This week, our editors report on the commemoration of Amjad Nasser, one of Jordan’s most celebrated writers, as well as Syrian poet Adonis’ discussion with his translator Khaled Mattawa at London’s Southbank Centre. From Brazil, the International Literary Festival of the Peripheries (FLUP) and the Mulherio das Letras have taken place, with both festivals seeking to give voice to underrepresented writers and speakers. In France, the winners of two of the most prestigious literary awards were announced at the beginning of the week. Read on to find out more!
Ruba Abughaida, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Lebanon
This week, word-lovers celebrate the life and work of Jordanian poet, novelist, essayist, and travel memoirist Amjad Nasser (1955-2019), who launched his writing career as a journalist and activist for Palestinian rights. His debut poetry collection, Praise for Another Café, was published in 1979 when he was just twenty-four years old. A Map of Signs and Scents, a collection of sixty poems spanning from 1979-2014 and published by Northwestern University Press, features new English translations of his work by Fady Joudah and Khaled Mattawa.
In 2014, his poem A Song and Three Questions, was praised by Saison Poetry Library as “one of the fifty greatest love poems of the last fifty years.” Translator Jonathan Wright said of Nasser’s lyrical novel Land of No Rain: “I’m not sure what to call Land of No Rain. The publishers call it a novel. I call it a meditation.”
The UK’s Southbank Literature Festival saw Syrian poet Adonis in conversation with Khaled Mattawa, Libyan poet and Adonis’ regular translator. They discussed poetry, translation, the blurred cultural lines between geographical points of East and West, and read their poems to a packed audience. READ MORE…
Emptiness, desolation, and thirst—these evocations of the desert are the ones most familiar to the bulk of us, but for some, this wild landscape resists such simple evaluations, holding instead a kingdom of history, knowledge, and narrative. In this essay, anthropologist and writer MK Harb takes us through the literature of the North African author Ibrahim Al-koni, whose sagas reveal the historic philosophy that these regions have preserved. Despite the othering hierarchical nature that has plagued literature, Al-koni’s writings invoke tender and human shapes from his landscapes, arising from that mysterious creature: the Sahara.
MK Harb recommends listening to this playlist while reading this article and the works of Al-Koni.
The mahri convulsed and its skin turned bloody red. It jittered with pain, its stomach containing a fire burning within and howled “Aw-a-a-a-a-a-a-a.”
Ukhayadd had given the mahri a silphium plant known for its magical capabilities for physical healing, but also for its mind-twisting qualities. Ukhayadd himself began to convulse, through his emotions he felt every bit of the pain the mahri was going through. He pleaded to the various gods in the Sahara from Allah to those guarding the temples to transfer the pain on to him. He yelled “Lord, divide his share of pain. Let me be the one to lighten his burden,” but the mahri still jittered and yelled “Awa-a-a-a-a-a-a.”
Ukhayadd’s emotions then turned to anger. He pleaded with the mahri, yelling “do you think you can escape your fate? Brave men do not try to run from themselves. Wise men do not try to flee from fate.” Ukhayadd did not see the mahri as a horse. He shared with him a sort of otherworldly love and addressed him with the various emotional capacities you would with a human.
This imagery ripe with lore and the transfiguration of pain comes to us through the words of the novelist Ibrahim Al-koni. Al-koni is a prolific writer, having penned over eighty novels, with his most famous being The Bleeding of the Stone (translated by May Jayyusi) and Desert Gold (translated by Elliot Kolla), from which this preceding passage of Ukhayyad and the mahri comes. Al-koni hails from Libya, though he does not identify as a Libyan author; while he comes from the land that is now nationally defined as Libya, he is unwilling to commit to nationalist or modern labels. Having grown up in the traditions of the Tuareg, an Amazigh group that inhabits the borders in and out of the Sahara and whose cultural and geographic traditions were heavily disrupted by the imposition of colonial and national borders, this nomadic upbringing seeps throughout his words. His writing is divorced from a need to construct urban environments or a sense of linear time and space; instead, it is imbued with a Sahrawi melancholy, which conjures up vast plateaus that are full of events as enthralling as those unfolding in cities.
