One way to Caracas

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.

The relationship to exile is expressed not only geographically but linguistically as well. “The Curse of the South” makes two references to the Arabic language. The first one deals with the dialectal variation observed by the narrator traveling inside the Arabian Peninsula: “When he passed Najran and arrived at the Saudi territory, he was bothered by the revolt of the letters just over the border. The pure q south of the border had become an ugly g in the North. He was afraid that all the other letters of the Arabic alphabet would change along the road to the North.” The narrator feels uncomfortable with this change; he seems to lose his landmarks once again. He has learned and adopted Arabic, while trying at the same time to forget his mother tongue, but now he discovers that his new language may adopt other forms. It is as if his quest for balance never ends. At the end of the text, the same character suffers a fever contracted in his homeland, and the mother tongue that he had tried in vain to forget overrides Arabic: “the delirium didn’t expose him to the others, because he was raving in his mother tongue, which has nothing to do with Arabic, except for the names.” The language, taken here as a metaphor for the homeland, reminds us that one can never deny or erase his roots.

For decades, civil war and migration have been addressed in Arabic literature by many talented novelists from countries such as Egypt, Morocco, Lebanon, and Iraq. It is only recently, however, that Somali writers have started producing major works of fiction in Arabic. These authors introduce uniquely Somali perspectives to an Arab readership, including in their texts words, sentences and even songs quoted in Somali, along with tackling issues that are not often discussed in the Arab world. Up until 2010, Maxamed Daahir Afrax’s 1976 novel, Nida’ al-hurriyyah (The Call of Freedom) was the only printed work of Arabic fiction by a Somali author. In Beirut in 2011, Diriye published One way to Caracas, and in 2013 he won the sixth Sharjah Literary Prize for an upcoming novel. Another Somali author, Zuhra Mursal, published Amirah ma‘a iqaf al-tanfidh (A Princess with the Stay of Execution) in Cairo in 2012. In addition, dozens of other Somali writers have published Arabic short stories, poems, and book chapters about exile online, on communal websites like Somali Future and al-Shahid.

These writers have a native fluency in Arabic and a deep knowledge of Arabic literary culture, but at the same time their literature maintains an intimate connection to their Somali roots. Most of them belong to the Somali diaspora in the Arabian Peninsula, as well as in other countries like Egypt or Syria, where they were educated and were often born. The emergence of this literature coincides with the rise of a generation of young Somalis who were forced to leave their homeland as a consequence of the civil war which broke out in 1991 and the socio-economic chaos it engendered. Their texts are set in Somalia and other African countries, as well as in Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Syria. In this sense, they can be compared to Western authors of Arab, African, or Asian descent writing in English, French, and other European languages, like Khalil Gibran, Diana Abu-Jaber, or Maaza Mengiste in the United States. These writers are united in that their homeland fuels their inspiration even as they tackle new issues related to their experience in exile. But for the Somali authors, the Arab world is a new destination rather than a departed homeland, and Arabic is not only a means of expression but a topic to be tackled.

Diriye and other Somali authors enrich Arabic exile literature, breathing Arabic literary references and standards into a Somalian context and widening the limits of Arabic literature. While Diriye calls himself a pirate, he’s actually more like a trader, facilitating a rich exchange across location, language, and culture.

“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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A Missionary Zeal for Human Rights

Nuban "friendlies" employed by the British to suppress recalcitrant Nuban groups, 1917. From M.W. Daly's "The Sudan"
Nuban “friendlies” employed by the British to suppress recalcitrant Nuban groups, 1917. From M.W. Daly’s “The Sudan”.

On October 22nd, Ryan Boyette will be honored by Human Rights First at the organization’s annual gala at Chelsea Piers in Manhattan. As the 2014 recipient of the Human Rights First Award, Mr. Boyette will join the ranks of such esteemed advocates as Saad Eddin Ibrahim of Egypt, Denis Mukwege of Congo, and Albie Sachs of South Africa. Such recognition seems at first glance well deserved. Human Rights First describes Mr. Boyette simply as a “human rights advocate” who refused to leave his adopted home in the Nuba Mountains region of Sudan when his “aid organization” evacuated their staff in the wake of growing conflict in 2011. Over the past three years, with admirable courage and determination, Mr. Boyette founded Nuba Reports, an organization that employs an “all Sudanese” staff to document human rights violations and the humanitarian impact of the Sudanese government’s bombing campaign of the Nuba Mountains region.

