by Gretchen McCullough
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The American University in Cairo’s Press Book of Modern Arabic Literature
Edited by Denys Johnson-Davies
American University Press, 2006
Browsing through the recently published volume of The American University in Cairo’s Press Book of Modern Arabic Literature, published by the American University Press and edited by the renowned translator of Arabic literature Denys Johnson-Davies, is a little like being invited to an iftar, the meal which breaks the fast during the holy month of Ramadan: a full table for a variety of tastes--light and heavy, bitter and sweet. This literary feast is a collection of the best novel excerpts and short stories from the Arab world, over 79 writers from 14 countries ranging from Morocco to Iraq, a superb introduction to modern Arabic literature for the uninitiated.
In his introduction Johnson-Davies explains to Western readers the linguistic puzzle of classical Arabic. He asks, “How is it that Arabic did not follow the way of Latin and give birth to a whole litter of different yet related languages?” His answer: because the Qur’an was revealed in classical Arabic. Since that language was by definition holy, Muslims have believed it should be preserved as is.
One advantage of this veneration is that classical Arabic has continued to be a unifying factor in the Arab world. A person educated in classical Arabic in Morocco can use it to communicate with a similarly educated person from Iraq. If they spoke in their local Arabic dialects, they would not understand each other.
Arabic literature also evolved differently than did Western languages. After the renaissance of classical Arabic literature between the seventh and fifteenth centuries, Arabic literature went into a decline. A modern Arabic literature only emerged when Egyptian writers came into contact with the West in the mid-twentieth century. The Teymour brothers were important in the development of the short story. Yahya Hakki, diplomat and lawyer, known for his novella "The Lamp of Umm Hashim," encouraged younger writers by publishing them in his magazine. Tawfik al-Hakim, who studied law in Paris, is considered the father of Egyptian theater. Yusuf Idris gave up medicine to devote himself to the short story. Idris wrote about the experiences of the poor and used colloquial, everyday language in his stories. Taha Hussein, blind from childhood, held important posts in the Egyptian government and is greatly admired in Egyptian letters. Hussein edited a magazine that made accessible modern writers like William Faulkner and T.S. Eliot to Egyptian intellectuals.
Of course, most of these authors will not be familiar to Western readers. Most Westerners have heard of Naguib Mahfouz because he won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1988. But as Johnson-Davies observes, Mahfouz could not have been awarded the prize had there not been a fair number of translations in English and French available to the Nobel Prize committee. Of course, Johnson-Davies’s own role was an important one as a translator of Arabic literature into English.
Indeed, the art of translation itself should not be underestimated. A skilled translator makes accessible a cultural world and heritage that is otherwise inaccessible. This is especially true for Arabic, which is so different from English grammatically and syntactically. A literal translation would not even make sense. And, like authors, translators are drawn to the work because of their love for the literature, not for commercial gain. In his introduction, Johnson-Davies recounts how he translated his first book, a volume of short stories, Tales from Egyptian Life, by Mahmoud Teymour, in 1947—a project he funded from his own pocket. He then read Naguib Mahfouz’s novel Midaq Alley and decided that book also should be translated. However, since Mahfouz was not well-known then, Johnson-Davies had trouble finding a publisher and had to shelve the project.
The difficulty of writers who are not well known finding publishers is a familiar story. But, happily for us, Johnson-Davies did not give up and eventually found publishers for more than thirty volumes of his translations. Memories in Translation, also published by the American University in Cairo Press, is Denys Johnson-Davies’s memoir about his career as a translator and is itself a great read for anyone interested in translation, Arabic literature or just literary gossip.
Every editor must make difficult choices about what to include and leave out of an anthology. Johnson Davies acknowledges a valid criticism of an anthology Heinemann published in 1978: the scarcity of women writers. I counted a healthy number represented in the present volume: 22 in all, among them Nawal al-Saadawi from Egypt and Hanan al-Shaykh from Lebanon, two of most popular Arabic writers in the West after Mahfouz.
My favorite contributions to the book include fairy tale, fable and myth. In Zakaria Tamer’s short story, “A Summary of What Happened to Mohammed el-Mahmoudi” is about an unmarried childless elderly man who goes every day to his favorite coffee shop. One night he dreams his mother is “upbraiding him severely for not having married and bewailing demand a child who would say to her: ‘Granny, buy me a balloon.’” One day, Mohammed keels over in the coffee shop and the customers decide to bury him under one of the tables, but in their search for evidence against some opponents the Syrian secret police exhume his body and take him it for questioning. At the police station Mohammed is faulted by the superintendent because he did not flatter the government enough when he was alive. The only way he can redeem himself is by informing on the other customers in the coffee shop. “A Summary of What Happened to Mohammed al-Mahmoudi” is a wry critique of an authoritarian regime that exploits even the dead in its quest for information. There is obviously good reason why the author now lives in London.
Another favorite is Ibrahim al-Koni whose work has mostly been translated into German. He writes about the Tuareg Berber tribe in Libya, the “blue men,” who wear blue veils to keep away evil spirits. The excerpt is from al-Koni’s novel, The Bleeding of the Stone, translated by May Jayyusi and Christopher Tingley.
Yusef Idris (1927-1991) is considered the master of the Egyptian short story. In “House of Flesh,” translated by Johnson-Davies, a poor 35-year-old widow is looking for husbands for her three ugly daughters. “The girls grew up and for long they waited expectantly, but the bridegrooms did not come. What madman will knock at the door of the poor and the ugly, particularly if they happen to be orphans. But hope, of course is present for—as the proverb says—even a rotten bean finds some blind person to weigh it out, and every girl can find the better half.” The only man who turns up is a blind Koranic reciter. But when all her daughters reject him, the mother decides to marry him herself. The twist: he brings joy to a gloomy house. A second, darker twist is that when the mother is away, one of the daughters slips on her wedding ring and pretends to be the man’s wife. The mother finds out and is enraged, but does nothing about it. Eventually, the other two daughters also put on the wedding ring and pretend to be the reciter’s wife. Even though the man knows he is not sleeping with the same woman every time, he says nothing, and no one will fault, because he is blind.
A writer with vision is AbdelRahman Munif, a Saudi who died in Syria in 2004. Munif is well-known for his trilogy Cities of Salt, an expose of how the oil industry changed the social fabric of Saudi Arabia.
The Egyptian Edwar al-Kharrat is not well-known in the West but is renowned for his lyrical use of language and technical innovation. (He was awarded the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature and the Cairo Fiction Award in 2008.) Al-Kharrat is one of the Modernist group from the 1960s that included Sonallah Ibrahim, Bahaa Taher, Ibrahim Aslan, Gamal al-Ghitani, Yusuf al-Qa’id and Yahya Taher Abdullah (all included in this anthology.) In the excerpt from al-Kharrat’s Rama and the Dragon, translated by Ferial Ghazoul and John Verlenden, the narrator describes the passion of Mikhail, a Christian, for Rama his Muslim lover: “His lips came to know the freshness of the open, slow-moving, and clinging mouth. In her mouth was a light sugary taste—the sweetness of a mature fruit plucked from a mother tree….”
…A good description for this anthology, especially in today’s tense political atmosphere.
(Gretchen McCullough was raised in Harlingen, Texas. After graduating from Brown University in 1984, she taught in Egypt, Turkey and Japan. She earned her M.F.A. from the University of Alabama and was awarded a Fulbright to Syria 1997-1999. Her stories and essays have appeared in: The Texas Review, The Alaska Quarterly Review, Archipelago, The Barcelona Review, Storyglossia and Storysouth. Cur- rently, she teaches at the American University in Cairo and is working on a collection of stories set in Egypt.)