One of the unexpected benefits of preparing an anthology is the chance to read through enough mediocre literature to begin to ask yourself what “mediocre” actually means. This summer, as Raph Cormack and I co-edit a book of Sudanese short stories in English translation, we are finding out that our attempts to distinguish the great stories from the mediocre raises interesting questions about competing literary aesthetics. Figuring out which stories to include and how to justify our selections to the publisher has been a hands-on lesson in how a literary canon, even a marginal canon such as Sudanese Arabic literature in English translation, is formed.
In our work, the basic tension is that some stories generally regarded among Sudanese readers as “good” do not translate into “good” literature by Anglo-American standards. It’s not that Anglo-American standards are superior to the Sudanese, largely because that way of speaking presumes we have some outside standard by which these two literary aesthetics could be properly compared. We don’t. But we do know that some of what is written, printed, appraised and ultimately bought and sold in the Arabic speaking parts of Sudan is quite different than what is appealing to English readers. As translators, we must either conceal or explain that difference to our imagined English readers. These essays are a first attempt to do the latter: to explain those aspects of my encounter with Sudanese Arabic literature that I cannot properly translate. In large part, I’ll be looking at different aspects of the marvelously complex relationship between the two literary critical traditions, call them for the sake of convenience Sudanese and English, brought together by global trade relations, colonial dominance, educational and cultural exchanges, and the emergence of specific technologies and revolutions in literary form that they entail.
During a recent debate on the Senegalese television channel TFM about the ongoing violence in Palestine, Tariq Ramadan accused one of his interlocutors Bakary Sambe of the most offensive crime for an African intellectual: having a colonized mind.
Sambe, a professor at Senegal’s Gaston Berger University and coordinator of the Observatory of Radicalisms and Religious Conflicts in Africa, had been asked about American leadership in peace talks when his response solicited Ramadan’s comments. In a clear departure from the flow of the conversation, Sambe offered his reflections on the Islamist threat of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood while staring directly at Ramadan. Observing that Sambe’s comments had “nothing to do with” the conversation, Ramadan asked Sambe if he was speaking live from Washington or London. Humorously, Sambe slips and says that he is speaking from Washington, before correcting himself by saying that he was speaking from here (here being Dakar). Ramadan then gives a dismissive gesture while Sambe appears clearly flustered and at a lost for words.
While studying in Cairo in 2009, taxi drivers would often ask me if I studied at Al-Azhar University. Although I was conversant in the Egyptian dialect of Arabic, several of my syllables strayed from native pronunciations. Sometimes I’d slip in some literary phrase if I couldn’t come up with the dialect, which made it plausible to the driver that I was some devoted Muslim boy studying at Al-Azhar. Nevertheless, on the outside, I looked as Indian to an Egyptian as Amitabh Bacchan. Even though I often played along with my Al-Azharite identity, to the disappointment of most taxi drivers, I have never been a pious student of Arabic nor a Bollywood superstar. I am not a hafiz though I can recite some well-known lines from Imru’ Qays, Mahmoud Darwish, and other poets through which I learned Arabic.
In 1949, Ali Bakathir published The Tragedy of Oedipus. His Oedipus was not the one that we are familiar with. This Oedipus knows from the beginning of the play that he is Laius’ murderer and that the Oracle says he is the cause of the pollution that has lead to Thebes’ plague. As a mid-twentieth century Oedipus, he believes that the corrupt priesthood only wants to fill their pockets and do not care one iota for the people who are suffering. This is until Tiresias, who has been expelled from the priestly order for suggesting that maybe it would be nice to give some money to the poor, talks to him. Tiresias convinces him that the cabal of Theban priests are all false prophets and that the one true God is the God of Islam. Oedipus is convinced, and together Tiresias and Oedipus defeat the corrupt religious authorities and save Thebes by bringing the message of Islam.
This kind of ‘Arabicization’ of a ‘Western classic’ like Oedipus Rex may sound rather bizarre, or unlikely. However, alterations of this kind to texts considered part of the Western classical canon are central to the twentieth century Arabic tradition of engagement with seminal works of theatre. From the lowbrow to the sophisticated, every Western theatrical import was given a distinctly Arabic character. To give another example, one of the most respected poets of the age, Ahmed Shawqi, created a version of Antony and Cleopatra, called The Death of Cleopatra (Masra’ Kliobatra), in which the character of Cleopatra is turned into a patriotic, virtuous Egyptian who dies for the sake of her country.
Ashraf Khalil’s Liberation Square offers a gritty and engrossing account of the events that took place in Egypt in 2011, using the voices of both Egypt’s most prominent political observers and the activists who risked everything in pursuit of an ever-elusive dream. Khalil, who has covered regional politics from Cairo, Jerusalem, and Iraq for a variety of publications over the past 15 years, adds his perspective to the narrative, allocating praise and blame in careful doses. An Egyptian-American raised in the States, Khalil’s personal stake in the outcome of this upheaval makes him a unique interlocutor. As such, Liberation Square is not simply a catalogue of Egypt’s revolution; rather, Khalil, who is not afraid of colorful metaphor or bawdy language, calls for systemic change. Delving into the psychology of the uprising, Liberation Square illuminates both how corrupt Mubarak’s regime had become, and how improbable the success of the uprising to oust it was. Continue reading Liberation Square→
Coverage of the conflict that brought the end of Gaddafi’s 42-year regime over Libya exposed some of the weakest points in the ways we conceive of geographical categories. Rebel forces accused Gaddafi of using “African mercenaries,” painting a racial tint to the civil conflict. In many respects, the conflict showed the limits of Libya’s Africanness — which Gaddafi emphasized in his later years — while aggravating the very real historical tensions between Arabs and other ethnic groups in Africa. Nevertheless, the positioning of Libya as an African nation has resonated with many Africans on the continent and throughout its diaspora.
Being a YouTube celebrity requires cutting edge creativity, cunning new media awareness, or utter obliviousity – I like to think of myself as a paragon of all of these.
My name is Hisham Fageeh, and I am the owner of the hit Saudi YouTube comedy channel HishamComedy. The channel is just shy of 3 million views in its 11th week.The channel is distinguished by its stylistic approach to (Saudi) humor, which is a satire faux-vlog of a disenfranchised Saudi guy living in the United States. He uses outdated Hijazi, specifically Makkawi, idiomatic expressions to articulate his disillusioned, cynical view of the American experience.