Al-Ahram Weekly Online   30 March - 5 April 2006
Issue No. 788
Books Supplement
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Arabic narratives galore

Modern Arabic Fiction: An Anthology, Salma Khadra Jayyusi, ed., New York: Columbia University Press, 2005. pp1080

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Clockwise from left: Ghada Samman; Edward al-Kharrat; Salma Khadra Jayyusi; Yahya Haqqi; Emile Habiby; Ghassan Kanafani

Professor Jayyusi -- poet, critic, translator, and editor -- has done it again: another anthology of Arabic literature that puts modern Arabic narratives on the global and academic map. She started in 1978 with a distinguished anthology of Modern Arabic Poetry followed by other anthologies: Literature of Modern Arabia: An Anthology (1988), Modern Palestinian Literature (1992), Anthology of Modern Arabic Drama (with Roger Allen, 1995), and Anthology of Short Arabic Plays (2002) -- not to mention a long series of translations of individual Arabic works and several scholarly and critical works, including The Legacy of Muslim Spain (1992), Human Rights in Arabic Thought (2002) and Jerusalem in Ancient History and Tradition (2003). Not surprisingly, Jayyusi has been said to have done more for diffusing Arabic culture than the 22 Arab ministries of culture put together.

Who is this incredible woman who has managed to do what has eluded entire institutions and ministries? And how did she accomplish such excellent work and convince reputable university presses in the West to publish Arabic literary works in translation? Salma Khadra Jayyusi is Palestinian on her father's side and Lebanese on her mother's side. She had a good education and mastered Arabic and English at a young age; her family was receptive to Arabic and Western literature and arts. Jayyusi is also a gifted poet and in her youth published two impressive collections of poetry. She married a Jordanian diplomat and has accompanied him to different parts of the world including Iraq at the height of its poetic renaissance in the 1950s.

She knew personally such luminaries as Nazik al-Mala'ika and Badr Shakir al-Sayyab. She was educated at the American University of Beirut and later at the University of London (School of Oriental and African Studies), where she obtained her Ph.D. Her dissertation -- now a reference work -- entitled Trends and Movements in Modern Arabic Poetry (two volumes, 1977), which was published in English and later in Arabic. She has taught in the Sudan, Algeria, and the US, and lectured extensively in the rest of the world. Wherever she has gone she has established professional and literary links with scholars and writers. She has also founded two organisations which embody her commitment to making Arabic culture known to the world at large: East- West Nexus and The Project of Translation from Arabic (PROTA).

Jayyusi's philosophy of cultural interaction is to present the face of past and present Arab civilisation as an antidote to media distortions and one-sided viewpoints. Armed with her uncompromising commitment to a progressive Arab culture and to the cause of Palestine, she has set out to highlight the Arab contribution to humanity. Her approach is to include scholars from the West and the Arab world in her edited critical volumes and to insist on quality articles. Likewise, in her anthologies, she argues that only poets can render poetry and only fiction writers can render fiction from another language. Thus she is adamant about having two translators for each work: a scholar and a native speaker from the original to English, revised by a writer in the target language, with her editing the final version to make sure that no stylistic or semantic errors have crept in.

Jayyusi acquainted herself with the literary scene in the US and UK and got to know personally many English-speaking creative writers and convinced them to partake in her many projects of translation. Her scholarly drive and dynamic approach are also manifest in the introductions she has written to her edited works. They tend to be a survey of the field with a happy combination of literary judgment and critical analysis, of appreciation and dissection. Her introductions do not get dated because she avoids critical jargon and literary fads. They also avoid academic dryness by being personal and very much a reflection of her views; her judgments are subjective though not without reasoning.

In her latest anthology, Modern Arabic Fiction, which appeared in summer 2005, Jayyusi has followed her pattern of inviting an Arab scholar and an English-speaking fiction writer to co-translate under her supervision. Each selection is preceded by a bio-bibliographical note on the author. The anthology is conceived in both historical and alphabetical orders. It is divided into three parts: (1) 14 pioneers who are the early practitioners of the modern art of story-telling, (2) short stories by 119 authors, and (3) excerpts from 28 novels.

