Al-Ahram Weekly Online   3 - 9 June 2004
Issue No. 693
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

A post-millennial Iliad

Back at the Supreme Council of Culture Youssef Rakha finds Homer livelier than most

Never mind that Ahmed Etman's new translation of The Iliad is unaffordably priced at LE250. Its appearance on the eve of the Supreme Council of Culture's conference on Translation and Cultural Interaction (29 May-1 June) lends credibility to the event's high-profile round table, " The Iliad through the Ages". With the Arab world the guest of honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair in October, the Iliad colloquium provided a safe haven for scholars like Mostafa El-Abbadi and Ahmed Abu Zeid from the urgent issue of Arab cultural representation, allowing them to hold forth in a relatively airtight environment.

And hold forth they did, with Etman's "Suggestions for Dialogue" illuminating the framework in which he worked and, to a lesser extent, encompassing the proceedings. Etman, whose busy presence in the corridors allowed for little conversation, asked about the role of Egypt and other civilisations of the near and Middle East in the creation of The Iliad and The Odyssey, a question that figures in, among other papers, El-Abbaddi's "The Myth of the Island of Pharos in Homer's Odyssey and its Echoes in Ancient Greek Literature."

Pharos being the god Proteus's resting place of choice, its mention in The Odyssey paved the way for authors like Herodotus, and eventually Euripides, not only to interpret Helena's stay under the protection of Egypt's Pharaoh (an aspect of the story with which Homer does not explicitly deal), but to form a view of Egypt and comment on the peculiarities of Egyptians.

"Finally the island of Pharos is mentioned in the biography of Alexander the Great," El- Abbadi writes, "in the folds of the story about the god Amon's revelation to him in Siwa -- that it was the god who inspired him to found Alexandria near that island -- a scene that was forced on the biography of Alexander and drawn from the religious and political heritage of ancient Egypt."

Mohamed El-Sayed Abdel-Ghani's "Egypt in Homer" also tackles Homer's own references to Egypt, evaluating the statements and their implications against historical fact.

Abdel-Hamid Hawwas picks up a somewhat more interesting strand of Etman's discourse, concerning the oral sources of The Iliad and The Odyssey. Complaining of the scholar's painful obsession with "grammar, syntax and metre", the latter compares reading a static text in an ancient language with the more intense pleasure of listening to wandering bards who, singing of the Greeks' victory at Troy, provided Homer with his material. Even those who read the epics in the original are so far removed from the dynamic spirit in which they were conceived, Etman implies, that the pleasures they provide are considerably lessened -- something that affects those reading them in translation, he says, even more.

In line with this argument, Hawwas proceeds from the claim that, in common with The Iliad and The Odyssey and other epics of the world, the major Arab epics should be approached as dynamic oral traditions rather than unvarying tomes. Of the six that survive, he adds, the famous epic of Beni Hilal continues to be presented orally to the accompaniment of music. And it is in the mechanisms of its presentation as performance that a paradigm for all epics should be sought. The implication is that, aside from the importance of textual and literary analysis, Homer will never be fully understood until such a paradigm is applied to his work.

Of all of Etman's propositions, however, it is the history of Homer in Arabic and the problems of translation that remain most relevant. Accompanying the new translation, the Supreme Council of Culture has published a paperback edition of the most popular translation of the two epics to date, Soliman El-Bostani's 1904 verse rendition.

It was this book, Etman points out, that lay the foundations of Greek and Latin studies in the Arab world, appearing some 21 years before Taha Hussein established the first classics department within an Egyptian university. "It is the right of these pioneering generations that we should resume their journey," Etman writes, "even transcending their achievement, without failing to acknowledge them." The most significant factor in translating, he explains, is lack of familiarity with the context in which the text was produced -- the society and culture of the ancient Greeks. The task is complicated even further by Homer's own references to events and figures of the past as if they were of the present.

"And the strange thing about Homer," Etman concludes, "is that any modern person reading the two epics [in the original] feels as if their author was addressing him and dealing with his issues," so universal and penetrating is their appeal.

His own prose translation, Etman told the Weekly, follows three basic tenets: "to remain faithful to the original text, to give an accurate picture of Homer's art and to produce a readable book. To translate it in verse," he went on, "would have undermined precision." For the classicist "no great poet can exist without some degree of familiarity with Homer. Or Shakespeare," he adds as an afterthought.

" The Iliad and The Odyssey are the two greatest epics to appear in the history of humanity, and they gave Greek authors and thinkers all their cues. Without Homer there could have been no such thing as ancient Greek culture, and without the Greeks there could have been neither Romans nor subsequent generations of European literature. So when you have a thing of such immense value and such eternal beauty, it seems pointless to ask about its relevance to the present...

"There is evidence that the Arabs knew of Homer -- and a very good reason they never translated him in full. Homer is all mythology, his numerous divinities alone would have been all too obviously incompatible with the Muslim creed. Early Arab authors were too concerned with religion to consider promoting such mythology, however familiar they might have been with Homer and however much they might have admired him."

Many of the papers submitted at the conference were devoted to specific aspects of the question of translation and the factors by which it is affected, like contemporary assumptions about the society and culture in which the two epics were produced or -- rather more significantly, at some level -- the conditions of a literary tradition in which Homer was not allowed to appear until the turn of the 20th century.

In "Homer in Arabic Literature" Aleya Hanafi underlined the question with exemplary conciseness. "No older culture glorified Greek civilisation as much as Muslim culture. Yet it is no longer a secret that that cultural legacy is integrated and interactive: it doesn't matter who bequeaths to who; what matters is the essence of the exchange... The Greek influence on Arab culture is far more clearly pronounced in the natural sciences [than] in Arabic literature... And the question here is: is it possible to translate systems [of thought], creeds, principles... Is it possible to transmit or translate the Greeks' literary heritage to Arabic literature... And by extension what place does Homer in reality occupy in the Arabic canon, assuming he occupies some such place?"

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