Posts filed under 'arabic literature'

What’s New in Translation: September 2019

Looking for what to read next? Our staff share their latest discoveries in new translations.

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.

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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.

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Long Forgotten Stories of Translation: Part Two

Those long-dead translators and scholars deserve to be celebrated for what they were, giants on whose shoulders we sometimes still need to climb...

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…

Intricacies Through Imagination: The Book of Cairo in Review

The Book of Cairo invites us to this very complex city without committing the crime of exoticizing it.

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The Book of Cairo, A City in Short Fiction, edited by Raph Cormack, translated from the Arabic by multiple translators, Comma Press, 2019

The Book of Cairo, A City in Short Fiction, edited by Raph Cormack, is the newest addition to the “Reading the City” series published by Comma Press (Manchester, UK), collecting stories by local authors from cities around the world. Each story in the book (like those of the other books in the series) is translated into English by a different translator, which makes the book even more multi-vocal, introducing readers to not only writers, but also to translators working from a particular language into English, in this case Arabic.

The stories (except for one) were originally published between 2013 and 2018, making them of the present time and place, and giving us access into the current literary scene of Cairo. The authors are all born in the late 1970s and the ’80s, which makes them part of the young, hopeful generation who took part in the Tahrir Square protests, who made the Arab Spring possible, and who imagined a different future for their country. And it is through the diverse, imagined worlds in the present collection that they investigate the present moment of a city mutually rooted in history and moving toward the future.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

Get close up and personal with global literary happenings.

Let language be free! This week, our editors are reporting on a myriad of literary news including the exclusion of Persian/Farsi language services on Amazon Kindle, the vibrant and extensive poetry market in Paris, a Czech book fair with an incredibly diverse setlist, and a poetry festival in São Paolo that thrills in originality. At the root of all these geographically disparate events is one common cause: that literature be accessible, inclusive, and for the greater good. 

Poupeh Missaghi, Editor-at-Large, reporting from New York City

Iranians have faced many ups and downs over the years in their access to international culture and information services, directly or indirectly as a result of sanctions; these have included limitations for publishers wanting to secure copyrights, membership services for journals or websites, access to phone applications, and even postal services for the delivery of goods, including books.

In a recent event, according to Radio Farda, Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing stopped providing Persian/Farsi language services for direct publishing in November 2018. (You can find a list of supported languages here.) This affects many Iranian and Afghan writers and readers who have used the services as a means to publish and access literature free of censorship. Many speculate that this, while Arabic language services are still available, is due to Amazon wanting to avoid any legal penalties related to the latest rounds of severe sanctions imposed on Iran by the U.S.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

Bucharest makes waves and the Man Booker International hits headlines.

News of the Man Booker International winner has made its way around the senses of the literary-minded public around the world, but we are here with a personal take on its winner, and why this unprecedented win has earned its accolades and perhaps could also potentially earn a place on your shelf. Also on our list is the incredibly poetic nation of Romania, who presented a manifold of verse champions for Bucharest’s International Poetry Festival. Reporting from amongst the greats are our editors at the front.

Barbara Halla, Editor-at-Large, covering the Man Booker International 2019

I was many things the night of the Man Booker International announcement, but gracious wasn’t one of them. Before the announcement was made on May 21, I wrote for Asymptote about my thoughts on the longlist and (correctly) predicted that Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi, translated from the Arabic by Marilyn Booth and published by Scottish indie Sandstone Press, would win it. Celestial Bodies represents many firsts in the prize’s history: it is the first book written in Arabic to win the prize, as well as the first book by an Omani author (in fact, Jokha Alharthi is the first female Omani author to ever be translated into English) and with a Scottish press to do so. Although its win was a bit of a surprise to others (being as it was surrounded by books receiving a lot more press and praise), the judges seemed quite taken with it. Talking to Five Books, and even during her announcement, chair of the judges, Bettany Hughes, highlighted one particular line from Celestial Bodies that she believed embodies the spirit of the prize itself: “We get to know ourselves better in new, strange places.”

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Zeinab Hefny’s A Pillow for Your Love: Confronting the Shiite-Sunni Conflict

Hefny boldly punctures Saudi biases with a taboo-shattering love story.

This is the second in our series of essays highlighting women writers from Yemen, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia who have never been translated into English before. One of Asymptote’s core goals is to provide a platform for work from regions generally underrepresented in translation. Yemen, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia have long been marginalized in the realm of translations from Arabic to English. The contributors have chosen to focus on women writers because they face greater hardships in getting published. The latest essay focuses on the firebrand Saudi writer, Zeinab Hefny.

