Arabic Literature: A Self-View of An Other

"We Orientalists are used to behaving like an exotic, esoteric clan. We think that the outside world does not and is not qualified to understand us. Our activity goes on within the polished cylindrical walls of our gremial ivory tower. We cannot climb those slippery walls to the top of the tower, to the very battlements, in order to cast a broad look at the outside world. Inside, we work with remarkable patience and dedication, but we are not quite sure for what and for whom we work. For example, those of us who deal with Arabic literature: for whom are meant the results of our studies?  
I sincerely admire the romantic generation of Arabists. They were possessed by the fever of discovery, by a great, soul-filling illusion, by a delightful, redeeming impatience. They were brilliant scholars, too, but their brilliance did not owe everything to professional competence. In literature they were mostly translators-remarkable, still unsurpassed translators. I am thinking of Rückert mainly, but also of Jones, Carlyle, Lyall. The not-necessarily confessed aim of their work was to enrich their own national literatures: a sound, legitimate aim that was amply rewarded by the echo their work found among their contemporaries. From Goethe to Baudelaire and beyond, romantic Orientalism received the most enviable homage. If I may add my own grain of praise andindebtedness to the romantics, I should confess that, if it had not been for Rückert's Hamasah translation and for some delightful poetic variations on Arabic themes by the Ukrainian poet Ivan Franko, I would most certainly not be here to-day. Actually, my first, still half-adolescent ambition had once been to become a translator of Arabic literature into my own language. After the innocent romantics there came the Orientalists as cultural historians, swept on the last, ebbing waves of German idealism. They did much good and they possessed an enviable certainty about their purpose and intellectual mission: they were integrating the Orient into universal culture-if only by means of the western catalyst.  
Now it is our turn and we are not so sure of ourselves. We have lost the romantic innocence, and our own national literatures do not seem to want us any more. Neither are we idealists, having become skeptical about universal culture. What seems to be left to us is knowledge for knowledge's sake. If I were a mathematician I would be perfectly happy with such a solution. But being a student of literature I hesitate. Of course, there is something to be said for "art for art's sake," but "scholarly work on art for scholarly work on art's sake" is, besides being a tongue-twister, utterly absurd. Enjoyment of art for enjoyment's sake would be a different story, were it not such a private matter and such a public luxury.  
In view of this perplexity we should quite earnestly ask ourselves some of the fundamental questions again: Do we still believe that by conveying our experiences with Arabic literature to our own readers we shall be making a contribution to the creative literary processes that are going on in our native literatures? Can we in any way stimulate a nascent poet in the English language, for example, to find some creative affinity with Imru' al-Qays or al-Mutanabbi? And if we feel that this is possible, what approach shall we adopt? Will translations, simply more translations, be enough? 
I cannot help but have the uneasy impression that no matter how large an amount of translations from Arabic literature we produce as we are used to produce them, our problem of purpose and self-justification will not be solved. To begin with, our translations are of the scholarly kind. Who needs scholarly translations? Other scholars, maybe. But should they need them? Do Hispanists or Germanists need such translations in their fields? Of course, our students of Arabic can profit from translations of Arabic verse, but this would constitute a limited purpose, entering in the realm of textbooks. Otherwise, translations should either be made with a more ambitious literary aim in mind or else they should not even be mentioned in a discussion of literary problems." 
-Jaroslav Stetkevych,
Address delivered in February 1967 at St. Antony's College, Oxford.
I'm not sure where exactly I see myself in this half-century-old address by a then-young Arabist. Somewhere downstream of it, to be sure, yet in many ways I have more in common with the Romantic generation of orientalist poet-translators than I do with the audience Stetkevych was addressing. Apart from the traductomania that induces verse-translation, I also have more universal aims, having grown skeptical of the "skeptical [attitude] about universal culture", and am ill at ease with the disciplinarian confinement to a single field - the barriers, cognitive and institutional, that wall off the Arabist from the Sinologist and the Hellenist, the Islamicist from the Classicist, and Literature from Anthropology. Though maybe that's lead me to spread myself too thin. Moreover, the "democratization" of knowledge-production enabled above all else by the internet means that my activity need not be linked to an institutional, let alone imperial, project. Certainly some of the educational resources and programs that allowed me to study Arabic as intensively as I did for as long as I did were intended at least in part to produce either qualified academics or regionally competent government functionaries. But it is thanks to the Internet that I am able to exist as neither.

