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.
Mid-semester, I asked my Contemporary Islamic Civilizations section* to write down the first thing that pops in their mind when I say, “Name a fictional Muslim character.” I gave the students a minute, collected the names and then read them out loud.This is what they wrote (and how they wrote it):
Aladdin: 4 students (one student also wrote: maybe not Muslim?)
Salah al-Din/Saladin: 3 students (one specified Saladin from Kingdom of Heaven)**
Malcolm X: 2 students**
Scheherazade: 2 students
Can’t think of anyone: 2 students
Jafar (Muslim or just Arab?)
Jasmine (Disney princess)
Marji (from the book/movie Persepolis)
Amir Khan in Fanaa (Bollywood film)***
Lead male actor in Kite Runner (not sure if he’s Muslim)
Characters portrayed by the Palestinian actor Mohammad Bakri
Changez in TheReluctant Fundamentalist
Abu Nazir in Homeland
*All the students are Ivy League undergrads majoring in various subjects; most of them were raised and educated in the U.S.
**These are not fictional characters. I definitely expected the Aladdin characters, and I was not surprised that the students listed Saladin. I was surprised, however, to read names of 20th century North American historical figures…especially since the Autobiography of Malcolm X was required reading (in addition to Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi). Was it a result of mishearing the question (i.e., the student listed the first name s/he could think of rather than consider whether that figure was fictional)? Was it a reflection of their age? Or was it from ignorance of more recent U.S. history (i.e. post-World War II) and that U.S. high school students often receive a cursory treatment of the Vietnam War, Civil Rights Movement, Cointelpro, Immigration Act 1965, etc. (if they are able to reach that time period at all)?
***Out of all the Bollywood movies with identifiably Muslim characters, a student who watches Hindi films first thought of Fanaa. It does make depressing sense. The film flattens the local and material context of the Kashmiri struggle with India as a powerful nation-state by crafting a narrative which echoes narratives on U.S. national-security and the War on Terror. In a way, it’s another commercial film giving a Bollywood flavor to a Hollywood story. In this case, violence is de-contexualized and subsequently generalized under the category of “Muslim violence.” Here, Indian nationalism as love of nation (and national security) is made relatable to an American palate which has acquired a taste for the “Islamic terrorist/national-security threat” as a popular character, making Amir Khan’s Kashmiri character as a terrorist easily identifiable (and insidiously memorable) as “Muslim.”
In Covarrubia’s seventeenth century dictionary Tesoro de La Lengua Castellana O Española, moro (from the Latin Maurus) is defined as “one from the province of Mauritania.” The term is meant to be used pejoratively as in the proverb, “A Moro muerto, gran lanzada” (p.1150). The Real Academia Española offers more than eleven definitions, including the natural border of North Africa and Spain; one who professes the religion of Islam; a Muslim who lived in Spain from the eighth to the fifteenth century; a black mare with a star on the forehead and shoes on one or two limbs; Muslims of Mindanoa and Malaysia; etc. In the Oxford English Dictionary, moor is defined as “originally a native or inhabitant of ancient Mauretania” and “later usually a member of a Muslim people of mixed Berber and Arab descent inhabiting north-western Africa (now mainly present-day Mauritania), who in the eighth century conquered Spain.”
In An Early Modern Dialogue with Islam: Antonio de Sosa’s Topography of Algiers (1612), Sosa devotes an entire chapter—“The Inhabitants and Neighbors of Algiers”—to defining the “Moor” as a category of people among other inhabitants in Algiers, including Jews, Turks and Christians. The rest of the text, however, does not always use the term in the same way; rather, its usage reveals and reproduces the conflation of race, ethnicity and religion in the early modern period.
This July Morocco celebrated Throne Day, in celebration of King Mohammed VI’s ascension to the throne thirteen years ago. He seems to have much to celebrate; time and again, the crown asserts itself as secure against threats large and small. What has been the Moroccan monarchy’s secret to maintaining power in a post-Bouazizi world, when other Arab rulers find themselves bewildered and deposed?
