Arabic in Africa and the Problem of Archival Thinking

Archival material held in a private archive in Northeastern Senegal. Author’s photo.

Ideally, ‘Eid al-Fitr joyously marks the end of Ramadan fasting with communal prayer and equally communal feasting. In Senegal, as elsewhere in the Islamic world, there are some translations in the form of the holiday but the message is the same. Known in the vernacular as Korité, it functions to bring together the community of believers and cultivate a sense of unity in the West African nation, around 94 percent of which is Muslim. However, during my pre-dissertation research on Islamic textual collection in Senegal this summer, Korité appeared to be as much a point of disunity and contestation as solidarity and community.

Because ‘Eid and the rest of the Islamic year follows a lunar calendar, the start of a new month must be observed by someone with the authority to determine the start of the full moon, thereby making time an inherently political concern. This necessity has produced a notorious, yet predictable, low-level controversy across the ummah, the world community. When does the month start? When does it end? And according to whom? While many countries follow religious authorities in Saudi Arabia, it is sometimes the case that they establish national bodies to determine the appearance of the new moon and hence the beginning and end of the holy month. In some places, this determination is even made at the local level. In Senegal, all three seem to be the case, forcing people to decide between multiple days on which to celebrate their connection with the larger Muslim world.

Before leaving Columbia for my research, I decided that by investigating the sites of Sufi textual collection, I could start to approximate the development of a Sufi public space. Bibliographic institutions, I reckoned, were the key piece in forming a discursive community. I developed this idea from reading the secondary literature. Arabic manuscripts private family archives and Sufi brotherhoods were all topical themes that appeared in scholarly work. And so a project that looked at the collections of Arabic manuscripts held by Sufi communities seemed like a good way to enter into the field of scholarship.

However, after a summer in Senegal visiting many archives and libraries, talking to archivists, scholars, and teachers, I am weary of what we might call archival thinking in the western Sahel, a way of privileging textual artifacts, particularly manuscripts, that neglects contemporary contests over the proper authority in fields of Islamic knowledge.

Arabic is by no means a dead language in the western Sahel. On the one hand, it serves as a channel of dynamism for younger generations of Senegalese, who increasingly use Arabic as a public language to articulate their desires. Yet for older and more powerful members of society, who have been able to instrumentalize their control over the language, the contest over Arabic is a source of great anxiety. While I can only speak anecdotally, my summer in Senegal along with my knowledge of the scholarly literature compels me to say that we may be living in a moment when mastery of the Arabic language is the most widespread in all of Sahelian history. Yet, this phenomenon gets concealed when scholars emphasize the study of books that are no longer read. For what is an archive, if not the repository of documents that are no longer in circulation?

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESI came to a realization of this problem while looking for some of the manuscripts in Saint Louis, Senegal of Moustapha Ayane Sy, a modernizing teacher, translator and diplomat who studied and lived in North Africa and Saudi Arabia. I met with Ousman Niang, one of Sy’s closest pupils, who now teaches Arabic in a state school. While visiting his house, Niang revealed a manuscript collection of Sy’s poetry. Much care and respect was shown for the document, demonstrating a certain reverence for this literary heritage. After Niang had kindly answered my questions, it dawned upon me to ask if he also wrote. He promptly supplied a USB key with a long form poem, a qasida that he had been writing, entitled “State of the Shaykhs and Secularism.” One section in particular grabbed my attention because of its critique of the politico-theological establishment in Senegal. Making clear that the classical Arabic form of the qasida can be used today to address contemporary concerns, this section denounces the religious authorities for dishonest dealings in religious matters, particularly in fixing the start and end of Ramadan. Here is working translation:

This disagreement over the ‘eid shocked me / your violating the obligation (al-fard) of jama’ (?) and breaking the fast

On the pretext of pride or lineage / Defending possessions and inheritance and supporters (ansar)

The speech of the Prophet is not followed by other speech / Do not follow the sheikh when he disagrees voluntarily

In this excerpt, Niang attacks the clerical families who have maintained authority over Islamic knowledge and used their birth for the purpose of accumulating wealth. He then goes on to admonish the audience to abandon religious leaders who stray from the prophetic model of Muhammad. In Senegal today, this discourse would be considered an invective against the major families who are connected to the saintly lineages of the Sufi brotherhoods. Niang thereby contributes to a tradition of polemic in the region tied to the imperatives of reform that stretch back at least to the fifteenth century when al-Maghili wrote his replies to the emperor of Songhai Askia Muhammad, initiating the regional iteration of tajdid. Though this debate itself has a long history, and the literary form of the qasida predates Islam, Niang’s concerns are decidedly contemporary.

