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Book 107: Palestine (English) – Mornings in Jenin (Susan ABULHAWA)

 

So it was that eight centuries after its founding by a general of Saladin’s army in 1189 A.D., Ein Hod was cleared of its Palestinian children. Yehya tried to calculate the number of generations who had lived and died in that village and he came up with forty… Forty generations of living, now stolen. Forty generations of childbirth and funerals, weddings and dance, prayer and scraped knees. Forty generations of sin and charity, of cooking, toiling, and idling, of friendships and animosities and pacts, of rain and lovemaking. Forty generations with their imprinted memories, secrets, and scandals. All carried away by the notion of entitlement of another people, who would settle in the vacancy and proclaim it all – all that was left in the way of architecture, orchards, wells, flowers, and charm – as the heritage of Jewish foreigners arriving from Europe, Russia, the United States, and other corners of the globe.

This is a novel of bewilderment and betrayal.
In the year of the creation (or recreation) of Israel, 1948 – called here by the Palestinians the ‘year without end’ – the Abulheja family is bombed out of their home and village, and forced to live in the squalid Jenin refugee camp. One of the Israeli soldiers, Moshe, steals their baby Ismael (a name as close as you can get to ‘Israel’) for his infertile wife, renames him David, and they lovingly raise him as a Jew.
His mother goes crazy. As the hopelessness of the Palestinians’ cause drags on, Jenin becomes more permanent with the years. Youssef meets and is abused by the Jewish soldier who is his brother (now David), and his outrage leads him to join the PLO though he later leaves it, cuts himself off from his family and becomes more radical. Will he become a terrorist?
Most of the story is related through the eyes of the third child, Amal, the daughter born in Jenin. She later moves to the US where, although appreciative of the more comfortable and peaceful lifestyle there, can’t help feeling somewhat resentful of those born into a luckier world free from suffering.
Understandably, there is a lot of resentment expressed at the Palestinians’ unfair treatment. Why should they have to pay for the Germans’ sins against the Jews? Why should the latter treat the people living there so cruelly, throw them out and not even let them visit their ancestral homes?
Like in any good novel, the characters measurably change during the story. It’s a sign of hope that real people can change too, for the better.
The novel is interspersed with quite a few quotes from non-fiction sources documenting the history.
I only noticed one typo, but it was a whopper. On page 285 the azan (Muslim call to prayer: I proclaim that there is no god except Allah) is quoted in Arabic, but ‘illa’ (except) is left out which leaves an unintentionally blasphemous remainder!
Despite the roles the characters seem to be forced into by the political situation, there is still hope that they can recover their humanity and empathy. And for me both of these are what is most absent in the region at the moment and the only hope for the future. And thankfully Mornings in Jenin, which is mostly but not entirely seen from the Palestinian side, ends with a glimmer of hope for reconciliation. It is a beautifully written, powerful novel which won’t leave you as a bystander.

Abdulhawa, Susan (1970 – ), Mornings in Jenin, London, Bloomsbury, 2010, ISBN 9781408813553

Book 104: United Arab Emirates (English) – The Sand Fish (Maha GARGASH)


Noora heard their talk, too: “Which is the bride?” She knew it was hard to tell. She looked the same as Lateefa and Shamsa, tented from head to toe in their abayas, faces hidden under their shaylas, both legs dangling on one side of their donkeys. She also knew she was a bride who was not arriving as a bride should. There was no family to deliver her and not a hint of celebration. But she did not care. She just wanted a chance to be alone so that she could ponder the design of her new life.

The Sand Fish is set in Dubai in the 1950s, before everything changed and it became an oil-fuelled, glitzy, super-modern glassed city, powered by expatriate labour, on the surface at least (one wonders how much has changed behind closed doors in Arab society).
Feisty 17-year-old Noora lives in an isolated area; mother dies, her father is losing it; so her brother (who is 14) becomes de facto family head – such is sexist society – and arranges her marriage with a businessman who is rich but much older. And she becomes his third wife. Her brother (as an adult) is 100% awful.
The novel is a great portrayal of the bleakness and discomfort of a polygamous marriage. The wives hate each other (and there is an interminable power struggle between them). Their lives seem to me like slavery – ironically, it is the cheeky slave girl Yaqoota who seems to be the freest in the household.
I found it a bit unbelievable that no one realised it was the husband, not his plurality of wives, who was infertile – but perhaps it is (or was) the sexist society that considered male infertility unthinkable, or at least unmentionable. Noora didn’t seem to me to be the most intelligent of heroines – much of the time I felt I was way ahead of her and it’s hard to believe she didn’t see the situation that was being set up to get the husband a child. But I had to ask myself, why should all protagonists be clever and knowledgeable, when not everyone in the real world is? Especially if they are forced to be cloistered away by their society.
Not the greatest nor the worst book I’ve ever read, but well worth it for a glimpse into the past (or is it?) of the glitzy modern Dubai.