The aid organization through which Mr. Boyette first travelled to Sudan in 2003 was Samaritan’s Purse. It is, indeed, a very particular type of aid organization, one run by Franklin Graham, a conservative preacher, noted Islamophobe, and the son of Billy Graham. After eight years of dedicated missionary work, Mr. Boyette resigned from Samaritan’s Purse in 2011 to avoid the staff evacuation. While his decision demonstrates considerable commitment to his new home in the Nuba Mountains, there is no indication that it signals an ideological break with evangelical work. Indeed, in late 2011, Nicholas Kristof of the NYT still described Mr. Boyette as an “evangelical Christian deeply motivated by his faith.”

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Ottoman Postcards in a Post-Ottoman World

Galata_old_postcardVisitors have fallen in love with Istanbul for generations. In the early 20th century, photographers, both Ottoman and European, captured its blue seas, red roofs, and beige buildings. Despite its beauty, the city’s riot of color obscures a troubling past of missing signs, sounds, and scripts.

Listen closely. The sounds of Turkish give voice to its history. Its raised and rhymed vowels connect the syllables of each word in a harmonious flow, but that flow has been artificially enhanced. During the creation of the modern Turkish state, authorities purged the frictive sounds like “gh” and “kh” found in Arabic and Persian. For instance, in Ottoman words like “yogurt” (Turkish: yoğurt) were pronounced “yo-ghurt” (with the “gh” sound of the English interjection “ugh!”), but in modern Turkish the “gh” was silenced, becoming “yo-urt”. (There’s a reason they still spell it “yoghurt” in Britain.)

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When the French Speak Arabic to Africans

All too often, we think of Arabic writing in West Africa—when we think of it at all—as a way to access a history beyond or outside the colonial moment. Yet this document, the front page of the weekly journal of the French colonial government in Senegal, shows that the French authorities depended on Arabic to speak to their subjects, even as they gradually tried to transform Senegambian social and political organization for their own economic gain. Far from being beyond the colonial moment, here Arabic appears integral to it.

The use of Arabic in Saint-Louis, the capital of French colonial Senegal, is not so startling in and of itself. The Arabophone geographers, most notably al-Bakri, report that Islam and its accompanying Arabic script appeared on the banks of the Senegal River, in Tekrur, as early as the eleventh century. The use of Arabic in the Western Sahel appears to have started to grow during the fourteenth century, under the influence of the trade empire of Mali, whose famed Mansa Musa lured scholars from Egypt and as far as Andalusia. Arabic written production in the Sahel reached its peak in the pre-modern period during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when the area was under the suzerainty of the Songhai empire. It was in the nineteenth century, however, that Arabic writing became an important technology of government when the ulema’, or Islamic scholars, began to lay claim to temporal power, thus producing “textual polity,” to use the phrase of Brinkley Messick.

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The (Jewish) Christian Question

Freud cartoon
By David Levine

A comment on Gil Anidjar’s paper “Jesus and Monotheism” and its discussion at the MESAAS department colloquium on September 11th.

Murder, it soon becomes clear, goes far beyond the “who-done-it?” digressions, down which Freud (and Anidjar) takes his readers. This word designates more than a crime, far more than an action. It describes a kind of relation: the relation of a father to his sons, of a son to his father, of a people to their leader and, ultimately, of Christianity to Judaism.

What Anidjar terms “the Christian question” is an inquiry about this relation. But this inquiry is not about Christianity’s relation to just anyone. It is what we arrive at when we turn the screw of “the Jewish question” one more time. When we ask what it is about Christianity that so persistently maintains this relation—“murder”—to its Others. Certainly this question goes far beyond “the Jewish” one, but in Anidjar’s reading of Freud’s Moses and Monotheism, the “(Jewish) Christian question” takes center stage.

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