The pioneers include seven Egyptians (Mahmoud Badawi, 1910-1985; Tawfiq al-Hakim, 1898-1987; Yahya Haqqi, 1905- 1993; Mahmoud Taher Lashin, 1895-1945; Ibrahim 'Abd al-Qadir al-Mazini (1890- 1949); Muhammad al-Muwailihi, 1858-1930; and Mahmoud Taymour, 1894-1973), three Lebanese (Marun 'Abboud, 1886-1962; Mikha'il Nu'aima, 1889-1987; and Jamal Sleem Nuweihed, 1906-1994), and two Iraqis (Dhannoun Ayyoub, 1908-1988 and Ja'far al-Khalili, 1914-1984), one Syrian (Fu'ad al-Shayib, 1911-1970), and one Tunisian 'Ali al-Du'aji, (1909-1949).

The only woman narrative pioneer Jayyusi mentions is Jamal Sleem Nuweihed (though there are others who could also be considered pioneers, including May Ziadeh and Layla Fawwaz). Nuweihed's life spans the twentieth century and covers, in her multiple moves around, several Arab countries. She became a writer despite her lack of formal education. Her husband 'Ajaj Noweihed, a writer and a historian, published a review entitled Al- 'Arab in Jerusalem in the early 1930s, to which she contributed regularly under the pen name of Sawsan. She continued to write fiction and poetry all her life and published three novels. She also wrote a collection of folktales that have been translated as Abu Jmeel's daughter and Other Stories (2002). Interestingly enough, she has written a long autobiographical work that has not yet been published.

Nuweihed's story (translated by May Jayyusi and Christopher Tingley) is entitled "False Teeth" and was written in the 1930s. It combines social critique, as we encounter it for example in the work of Tawfiq al-Hakim and Dhanoun Ayyoub, with the humour of 'Ali al-Du'aji or Ibrahim al-Mazini. It addresses the perennial problem of a young woman being married to an old and rich man while she is in love with a younger one. Reminiscent of Chaucer's "The Merchant's Tale" with the marriage of January, the old knight, to May, the young bride, Nuweihed's short story surprises us by the ending when the young man whom the young woman is in love with turns out to be none other than the nephew of the old man wanting to marry her. The nephew hides the false teeth of his uncle, thus making it impossible for him to go to his engagement party, and then lectures him humorously on conjugal compatibility. The young man, who is a writer, convinces his uncle that he is more fit to marry the young woman than he is, and to everyone's surprise, including the reader's, the uncle agrees. This optimistic ending -- unlikely as it might seem in reality -- draws a moral lesson and criticises social practices that persist in Arab culture today. But even with this highly improbable finale such a dated short story reads well as it is rendered sensitively in English, and it has a timeless element of surprise and humour.

In the selections of short stories and excerpts from novels, Jayyusi covers fiction from 19 Arabic-speaking countries (Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Kuwait, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen). This anthology works as a reference work for writers of Arabic fiction spanning more than a century, from the oldest --Muhammad al-Muwailihi (born 1858) and Jurji Zaidan (born 1861) -- to the youngest -- Muntasir al-Qaffash (born 1964) and Bushra Khalfan (born 1969). This breadth in coverage affords the reader a fictional smorgasbord -- perhaps not enough to know in depth a given writer, but it certainly offers a taste of modern literary narration in the Arab world. The anthology gives us glimpses into rich and varied styles, themes, and concerns that can be read for an overall picture of the cultural profile of a people. But it can also be used as a literary guide, so when a reader wonders if s/he should buy a translated novel by Hoda Barakat or Mohamed Berrada, s/he can first sample them to establish preferences.

Perhaps one of the most challenging tasks for the translation of fiction is the rendering of the tone and dialogue of the original. The two short stories by Yusuf Habashi al-Ashqar and Ibrahim Aslan are good examples of this. In al-Ashqar's short story entitled "The Banquet" (translated by Adnan Haydar and Anthony Thwaite) lyrical prose and symbolic overtones convey the theme of the destructive Lebanese civil war and sectarian strife. Educated at St. Joseph University and at the Lebanese Academy of Fine Arts, al-Ashqar's prose is thick and multi-layered as in the following:

Jiryas put his hands on my shoulders . . . His seventy years glowed in his eyes like seventy candles lit in celebration of his sons' return.