Gargash, Maha, The Sand Fish: a novel from Dubai, NY, Harper, 2009, ISBN 978-0-06-174467-9

Book 97: Jordan (English) – The Cry of the Dove (Fadia FAQIR)



I woke up early in the morning, washed and changed, had group breakfast with the nuns, then went for a long walk, down the valley, then up the mountain. My only companions were the amulet hanging around my neck and my reed pipe. I would watch how the sea woke up when touched by the morning light, its colours changing from grey, to coral, to gold, then to turquoise like my grandmother’s necklace, which was a string of beads encased by silver. The sun would fight the darkness of the sea. The sunlight would win the day, filling the air with light. The dark-blue sea, exhausted, grew mossy green around the edges.

The heroine Salma is a Jordanian Bedouin woman. She committed what was in her society an unforgivable sin: she had sex outside marriage and became pregnant, and was subsequently disowned by her own family. She is placed under protective custody, and her own girl is taken from her. Her life is under constant threat of what I believe should be called a dishonour killing (since for me it brings nothing but shame to the murderer’s family and society).

She seems to be able to find no happiness in her life. She feels hopeless, despairing, and deracinated She calls herself “a rootless wind-blown desert weed.” In exile, Salma has a bleak, jaundiced and negative view of England (and of Jordan) – she doesn’t really seem to try to fit in. She is nowhere at home. She seems to be constantly miserable and even appears to have a death wish.

Maybe the only happiness she ever found was in the half-way house of Lebanon (as in the quote above).

Salma is continually obsessed with her lost girl (what about her boy and her husband?) and finally goes back to find her. Without giving anything away, somehow the novel’s ending seemed to me to be impossible – but probable. 

For me one of the best things about the book is the beautiful cover – a gorgeous blue mosque with a lonely woman. One of the reasons I avoid e-books…

Like Salma, the author Fadia Faqir also grew up in Jordan and moved to England. Salma has both a Jordanian/Lebanese past and an English present, which alternately come together but are not totally stitched – there are patches missing (such as the moment when she falls in love in England). I also felt that as a learner, Salma’s ‘pidgin’ English was not believable. My apologies for harping on this theme, but I get constantly annoyed when authors and filmmakers try to portray the speech of characters who have English as a second language or are learners as being fluent, or making unlikely mistakes, and when there are no communication difficulties between speakers of different languages (even with aliens!)

However, I don’t want to be too critical of a book that was touching and insightful. It is definitely worth reading.



Fadia (al-)Faqir فادية الفقير‎ (1956 – ), The Cry of the Dove, New York, Black Cat, 2007, ISBN 978-0-8021-7040-8

Book 52: Yemen (English) – The Hostage = الرهينة (Zayd Mutee’ Dammaj)

How beautiful this city was!

I’d seen it first when I was taken from my village and imprisoned in the fortress of al-Qahira as one of the hostages of the Imam. His soldiers had come, in their blue uniforms, and torn me from my mother’s lap and the arms of the rest of my family; then, not content with that, they’d seized my father’s horse too, in accordance with the Imam’s wishes.