So far, the will of Morocco’s people. Though dissent is very real, it often seems that a majority of Moroccans view a majority of the king’s actions, even the most brutal, as valid. They respect the king’s right to reign. Even during the peak of Morocco’s Years of Lead, characterized by the last king’s violent suppression of dissent, the monarchy has enjoyed—and has certainly enforced by all means necessary—a fairly genuine, fairly unwavering popular support. The current king’s grandfather restored self-rule to Morocco by claiming his throne against the French colonial will. The king is not only an enduring symbol of anticolonialsm, but also of a healthy relationship with Western powers, a relationship of equals in the neocolonial era.
He caught up with me as I turned the corner in Connaught Place (C.P.), the shopping hub in central Delhi where I had been running some errands. He was fair-skinned and wearing a checked shirt, jeans and bright sneakers–the basic uniform of young men in urban India. He was probably one of the Kashmiris who hang around C.P. waiting to chat up lost, sweaty tourists. He asked me where I was from, what I was doing in India. I gave the short answer, that I am an American who lives in Delhi for part of each year and that I am a student.
“I am also a student. My subject is English. You study which subject?”
“I study Farsi,” I said, using the name for Persian more commonly understood in India.
“What is… Farsi?”
“It’s a language.”
Our impromptu meeting ended there because I had to catch the metro. In any case, these conversations typically continue with “Would you like to see some shawls?” or “I can sell you cheap tickets to Kashmir—lovely place, where kings used to stay.”
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.
The story of Ekalavya is one of the many stories in the epic Mahabharata about the Bharata dynasty, and Vyasa is regarded as its author. Vyasa told Ganesha that he had to take the time to understand everything before he wrote it. It is the longest Sanskrit epic and was completed around 4th century CE.
Ekalavya is the son of a tribal chief. He wants to be an archer and wishes to become a disciple of the guru (or teacher) Dronacharya (Drona). Drona is the royal teacher to the Pandava and Kaurava princes. He is a Brahman and Ekalavya is a shudra. Drona refuses to teach Ekalavya, because Ekalavya wasn’t a kshtriya (warrior). Ekalavya returns dejected to the forest. He makes a clay figure of Drona and practices alone in front of it. In time, with practice, he becomes an excellent archer.
One day, when he’s practicing in the forest, the incessant barking of a dog disturbs him. He shoots arrows into the mouth of the dog without injuring it. When Drona sees the dog with its mouth full of arrows, he is amazed at the skill of the archer. Along with his disciples, the Pandava and Kaurava princes, Drona looks around the forest for the archer. When they come across Ekalavya, Drona praises him and asks him how he learned the art of archery. Ekalavya tells Drona that he learned it from him. He explains that he practices in front of a clay figure of Drona and he considers him his teacher. Continue reading Ekalavya Retold→
According to Foucault, the production of discourse in every society is simultaneously controlled, organized, selected and redistributed according to particular procedures. These procedures are meant to “avert its [the discourse’s] power and its dangers, to cope with change events, and to evade its ponderous and awesome materiality.”I Islamic feminist discourse is no different. Just like any other discourse, it contains internal and external systems for the control and delimitation of its discourse. But does this process actually serve to safeguard the proliferation and utility of Islamic feminist scholarship, or does it fulfill a larger purpose?
Many studies of Islamic feminist discourse have failed to address the historical moment in which the discourse emerged. Specifically, they neglect the influences of global feminist paradigms. Female scholars, who theorize sexual and gender equality as part of a larger Islamist paradigm, have been constant outliers within the production of Islamic feminist discourse since its induction into academic discussion. Their work is repeatedly contrasted to the ‘canon’ of Islamic feminist scholarship. Due to its discursive link with global feminism, Islamic feminist scholarship is unwittingly embedded within a theorization of sexual equality that hinges on secular liberal modernity. This article strives to understand the implications of power located within the process of marginalization of Islamist women scholars. It will also examine the larger political ramifications of the disputed label, “Islamic feminism.”