 The party grew more extreme and the nationalist makes me laugh / They’ve urbanized and believed recounted (?) (marwy) ruins

Academic scholarship has started to investigate the historicity of Arabic in Africa with the faintest recognition that Islamic knowledge is important and contested in the present. It seems that the hope is that old manuscripts will reveal something that might inform our understanding of the present. But actually, we might have it backwards. Perhaps, it is the present moment itself that reveals the history of Arabic in Africa.

“I Just Can’t Wait to be King”

I recently came across an Arabic rendition of “I Just Can’t Wait to be King” from Disney’s 1994 blockbuster, The Lion King. It’s a fantastic translation, drawing on a variety of registers of Egyptian colloquial and modern standard Arabic to express much of the humor and dynamism of the English original. Consider Zazu, the king’s red-beaked advisor pictured above. The translation draws from a wide array of Arabic registers to convey his quickly changing disposition, at turns imperious, imploring, and impotent. For instance, as he is chasing after the troublesome cubs (at 0:56), he switches from his shrill vernacular to a more formal register, announcing, “I reckon the time has come, and I’ll tell you frankly…” But before he can finish the sentence, he smacks into the ample rump of an unsuspecting rhino (one of many times in which the poor bird–and the kingly authority he represents–is sat upon or trampled underfoot). As a flattened Zazu slides off the rhino’s backside, Simba picks up with the word “frankly,” which is used in both formal and colloquial Arabic, to label Zazu a muristan – a nutjob, as one translation has it.

As I watched, I realized I was being (re)introduced me to a cast of familiar characters. They were singing a tune I know, rehashing a narrative I remember enjoying, and rehearsing a set of classic Disney conflicts about loyalty, authority, and adulthood. Yet they were doing it all in Arabic, a language I’ve learned, however imperfectly, as an adult. As with any successful translation, it is neither an exact copy nor a wholly new work, but an intermediary text which contains recognizable elements of the original while standing on its own aesthetic merit. As a student of early modern Arabic literature, however, I rarely have a chance to engage with English texts translated into Arabic, especially those from my own childhood in the United States. Watching a clip from The Lion King in Arabic not only raised questions about what constitutes a successful translation, but left me with an uncanny  feeling of having encountered an element of my self through the eyes — or in the voice — of the Other. Continue reading

Bullet Films

Still from "Don't Forget the Plums"
Still from “Don’t Forget the Plums”

An uncomfortably intimate close-up of a young man’s face opens one of the most recent “bullet films” by Syrian film collective Abounaddara entitled “Don’t Forget the Plums.” The penetrating eyes of the unnamed speaker confront the viewer as he gives cautionary advice about how to deal with the media: “When you’re live on air, the presenter will ask you questions about what interests her…don’t let yourself get dragged in.”

The camera remains fixed upon his face with the only partially visible backdrop an off-white wall.   As the unnamed speaker continues, his voice becomes more energetic and his face more urgently expressive. “What about the fighting between the Free Syrian Army and the “Islamic State”? What is the regime doing? Is the regime doing this or that?” he asks, mimicking and mocking a journalist’s predictable questions. “But we don’t give a shit,” he declares, looking straight into the camera and straight at the viewer. “There are people on the ground dying.”

The screen then cuts to black and the film’s cryptic title flashes across the screen. He begins telling another story about being in the aftermath of a car bomb explosion. This is his narrative, not the one a television journalist might have “dragged” him into telling. “I was picking up the remains, the remains of children, the remnants of a little girl’s dress, her hair,” he explains. “A very poignant scene grabbed my attention in the middle of everything.” He witnessed a child finding plums in a bloodied pool, washing them off with muddy water, and eating them. His own jarring question acts as the film’s disruptive and ambiguous conclusion: “But where are we heading?”

Like other of Abounaddara’s 276 films so far, “Don’t Forget the Plums” is under four minutes in length, and a personal narrative told by an unnamed speaker. They are what the all-volunteer anonymous collective of self-taught filmmakers call “bullet films” of one to four minutes in length. “For us,” they explained in a 2014 interview, “films should burst out like bullets to break the silence. They should tell the Syrian story with great narrative intensity and to make the viewer look at reality differently.”