But enough about me. Today, nearly 50 years later, it seems that with a few notable and brilliant exceptions such as Michael Sells, Stetkevych's call for "a more ambitious literary aim" for translations from Classical Arabic, has fallen on largely deaf ears, including those of his own wife Suzanne (much as I hate to say it) though Classical Persian literature has fared far better, as it always seems to have done. We've seen a profusion of theory and paradigm, some revelatory and some questionable, but little resurgence of actual literary energy in scholars' interaction with Classical Arabic. I note that Stetkevych's own "half-adolescent ambition" to translate Arabic poetry into Ukrainian also never resurfaced or bore any fruit in the intervening decades. Why not? I do not know. Perhaps he was afraid nobody worthwhile in Ukraine would be paying attention. Then again, he also seems to have largely abandoned the insightful, non-literal and ambitious English translation methods he used for the Arabic selections in his Zephyrs Of The Najd (perhaps because a few reviewers took some exception to it.)

Maybe the dream simply aged out of him, as he became to some degree an upside-down version of the very thing he beheld 50 years ago. The "Chicago school" of Arabic literary study, which he and his wife almost single-handedly inaugurated, has for all its claims now become quite comfortable with contemporary western theory as a means of approaching Arabic literature, an endeavor whose extraordinary and in many ways revolutionary successes have (thankfully) undermined the notion that such literatures are somehow "impenetrable...from a Western stance."

Its failure, however, may lie in the fact that the old Orientalism has been replaced by yet another form of "scholarly work on art for scholarly work on art's sake" albeit in a more theory-savvy way than 50 years ago, and far more deprovincialized (as evidenced by the increasing number of westerners who publish articles in Arabic or have their work translated into it, though a few of the old-guard Orientalists did this too.) Maybe the phrase isn't as absurd as Stetkevych though. Or, as seems more likely, it has to do with factors beyond the control of any scholar.

The "Chicago school's" limitations, too, are apparent, in the paucity of successful literary translators from Classical Arabic it has produced, in the fact that it too can behave at times like "an esoteric clan" albeit of a rather different kind, and in the ease with which "Islamic" can still be deployed as a catch-all frame of reference even by some of the very scholars for whom protesting the essentialization of Islam seems like something of a ritual. Indeed, "Islamic" has become a rather questionable blanket adjective in some contexts, much as the term "Oriental" was a hundred years ago. There's something a little ghettoizing about it, no? Would Shakespeare, or even Dante or Donne, be best described as "Christian poets?" I can only say I'm glad Dick Davis and Franklin Lewis treat, and translate, Hafiz and Rumi as having more to offer than that, as I am glad for the work of Annemarie Schimmel, Julie Scott Meisami and others, including of course the Stetkevyches themselves, who I only wish had pushed the envelope a little bit farther in a few ways.

Or maybe I'm just being a crackpot again.

Example of Shitty Translation

Here are three different English translations of Matthew 15:17

KJV: Do not ye yet understand, that whatsoever entereth in at the mouth goeth into the belly, and is cast out into the draught?

NAS: Do you not understand that everything that goes into the mouth passes into the stomach, and is eliminated

NIV: Don't you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body?

The original Greek:

Οὔπω νοεῖτε, ὅτι πᾶν τὸ εἰσπορευόμενον εἰς τὸ στόμα εἰς τὴν κοιλίαν χωρεῖ, καὶ εἰς ἀφεδρῶνα ἐκβάλλεται;

My translation (i.e. what it actually says):

Don't you understand that everything that enters the mouth passes into the stomach, and is expelled into the toilet?

The lesson for translators is a universal one: if you keep avoiding the toilet, you end up full of shit.

