By name, the qaṣīda is scarcely known to Anglo-American readers. It therefore bears mentioning that the qaṣīda is an Arabic poetic form, in fact the highest classical form, and that it was taken up throughout the African, Indian, Turkic, and Persianate languages of the Islamic world. Into the poetic traditions of Europe and the Americas, the qaṣīda has not made much of a crossing, with the exception of the Spanish-language casida (which borrows the name more than it does the poetic form). Its lack of presence in the West contrasts with the seeming naturalization of the ghazal, an Arabic-native mode that (after Persian poets gave new formal features to it) has been adopted by Western poets since Goethe. The fact that the Arabic ghazal derives from the qaṣīda has done nothing to raise the ancestral form’s profile in Western poetics.
Some obscurity in the matter is only natural. In modern Arabic, the word qaṣīda refers to a poem of almost any kind. Classically, however, it is a monorhymed suite of three or more thematic movements of no fixed length. The requirement that a qaṣīda be polythematic holds for the earliest sixth-century (CE) examples as it does for Arabic qaṣīdas of a thousand years later. The present qaṣīda is in four sections:
1. Amatory prelude (called in Arabic nasīb): verses 1-6
2. Wine song (khamriyya): verses 7-25
3. Travel exploits (raḥīl): verses 26-40
4. Praise of the patron (madīḥ): verses 41-58
There is a lot to say about all these sections, as well as their composer. Al-A‘shā (who died around 629 CE) was a pioneer of Arabic wine song, a mode already well developed in this poem. For their description of the blue-eyed tavern keeper and his milieu, the wine verses are of high literary as well as sociological interest. The ethnic alterity of the wine-seller remained a topos of Arabic bacchic verse (as in the poems of Abū Nuwās), and of historical drinking practice too.
One element of the travel section calls for comment because it is so typical. This is the description of the she-camel on whose back the poet’s heroic journey is made. For the raḥīl to be devoted to camel-description is common, and so is the likening of the camel to one of Arabia’s ungulates–whether a gazelle, an onager, or some other antlered beast of the wild. These subsidiary descriptions can run so long and deliver so much pathos that the camel is forgotten entirely. Once you become familiar with the trope of cross-species simile, it is an unbewildering source of charm. But no degree of familiarity voids the question: what motivates the persistent comparison of the domesticated camel to a hunted beast of the wild?
I leave the question open to workers in the growing field of Animal Studies. I also leave aside the political circumstances of the poem, beyond noting that it finds its dedicatee (a prince of pre-Islamic Yemen) at some odds with other members of the Ḥimyarite ruling class. (Line 44’s mention of Ḥimyar’s failure to guarantee a water supply may reference the early-seventh-century collapse of the dam of Ma’rib, which is mentioned in other poems by al-A‘shā, and in the Qur’ān at Sūrat Sabā 34:16). Al-A‘shā’s relationship to Salāma Dhū Fā’ish was one of propagandist to patron, and far from exclusive. In fact al-A‘shā is reckoned as the first Arabic language artist to turn praise-poetry into a professional career.
All but a very few of the editorial and interpretive decisions made in this translation are based in the commentary of Aḥmad ibn Yaḥyā, the late-ninth-century grammarian of Kufa better known as Tha‘lab (“The Fox”). Tha‘lab presents variant readings for about half the poem’s verses, whose number and sequence vary from manuscript to manuscript; over these and other textual issues my translation passes in silence. In Tha‘lab’s collection of al-A‘shā’s verse, this poem is number eight.
– David Larsen
Lana Abdel Rahman probes the internal world of her characters through dreams and memory. “The Sea Facing North” is from Abdel Rahman’s latest collection of short stories, Stories of Strangers. I kept returning to this haunting story, told with deceptive simplicity. Walking along the sea with a friend, a young boy is disturbed by a memory from his childhood, which he tells to his companion. When I asked Lana about “The Sea Facing North,” she told me a friend had told her the story about an honor killing. But she transformed a raw anecdote from daily life into a fable with repetition of images and details. The sea in Brazil brings up the memory of a sea from the past in Lebanon–which, in turn, forces the boy to relive the experience and tell the story.
– Gretchen McCullough
Earlier this month, The Guardian published an essay by Faleeha Hassan describing her experience living as an Iraqi refugee in the United States. You can find it here: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/oct/04/iraqi-refugee-living-in-america-some-wish-me-dead.
