Abdilatif Abdalla: Poet and Political Activist

Pic_Abdalla
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 Abdilatif Abdalla: Poet and Political Activist

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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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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Archives and Canons

What is the opposite of a canon? Perhaps an archive, which contains an overwhelming array of texts that very few people intend to read. I sometimes feel like Raph and I are working our way through an immaterial archive that stretches across the globe. This “archive” contains digital copies of short stories culled from published collections, underground literary journals, blog entries, Facebook posts, and unpublished manuscripts. It also presumably includes letters stowed away in old backpacks and journals forgotten in desk drawers. An infinite array of things just waiting to be catalogued and, perhaps, one day, interpreted.

The challenge of transforming such an archive into a collection is partially the brute effort of finding the materials, compounded by the difficulty of working with texts that are rarely annotated. For instance, we have found digital copies of stories typed by hand by literary enthusiasts into labyrinthine websites like Sudanese Online. The multiple copies create multiple versions which, without a robust editorial effort, jostle one another for authority, not unlike the way in which Sudanese folk tales proliferate in near infinite variation. Although unlike scholars who work on manuscripts, Raph and I are not in the business of sussing out the authentic version of a given text, such variations and inconsistencies take us back to the question of how a literary canon is formed.

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Sketch of a Literary Scene

The stories in our collection span the roughly four decades since the publication of Tayyib Salih’s much acclaimed Season of Migration to the North in 1969. Some are works of social protest, others of technical mastery or experimental daring. Despite variations in theme and style, we’ve chosen them because they all revolve around Khartoum in one way or another. For that reason, contemporary literary culture in Khartoum is one of the most valuable frames for understanding the literature produced in and about the city. The questions are deceptively simple. Who writes? Who reads? Where do people in Khartoum go to buy books, hear poetry, discuss literature and workshop their own writing? By offering a brief sketch of the literary scene, based on my own short stay in Khartoum last year, I want to start to explore the city as a metaphor for the bundle of expectations, literary conventions, and social mores that shape what Sudanese writers write and why.

I myself have only become acquainted with many of the stories in my growing collection over the past year, culled initially from the dozens of books I carried back from Khartoum to Cairo in a cardboard box. The less controversial ones I bought in the dusty book shops clustered around the University of Khartoum, but the majority were recommended to me by friends and acquired at a monthly open-air book market called Mafroosh, written up not so long ago in the New York Times.

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“Good” Stories in Translation

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.

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The Good Fight: Combating Misconceptions of Islamic Studies

islamic_04042012A recent feature article published in the McGill Daily–my alma mater’s independent newspaper–recounted the detainment of Islamic Studies PhD student Pascal Abidor during a trip home to New York from Montreal via Amtrak. Abidor presented his passport to the border patrol officers as the train entered the United States, and when asked where he lived and why, Abidor explained that he was a PhD candidate in Islamic Studies at McGill University.

This was enough to arouse the suspicion of the officers, who then looked through files on his laptop and found images of Hamas and Hezbollah rallies. Abidor explained these were a part of his research on Shiism in contemporary Lebanon. Abidor was then removed from the train, handcuffed, detained, and interrogated.

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