Founded in Damascus in 2010, Abounaddara has posted a new short on Vimeo and distributed it via social media every Friday since April 2011, the early days of the Syrian popular uprising. As noted on the collective’s website, the group’s name (“the man with glasses”) follows the Arabic custom of nicknaming people according to their professions.

Working with limited equipment, no regular funding and often under very dangerous conditions, Abounaddara has termed its work “emergency cinema”. The term recalls one of the group’s vital influences, Walter Benjamin, who envisioned artistic collectives as necessary and potentially effective responses to political violence. “The idea is…a cinematographic form adapted to the situation that we are living today in Syria,” Abounaddara spokesperson and co-founder Cherif Kiwan explained in a 2014 talk at the American University of Beirut. “We’re in a confrontation between society and the state,” he said. “The representation of society is unjust. Unjust because the regime doesn’t recognize society, and the media in general don’t represent society in an accurate and fair way.” Abounaddara’s media critique is realized through their “emergency” form, produced during the sustained period of emergency that is the Syrian conflict. Yet the emergency they represent through this form extends to the broader concept of emergency as the very condition of history, as Benjamin argues in his Theses on the Philosophy of History. Written only months after his release from a French internment camp and assembled months before his suicide in 1940, Benjamin urged a concept of history that would reflect the perpetual state of emergency that oppressed people know to be the rule rather than the exception.  “The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule,” he wrote. “We must attain to a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight.”

For Benjamin, it is a foolish type of historiography, represented by 19th century historian Leopold von Ranke, that seeks to discover “the way it really was” by narrating events in a ritualized and linear-circular manner, “like the beads of a rosary” (Thesis A). The historian who counts beads one by one needs to be instead disrupted, interrupted. He (he) must be “man enough to blast open the continuum of history” (Thesis XVI). The rosary must be unraveled. And not only does Ranke’s historicism believe in a history that can be ascertained and explained but also a history that is complacent, part of a narrative of continual progress. For Benjamin, by contrast, historical materialist reflection embodies a dynamic urgency that does not exist for the historicist. Abounnadara similarly seeks to blast open a national and international media narrative that undervalues individual experience and discounts the potentially potent and poignant activities of daily life in Syria such as those portrayed in “The Smiters for Damascus” and “I Will Dance Tomorrow.”

“…The past historically does not mean to recognize it ‘the way it really was’ (Ranke),” wrote Benjamin. “It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.” Abounnadara explicitly envisages their counter narratives as capturing such lightening flashes of danger in the present, what Benjamin called dialectical images. “[Our] position is fundamentally anti-antiauthoritarian and iconoclastic,” Kiwan explained. “We have always treated the “heroes” of the revolution with suspicion, as in Warning (00:38). We have made several films, denouncing the glorification of victims, such as Two Minutes for Syria (01:26). The power of images I’m talking about has nothing to do with any attempt at domination..it has to do with defending the power to represent the world without freezing it in its current temporality. In other words, it is about ensuring that images remain dialectical and lightning, in the words of Walter Benjamin, to avoid any form of propaganda or idolatry.”

In “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936) Benjamin described the Dadaists’ work as hitting “the spectator like a bullet…acquiring a tactile quality.” Film possesses a rousing potentiality that is both physiological as well as psychological. For Benjamin, the film cut embodied this perceptual touch that could create a ballistic awakening for the viewer. It could both “destroy illusion” and “paralyze the audience’s readiness for empathy.” The cut was a rupture powerful enough to disturb in a sensory environment of modernity, for Benjamin represented by the poetry of Baudelaire, where “the shock experience has become the norm.” In Abounnadara’s “bullet films” what jolts the viewer is sometimes the ironic distance between a film’s poetic title and its decidedly unsentimental content (“Don’t Forget the Plums”); at other times, it is felt in the narrative shift, often abrupt and often at the film’s very end (as in “Over the Toys”).

“Living means leaving traces,” wrote Benjamin. For him, the photograph was the most potent reminder of an object that survives both its creator and its subject, always a memento mori. This takes on renewed meaning in the context of Abounnadara’s “emergency cinema,” created by and about individuals living the type of perilous experience that characterized much of Benjamin’s own life. When the unnamed speaker in “Don’t Forget the Plums” asks, “But Where Are We Heading?” one might imagine in the context of the ongoing Syrian war that the response could be Benjamin’s well worn statement: “That things just go on, this is the catastrophe.”

