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
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.
Iqbal Al-Qazwini, author of Zubaida’s Window, writes a story that reflects a life of her own. She now lives in East Berlin and is an Iraqi Exile herself, which brings a heightened creditability to the first novel that she has written. As an active member of the Iraqi Women’s League, the largest Arabic Women’s Rights Organization, she was sent to East Berlin as a representative and found herself unable to return to her homeland when Saddam Hussein became President in 1979. She is acclaimed on her writing that mostly revolves around women and gender issues, human rights, child labor and intercultural exchanges. In 1993, Al-Qazwini was elected to the International PEN World Association of Writers, followed by the publishing of her first novel, Zubaida’s Window.
Al-Qazwini’s novel is a dramatic account of a young woman, Zubaida, who has fled her country and is currently residing in East Berlin where she finds it nearly impossible to discover anything comparable to her own land. Every smell, every sight, every noise seems to separate German culture from her own. Her decision to flee her country was based not only on the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, but on the war that she claims began “tens of years ago”. Zubaida claims that the downfall of Iraq began when King Faisal II was assassinated back in the days of the Monarchy. It was in the year of 1958 that Iraq overthrew the Monarchy and converted to a Republic. Zubaida reflects on “the good old days” and often times, on her feeling of belonging to a united family that she left at home in Al-Adhamiya, the area of Baghdad where she grew up. She now struggles to communicate with her family and has become obsessive over the location of her brother, an Iraqi soldier. Through madness and rage, we see images of the first Ba’thi Coup in 1963, which deposed of Republican President Adbel Qassem, the second Ba’thi Coup, named the “White Revolution,” which started 35 years of oppressive Ba’thi rule, and most central, the war between Iraq and Iran, from 1980-1988. Throughout the novel, Zubaida, the main character, fights her history, physically, mentally and emotionally, to figure out why it has come to what it is; destructed and chaotic.
The imagery found in this novel is quite remarkable. As Zubaida, the main character, is continuously haunted on a daily basis, through daydreams, flashbacks and asides, she always snaps back to reality with the intoxication she receives from the images through the screen of her television set.
The country is burning in front of her now, and she doesn’t know the extent of the invisible flames. The screen exposes a limited blaze, but she knows that the fire outside the frame of the screen is greater. These are flames beyond Baghdad, extending to her room, kitchen, balcony, and moving on to the world.
Along with the intensified, singled out imagery, the explosiveness of the past and present recollections that Zubaida experiences, closely connects to the explosiveness and tragedy of every event that has led Iraq to its current situation. A downfall of this novel is that it is too descriptive with the mellow dramatic accounts of Zubaida’s present conditions. The stereotypical female is one who over dramatizes her feelings and is over emotional, which further limits her strength because reality is too hard for her to handle. Without a doubt, this novel demands expression and feeling, just not so overbearing.
It’s no surprise that Zubaida’s Window is part of the Feminist Press’s prestigious series of “Women Writing in the Middle East.” Joining Al-Qazwini on this list are some heavy hitters, including Assia Djebar, Huda Shaarawi, Alia Mamdouh and Shahrnush Parsipur. Zubaida’s Window is a notable addition to this series, a series that is one of the best sources for information about Middle Eastern women novelists avialable to English readers.
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