Monday,18 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1358, (24 August - 6 September 2017)
Monday,18 December, 2017
Issue 1358, (24 August - 6 September 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Tales of complaint and erudition

Two recent translations provide contrasting reports of mediaeval Cairo, writes David Tresilian

Tales of complaint and erudition

When the British orientalist Robert Irwin compiled his Penguin Anthology of Classical Arabic Literature a dozen or so years ago, presenting extracts from the literature of the mediaeval Arab world, he noted ruefully in his introduction that any such undertaking was likely to be marked by “serious errors of omission and emphasis” since it would have to depend on what was available in English translation and “had been read in European libraries”.

How things have changed since then. Mainstream publishers have begun to sponsor modern English-language translations of classical Arabic texts, flushing them out of their academic ghetto, and there is at least one ongoing series of newly commissioned translations aimed at a general as well as an academic audience. 

While there is still no real equivalent to the Loeb Library of translations of the Greek and Latin classics and still less of the British Penguin and Oxford University Press classical translations series, there are signs that English-speaking readers wanting to read classical Arabic literature will not in future have to live near a major research library in order to dig up often dusty academic translations or read the texts in French. In the past many more Arabic texts have been more readily available in French or German translation.

US academic Elias Muhanna’s recent translation of the mediaeval Egyptian polymath Shihab Al-Din Al-Nuwayri’s Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition (Nihayat Al-Erab fi Funun Al-Adab) might be taken as an example. While Muhanna has a properly encyclopaedic knowledge of Al-Nuwayri (1279-1333 CE) and his “compendium of knowledge” of which his translation reproduces only a part, in publishing his modern English version of it he was not aiming to produce an academic tome. 

As Muhanna says in his introduction, the aim was to produce a readable one-volume “anthology” of Al-Nuwayri’s 33-volume work (in the modern edition) for the general reader who may not have any prior knowledge of the period in which the book was written or of Arabic. The book also appears in the Penguin Classics series of works of world literature, and Muhanna has presented his translation like the translations of the Greek and Latin classics in the series, with an extensive introduction and explanatory notes.

Few Western readers are likely to approach Al-Nuwayri with anything like the kind of background knowledge they might bring to a modern translation of, for example, the Roman authors Suetonius or Cicero, but there seems no reason why Al-Nuwayri’s vast compendium of useful, useless and curious knowledge should remain the province of scholars alone. 

Presumably everyone knows something about Julius Caesar and is familiar with at least some of the grisly exploits attributed to Nero, meaning that the modern translator of Suetonius’s lives of the Twelve Caesars does not have to start quite at zero when introducing that text to modern readers. Fewer western readers are likely to be familiar with the figures quoted or referred to in Al-Nuwayri’s book (though there is a discussion of Adam and Eve), and this means that Muhanna has had to provide an extensive glossary of proper names as well as extensive notes.

On the whole, though, this is a reader-friendly translation that keeps the scholarly apparatus to a minimum. Perhaps it even gains from its occasional incomprehensibility, since this echoes the author’s design. Muhanna says that Al-Nuwayri, a bureaucrat in Mameluke Egypt, “grew tired of his duties in the Empire’s financial administration and decided to devote his life to the composition of a massive compendium of knowledge,” using the vast resources of the Cairo of his time, with its many schools and libraries, in order to do so.

But this is a very strange compendium indeed, resembling (as Muhanna says at one point) the famously eccentric encyclopaedia dreamt up by the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges that used bizarre and unfamiliar classificatory schemes to organise human knowledge. Muhanna says of Al-Nuwayri that “he brought to his task the taxonomic spirit of the government clerk… seeking to domesticate his material through his zeal for classification.” 

What may strike the modern reader is the apparently random character of the material included. The second section of the book, on the “human being”, contains miscellaneous entries on subjects including “physiology, genealogy, poetry, women, music, wine, amusements and pastimes, political rule and chancery affairs,” for example. But why stop there?

“The subchapter on the bitter orange falls in the first chapter on fruits with an inedible peel, part of the second section on trees, in book four On Plants.” There is something odd about putting oranges in the same category as nuts and bananas on the grounds that all three have “inedible peel”, when to modern eyes Al-Nuwayri may have missed the just as important differences between them. 