"Every time they return I light the seventy candles. Every time I am born again with them and I dance on the roof for the prodigal who is found."

On the other hand, Ibrahim Aslan, a self- taught man who worked for a long time in a post office, writes novels and short stories in a minimalist style verging on the telegraphic. His short story "In Search of an Address" (translated by Sharif Elmusa and Christopher Tingley) is essentially a dialogue between two men, one of whom recognises the other as an old classmate at a street corner and recalls humorous incidents from their childhood that do not ring a bell with his interlocutor. The dialogue could have been from a Ionesco play. It is similar to what Estragon and Vladimir exchange in Beckett's Waiting for Godot, and presents a vaguely déjà-vu scene for a Cairene reader, so convincing is the exchange (rendered effortlessly in English), as if you are overhearing it at a bus stop in Shoubra:

"I used to sit right behind you, and I saw you."

"Did you see me?"

"Yes. I saw you pouring ink over his backside. And I reported you."

"Did I really do that?"

"Yes. I reported you. We were just kids."

"What did the headmaster do?"

"He must have beaten you."

"Did he beat me?"

"I don't remember."

The absurd dimension to this story is made poignantly in the finale: after such a coincidental encounter and just when the two are going to exchange addresses, one of them sees the bus stopping so he rushes to it without having had the chance to give his address to his old classmate!

Though excerpting from a novel is tricky, Jayyusi succeeds in presenting semi- autonomous sections. Each excerpt is preceded by a short and intelligent summary of the novel. Emile Habiby's novel, The Secret Life of Sa'eed, the Ill-Fated Pessoptimist, for example, which is a real challenge for a translator with its tragi-comic plot, portmanteau words, and intertextual echoes, is translated by Salma Khadra Jayyusi herself and Trevor LeGassick. Subsections in the novel carry long titles in comic reference to the traditional Arabic titles of books and chapters, but also echoing the titles of chapters in Voltaire's Candide, as in the following subtitle: "How Sa'eed Finds Himself in the Midst of an Arabian-Shakespearean Poetry Circle." This excerpt is about the docile and naïve Palestinian protagonist who lives in Israel and tries in all sorts of ways to show his loyalty to the occupiers of his land, yet is imprisoned for a stupid mistake he commits. Calling on his knowledge of Shakespeare to impress his jailers, he is only met with derision:

There was the prison warden himself, mind you, in the flesh -- and he had lots of it -- preceded by his pet bulldog, coming forward to meet us . . . Then he led me into a dark room with no windows or furniture. When he switched on an overhead electric light, I found myself standing in the middle of a circle of jailers, all tall and broad- shouldered. Each one had sleepy eyes, arms at the ready with sleeves rolled up, thick strong legs, and a mouth wearing a smile worse than a frown. They all seemed to have been formed in the same mold . . . I heard the guard who had led me to this nightmarish room tell the thick-thighed jailers, "And he quotes from Shakespeare, too!"

This was the signal for the beginning of a literary competition the likes of which the entire history of the literature of the Arabs since pre-Islamic times has never recorded.

One of them began with the comments, "Quote some Shakespeare for us, you son of a bitch!" Then he gave me a tremendous punch.

Another jailer caught me and said, "Here, take this Caesar!"

Excerpting from Ghada Samman's novel, Nightmares of Beirut, is made easier since it is a fragmented discourse made up of a series of nightmares interweaving reality with surreality, the actual with the fantastic. "Nightmare 22" (translated by Lena Jayyusi and David Wright) opens with a paragraph which the reader is unable to tell if it belongs to the real world of Lebanon circa 1976 or to a dreadful dream -- so nightmarish has reality become:

I saw them lead a young man toward the pavement. His only sin was that he had passed along a road on which a few minutes previously a car holding armed men had stopped. The brother of one of the armed men had been killed, and he was looking for a scapegoat. Who he was was not important, only his religion. He had to be of a different creed.