A Shimmering Red Fish Swims with Me by Youssef Fadel, translated from the Arabic by Alexander E. Elinson, Hoopoe, 2019
A massive construction project looms in the background of Moroccan author Youssef Fadel’s novel Farah (2016), beautifully translated from the Arabic by Alexander E. Elinson and published under the title A Shimmering Red Fish Swims with Me (Hoopoe 2019). The project in question is the building of Casablanca’s Hassan II Mosque, named after the Moroccan ruler who commissioned it. As Elinson explains in a concise and illuminating foreword to his translation, King Hassan II (r. 1962-1999) announced his plan to build a grand mosque on Casablanca’s Atlantic shoreline during his 1980 birthday celebrations. The mosque was inaugurated in 1993, on the eve of the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday. Designed by a French architect and built by a French firm, the mosque project required the labor of over thirty thousand workers, including thousands of master craftsmen who carved, chiseled, sculpted, and formed its dazzling array of tile mosaics, stucco moldings, and decorative woodwork. The structure that emerged from this massive effort accommodates up to one hundred and five thousand worshippers, making it the largest mosque in Africa and one of the largest mosques in the world—but such grandeur comes at a huge cost, both financial and human. The mosque came with a whopping price tag of over half a billion US dollars, and much of the financial burden fell on Moroccan citizens, who were required to help pay for the mosque through a public subscription program. The project also upended life in Casablanca, particularly for the people who lived in the densely populated neighborhood that was razed to create room for the new mosque.
These upheavals are at the heart of Fadel’s novel, which explores the experiences of the Moroccans who both lived in the shadows of, and contributed to, the construction project, and who were eventually displaced to make room for the massive mosque that they had helped build. A Shimmering Red Fish Swims with Me is Fadel’s tenth novel and the final book in a trilogy about contemporary Morocco. The novel centers on an ill-fated love story between two young Moroccans: Farah, who escapes her hometown of Azemmour and comes to Casablanca to pursue her dream of becoming a singer, and Outhman, who works with his father as a carpenter at the mosque. The lovers’ fate is sealed in the novel’s first chapter, where we learn that Farah is the victim of a brutal acid attack, witnessed by Outhman. The rest of the novel is devoted to unpacking the events leading up to the acid attack on Farah. The story is told through an intricate narrative structure that unfolds along multiple timelines and from multiple perspectives, meting out information in suspenseful portions whose full meanings do not become clear until the last page. Each of the novel’s seven sections opens with a chapter narrated from the perspective of a third-person omniscient narrator located in the present, some twenty-three years after Farah’s death. The internal chapters of each section are narrated in the first person from Outhman’s perspective, beginning at the time he met and fell in love with Farah while working at the mosque’s construction site. The last chapter of each section is narrated in the first person from the perspective of another character in the novel, such as Farah or Outhman’s mother. The result is a kaleidoscopic view of working-class life in Casablanca, one that uses the tragic love story between Farah and Outhman as a launch pad for exploring the tensions running through Moroccan society in the 1980s and ’90s and, in particular, for laying bare the tremendous costs that the Hassan II Mosque inflicted on the people living around it.
Eleven days after its launch, Asymptote’s Fall 2019 issue continues to capture the zeitgeist. Many of its pieces, drawn from a record thirty-six countries, simmer with polyvocal discontent at the modern world, taking aim squarely at its seamy underbelly: the ravages of environmental degradation, colonial resource extraction, and media sensationalism of violence, in particular. If you’re still looking for a way in, perhaps our Section Editors can be of some assistance. Their highlights from the edition follow:
From Lee Yew Leong, Fiction, Poetry, and Microfiction Special Feature Editor:
Via frequent contributors Julia and Peter Sherwood, an excerpt from Czech writer and dramaturg Radka Denemarková’s latest Magnesia Litera Prize-winning novel, Hours of Lead, brings us into the bowels of a Chinese prison, bearing witness to a dissident girl’s defiance of state repression and censorship. Inspired by Václav Havel, the protagonist’s struggle is entirely private and self-motivated, untethered from any broader democratic collective or underground movement. Her guards are driven mad by her equanimity and individuality in the face of savage interrogation: “Even her diffident politeness is regarded as provocative. As is her decency. Restraint. Self-control. Humility. . . The guards find her very existence provocative.” Renounced by her parents and rendered persona non grata, “a one-person ghetto,” by the state, her isolation is both liberating and the ultimate gesture of self-sacrifice.