A dominant conflict in Arab society is the one between the Shiite and Sunni sects of Islam. This conflict has led to extreme violence against the Shiites, from political marginalization in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, genocide by Saddam Hussein in Iraq, to confiscation of property, captivity of women and bombing by ISIS. Recently, a military alliance led by Saudi Arabia struck Shiite targets in Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the region, that left hundreds dead and wounded. Despite these atrocities, very few Arab writers have discussed the Shiites’ daily suffering and the violation of their political rights.

However, one who has stood up to condemn this racist sectarianism is the Sunni Saudi writer Zeinab Hefny. She plays an important role as an activist-writer who touches on multiple Saudi taboos—social, sexual, and religious—from the Shiite-Sunni issue to women’s rights.

Zefny’s novel, A Pillow for Your Love (2011), is a worthy addition to the canon of dauntless Arab literature attempting to expose the cultural, political, social and religious crises in Arab society that few Arab writers have confronted out of fear of prosecution. In the novel, Hefny discusses religious anathemas in the Arab community. She highlights the plight of the Shiite sect in the predominantly Sunni Saudi society. READ MORE…

On The Revolutionary is a Hermaphrodite by Yemeni Novelist Mohammed “Al-Gharby” Amran Followed by an Interview with the Author

There is only one voice and it is the voice of violence.

The Yemeni literary scene is replete with examples of fiction that accompany the tragic events Yemen is going through, principally the war, on the one hand, and on the other the desire for social and political change. This phenomenon is clear in many Yemeni fictional works, including novels by Wejdi Al-Ahdal and Nadia Al-Kawkabani, as well as the short stories of Huda Al-Attas, Arwa ‘Abd Uthman, Saleh Ba Amer, and others. Mohammed Al-Gharby Amran in particular is among those who have touched the heart of real life in Yemen, and whose voice has reached the wider Arabic nation.

Mohammed Al-Gharby Amran’s most recent novel, The Revolutionary is a Hermaphrodite, was published by Dar As-Saqi in 2014. Prior to that, he had written two significant works, The Red Quran, published by Dar Riyadh Arreyis in 2010, and Yael or Yael’s Darkness.The former produced strong reactions, especially in Yemen, where the book was banned because of its bold ideas, and the latter received the Tayyeb Saleh Award in 2012. He has also written short story collections, including Bed Sheets[1] (1997), published in Damascus by The Union of Arab Authors, and Black Minaret, published in 2004 by The Union of Yemeni Authors and Writers.

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Huda al-Attas: A Writer Who Speaks for the Women of Yemen

In her stories, Al-Attas documents Arab women’s lives in general and Yemeni women’s lives in particular.

This essay is the first of a series of three which will highlight three women writers from Yemen, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia who never before have been translated into English. The series was catalyzed by Asymptote’s call this past winter for a Special Feature for the Spring Issue dedicated to literature from the countries covered by Trump’s travel ban on certain predominantly Muslim countries. One of Asymptote’s core goals is to provide a platform for work from regions generally underrepresented in translation. Yemen, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia have long been marginalized in the realm of translations from Arabic to English. The contributors have chosen to focus on women writers because they tend to face greater hardships in getting published, particularly in Saudi Arabia.

Yemeni writer and journalist Huda al-Attas, born in 1971, is a pioneer of women’s short-story writing in Yemen and other Arab countries. Al-Attas has been writing for more than two decades. She was born in Hudarmut, in southern Yemen, and was raised in Aden with her brothers by her mother. Her family members are her biggest fans and greatest supporters. As a journalist, she is a regular Yemeni newspaper columnist. Her short stories have been published in Yemen and all over the Arab world.

Al-Attas has a broad fan base, consisting of not only conservative middle-aged literary readers but also a new generation of young, liberal readers. Contrary to stereotypes about the Arab world, Yemeni culture has been hospitable to writers, male and female alike. Interestingly, Al-Attas’s Yemeni audience can be divided into two parts: a liberal, secular audience that desires progressive change and a conservative audience that does not believe in women’s rights and even goes so far as to believe that a woman could not be the author of such daring work.

Well regarded by writers around the Arab world, Al-Attas is known as a liberal advocate of human rights and equality between people. She was well known before the Arab Spring as a bold writer who shed light on religious, social, sexual, and political taboos in a conservative society that shackles both men’s and women’s rights and prevent progress. Her personal bearing is as daring as her literary work: for example, pictures of her not wearing a scarf (a breaking of taboo in her culture) appear frequently in newspapers. She has received awards from many different Arab countries, such as Yemen and UAE. Her collections of short stories include Obsessed Spirit…Obsessed Body (hājisrūḥwahājisjasad, 1995), Because She (li’annaha, 2001), and Lightning Training to Be Light (bariqyatadarrabalada’, 2003). Her work has been translated into many languages. Topics that she addresses include incest, patriarchal ownership of women’s bodies, child brides, child begging, child labor, and khat addiction, to name a few. She explores these topics through innovative literary techniques that are as liberating as her subject matter.

