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 “I Just Can’t Wait to be King”→
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
“Egypt is heading towards civil war”, composer Mohammed Fairouz plainly states in discussion of his opera, Sumeida’s Song, which premiered at the Prototype Festival in SoHo. Civil war is perhaps too strong a word to describe the current state of affairs in Egypt, but few would argue with Fairouz that the country is going, in his words, in “a particularly bad direction.”
After a series of electoral victories, Egypt’s ruling Muslim Brotherhood effectively spent the final months of 2012 fast-tracking drastic changes to the constitution that many seculars, liberals, and democratic activists believe provide inadequate protection for women, religious minorities, and other groups, while laying the groundwork for implementation of Sharia law in the country (“Sharia law in Egypt?” Fairouz asks plaintively, before giving in to nervous laughter. “I mean, it’s not Saudi Arabia, it’s Egypt!”).
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.