Meanwhile, poet Fabián Severo—the only Uruguayan writing in Portunhol, the language of the Uruguayan frontier with Brazil—revels in an act of presence just as radical and defiant of the mainstream, resisting the state’s attempted erasure of his language. Laura Cesarco Eglin and Jesse Lee Kercheval’s translation sings: “This language of mine sticks out its tongue at the dictionary/ dances a cumbia on top of the maps / and from the school tunic and bow tie / makes a kite / that flies / loose and free through the sky.” Don’t overlook the luminous poems of prolific French and Martinican Creole writer Monchoachi, whom Derek Walcott has credited for “completely renewing our vision of the Creole language.” “The Caribbean could be considered a workshop for the modern world,” he conveys in Eric Fishman’s English translation, “with its deportations, its exterminations, and also its ‘wildly multiple’ side, its ‘ubiquity of voices and sounds.’” READ MORE…
This week’s Translation Tuesday features the work of Mohamed M. Farrag. The prose is short, succinct, and hits like a hammer—much like the vision of masculinity embodied in the story. Enigmatic messages, the codes that construct subjects along certain lines, flow freely between a boy and his grandfather. These messages transport generational models of masculine repression as they are passed down; in just a few lines, Farrag aptly demonstrates the ways in which the social codes that dictate behavior are transferred. However, the end of the story leaves us with a question: can the script of behavior be broken by reflection and release? Or is this too a planned movement, derived from what came before? Regardless, the emotions captured here are delivered with an uncanny availability: the rhythms that the translator pulls from the original present an ordinary scene that makes one feel as if the answer to some pressing, universal question is close at hand. But the true answer is only a choice: to show or to hide.
He sat beside his dying grandfather; a man known for his cruel heart. He’d never seen him cry. Gently, the grandfather caught his grandson’s hand. “Do you know, son, what my father told me when he saw me crying on the day of my mother’s death?”
“No.” The young boy shrugged.
He said, “Men don’t cry, whatever happens.” And then he wiped my tears. “When my wife died your mother was still young. Her death stung me, but I didn’t cry in front of her. I didn’t want her to fall apart. I kept my tears inside.” READ MORE…
It is another month bringing us various gifts in the form of translated literatures, and our editors have selected the finest. Read below to find reviews of a short story collection detailing the various and complex natures of India, a haunting and poignant Swedish novel, unsettling tales from Israel, and a poignantly feminist work from Palestine.
A Kitchen in the Corner of the House by Ambai (C.S. Lakshmi), translated from the Tamil by Lakshmi Holmström, Archipelago Books, 2019
Review by Ben Dreith, Assistant Editor
C.S. Lakshmi, who writes in English and Tamil under the pseudonym Ambai, is a scion of post-revolutionary Indian feminism and women’s studies researcher who was raised and educated in Mumbai, Bangalore, and New Delhi. Of her work, the most recent to appear in English is A Kitchen in the Corner of the House, a mellifluous and courageous work translated by Lakshmi Holström, a dedicated scholar who passed away in 2016. She will be missed, and her efforts, evident in the enduring legacy and themes of A Kitchen in the Corner of the House, may inform the concerns of Indian feminism in the English-speaking world for generations.
The book is a collection of stories, told from multiple voices and perspectives, which centers on the travails and aspirations of women across a broad socio-economic and linguistic spectrum. The voices in A Kitchen in the Corner of the House reflect the varied cultural expectations and norms that simultaneously thrive and jostle for distinction within the Indian nation, which can be too easily regarded as a seamless whole by outside observers. What unites the characters in the stories, though, is a keen sense of subjective solidarity amongst women who are draped in desperation—and hope.
Jokha Alharthi’s Celestial Bodies was awarded the Man Booker International Prize earlier this year, making her the first author from the Arabian Gulf to win the prize. She was also the first Omani author ever to have her novel translated from Arabic into English. In the following essay, writer and anthropologist MK Harb examines how Oman’s overlooked history as an imperial dynasty, and its rapidly changing society are integral to the force of Alharthi’s novel.