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In Review: The Tongue of Adam by Abdelfattah Kilito

All languages had the same value . . . The plurality of tongues was synonymous with cohesion—diversity with unity.

In the afterword to the book, Abdelfattah Kilito, a Moroccan writer who writes in both French and Arabic, speaks about his obsession with “the fact of language”. And this obsession is exactly what we get a great introduction to in his intriguing new book of essays, The Tongue of Adam (New Directions, 2016, tr. Robyn Creswell).

The book is divided into several chapters: “Babblings,” “Babels,” “A Babelian Eden,” “The Oldest Poem in the World,” “Poet or Prophet?” “The Oblivion of Adam,” “Poetic Destiny,” and the afterword entitled “That’s . . . nice.” In these chapters, he takes us on an exploration into our origins of language, multilingualism, poetry, history, religion, myth, translation, and much more, consulting ancient Arabic sources throughout.

In “Babblings”, Kilito writes, “No one bothers to ask about the tongue of Adam anymore. It’s a naïve question, vaguely embarrassing and irksome, like questions posed by children, which can only be answered rather stupidly. But for the ancients this question was serious and consequential. To answer it meant to take a stand”.  So that is where he begins: he asks about the tongue (the language and the organ) and discusses what the ancients thought about the original human language, approaching these questions with an attitude that is serious and playful at the same time.

The inquiry into humanity’s original language, Kilito informs us, can arise only “when multiple languages are found in a state of competition or rivalry. Every inquiry into the tongue of Adam hopes to uncover a beginning”—to identify the one and only language of origin—but such inquiries also point toward the one who asks the question: Why does my language differ from that of others? How can we explain the plurality of languages?” These are post-Babelian inquiries, implying a rupture between communities.

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What’s New in Translation? October 2016

Asymptote reviews some of the best new books translated from the Arabic, Korean, and Spanish.

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The Ninety-Ninth Floor, by Fawaz Elhassan, tr. Michelle Hartman. Interlink Publishing.

Review: Saba Ahmed, Social Media Manager, UK

Shortlisted last year for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, The Ninety-Ninth Floor is Jana Fawaz Elhassan’s third book: an ambitious, multi-voiced novel, spanning the topographies of the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in 1980s Beirut, and New York in the New Millennium. It is also the first of Elhassan’s works to be translated, by Michelle Hartman, from the Arabic into English.

The plot centers around Maj’d, a successful video-game designer whose life among the dizzying skyscrapers of Manhattan, and the subterranean depths of its subway system, bears a haunting resemblance to the cramped, vertical heights of the refugee camps he has fled where “garbage piled up in alleyways”. Palestine, reflects Maj’d, is “a land that inhabits me that I have never stepped foot on”. It occupies his deepest memories, the walls of the camp where the displaced mark the distance from imagined homelands, and is framed—in the present-day narrative—as a map in Maj’d’s apartment in New York. It is an imagined space where Maj’d’s father obstinately believes his dead wife and Maj’d’s mother is waiting for them with their unborn child.

The spatial dimensions of the novel mirror this hyper-reality. The text is littered with a cast of characters who are attempting to navigate life in the wake of war and political trauma. Consequently, the plot is distended by a lack of closure, permeated with repetitive strains of absence and loss. Maj’d’s relationship with Hilda, a dancer who is also trying to build her life anew, away from her Orthodox Christian family in Lebanon, becomes a battle-space for negotiating distances and originary points from which to examine notions of identity, belonging, and worth. Is the love they share true and authentic, or is there a more complex conflation of the female body and nationhood at play here?

There are certainly echoes of recent political fiction from the Middle East in The Ninety-Ninth Floor, such as of the spare, Kafkaesque political allegory The Silence and the Roar by Syrian writer Nihad Sirees. Yet, Elhassan is less interested in form, and more invested in dissecting the emotional vicissitudes of love. There is a certain sagginess to the novel which gestures to the so-called ninety-nine floors or levels of the book. When Hilda returns to Lebanon, to the home she has left behind, she thinks back to the home she has created with Maj’d. “Perhaps,” she considers, “I also came back to occupy this memory, to tell it that we can arrive at some kind of settlement: to expand into all places and be done with our enmity toward our roots”. It is hard not to read these words without a degree of skepticism, to wonder whether this resolution papers over the allegorical implications of difference and attachment. But perhaps it is more fitting to hear these closing lines echo like the one-note sonic beeps of an Atari or PlayStation video game, like the kind designed by Maj’d. In this simulated fantasy, Elhassan suggests, love is creative and imaginative work in a world where our collective national consciousness consigns us to love and live in very specific ways.

 

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A Greater Music, by Bae Suah, tr. Deborah Smith. Open Letter Books.

