), though he would have preferred the liberating results be attained with less sacrifice and energy. His languid fiction treats subversion as a romp, a nervy comic game played against repression and routine. Given his delight in turning government puppets into clowns, Cossery would have reveled in how quickly Hosni Mubarak became a superannuated figure of farce.

Cossery left Egypt as a young man for Paris, where he hung out with Albert Camus and other French intellectuals while leading a life of hedonism (he estimated he had slept with over 2,000 women). His fiction financed his bohemian lifestyle and promulgated his relaxed anarchistic perspective—he was no lover of democracy but a libertine, an ironic satirist in the manner of Oscar Wilde who thought men salvageable as long as they didn’t bore. (Objects of desire, fear, and sentiment, women are irredeemable, at least in these two books.) The Jokers sums up the attributes of Cossery’s ideal male: “That he gives me a wonderful sense of plentitude, even when caught up in life’s trivalities. The breath of joy he conveys. That’s how you recognize the richness of a man’s love.” Think of a guy who exudes perpetual delight, especially when contemplating nihlistic destruction: the cocky panache of Cossery’s buddy-buddy vision of the world.

Both of the entertaining Cossery novels on the BTBA long list are masculine love stories in which young men who set out to undercut their clueless oppressors in Middle Eastern cities. For me, A Splendid Conspiracy, published in French in 1974, is the stronger of the two, perhaps because Cossery seems to be paying serious attention to his multi-layered faux-noirish tale of murder, political intrigue, and sexual perversity. The Jokers, which dates from 1963, deals with the same theme—a plucky, ultimately futile takedown of offical power—but provides sketchier, less exhilerating black comedy, though it has a nicely absurd payoff.

Also, given current concerns with terrorism, A Splendid Conspiracy presents an especially nervy parody of “revolutionary” violence. A police inspector in a small Egyptian town suspects a team of “radicals” are kidnapping and/or killing some of its most notable citizens. Of course, Cossery’s gang of sluggards, who mock everything but leisure and sex, are suspected to be the culprits. In one striking passage the ringleader of the laidback crew expresses sympathy for those dedicated to the decombustion of the status quo: “The tinest bomb that explodes somewhere should delight us, for behind the noise it makes when it explodes, even if barely audible, lies the laughter of a distant friend.” What price the joy of deconstruction? Cossery never asks.

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.

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.

....
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