The internal monologue of Abdallah is unnerving, and often unsettling. Lost between trauma and nostalgia, he repeatedly reflects on his fractured relationship with his father, a notorious merchant and slave owner. Situated in the balmy village of al-Awafi, Abdallah is one of the many members of an Omani family encountering the upheavals and changes of modernity brought on by the state. To some, Oman is an obscure country with an eccentric Sultan, whilst to others, its green pastures and monsoons represent a luscious geographic rarity in the Arabian Peninsula. Unknown to many is Oman’s long and complex history as an imperial dynasty. Oman’s history is as much African as it is Arab; with Zanzibar as its capital, the Sultanate ruled in East Africa from 1698 until the bloody revolution of 1963. Oman’s rule in East Africa represents a history of vernacular and mercantile economic systems that existed prior to the arrival of modern capitalism, but it also represents a racial history of manumission and slavery. Jokha Alharthi’s award-winning novel, Celestial Bodies, tells this history, unravelling the ghosts of an empire, and the precariousness of modernity in Omani society. READ MORE…
From the town nestled in the peaks of Lebanon, to the recent surge in Hong Kong streets, to the crystal waters of the Occitanie coast, our three literary destinations of the week bring forth an array of Lebanese love stories, reimaginings of home, and the rich culture of Mediterranean poetry. In the words of the great Sufi poet Yunus Emre, “If I told you about a land of love, friend, would you follow me and come?”
Ruba Abughaida, Editor-at-Large, reporting for Lebanon
The mountain town of Bsharri in Lebanon should see an increase in tourism following the Lebanese debut of a musical adapted from Gibran Khalil Gibran’s Broken Wings, published in 1912. Born in Bsharri in 1883, Gibran’s book The Prophet, published in the United States in 1923, is still one of the best-selling books of all time after ninety-six years and 189 consecutive print runs. Showing at Beit El Din Palace, a nineteenth century palace which hosts the annual Beiteddine festival, the musical tells of a tragic love story which takes place during the turn of the century in Beirut.
Closer to sea level, an evening of poetry in Beirut celebrated Lebanese poet Hasan Abdulla. Born in Southern Lebanon, Abdulla was inspired by its natural beauty, and infused his poetry with observations of nature. His work, spanning over forty years, has been translated into English, French, German, Spanish, and Russian.
In the second part of this previous post, Brother Anthony of Taizé continues to celebrate the forgotten thinkers of the early Arab world. Although Renaissance Europe turned its back on Arabic writing, two of Spain’s greatest thinkers, Averroes and Maimonides, had produced invaluable commentaries and philosophies based on the works of Aristotle, whilst Toledo became a literary epicenter for re-translations from Arabic into Latin and Spanish. Read on to find out more.
The golden age of Córdoba did not last long. In 997, the military leader Almanzor captured Santiago and soon became the effective ruler of southern Spain. He ordered the destruction of books related to philosophy and astronomy, which he considered contrary to Islam, leaving only those about medicine and mathematics. After his death in 1002, bands of marauding North African Berbers sacked Córdoba, sparking an exodus of Jews, in particular, to other cities. Later in the century, in 1085, the Christian kingdom of Castile captured the great city of Toledo. The Muslim leaders were forced to turn to the Almoravid dynasty in North Africa for help, likewise composed of fierce Berber warriors. In 1089, the Almoravids took complete control of Islamic Spain. Less than a century later, they were replaced by an even fiercer and more fanatical North African dynasty, the Almohads, who were especially intolerant of Jews and Christians. READ MORE…
Today, early Arabic thinkers are largely overlooked in discussions of the origins of Western philosophy. In this essay (the second part of which will be published tomorrow), Brother Anthony of Taizé brings the focus back to this period of prolific scholarship and translation, and remembers the most influential philosophers and Greek-Arabic translators of the Medieval Islamic world.