 

In recent years, Yemen had a reputation among adventurous travellers (or would-be travellers) as a magical land which had preserved an Arabian Nights civilisation. The fly in the ointment was that you stood a good chance of being kidnapped. Even this, however, was made to sound like a bit of a lark – the kidnappees were apparently very well looked after, in the highest tradition of Arab hospitality – only, in this case, compulsory hospitality. Today the country is in a much sadder state, as I write being torn apart by civil war, starvation and Saudi bombing and blockade. It seems like Yemen (the other, forgotten, country which re-united in 1990, apart from Germany), is in danger of falling apart again, which is one reason why I have also chosen to read another novel to represent the past (and, who knows, future?) South Yemen.
Anyway, The Hostage is my novel for Yemen (or former North Yemen). This is another, but entirely different, instance of Yemeni compulsory hospitality. In this case the hostage is not a foreigner but a boy imprisoned by the Imam as a guarantee of the acquiescence of his father and his clan. Although he lives in a gilded cage and far better, materially, than most of his countrymen, he is still effectively a slave, and feels it keenly. He constantly longs to visit his family and home country. Despite his embarrassing situation, he fights hard to maintain his self-respect. He is stubborn and proud (perhaps most startlingly when he refuses to have his shackles taken off), and does not always try to understand what is happening to him. Like a pet bird, the door to whose cage has been left open, he does not try to escape – what good would it do? This work makes you understand what slavery truly is. And yet, everyone has someone that he can look down on – in this case, the menial servants.
He becomes the reluctant toy boy of the governor’s sister toys with him like a cat with a mouse.
This edition has two what I felt were excellent introductions to the historical and literary backgrounds of the strange and vanished world in which it is set, sometimes reminiscent of the Thousand Nights and One Night. Something of a classic, it’s well worth reading!

 

Zayd Mutee’ Dammaj (زيد مطيع دماج) (1943 – 2000), The Hostage, translated from Arabic by May Jayyusi & Christopher Tingley, New York, Interlink books, 1974, 1 56656 140 X
(originally published as Ar-Rahina by Dar al-Adab, Beirut, 1984)

Book 44: Saudi Arabia (English) – Wolves of the Crescent Moon = Fikhakh al-ra’ihah (Yousef Al-Mohaimeed)

                ‘Where to?’

                The young ticket clerk was busy sorting the banknotes into the till according to their denomination. When he heard no answer he raised his head and peered through the round opening in the glass at the man standing in front of him. White hairs twitched on the customer’s chin, his eyes bulged slightly, and a thick mustache covered his upper lip.

                Turad hadn’t yet decided where he was going.

 

Off to another Arabic novel from the opposite end of Dar al-Islam. This nicely written novel begins and ends over one night at the bus station where the protagonist Turad is trying to decide where to escape to. The confusion throughout the book reaches its apogee in the subtly asked question ‘Where is Allah?’ in the sometimes horrific episodes – a breathtaking question to ask in Saudi Arabia. One of the cruelest acts is carried out by a caravan of hajjis, who are supposed to be ritually pure before carrying out the pilgrimage to Mecca.

There is an interesting Arabian take on Van Gogh’s ear-cutting-off from the equally ear-less narrator, who can’t believe the artist did it for a mere WOMAN!!

Despite the grim incidents, this is a very readable, engrossing and insightful inside view from one of the world’s most impenetrable societies. You will probably not be surprised to learn that it was banned in the Kingdom itself. Well worth reading, if you can!

 

AL-MOHAIMEED, Yousef (1964 – ), Wolves of the Crescent Moon, translated from Arabic by Anthony Calderbank, New York, Penguin, 2007, ISBN 978-0-14-311321-8

(originally published in Arabic in Beirut by Riyadh al-Rayyis, 2003)

 

Book 43: Morocco (French) – La Nuit Sacrée = The Sacred Night (Tahar BEN JELOUN)

This is a beautifully poetically written novel about a woman who was brought up as a man due to the bias against girls (as recounted in L’Enfant de sable – The Child of Sand), who escapes the past, as if ripping a curtain, and dramatically changes back, at the death of her father. She enters into a rather strange and fraught triangular relationship with an eccentric sister and (blind) brother. It centres on a rebellion against the sex and gender roles set in a traditional Islamic society.

The novel begins in Marrakesh with a fading storyteller (one of that sadly disappearing breed).

The narrator first encounters the sister in a hammam:

 

Only the main hall of the hammam is dimly lit; the other two are in darkness. In the penumbra someone blessed with good sight could just manage to make out a piece of white string from a black one. If the ambiguity of the spirit had a light, it would have to be like that. Steam clothes the naked bodies. Humidity, flowing in little grey droplets down the walls, feeds infinite discussions that continue endlessly in the chamber.