Against the Dying of the Light

Against the Dying of the Light
A.Z. Foreman

     I have not strength to save what now is ending
Or turn the world. But I'll not yield to this
Horizon-bloodying brutish Dark ascending
With bladed gleam. Those feet I will not kiss. 
     For I have eyes to see what is impending:
The resurrection of the knife, of bliss
In innocence, as voices die defending
The right to cry, out in the wilderness. 
     Let me have mind enough to writhe in choke
Of chains, and dream the light. Come that black dawn,
Let me have strength to speak as others' spoke
Who held to reason in their rhyme: lay on,
Damned times, you will not break me to defeat me.
The only thing that you can do is beat me.

But A Dream

But a Dream
A.Z. Foreman

I dreamt I saw the people come together
To meet old me, their eyes forever young
Turning as all a planet to their brother,
Singing hello as in another tongue:
"We are the face of centuries ahead,
The human race become its own reward
Of love, alive long after you are dead."
And then an angel, laughing, drew his sword

And sliced my mouth into a smiling gash.
His gold chains yoked my throat, choking me dumb
And I heard through his teeth the tonguelike lash
That said "I am the shape of days to come.
Old hungers' resurrection and the knife.
The only future you will see in life."

The Paramorphosis, by Abdulelah Abdulqader

The Paramorphosis1
A Short Story, by Abdulelah Abdulqader
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

The bride was shocked by the weird creature bursting into her bedroom, claiming to be her husband. Terrified, she cried for help from everybody who had come dancing in procession to this girls' orphanage, this sacrificial altar to which she had been lead like a lamb or goat to be slaughtered in the phony sacrament of matrimony.

Sulaf had not seen the groom before. Rather, she had relied on a color photograph of her supposed groom-to-be. The groom, she had been told, was nicknamed "Ray"2 for his radiant, luciferous face. She grudgingly agreed to marriage, faced with with the insistence of her parents, brothers and the entirety of her family, who might as well have been conspiring to send a lamb to her slaughter.

People came when they heard the bride's scream, thinking something awful must have happened to her, but were nonetheless surprised by her absolute refusal to marry him and her declaration that she had no knowledge of this creature. She asked to see the man from the picture she was shown at her betrothal.

The groom's mother denied everything, insisting that "Ray" was the man from the picture and that the bride must simply not have checked carefully enough. The bride's mother was astounded at the entity standing erect in the middle of the stylish wedding suite, demanding what was his by right as a husband, rebuffing any attempt to get between him and his new bride, and clearing the bridal suite of everyone who didn't belong there. They even forced the bride's mother out and locked the door, for all the bride's protestations as she sobbed and cried for help.

The picture itself was of a handsome man with a smooth, suave, lustrous face and a turquoise gleam in his eyes. It was like a reprinted poster of a movie star from the the Golden Age of Hollywood. The reality, however, was a different matter entirely. The creature that had startled the bride by bursting in and claiming to be the groom had quite a different physiognomy, bearing no resemblance whatever to the picture.

It was a midget no taller than 1.3 meters. Numerous illnesses, of which the last was smallpox, had afflicted him in early childhood without respite, stripping him of all human features. He had lost one eye, and the pox had left him a pock-punctured lid over the other, drilling countless and untreatable pockmarks all over his face as well. Smallpox and polio, however, had not been content with this deformation, but had left him bent and twisted arms, and the gate of a duck with a fractured pelvis. Even the hair of his head was ailing. Bits of it had fallen out over time, leaving half of his head bald, though he could still take some pride in the few strands remaining on the other half which he used to cover the bald one.

Bizarrely enough, "Ray" did not see himself as deformed or physically abnormal at all, and in fact thought himself handsomest young fellow around, as though he hadn't suffered all those illnesses in early life, hadn't been stripped of all natural human features.

Sulaf refused to submit to him as a wife. She was convinced that a despicable con had been perpetrated, that she and her family had been credulous dupes when they put their faith in a picture which the groom's mother had brought with her from the south in search of a beautiful wife for what she portrayed, through the fraudulent image, as her handsome son.

"Ray" was immovable and insistent, swearing that he would lock her up in the room for the rest of her life, if she didn't yield to him and accept him as a husband now that she had been lawfully agreed upon with the proper authorities.