Hassouna Mosbahi’s fiction often sounds somewhat autobiographical, and this is certainly true for these two short stories. Each of them illuminates the character of the same type of contemporary Tunisian intellectual, who is a person torn between the cool comforts of Europe and the frustrating warmth of Tunisia.
– William Hutchins
The complex process of writing my documentary play She He Me included the translation of its multilingual source material. One of my characters is Algerian (Randa), one is Lebanese-American (Rok), and one is Jordanian (Omar). So I was working from interviews in Lebanese Arabic and Jordanian Arabic (which are somehow similar), French, and English. Take Randa, for example. Algeria, like Lebanon, was colonized by the French, so Randa often spoke French during our interviews, especially when reading from her prison diaries. French is the language Randa favors for reading literature and expressing herself in writing, and she’d written her prison diaries in French with the additional intent of keeping less educated prison guards from understanding them. Randa had also traded in her Algerian dialect for a flawless Lebanese one because she felt more empowered by her experience in Beirut and her Lebanese femininity.
Not only were there different languages to contend with. Each character’s words were operating on a different emotional register, and there were also micro-nuances within that. Rok speaks a highly Americanized English with some “bro”-like phrasing, yet when he speaks Arabic, it’s very much a southern Lebanese cadence. I kept a few sentences from his mother in Arabic so we can trace the southern Lebanese village roots of her socio-political background, and we can understand their impact on Rok. Omar comes from Jordan, which was a British Mandate. Not only is he fluent in English, but he also studied in London, so he sometimes would throw the Queen’s English in the middle of a hardcore Transjordanian accent. That accent is very much associated with a kind of Transjordanian male bravado, which becomes an interesting and powerful reclaiming when a gender radical like Omar speaks it.
For the purposes of the hotINK readings, I wrote the script in English. We’re hoping to have a production in Beirut soon, and for that I’ll have to translate the script back into Arabic, hopefully with support from the actors. It’s true that people in Lebanon speak French and English as well, but I would really like to see this piece performed in Arabic, as a political statement.
– Amahl Khouri
The challenge of translating Mrs. Ghada’s Pain Threshold has been to strike the right balance between staying true to the play’s subtleties and yet at the same time not to lapse into excessive opaqueness so as to disengage the English-speaking viewer or reader. Here is a play that is all about what is not said, or the hidden meaning behind the words uttered, and the challenge for the translator is to capture those subtleties in English.
There is a problem, indeed I would go so far as to say a crisis, with regards to plays that come out of the Middle East or are about the Middle East and reach an English-speaking audience. Often theatres mistake being “relevant” for headline-chasing, and so the Middle Eastern plays chosen tend to respond to current events and remain in the by now well-charted territory of terrorism, war, and Islamic fundamentalism. These are certainly worthy topics for any writer to tackle and I’m not suggesting we impose a moratorium on plays that deal with these subjects. Yet focusing exclusively on these topics can mean that we limit the space for other plays by Middle Eastern writers that deal with universal themes such as the quiet defeats of lonely individuals, which is the central focus of Mrs. Ghada’s Pain Threshold. Abdullah Alkafri has created in Ghada a character that will resonate with audiences worldwide. Through her they will learn something about Syrian society, but far more importantly they will learn a great deal about themselves. For me that is when theatre is at its most alive.
– Hassan Abdulrazzak
Lana Abdel Rahman is a Lebanese writer, living in Cairo. In her novel The Snow of Cairo, published by Afaq Publishers in Cairo, Abdel Rahman not only explores Sufi ideas, but also reincarnation. Bushra, a young Syrian woman, moves to Cairo from Syria with her Egyptian mother. Bushra’s father has died, and her mother wants to return to her Egyptian roots. But soon after their arrival, Bushra’s mother dies and Bushra must cope with her grief and alienation, alone except for a few Egyptian relatives. Bushra feels the visceral presence of another woman, Nur Jihan, in her dreams and even in her body. Nur Jihan was a young Egyptian princess who was married off to a Turkish prince. She is a woman from the past with a tragic story; someone Bushra could not have possibly known in her life. Chapter One of the novel alternates between the voices of two narrators, Nur Jihan and Bushra. Nur Jihan also remembers her past life as a gypsy dancer called “Soleil.”