[my translation]

 

After committing a murder, she ends up in prison, quite contentedly, and voluntarily herself joins the lonely world of the blind and makes peace with the crazy mixed-up world.
By the way, the Sacred Night (Night of Destiny), during the holy month of Ramadan, is when believers’ fates are supposed to be sealed.

I was reading these words of the protagonist on the day of the Charlie Hébdo massacre in Paris and was moved:
‘… But you see, I’m like you, I love the Qur’an as superb poetry, and I’m horrified by those parasites who exploit it and who limit freedom of thought. They’re hypocrites.’

The book has strong elements of magical realism and/or mythology, and was sometimes hard to follow. But, apart from the intriguing tale, I loved its poetic language. Yet another great writer who deserves to be better known by the world at large!

 

BEN JELLOUN, Tahar (1944 – ), La Nuit Sacrée, Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1987, ISBN 978-2-02-0-25583-7

Book 40: Iraq (German) – Jussifs Gesichter = Yussif’s Faces (صورت يوسف) (Najem WALI) (نجم والي)

‘“Why is such importance attached to identification cards? Since when do papers determine people’s fate?” Yussif still kept these words, which Uncle ‘Assim had once said, in his mind. Where could he now find his father-in-law, in order to be able to contradict him: “Yes, papers do determine people’s fates.” For years he had tried to rely on Uncle ‘Assim’s words. Now he had voiced what he had been frightened of all those years: that remembering would one day awaken, and he would become abruptly aware of how vain of his argument was. “Who carries whose guilt?” He carried this phrase with himself, since he had eaten and watched television together with Uncle ‘Assim , in this house in the Baladiyat Quarter, to which Sarab moved back to live with her father. For a long time he had pushed it into the back of his subconscious. Only from time to time this phrase appeared, in the last year continuously and since last night ever more strongly and urgently.

If people had their past paraded before their eyes, they disavowed it. If someone showed them documents carrying their names, they said: “Are there any people without a past?” This question was not easy to answer. “Oh past, what have you made of my life?” He could imagine how millions of men constantly repeated this phrase everywhere in the world, in east and west, north and south. Always there was a past; it was the hindrance. Whoever adopted a new name, also adopted a new past. No, this question was not as easy to answer as Uncle ‘Assim had thought. He who did not believe in the past would also not believe in the evidential power of documents. He who carries a document with him, must therefore be X, son of Y, he was born on this date, in this place, in this country; he has to add to the document the following phrase: “Who carries whose guilt?” Tell me your name, and I will tell you which history you carry with you, which history you have left behind you – or want to leave behind you.’

[my translation]

 

Iraq has just about the longest literary history of any country in the world, but I’m ashamed to say that the only other book I had read from there was from right at the other end of its timeline – the wonderful Epic of Gilgamesh. I read this one in German as, although it has apparently been translated into English, I found it hard to get.  It was originally published Beirut/Casablanca, 2005, in Arabic. Anyway it’s appropriate as the author has lived in Germany for a long time. Najem Wali (نجم والي) was born in Iraq but in 1980 had to flee during the war with Iran to Germany, where he has lived ever since.

You won’t find much local Iraqi colour in this work; its themes are universal, although you could see the brothers’ identity and existential crisis as symbolic of the plight of this cradle of civilisation, which at the time of my reading was tearing itself apart and barely still existed. One of the continual refrains in the book (another is the description of the murdered girl) is the characterisation of the country as ‘The Land of the Triumphant and the Humiliated.’ Hopefully it won’t all end in a madhouse.

Wali asks the eternal question, ‘What’s in a name?’, but comes to a different conclusion from Shakespeare: Quite a lot. Here is a whole book’s worth. It is the story of two brothers, Jussif (Joseph) and Junis (John), who when they were young fell in love with the same girl. She preferred Jussif, so in revenge Junis gave her a cake with nails inside to eat and killed her. Junis opposes Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship and disappears; Jussif adopts his name, identity, life and even wife. He only discovers too late that his brother is sought as a traitor. No one will believe his story, or his innocence. A dangerous struggle over names and identities follows. Even as kids, the brothers had played with their identities, with masks.