Nobody from her family, which was from another city, could take action through state or religious law. Her mother was on her own, powerless and without any acquaintances in this city which she had traveled to in order to introduce her daughter to a prospective groom.

"Ray" locked the door with a steel chain, but was incapable of subduing the resistant Sulaf who rejected him as a groom and demanded a divorce, offering in exchange to waive all her marital and material rights as a wife. However, "Ray", his mother, his father and his brothers refused, declaring that divorce was absolutely out of the question, that her choice was either to be "Ray's" faithful wife or stay imprisoned in the room until she rotted.

It was not long before everyone in every house and alley nearby had heard about the wedding that had occurred, and the ruse concocted by "Ray" - a man notorious in the area for his ugliness and amorality, and an appearance terrifying beyond anything a human mind could conceive of. They knew, too, that this might be in reaction to the entire city's refusal to wed him to any of their daughters.

However widely the story spread from house to house and street to street, nobody could do anything to change matters. The bridal suite was still secured with a steel chain and a foolproof lock. Sulaf was still incarcerated in the room day and night. "Ray"'s visits to his bride's room were met harshly and obstinately by the despairing bride. Yet "Ray" continued to threaten her with the need to take what was his by right as a husband, and Sulaf responded by threatening to kill herself if he came any closer.

Her father and brothers came and attempted to reach a compromise by returning the dowry twofold to solve the predicament of their daughter who had fallen into a trap due to their negligence and failure to verify matters. They bitterly regretted that they had not had the bride meet her suitor, that not even one of them had actually met him. Yet "Ray" stood his ground, impugning their honor and manhood, demanding that the legitimacy of his marriage be acknowledged.

His mother goaded him to take what was his by force:

"You aren't a man. Cause if you were a man you'd have broken the bitch and fucked her like you should."3

That night, "Ray" entered the room, bolted the door, mounted Sulaf at gunpoint and took her virginity. His mother, brothers and sisters were dancing as he left the fortified room in victorious ecstasy, proclaiming his manhood which had up till that moment been in doubt. All anybody heard was the wailing of a broken and ruined woman.

"Ray" went out with his friends and sisters to celebrate at a bar nearby. He drank all he possibly could with his friends, before staggering home for a sweet and tender night with his new wife, delicate as the lissom bough of a Bān-tree.

He was surprised to find his neighbors and a crowd of other people outside the door of his house. Screams and wails were issuing from the windows as he noticed an ambulance and a police car parked outside. He was too drunk to discern the reason for all this congregating, and would have been unable to process the scene that betrayed what had happened, had not a policeman stopped him to let the detectives pass by as they carried away the cadaver of Sulaf who had shot herself.


1- The title of the original, Al-Maskh is quite loaded. The word Maskh means a great many things, including: deformity, monstrosity, transformation and misrepresentation. Moreover, Al-Maskh is the title of the Arabic translation of the novella by Kafka known to English speakers as The Metamorphosis, and the allusions to Kafka's story by no means end there. My English title, from a Greek word for "deformation," is the best fit solution I could think of.  

2 - "Ray" is the name I have used as a rough equivalent to the nickname Abū Nūr (lit. "Father of Light") found in the original. Abū Nūr is in fact a common sobriquet name for men, but here is more ironic than the word's own translation can convey.

3. This sentence is in colloquial Iraqi dialect in the original, and has been translated very freely.

عبد الاله عبد القادر

فوجئت العروس بمخلوق غريب يقتحم مخدعها، مدعياً أنه زوجها، صرخت من خوفها مستغيثة بكل الذين جاءوا يرقصون لهذا الميتم، والمذبح الذي سيقت له مثل شاة أو عنزة لتذبح على محراب الزوجية الباطل.

 لم تر سولاف العريس من قبل، بل اعتمدت على صورة ملونة قيل لها إنها لعريسها المنتظر، وإن اسمه أبو النور مثل وجهه النوراني، ووافقت على مضض  أمام إصرار والديها وإخوانها والعائلة بأجمعها، وكأنهم يتعاونون على إرسال الشاة إلى مذبحها.    
حضر الناس على صراخ العروس ظناً منهم أنها وقعت في مكروه، إلا أنهم فوجئوا برفضها الشديد للزواج وإعلانها عدم معرفة هذا المخلوق، وطلبت أن ترى صاحب الصورة التي عرضت عليها عند خطبتها.