In The Snow of Cairo time is borderless: the narrators’ shift verb tense from present to past and back again. Consciousness is similarly fluid and dreamlike, evoking the fluidity and inscrutability of history and the dead. In Chapter One, Bushra learns many secrets of her mother’s life. The novel holds us in suspense as the lives of the two narrators, at first seemingly unrelated, crisscross and circle back to the secret of Nur Jihan’s death.
– Gretchen McCullough
Zuhdi Al-Dahoodi is a Kurdish Iraqi who writes in Arabic and German and lives currently in Germany. He was born in Tuz Khormato, Iraq, in 1940. In 1956, he was forced to move to Kirkuk to continue his education after leading a student strike in his hometown against the Tri-Partite Aggression. He attended a Teacher Training Institute in Kirkuk from 1957 to 1959, and then taught in the village of Mama near Kirkuk. He was imprisoned in Kirkuk, Baquba, Ramadi, and Hilla from 1964-66, and then studied at the University of Leipzig, Germany, from 1967 to 1972. He received his doctorate from that university in 1976. Between 1976 and 2005, he taught in universities in Iraq, Libya, and Germany.
He began publishing in 1954 in newspapers and youth journals, and at one time coedited a clandestine newspaper called Sada al-Wa’i (“Echo of the Attentive”). “Two Friends” was included in his first short story collection, which was published in Arabic in 1962. He has published numerous other collections of short stories–including al-Zanabiq allati la Tamut (“Lilies that Do Not Die”; 1978). The novella Usturat Mamlakat al-Sayyid (“The Legend of the Master’s Kingdom”) was published in 1990.
His Arabic novels include Rajul fi kull Makan (“A Man Everywhere”; 1974), Atwal ‘Am (“The Longest Year”; 1994), Zaman al-Hurub (“Time of Flight”; 1998), Wada’an Ninawa (Farewell Ninevah, 2004), Tahawwulat (“Changes”; 2007), Firdaws Qaryat al-Ashbah (“Paradise of the Village of Specters”; 2007), and Dhakirat Madina Munqarida (“Memory of a Dead Village”; 2010).
His books in German, which represent both original works and translations of his own novels, include: Die Kurden (1987), Tollwut Kurdische Erzählungen (1991), Das Längste Jahr (1993), and Abschied von Ninive (2000).
Faleeha Hassan, who is currently in the United States, was born in Najaf, Iraq, in 1967. She earned an M.A. in Arabic literature and has published several collections of poetry in Arabic: Being a Girl, A Visit to the Museum of Shade, Five Titles for My Friend-The Sea, Though Later On, Poems to Mother, Gardenia Perfume, and her collection of children’s poetry, The Guardian of Dreams. Her works of Arabic prose include Hazinia or Shortage of Joy Cells and Water Freckles (a novella). Her poems have been translated into English, Italian, German, French, and Kurdish. She has received awards from the Arab Linguists and Translators Association (WATA) and the Najafi Creative Festival for 2012, as well as the Prize of Naziq al-Malaika, the Prize of al-Mu’tamar for poetry, and the short story prize of the Shaheed al-Mihrab Foundation. She serves on the boards of Baniqya, a quarterly in Najaf, Sada al Nahrain (Echo of Mesopotamia), and the Iraqi Writers in Najaf association. She is a member of the Iraq Literary Women’s Association, The Sinonu (i.e. Swift) Association in Denmark, the Society of Poets Beyond Limits, and Poets of the World Community.
Zuhdi Al-Dahoodi is a Kurdish Iraqi author who has published many short stories and novels in Arabic. His university studies were in Germany, and he has taught there and in Iraq and Libya.
The short story “Two Friends” comes from his first short story collection and draws on his experiences as a young primary school teacher. In this story, the narrator, who is a very young primary school teacher, receives a lesson in hunting and in life from a sixteen-year-old student who began primary school fully grown.
The Brooklyn Rail welcomes you to our web-exclusive section InTranslation, where we feature unpublished translations of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and dramatic writing. Published since April 2007, InTranslation is a venue for outstanding work in translation and a resource for translators, authors, editors, and publishers seeking to collaborate.
We seek exceptional unpublished English translations from all languages.
Fiction, Nonfiction, and Poetry: Manuscripts of no longer than 20 pages (double-spaced).
Plays: Manuscripts of no longer than 30 pages (in left-justified format).