They dragged him to the pavement. He asked them, "What am I guilty of?" The dead man's brother replied with angry curses. The armed men began to squabble. Do they kill him here or take him with them? Who should kill him? How? One asked. "How would you like to die?" He answered, "I do not want to die!" Another suggested a quick shot in the head and moving off instantly before any other passed by. He replied, "I do not want to die." The bereaved brother insisted that it was his right to kill the young man. The young man said, "I do not want to die."

The leitmotif, "I do not want to die," repeated like a refrain in a swan song, seems strangely like a phrase from the Freudian unconscious. But it also articulates the position of Everyman, of the silent majority often dragged into wars and violence, and in that sense it stands rather for the Jungian collective unconscious.

Jayyusi introduces her anthology with an extensive introduction in which she interweaves literary history, genre analysis, and comparative perspective to situate modern Arabic fiction between the local and the global, the past and the present. She draws attention to a pre-Islamic collection of tales by Wahb ibn al-Munabbih, Kitab al-tijan fi muluk Himyar (The Book of Crowns on the Kings of Himyar) with its rich lore of myths and tales. Then she gives a short account of each fictional genre in Classical Arabic Literature: Pre-Islamic Myths, Heroic Legends, Arabian Romance, Historical Anecdotes, Animal Fables, Picaresque Maqamat, Narrative Epistles, and Philosophical Tales.

She comments on works of considerable length and influence in the history of Arabic fiction, such as Epic Folktales and the Arabian Nights. But despite this rich fictional heritage, Jayyusi points out that the modern form of fiction, which developed in the West, was received by the Arabs as a new form. This view of the novel and the modern short story has had both a positive and a negative effect on the development of Arabic fiction. Ignoring the Arabic fictional heritage, fiction writers in the beginning did not make use of it. However, this also exempted them from time-honoured traditions, allowing them to work freely with the new artistic forms.

The role of translation is underlined by Jayyusi who points out that the early Arabic rendering of European fiction coincided with the upsurge of the Romantic Movement and many of the earliest works of fiction in Arabic by Gibran Khalil Gibran and al-Manfaluti partook in that romantic élan. Jayyusi considers Egypt central to the development of Arabic modern fiction. Not only did Egypt produce the authors of early Arab novels, but it was also home to a literary elite that came from the Levant and settled in Egypt, including Jurji Zaydan, writer of historical novels. This centrality culminates in the works of Naguib Mahfouz, Nobel Laureate for Literature in 1988. However, while Jayyusi acknowledges the centrality of Egypt, she also addresses innovations at the peripheries of the Arab world, such as the fiction of the Mauritanian Moussa Wuld Ibno.

Jayyusi's approach to Arabic fiction is marked by an analysis of its content and technique. In content, she sees fiction as a reflection of the turbulent history of modern Arabs, with hopes and dreams followed by disappointments and breakdowns -- what she calls a sense of the apocalyptic. She points to a few names that stand out as models of certain trends in Arabic fiction: the Saudi 'Abd al-Rahman Munif for his petrofiction depicting how oil has changed the ecology and the culture of the Gulf; the Egyptian Gamal al-Ghitani for his sophisticated use of time -- mythical time in Kitab al-Tajalliyat (Book of Revelations) and historical time in Zayni Barakat ; the Palestinian Ghassan Kanafani for his sense of space and loss of place; the Egyptian Edward al-Kharrat as a modernist and an experimentalist; the Palestinian Ibrahim Nasralla as venturing into postmodernism; and the Iraqis Gha'ib Tu'ma Farman and Fu'ad al-Takarli for depicting the individual struggling against prevailing moeurs. As for the short story, Jayyusi concentrates in her introduction on two figures, the Egyptian Yusuf Idris and the Syrian Zakaria Tamir. Needless to say dozens of others are mentioned, including Ibrahim al-Koni and Radwa Ashour.

Now that Jayyusi has accomplished another magnus opus, a work that will be consulted by many with perhaps very few reading it from cover to cover, it might be worthwhile to think of an abridged anthology, selecting the best and the most varied specimens in the present anthology for a pocket edition, with a shorter introduction and the necessary correction of the typographical errors that have occasionally crept into this work.

Reviewed by Ferial J. Ghazoul

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