أنكرت أم العريس، وأصرت على أن الصورة لـ"أبو النور" وأن العروس لم تدقق جيداً، واستغربت أم العروس من شكل الكائن الذي وقف منتصباً وسط غرفة العرس الأنيقة، مطالباً بحقوقه الشرعية، رافضاً التدخل في علاقته مع عروسه، طارداً كل الدخلاء الذين هرعوا إلى غرفة العرسان، حتى أم العروس أخرجوها بالقوة من الغرفة وأغلقوا الباب رغم رفض العروس وصراخها وبكائها واستغاثتها.

كانت الصورة لشاب جميل، وجهه ناعم ومصقول وعيناه تلمعان مثل فيروزتين، صورة كأنها استلت من صور نجوم هوليود أيام عزها، غير أن الواقع يختلف تماماً، فالمخلوق الذي فاجأها بدخوله مدعياً أنه العريس له شكل ثانٍ لا يمُتُّ بصلة للصورة

إنه قزم لا يزيد طوله على متر وثلاثين سنتمتراً، وكانت أمراض عديدة آخرها الجدري  قد أصابته مبكراً في طفولته فلم تمهله أو تترك له صفات بشرية، فقدَ عيناً وترك له الجدري عينه الأخرى بعد أن ثقب جفنه، كما ثقب وجهه بثقوب لا تحصى، لا علاج لها، إلا أن الجدري وشلل الأطفال لم يتركا "أبو النور" الطفل ويكتفيا بهذا التشويه، بل أصيبت يداه بالاعوجاج ومشيته أصبحت كمشية بطة مكسورة الحوض، حتى شعر رأسه لم يسلم، فتساقط الشعر وأصبح أقرعَ من جانب واحتفظ ببعض الشعيرات التي يعتز بها في الجانب الآخر لتغطية الجانب الأقرع.

العجيب أن "أبو النور" لا يجد في شكله إشكالية أو غرابة، وهو يعتبر نفسه أجمل شباب جيله كما لو لم يصب بكل تلك الأمراض مبكراً وتفقده كل الصفات الطبيعية للبشر.
سولاف رفضت الانصياع له كزوجة، واعتبرت أن خدعة خسيسة أوقعت بها، وأنها وأهلها كانوا مغفلين حينما اعتمدوا على صورة تحملها أم العريس من الجنوب متوجهة إلى الشمال للبحث عن زوجة جميلة لابنها الجميل، كما كانت تدّعي من خلال الصورة التمويهية التي حملتها معها.

أبو النور القاسي والشديد أقسم أن يسجنها في غرفتها طيلة حياتها إن لم تنصع له وتقبله زوجاً، بعد أن كان قد عقد عليها بالوكالة شرعاً.

لم يستطع أحد من عائلتها المتواجدين في مدينة أخرى من التصرف أمام القانون والشرع، وأمها وحيدة ضعيفة لا تعرف أحداً في هذه المدينة التي جاءت لتزف ابنتها إلى عريسها المرتقب.

أبو النور أغلق باب الغرفة بسلاسل حديدية بعد أن عجز من السيطرة على ثورة سولاف ورفضها له كعريس، طالبة الطلاق متنازلة عن كل حقوقها المادية والشرعية، إلا أن "أبو النور" وأمه وأباه وإخوته رفضوا، وأقسموا جميعاً أن لا طلاق البتة ، وأن مصيرها مع "أبو النور" زوجة مطيعة وإلا ستظل في محبسها حتى تتفسخ.

انتشرت الحكاية في كل البيوت المجاورة، والسكيك القريبة عن الزواج الذي حدث والحيلة التي رتبها أبو النور الشهير في كل المنطقة بقبحه وبسوء أخلاقه، وشكله المخيف الذي لا يتوازى معه أي شكل يمكن أن يتصوره إنسان، ولربما كان رداً لفعل رفض أهالي المدينة تزويج بناتهم له.