And yet Abounnadara’s “bullet films” are a new type of what Benjamin called “an artisan form of communication,” distinct from mere reporting and concerned with storytelling as restorative craft, as an art that conveys the experience of living and of leaving traces. “It does not aim to convey the pure essence of the thing, like information or a report. It sinks the thing into the life of the storyteller, in order to bring him out again,” he wrote, emphasizing how storyteller and story persist long after the story has been told and the storyteller is gone. “Thus traces of the storyteller cling to the story the way the handprints of the potter cling to the clay vessel.”

Cross-Pollination

Fig. 1: Original caricature of Abushâdy by M. Fridon (1928)

I’ve spent the past few years organizing materials that were left behind by my late grandfather, Ahmed Zaky Abushâdy (1892-1955), the well-known Egyptian Romantic poet—and physician, inventor, and bee scientist. Early on in my research, I became aware of two distinct narratives in the biographical literature: Abushâdy the Romantic Poet and Abushâdy the Bee Scientist. The former narrative is enshrined in the field of Modern Arabic Literature, while the latter weaves between the history and science of beekeeping in 20th century England and Egypt. Each tells a story that portrays important aspects of Abushâdy’s life and work. But as I continue to examine the materials in the archive, it strikes me that the logic that gives rise to separate, non-intersecting narratives runs counter to the spirit of my grandfather, who dedicated his life to working across disciplines and bringing together a wide array of traditions and cultures.

One remedy may be to develop a new narrative that emphasizes the hybridization that shot through all of Abushâdy’s activities. As a scientist, he understood the concept of hybrid vigor in both theoretical and practical terms, bringing it to fruition by breeding honeybees on a grand scale. He also applied the concept as a poet, for instance, by welcoming the influences of European Modernism, particularly English poets such as Wordsworth, Shelley, Byron, and Keats. Likewise, he developed his own brand of proto-multiculturalism in his academic writing on politics and social issues.

Central to all of Abushâdy’s activities was his role as publisher. In the early 1930s, he bought a used printing press, and started his cottage industry in private publishing. As publisher, editor, typesetter, and printer, Abushâdy promoted his own writings and those of his friends and associates. He called his publishing venture Mabaʻat al-Taʻāwun—“The Co-operation Press”—and he ran it singlehandedly for over a decade, first in Cairo and later when he moved his home base to Alexandria, where he continued to produce journals and monographs across far-flung disciplines. The press draws its name from the 19th century English co-operative movement, which Abushâdy learned about through his English paramour and wife-to-be, Annie Bamford, a self-described freemason descended from radical labor organizers and cotton weavers. “The Movement” provided him with practical strategies with which to launch co-operative societies and their associated publications.

Fig. 2: L: Cover of Apollo (February 1934); R: Apollo’s Society (1935)
Fig. 2: L: Cover of Apollo (February 1934); R: Apollo’s Society (1935)

Although Abushâdy produced two long-lived bee journals—the first, Bee World, founded in 1919 in Benson, England, remains in print to this day—he is remembered for his short-lived, controversial poetry journal Apollo (Jamʻīyat Apūllū), which he published in Cairo between 1932 and 1934, and whose influence persisted long after it ceased publication. Apollo provided a much-needed platform for experimentation at a moment when poets from across the Arab world were transforming Arabic poetry. Associated with Apollo was “Apollo’s Society,” a group of poets that spanned several generations, yet who shared a desire to modernize Arabic poetry, which they agreed had fallen into a decline. The Apollo poets carved out a position for themselves among the warring literary factions of the day (fig. 2).

In 1930, two years before the first issue of Apollo appeared, Abushâdy launched a second bee journal, The Bee Kingdom (Mamlakat al-nal, 1930-40), which attracted contributions in both Arabic and English and took in advertisements from around the world. He also founded an Egyptian bee organization called “The Bee Kingdom League,” which continued the educational and co-operative work he started a decade earlier in England. “Bee culture” had long since seeped into Abushâdy’s life and work, at once providing a literary metaphor and a model for his research.

The Bee Kingdom masthead by Paul Beer (Vol.2, no.12, December 1931)
The Bee Kingdom masthead by Paul Beer (Vol.2, no.12, December 1931)

Among the many visual emblems of hybridity that Abushâdy employed as a publisher is the illustration on the masthead of The Bee Kingdom. Created by an artist named Paul Beer (described on the back of one sketch as “al-Nimsawi”—The Austrian), it depicts a crowned queen bee astride a throne, her arms embracing the two hemispheres of the globe—East and West (Fig. 3). This logo appears on ephemera and objects in the archive, on variations of letterheads, in the form of gummed pyramid-shaped labels and enamel-inlaid medallions (Fig.4).