Tales of complaint and erudition

AN EMBITTERED CLERK: US academic Luke Yarbrough’s translation of the Egyptian bureaucrat Othman Ibn Ibrahim Al-Nabulusi’s Sword of Ambition (tajrih sayf al-himmah li-stikhraj ma fi dhimmat al-dhimmah), which appears in the New York University-Abu Dhabi series of Arabic texts in English translation, is a very different work.

While Muhanna has attempted to produce a translation for the general reader, keeping scholarship at bay, Yarbrough’s brief, imposed by the NYU series, has been to establish an authoritative Arabic text of Ibn Al-Nabulusi’s (d. 1263 CE) book and provide a facing English translation. Earlier translations in the same series have appeared in multiple versions, the scholarly Arabic-English version appearing first, followed by a stripped-down English-language version for a wider readership.

However, while Yarbrough’s translation may look very different from Muhanna’s, which remains far easier to read — for some reason the NYU books are set in what looks like 10-point type — in fact he has produced a very reader-friendly modern English version of this mediaeval Arabic text, an extended exercise in polemic, most of it directed at Christians. “For the predominant linguistic middle ground, I have aimed at what seemed to me an economical English equivalent to Ibn Al-Nabulusi’s proficient but unadorned Arabic style,” Yarbrough says, noting that the text’s “fluctuating tenor” licences the adoption of “a vernacular English voice in which contractions and folk idioms are at home.”

All this works well, and Yarbrough’s informative introduction usefully situates the book both in its own time and in terms of the later uses that have been made of it. Ibn Al-Nabulusi seems to have been writing at least in part to entertain, though Yarbrough describes his book’s odd mix of history, law, self-exculpation and polemic as representative of the “established Arabic literature of advice literature” aimed at the sultan himself. 

The book was rediscovered only in 1960, and this is its first full translation into any language. Various scholars have sought to use it as a source of evidence on communal relations in 13th-century Egypt, on “chiliastic expectations surrounding the Fatimid caliph Al-Hakim,” and as a source of telling anecdote, Yarbrough comments.

Towards the end of the book, Ibn Al-Nabulusi steps back from his attacks on Egypt’s Copts to explain his own situation. “I have been appointed overseer in major offices,” he says, serving in “central administrative affairs for 20 years… In the course of these appointments I sold the possessions in Syria that I had inherited from my father, possessions whose value came to five thousand gold coins… I became burdened by a family that grew to include 52 persons: children, grandchildren, and wives. We scrape by on the income from an endowment my father made for us, God show him mercy. Most of it is in ruins, since we lack the means to maintain it.”

How irritating, then, to be lorded over by the Copts, whose “excessive wealth… although they serve in offices of little consequence and have no ability to speak of, they somehow acquire [with] splendid possessions, adornment, haughtiness, and accoutrement entirely out of proportion to their pay.” 

While Yarbrough makes efforts in his introduction to set the text in the context of changes in late Ayoubid administration and religious tensions from the European Crusades, his conclusion is that Ibn Al-Nabulusi’s personal disappointments explain his extraordinary rancour. “The author’s patent desperation and autobiographical candour make it clear that the project was not suggested to him by abstract reflection alone, but instead was inspired by self-interested motives,” he says.

Yarbrough’s fine translation of Sword of Ambition allows the contemporary English-speaking reader to hear the full range of its author’s wheedling, monomaniacal voice. While Muhanna’s anthology of extracts from Al-Nuwayri’s Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition also makes concessions to contemporary English usage, his translation captures something of the author’s linguistic extravagance. 

Writing of lions, for example, in the section of his encyclopaedia on “carnivorous animals,” Al-Nuwayri provides a list of epithets liable to make any translator tremble, including “the calamitous, the strong-chested, the unbending sword, the ill-tempered, the conqueror, whose effrontery increases after dark… the rapacious, the mangler, whose food has bones in it, the mutilator, the limper, the fatso, the huge and ponderous.” 

His book quotes liberally from earlier Arab sages as well as from Aristotle, though his knowledge of the latter appears garbled. In the section on “the seas of the habitable world,” Al-Nuwayri comments on the “island of England”, “overrun by a species of Franks,” where “the rain is constant.”


Shihab Al-Din Al-Nuwayri, The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition, trans. Elias Muhanna, New York: Penguin, 2016, pp.318; Othman Ibn Ibrahim Al-Nabulusi, Sword of Ambition, trans. Luke Yarbrough, New York: New York University Press, 2016, pp.266.

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