Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
13 - 19 January 2000
Issue No. 464
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Books Monthly supplement Antara

The barber of Baghdad
Ard Al-Sawad (Land of Darkness), a novel in three volumes, Abdel-Rahman Mounif, Beirut and Casablanca: Al-Mou'assassa Al-Arabiya Lildirasta wal-Nashr (Beirut), Al-Markaz Al-Thaqafi Al-Arabi Lil-Nashr wal-Tawzi (Casablanca) 1999.

Fiction and reality
Abdel-Rahman Mounif

Chinese monuments and miracles
Al-Seen: Mo'jizat Nihayat Al-Qarn Al-Ishreen (China: Miracle of the End of the 20th Century ), Ibrahim Nafie, Cairo: Al-Ahram Centre for Translation and Publishing 1999. pp200

Deep roots, shallow soil
Landmarks in the History of the Communist Party of the Sudan in the half century 1946 - 1996, Mohamed Said al-Qaddal, Beirut: Dar Al-Farabi, 1999. pp310

Cinematic maladies
Al-Cinema Al-Arabiya Al-Mo'assira (Contemporary Arab Cinema),Samir Farid, Cairo: The Supreme Council for Culture publications,1998. pp260

Horses in the desert night
Night & Horses & the Desert, An Anthology of Classical Arabic Literature, Robert Irwin, London: Allen Lane, the Penguin Press. pp462

Heritage in the balance
The Arabic Literary Heritage: the Development of its Genres and Criticism, Roger Allen, Cambridge University Press, 1998. pp437

Summer torments
Azhar al-Shams (Flowers of the Sun),Youssef Rakha, Cairo: Sharqiat Publishing House, 1999. pp143

Hill of evil counsel Tal Al-Hawa ,Youssef Abu Raya, Cairo: Al-Hilal Novels, 1999. pp146

Century, conceived and edited by Bruce Bernard, London: Phaidon Press, 1999. pp1120 --see caption--

To the editor
At a glance
A shorthand guide to the month compiled by Mahmoud El-Wardani

* Al-Faylaq (The Corps), Amin Ezzeddin, Cairo: Fustat Publishing House, 1999. pp174
* Ana Baqqa wa Adel Hammouda (Adel Hammouda and Me), Ahmed Fouad Negm, Cairo: Zeinab Publishing House, 2000. pp108
* Jamal Eddin Al-Afghani, El-Sayed Youssef,Cairo: General Egyptian Book Organisation, 1999. pp255
* Masirat Hayati Hatta 1964 (The Course of My Life to 1964), Mohamed Youssef El-Guindi, Cairo: Organisation for Cultural Palaces, 1999. pp208
* Al-Mohammashoun wa Al-Siyasa fi Misr (The Marginalised and Politics in Egypt), Amani Massoud El-Heddini, Cairo: Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, 1999. pp302
* Al-Kotob: Wughat Nazar (Books: Viewpoints), monthly magazine, issue no. 12, January 2000, Cairo: The Egyptian Company for Arab and International Publication
* Al-Hilal, monthly magazine, January 1999, Cairo: Al-Hilal Publishing House
* Al-Arabi, monthly magazine, issue no. 494, January 2000, Kuwait: Ministry of Information
* Sotour (Lines), monthly magazine, issue no. 39, December 1999, Cairo: Sotour Publications
* Al-Osour Al-Jadida (New Eras), monthly magazine, issue no. 3, 2000, Cairo: Sinai Publishing House
* Adab wa Naqd (Literature and Criticism), monthly literary magazine, issue no. 172, December 1999, Cairo: Progressive Nationalist Unionist Party publications

To see other book supplements go to the ARCHIVES index. 


Illustrations courtesy of International Commitee of the Red Cross
"Folk drawings and tales", Cairo, 1996

Night & Horses & the Desert, An Anthology of Classical Arabic Literature, Robert Irwin, London: Allen Lane, the Penguin Press. pp462

Horses in the desert night

Night and Horses and the DesertThis substantial book is a cross between an anthology of translations from classical Arabic literature and an update of say Nicholson's 'Literary History of the Arabs'. In fact, the compiler of this anthology, though acknowledging how valuable Nicholson's book has been, is critical of him on several counts, including his not having given 'so much as a mention of Tawhidi or Tanukhi'. Nicholson's book, he seems to forget, came out close to a century ago and Nicholson himself was a pioneer in the field of Arabic studies.

Robert Irwin both entertains and instructs, and one's enjoyment of the many generous examples of poetry and prose is greatly increased by the informative glosses and extensive background information that are provided and without which much of the material would be less accessible.

The first chapter is entitled "Pagan Poets". The writer stresses the importance of poetry in the age of the Jahiliyya, the period before the coming of Islam, and quotes historian Ibn Khaldun's words: 'The Arabs did not know anything except poetry, because at that time they practised no science and knew no craft'. The poets of the nomads of the Arabian peninsula were the spokesmen for their tribe and their important role was to celebrate the daring deeds of their particular tribe in the feuds that were an everyday event.

The compiler deals at some length with the most well-known of the Jahili poets, Imru' l-Qais, and gives the translation by Arberry of his most famous ode. The translation is both complete and accurate and, despite these restrictions, reads remarkably well. He also, for purposes of comparison, provides us with part of a more 'modern' rendering made by Herbert Howarth and Ibrahim Shukrallah from their anthology "Images from the Arab World".