Top L: Cover of The Bee Kingdom (June 1930); Top R: Medallion, Mappin & Webb, Ltd. (London, n.d.); Bottom L: Sticker; Bottom R: Medallion (Egypt, n.d.)
Fig. 4: Top L: Cover of The Bee Kingdom (June 1930); Top R: Medallion, Mappin & Webb, Ltd. (London, n.d.); Bottom L: Sticker; Bottom R: Medallion (Egypt, n.d.)

The variety of the illustrations contained in Abushâdy’s publications, as well as the artworks preserved in his archive, indicate an interchangeability of roles and the blurring of genres for artists working in Egypt in the 1930s and 40s. As I thumb through Apollo, I am struck by the eclectic nature of the illustrations, which include reproductions of fine drawings, caricatures, cartoons, and color plates. Likewise, in the pages of The Bee Kingdom, we find numerous small line drawings. When I first discovered these drawings, which are remarkably stylized, I assumed they were unsigned elements of graphic design produced by the same anonymous hand. On closer inspection, I found each piece to contain the minuscule signature of the celebrated Egyptian calligrapher Sayed Ibrahim (1897-1994) (Fig.5). Ibrahim was a member of Apollo’s Society, producing copious illustrations for Abushâdy’s many publications, including Apollo, as well as poetry.

Fig. 5: Drawing by Sayed Ibrahim (n.d.)
Fig. 5: Drawing by Sayed Ibrahim (n.d.)

Other well-known artists who contributed regularly to The Co-operation Press include the painter Mohamed Hassan (1892-1961), who doubled as a political cartoonist, and the brothers Seif Wanly (1906-1979) and Edham Wanly (1908-1959), who were Abushâdy’s close cousins in Alexandria. Like Hassan, the Wanly brothers were prolific painters as well as cartoonists (Fig. 6).

Fig. 6: L: Gouache by Seif Wanly (1950); R: Cartoon by Edham Wanly (1945); Bottom: Atelier, Seif and Edham Wanly, colleagues (n.d.)
Fig. 6: L: Gouache by Seif Wanly (1950); R: Cartoon by Edham Wanly (1945); Bottom: Atelier, Seif and Edham Wanly, colleagues (n.d.)

Another frequent contributor was the self-taught painter Shaaban Zaky (1899-1968), who wrote articles for Apollo while advertising his services as a commercial artist in its back pages. This straddling of different styles and genres seems to have been commonplace, just as it was conventional for poets to also work as journalists.

I have come to realize my grandfather’s personal quest for hybridity was emblematic of his time, and the contents of his archive preserve for us a particular moment of experimentation and co-operation across mid-century Egyptian urban culture. Abushâdy’s hybridity is elegantly portrayed in a widely-reproduced caricature by the Alexandrian Persian cartoonist Mohamed Fridon (Ostle, 1994). It portrays Abushâdy at the top of his game: a many-armed human with a microscope for a body, grounded by his bare feet even as his mind takes off in several lofty directions at once (see figure 1, above). The portrait serves to remind us that neither poetry nor art nor science develops in isolation, and that creativity, harmony, and growth all thrive and benefit from cross-pollination.

Mogadishu in Arabia

One way to Caracas“People don’t know what it means to become an Arab at six years old,” writes Somali author Mohammad Ali Diriye on the back cover of his short story collection, Ila Karakas bila ‘awdah (One way to Caracas). Born in Somalia, Diriye went into exile at a young age, and studied in Saudi Arabia and Sudan — formative experiences in his literary career that have deeply influenced his contributions to contemporary Arabic fiction. Like other emerging Somali diaspora authors, Diriye deals with the familiar themes of war and exile, but from a new perspective. Unlike Arabic writers in Beirut or Baghdad, he uses the Arabic language to describe another civil war, on the other shore of the Red Sea. In his writing about about exile, which he describes as “the narrative of an Arab pirate,” the Arab world is no longer the point of departure but the destination.

In La‘nat al-janub (“The Curse of the South”), a short story I recently translated into English, a man leaves his homeland — Somalia is not explicitly named — and starts a new life in Saudi Arabia. The man tries to forget everything in relation with the land of his ancestors, but at the end of the day, his efforts prove futile: remnants of Somalia persist in his mind, against his will. Despite the fact that Diriye doesn’t directly mention Somalia or the civil war in the story, they still linger all over the text. Indeed, their very omission evokes a traumatic lapse in memory.