In a short story by Jorge Luis Borges, “La busca de Averroes” (1947), we find Averroes (ibn Rushd, 1126-1198), the great Spanish Arabic commentator of Aristotle, at a loss to understand the words “comedy” and “tragedy” he has found in Aristotle’s Poetics, because his own culture has no tradition of theatrical drama. He is given hints by the sight of children playing at being the muezzin in a mosque, as well as by an account of a theatrical performance in China given by a returning traveler, but he can make nothing of them. Borges then intervenes to make this a parable illustrating the impossibility of ever understanding anyone who lives in a radically different time and culture. In reading this story, we are confronted with our own (and Borges’s) inability to write and read the actual words for “tragedy” and “comedy” which Averroes was struggling with. Today’s widespread Western inability to read Arabic, Greek, or even Latin, should be a source of shame, although it doesn’t seem to be. Many of Borges’s readers might already be at a loss to imagine an Arab struggling to understand Aristotle, so unfamiliar the intellectual history of the Muslim world has become. READ MORE…
If you have yet to fully traverse the sensational depths of Asymptote‘s Summer 2019 issue: “Dreams and Reality,” you can step out on the roadmap written by our blog editors, who have refined their selections—with considerable difficulty—to a handful of their favourite pieces. Between an erudite Arabic mystery, non-fiction from Romania’s foremost feminist writer and theorist, and a tumultuous psychological short story which delves into our perception of sanity, this reading list is a doorway into the vast cartography of this issue, unfurling into the rich imagination and profundity of the heights in world literature.
Something about summertime makes me want to read detective fiction, so I was excited to learn that Asymptote’s Summer 2019 issue, released this past Thursday, features a murder mystery. I was even more intrigued when I learned that the story in question, “Culprit Unknown” by Naguib Mahfouz, was originally written in Arabic. Don’t get me wrong—I enjoy Swedish mysteries just as much as you do—but I think we can all agree that the Scandinavians have had a monopoly on detective fiction in translation for far too long.
“Culprit Unknown,” translated by Emily Drumsta, follows Detective Muhsin ʿAbd al-Bari as he tries to solve a series of grisly murders. Muhsin does everything he can, but each killing is a perfect crime: the murderer leaves not a single trace behind, and as the deaths pile up, the tension in the neighborhood becomes unbearable. Besides pacing the story perfectly, Mahfouz infuses “Culprit Unknown” with light humor and unexpected (but welcome) philosophical musings, as in the exchange below:
It would be difficult for even the most hardened of cynics to bemoan the state of literature after having read the news coming from around the globe this week. Our editors report on a stunning international festival of poetry in Transylvania, the determined literary representation of an “unofficial” language in Morocco, and an abundance of musical, literary, and theatrical events taking place under the open skies of Taipei.
Xiao Yue Shan, Assistant Blog Editor, reporting from the Z9Festival in Sibiu, Romania
The forecast called for a 60 percent chance of rain, but the sun was still wispily gathered in the early evening, so rows were laid out in the courtyard and the fifth edition of Z9Festival, the young literature festival based in Sibiu, began.
Founded in 2015 and sponsored by the Lucian Blaga University of Sibiu, the festival gathers poets from nine countries around the world to share their work with the Romanian public; the name can be read as either New Zone or Zone Nine, in an ode to both its focus on writers under forty and its international reach. So it is that in mid-July 2019, writers from the UK, Poland, The Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Italy, China, Russia, and Romania descended upon the picturesque landscape of Sibiu to join one another in a night celebrating poetry, and its inherent ability to dissipate borders.
Wake up where the clouds are far with Asymptote’s Summer 2019 edition—“Dreams and Reality” brings you stunning vistas from 30 countries, including new fiction from Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz, an exclusive interview with Edith Grossman, translator of Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, and never-before-published translations of Nicole Brossard, recent winner of Canada’s Lifetime Griffin Trust Award for Poetry. In our Special Feature on Yiddish writing, published with the generous support from the Yiddish Book Center, you’ll find everything from Isaac Berliner’s dreams of ancient South America to Yermiyahu Ahron Taub’s modern-day America.
In Leonardo Sanhueza’s retelling of intimate life before, during, and after Chile’s Civil War, each poem an unforgettable portrait of a colonist, dreams are harbingers of death. In “A Rainy Tuesday,” Bijan Najdi’s nonlinear journey of grief, on the other hand, dreams are bulwarks against the almost certain demise of missing loved ones. When the veil breaks, the real returns. Internationally acclaimed Korean poet Kim Hyesoon tackles the reality of violence head-on in her latest collection, reviewed by Matt Reeck. For artist Jorge Wellesley, the emptiness of slogans lies exposed in images of rotting, blurred, or blank billboards. In a candid essay, Fausto Alzati Fernández confesses to the rituals of drug addiction, some of which attempt “to grab hold of reality and strip it.”