Yussif and Yunis are, of course, Koranic (and Biblical) names. (The Qur’an has surahs (chapters) named for both of these names). It is a complicated parable about names, identity, the past, and…  Just what is reality?

For someone fascinated with translation, it’s interesting that the title in Arabic, s̪urat Yussif (صورت يوسف) ‘the Picture of Joseph’, which must be a play on the Koranic connection Surat Yussif (The Surah – Chapter – of Joseph) (سورت يوسف) has been cleverly translated into German not as ‘Jussifs Geschichte’ (Joseph’s Story) but as the almost identical-sounding ‘Jussifs Gesichter’ (Joseph’s Faces). For ‘Jussif’ (the name) has two faces – those of the two brothers who bear it at different times. The English title is ‘Joseph’s Picture’ (ISBN 978-1596923508), which is literal but not as imaginative as the German title.

Yussif asks the central question, ‘Who carries whose guilt?’ You are a prisoner of your past; if you adopt a new persona, you adopt a new past as well. He is totally alienated from the world. There is no truth and there is no past. Everything is a mirage (Fata Morgana). In fact, everything is a story.

A major theme is remembering and forgetting: ‘With the end of remembrance, pain comes to an end as well.’ Maybe, at least in some parts of the world, there is too much remembering, and it would be more peaceful if there was more forgetting, at least of the blandishments of history? But these separate histories are too much a part of each community’s identity for that to be able happen.

Wali’s novel is a dark, thought-provoking, well-written, exhausting and profound parable that deserves a much wider audience.

 

Wali, Najem (1956 – ), Jussifs Gesichter, Roman aus der Mekka-Bar, translated from Arabic to German by Imke Ahlf-Wien, Deutscher Taschenbuch-Verlag, München, 2010, ISBN 978-3-423-13850-5, [originally published in Arabic as Surat Yussif (صورت يوسف)]

 

 

Book 38: Algeria (French) – Nedjma (Kateb YACINE)

Lakhdar has escaped from his cell.

At dawn, his silhouette appears on the landing; everyone lifts their heads, without any great emotion.

Mourad stares at the fugitive.

“Nothing out of the ordinary. You will get caught.”

“They know your name.”

“I don’t have any ID cards.”

“They’ll come and nab you here.”

“That’s enough. Don’t discourage me.”

[my translation]

 

The first book I ever read in French was “L’Etranger” (“The Stranger/Outsider” by the pied-noir (Frenchman who lived in Algeria) Albert Camus, a rather existentialist novel about another pied-noir who kills another man. My teacher chose it as a fairly easy read, and its shock lives with me to this day. Later I read his “La Peste” (about an outbreak of the plague in Oran.)

But this time I wanted to read something by an Arab Algerian. In a way Nedjma is both a complement and an antidote to L’Etranger. In Camus’ work the Arabs are a mere background effect, like the heat, and if one of them gets shot it seems almost meaningless there, just as today a terrorist couldn’t care less whether he is killing Christians or Muslims. In Yacine’s mythologised story of Algeria, on the other hand, it’s the French who are almost irrelevant.

It’s possible to get a feeling of why the Algerian war for independence was so brutal and callous on both sides. The war seems almost forgotten today but it was a seminal event. France treated Algeria very differently from most of its other colonies – it was to become part of La Métropole, north of the Mediterranean, and its départements were just like those of the mainland; and it was heavily colonised. The struggle for independence was very long and bloody until President De Gaulle shocked the French by giving in and granting freedom.

This major work of Algerian literature is set during the time of the French colony. The novel centres on the métisse (mixed-race woman) Nejma (’Star’), as a symbol of Algeria, and the dangerous lives of the four lovers who revolve around her.

I have to admit that I found the free-form French very difficult. Sometimes a single sentence will run over two pages! I was beginning to despair of my French, but now I feel a bit better after reading my much easier book from Burkina Faso. ‘Nejma’’s circular plotting, ending back at the beginning, also makes it hard to follow – sometimes I felt like a caged animal. (The snappy beginning which I quoted above is not typical!) Even though it was hard work, I know it would well repay reading again, and it is written in beautiful French.

 

YACINE, Kateb (1929 – 1989), Nedjma, Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1996 (originally published 1956), ISBN 978-2-02-028947-4