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“Bored” with the Theater of War?

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Performer addresses NYC audience via skype (author’s photo)

First believed to have been performed in 415 BC, Euripedes’ play The Trojan Women tells of the violence committed by the Greeks during their siege of Troy, a city not too far from the borders of contemporary Syria. Scholars believe Euripides wrote the play as a critical response to the Athenian slaughter of the people of Melos during the Peloponnesian War.[1] The tragedy draws from an ancient history to speak powerfully against contemporary war crimes and human trafficking—and classicists have taken great interest in the ways in which the play has been reinterpreted over the past century. Performed in Arabic entirely by Syrian women currently living in refugee camps in Amman, Syria: The Trojan Women provides a platform for Syrian refugees to share their experiences of war through a dramatic reinterpretation of the ancient Greek tragedy.

When the performers were recently denied entry visas to the United States, Columbia University organized a promotional event on campus that was attended by many like myself who are currently teaching and studying ancient Greek texts. Over Skype, the Syrian performers spoke about their experiences working on the play in response to questions from their U.S. audience. The highly performative aspects of “engaging across a divide”–particularly on the U.S. side of the screen–dissipated the moment one of the Syrian women took the microphone, moved her face close to the computer camera and surprised her audience by asking in perfect English, “Are you bored?” In response to our silence, she raised her voice and enunciated with a wide smile, “Boooooored?” At that moment, her question disturbed and problematized our passive, distant, and comfortable consumption of war narratives on a screen. The discomfort she provoked flips the spectator’s gaze  inward, drawing attention to our role not only as audience members but as crucial participants in the tragedy behind the tragedy. For a project that aims to give a human face to the suffering that is a consequence of war, achieving this is a success in itself. Continue reading

Abdilatif Abdalla: Poet and Political Activist

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Abdilatif Abdalla (author’s photograph)

Abdilatif Abdalla, who will be visiting MESAAS and the Institute of African Studies at Columbia on November 12th and 13th, is one of the most renowned living Swahili poets. Mixing poetry and politics has been a feature of Swahili society for a long time, and classic historical Swahili poets, like Fumo Liyongo and Muyaka bin Haji, were engaged in local politics as well as in writing. Like these Swahili intellectuals before him, Abdalla has been living among his people – or separated from them, through long years of prison and exile – as the gifted and critical voice in society that Swahili poets are seen as: particularly knowledgeable people with a duty to speak up on behalf of their community.

As a poet, Abdalla became well-known only after his term in prison (1969-1972), to which he was sentenced as the author of ‘Kenya: Twendapi?’ (Kenya: where are we going?). He earned his first literary recognition with a didactic poem on the Qur’anic story of Adam and Eve, but it was the publication of Sauti ya Dhiki (Voice of Agony) in 1973, a collection of poems he had written secretly on toilet paper while in prison, that made him famous. Using traditional genres of Swahili verse, Sauti ya Dhiki covered a broad range of critical topics with remarkable depth and originality: the perils of colonialism, racism, material greed, and social injustice. But also the loneliness felt in prison, the persistence of his political struggle, and a plea against abortion from the perspective of an unborn child. Readers were awed by the force and scope of his verbal artistry. Continue reading

The Distance: Translating between Texts and Territories

Ivo Meldolesi, Vecchiette abruzzesi parlano per la prima volta al telefono, ca. 1950 (“Gazzetta del Popolo” - Archivio Fotografico, cart. 76, busta 5212).
Ivo Meldolesi, Old lady from Abruzzo speaking on the phone for the first time, ca. 1950 (“Gazzetta del Popolo” – Archivio Fotografico, cart. 76, busta 5212).

The recent essays on canon formation and literary aesthetics raise a vital question about the tension between faithful and successful translations. I see these essays as a twofold project: not only are they concerned with practices of translation and processes of canon formation on the “target” side, but they also have to account for the same processes in the context of the original production. It is within this field of opposite forces that the work of translation takes place, constantly pulling the text in opposite directions, sometimes demanding painful choices.

We can see the practice of translation as an attempt to draw closer different or competing literary aesthetics. From the translator’s point of view, these often work against one other: what seems “good” in Arabic might not be perceived as such in English, and vice-versa. Thinking about the original and the target literary landscape as competing forces is one possible angle from which to approach the questions of canon formation and of its translatability.

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