على الرغم من تعدد الحكايات وانتقالها من بيت إلى آخر ومن شارع إلى زقاق، إلا أن أحداً لم يستطع أن يغير الواقع. ظلت غرفة العروس مغلقة بالسلاسل الحديدية، وبقفل كبير غير قابل للكسر، وظلت سولاف محبوسة في داخل الغرفة أياماً وليالي، وكانت لزيارات "أبو النور" المفاجئة لغرفة عروسه ردود فعل حادة وشديدة من العروس اليائسة، بل زاد أبو النور تهديداته بضرورة حصوله على حقوقه الشرعية، بينما قابلته سولاف بالتهديد بالانتحار لو تقرب منها.

جاء أبوها وإخوتها وحاولوا إيجاد حلول وسط وإعادة قيمة المهر مضاعفاً للعريس لحل إشكالية ابنتهم التي وقعت في فخ نتيجة غفلتهم وعدم تدقيقهم في الأمور، وتحسروا لأنهم لم يسمحوا بتعرف العروس على خطيبها، أو حتى أن يتعرف أحدهم عليه والالتقاء به، إلا أن "أبو النور" وقف أمامهم يكرّ ويفرّ بوجوههم، متحدياً كل شواربهم ورجولتهم ومطالباً بشرعية زواجه.

حرضته أمه على أخذ حقوقه بالقوة:

- أنت مو رجال، لو رجال چان أخذت حقك وكسرت خشمها وصخمت وچها.

في الليل دخل أبو النور الغرفة، وأحكم إغلاقها واعتلى سولاف بقوة السلاح، وأزال عذريتها.. رقصت أمه وأخواته وإخوته وهو يخرج من باب قلعته منتصراً ومنتشياً، معلناً عن رجولته المشكوك بها حتى تلك اللحظة بينما لم يسمع أحد إلا أنين امرأة محطمة ومكسورة.

خرج أبو النور وأصدقاؤه وإخوته للاحتفال بالحانة القريبة من البيت، شرب حتى الثمالة مع رفاقه، وعاد يترنح لينعم بليلة ناعمة مع عروسه الرقيقة مثل غصن بان.

فوجئ بجيرانه ورهط كبير من الناس يتجمهرون عند باب البيت، وصراخ وبكاء وعويل يصدر من شبابيك بيتهم، بينما لمح سيارة إسعاف وسيارة للشرطة وحراساً.. لم يتبين أسباب كل هذا التجمع من فرط سكره. ولم يستطع أن يستوعب المشهد الذي ينم عما فيه.. غير أن الشرطة أوقفته ليمر رجال التحري يحملون جثة سولاف التي انتحرت.

Original Poem: The Man in Rehab Answers the Priest

Answering the Priest after Six Months Sober
By A.Z. Foreman

I've fallen from an Eden of unconscience.
Forgive me, Father, but I think
You've gotten drunk on something in the chalice,
And I don't drink.

I have already sacrificed for spirits
Let wine pulse in my vains
Seen at the tunnels end a light of blinding
Fevers and pains.

So, Father, shove your Ghost where the Son don't shine.
You have been very kind.
But I did not free my brain of drink for you
To dope my mind.

I'll see my wife who somehow loves me still,
Hear music sweet as shattering chains,
Catch some good weather in a wretching world.
The heart remains

With questions pounding forth beyond the heavens
Through starred space where gods grasp for air and die,
Where supernovas burst with flowers' beauty.
I cannot answer why,

But I can let there be lightness, laugh while seeing
The dark night of the joke you've fallen for,
Making it crystal clear. I will say this
To you, and nothing more:

No greater glory has a human spirit
Than to dream of a real thing, and make it.
Your god should read the writing on the wall
Of heaven: HOMO FECIT.

Oh Say You Can See

We seem to understand it all one moment
Somewhere along the evening of the mind.
The twilight's last gleaming unfolds an omen
Before true nightfall comes to rob us blind.

Whoever you are, in next dawn's early light
Touch not just digits, but your neighbors hand.
And take your moments in with the full sight
We have forgotten. You must understand.