Review: Theophilus Kwek, Chief Executive Assistant, UK/Singapore

It is perhaps inevitable that Deborah Smith’s new translation of Bae Suah’s novel A Greater Music—forthcoming this October from Open Letter Books—will be compared to her recent prizewinning translations of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian and Human Acts, both of which are suffused with Han’s unique voice and vision. But Bae is a compelling, inventive, and significant author in her own right, and Smith’s ability to match these qualities with a stylish and highly readable translation leaves no doubt about her contribution to the growing canon of Korean literature available in English.

A Greater Music, which records the experiences of a young Korean narrator’s relocation to Berlin through her relationships with Joachim, her boyfriend, and M, her first German language teacher, draws at least in part from its author’s own journey. Bae Suah, a former civil servant with a degree in Chemistry who made her literary debut in 1988, lived in Germany for 11 months in 2001, learning the language there. Though she has since moved back to Seoul, she has also previously translated various works by Sebald and Kafka into Korean.

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A Dispatch from the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair

"Languages are not islands. Relationships between languages are necessary for one another’s growth."

Although it may not yet have the statistics or the industry renown of the Frankfurt or London book fairs, each year the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair attracts writers, readers, and book folk from across the world, from wherever Arabic is spoken, and then some. The event was held this year for the 26th time—not bad for a country that’s only 44 years old—and boasted a record number of exhibitors (1,260), as well as 500 cultural initiatives, 600 authors, 20 artists, and a handful of 3 star Michelin chefs. This year booksellers from 63 countries set up their stalls in the ADNEC convention center, in the capital of the United Arab Emirates, which is itself emerging as an important location for conversation and cultural exchange. For Lebanese publishers and Sudanese translators, for Indian illustrators and Nigerian publicists, the Abu Dhabi Book Fair provides a place to meet in the middle.

I spent the better part of a week wandering through the massive convention hall, who’s striking resemblance to an airport reminded me just how much, and how rapidly, this city is redirecting flight paths and avenues of discussion and innovation. I was able to navigate by flipping between my four overlapping program guides, and weaving through the rows and rows of Arabic books—contemporary, mass market, antique, translated, children’s, cooking, coloring. Fortunately, the hall was never too crowded; the only occasional traffic came from groups of children wheeling suitcase-shaped book carts, courtesy of the event, that rivaled them in size.  READ MORE…

In Review: Ali and His Russian Mother by Alexandra Chreiteh

"Can you be loyal to your homeland and religion at the same time, even if they are at loggerheads in the grand scheme of things?"

As an avid fan of Alexandra Chreiteh’s first translated work in English, Always Coca-Cola, I couldn’t wait to dive into her latest effort, Ali and His Russian Mother (similarly translated by Michelle Hartman). While Always Coca-Cola possesses a dynamic, jump-off-the-page narrative, I found Ali and His Russian Mother to be quite the opposite, leaving me rather deflated.

The setting is July 2006. Israel has just declared war on Lebanon while our unnamed female protagonist (let’s call her “X”) is out for sushi. Over the course of the next three-some days, the reader is towed along as X is evacuated along with other Russian citizens to safety. READ MORE…

In Review: Ebola ’76 by Amir Tag Elsir

Sawad Hussain reviews a book with a spooky streak of prescience.

Ebola ’76, by Sudanese novelist Amir Tag Elsir (and exquisitely translated by Charis Bredin and Emily Danby) is a fictionalized account of the first historically documented Ebola virus outbreak that took place in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and South Sudan. Published in April of this year, it was undeniably a shrewd choice by Darf Publishers to release it now: the original Arabic edition was sent to the presses back in 2012, prior to the major West African outbreak. As such, one would be hard-pressed to argue that they were not immediately drawn to it by the title. READ MORE…

Arab Literature, In Review: “The Bride of Amman” by Fadi Zaghmout

Sawad Hussain reviews a Jordanian LGBT runaway bestseller, finally available in English translation

Fadi Zaghmout’s The Bride of Amman (translated into English by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp) is a bold, charged novel detailing the struggle Jordanians face in abiding societal strictures on sexual orientation and gender identity. The taboo topics explored in the novel–including homosexuality, sexual abuse within tight-knit families, sexual harassment in the workplace, extramarital liaisons and interreligious marriage–have rendered the novel quite controversial in the Arab world, with readers either wildly celebrating or denigrating the novel for its “unrealistic” portrayals of Jordanian society.

If we are talking strictly about content, then I belong to the former category. The uninhibited manner in which Zaghmout addresses such realities as living as a homosexual man in a modern, predominantly Muslim community is fresh, engaging, and educational (even for someone who considers herself well-versed in LGBT literature).

It is easy for an author to fall into didactic narration when dealing with such topics. But The Bride of Amman escapes this trap: here is a novel I would encourage both old and young to read simply for its piercing insight into the life of an Arab man—who happens to be both homosexual and a practicing Muslim. This is a story told with such probity that it could be anyone’s. READ MORE…