All the extracts from the Qur'an are from Arberry's version which Robert Irwin describes as 'the most poetic of attempts to present the Qur'an in English'. The Qur'an, being the actual word of God, is of course regarded as untranslatable and, strictly speaking, not to be subjected to translation at all. The renderings that are preferred in the Muslim world are those of Marmaduke Pickthall and of Mohamed Asad, not only because the translators were both converts to Islam but because of their attention to accuracy, regarding that as the chief criterion to be observed. Both these latter renderings provide the original text printed alongside the translation. Asad's translation, entitled 'The Message of the Qur'an', is particularly valuable because of its copious explanatory notes. No examples are given from either of these two translations and no mention is made of them in the bibliography. Arberry certainly made his translation more accessible to western readers by laying it out as though it were poetry, and his translation of the 'Light' verse gives some taste of the beauty of the original:

God is the Light of the heavens and the earth; the likeness of His Light is as a niche wherein is a lamp (the lamp in a glass, the glass as it were a glittering star) kindled from a Blessed Tree, an olive that is neither of the East, nor of the West whose oil wellnigh would shine, even if no fire touched it; Light upon Light; (God guides to His Light whom He will.) (And God strikes similitudes for men, and God has knowledge of everything.)

While Robert Irwin states that the Qur'an was to act as a guide for Muslims in the conduct of their lives and that its prescriptions and proscriptions were supplemented by Prophetic Hadith, he has little to say about the vast and interesting corpus of Hadith literature. Certainly examples of the eloquence of the Prophet's Traditions should have found a place in this anthology.

The third of the seven chapters into which the book is divided is entitled " Court Culture". Here perhaps the most interesting item is a fine translation of the much anthologized address of the brutal governor of Iraq, Al-Hajjaj ibn Yusuf. Having come to Kufa to quell a rebellion, he went to the mosque veiled. Only when he had ascended the pulpit did he remove the veil. The speech, of which I quote only part, must have sent shivers down the backs of his audience!

"I am he that scattereth the darkness and climbeth the heights:

As I lift the turban from my face, ye shall know me!

O people of al-Kufah! I see before me heads ripe for the harvest and the reaper; and verily I am the man to do it. Already I see the blood between the turbans and the beards.

The Prince of the True Believers has spread before him the arrows of his quiver and found in me the cruellest of all arrows...."

Under a chapter entitled "Widening Horizons", the author deals at some length with the book of animal fables 'Kalila wa Dimna". Though taken from an Indian original, al-Muqaffa' produced a book that became one of the classics of Arabic prose. No less a writer than Jahiz (the Dr. Johnson of the Arabs) called the book 'the treasure chest of wisdom" and it continues till today to be admired for its elegance of style. It is surprising that no recent translation of this masterpiece has been made though the translation of 1819, which is quoted extensively, reads well enough.

Jahiz himself is given adequate attention. He has, rightly, a reputation for writing in a difficult style and with a range of vocabulary that is beyond the reach of most of today's readers. It is a pity that space does not permit me to quote from his essay, to be found in "Kitab al-Hayawan", on the advantages of making friends with books. Extracts are also given from Jahiz's "Kitab al-Bukhala" (The Book of Misers), a translation of which had been completed by the late Professor Serjeant just before his death.

Though the title of the present book is taken from al-Mutanabbi's most celebrated line ('I am known to night and horses and the desert, to sword and lance, to parchment and pen'),little of his poetry in translation is given. Perhaps translators have not accorded him the attention he deserves. Robert Irwin says of him that he was 'perhaps the greatest poet of his age'. However, in the estimation of many Arab scholars he is ranked as the finest Arab poet of all time.

A poet who is perhaps more highly thought of among western Arabists than in the Arab world itself is al-Ma'arri. The personal circumstances of his blindness, his pessimistic outlook on life -- the line of verse "This my father committed against me and I committed it against no one" was written on his gravestone, though it is not given in the present book -- his fondness for animals that caused him to become a vegetarian and his questioning approach to religion make of him an unusual individual in the society in which he lived.

The sixth chapter of the book is entitled "The Lost Kingdoms of the Arabs: Andalusia". Among other writers, Ibn Hazm is treated at some length, in particular his classic work on romantic love "The Ring of the Dove" which is said to have influenced the Provencal troubadour movement and the whole romantic movement in literature. Its English translation makes for pleasant reading.

The compiler of the book under review has shown his admiration for 'The Thousand and One Nights' by writing a highly entertaining book about it; it is not surprising therefore that he has dealt with it here at some length. He gives in full the story of Judar, occupying as it does some 30 pages. It is a finely crafted story and shows how it is that the West has seen in The Arabian Nights the masterpiece that it is, despite the reservations of many Arab scholars.

In the Introduction to his book, Robert Irwin says that he has dispensed with diacriticals 'which in more academic texts are used to distinguish between long and short vowels and between hard and soft consonants'. The present book is surely 'academic' enough to require such distinguishing marks. At present, therefore, in the title of the famous work of belles-lettres al-'Iqd al-Farid (The Unique Necklace), the word 'Farid' looks no different from that of the name of the great Egyptian poet Ibn al-Farid; both the scholar and the ordinary reader has the right to such guidance as there is about the pronunciation of Arabic in transliteration. It could well be that the publisher was anxious to avoid the finicky business of supplying such marks. Not surprisingly, various mistakes have crept in: al-Ghazzali's great work is referred to as Ihya' al-'Ulum al-Din (a grammatical impossibility), the Age of Decadence is given as 'Asr al-Intihat instead of 'Inhitat' etc.

A final word about transliteration: right at the end of the book the author mentions three modern novelists and writes the names as Naguib Mahfouz, Gamal al-Ghitaniy and Tayyib Salih. Why, one asks, should Tayeb Salih, who has chosen to spell his name in this way in English, be turned into Tayyib, which is neither the spelling he has chosen for himself nor yet the correct transliteration, which should be al-Tayyib. Also, why should a 'y' be added to al-Ghitani's name? Only Naguib Mahfouz remains 'uncorrected'.

Reviwed by Denys Johnson-Davies

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