Najem Wali, who was born in al-Amarah, in southern Iraq, October 20, 1956, currently lives in exile in Berlin, where he works as a freelance writer and cultural correspondent. In 1978, he earned a degree in German literature from Baghdad University. He left Iraq at the end of 1980 after being imprisoned and tortured and after witnessing the start of the First Gulf War, which has influenced his work. He has studied German literature in Hamburg and Spanish and Latin American literature in Madrid. He has devoted many years to travel and to language study, spending six months in Oxford in 1993, six months in Florence in 1996, and three months in Saint Petersburg in 1998. He writes for major German newspapers and for the Arabic paper al-Hayat and is one of the better-known Iraqi and Arab authors internationally.
Mohamed Metwalli was born in Cairo in 1970. He was awarded a B.A. in English Literature from Cairo University, Faculty of Arts in 1992. The same year, he won the Yussef el-Khal prize by Riyad el-Rayes Publishers in Lebanon for his poetry collection, Once Upon a Time. He co-founded an independent literary magazine, el-Garad, in which appeared his second volume of poems, The Story the People Tell in the Harbor (1998). He was selected to represent Egypt in the International Writing’ Program at The University of Iowa in 1997. Later he was Poet-in-Residence at the University of Chicago in 1998. He compiled and co-edited an anthology of offbeat Egyptian poetry, Angry Voices (University of Arkansas Press, 2002). He published his third collection, The Lost Promenades, in 2010 with the independent publisher al-Ketaba al-Okhra. The same collection is forthcoming from the General Egyptian Book Organization (GEBO).
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 prose include Hazinia or Shortage of Joy Cells and Water Freckles (a novella). The first six poems featured here come from Qasa’id Ummi (Poems to Mother), which was published in 2010 by Dar al-Yanabia in Damascus, Syria. 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.
Women of the Wind is the tale of a desperate Moroccan who works as a domestic servant in Tripoli, Libya, before the Libyan Revolution. She raises money from her friends to buy a place on a human trafficker’s ship, but then experiences a rough crossing. Her story is intertwined with the stories of other women, including an Iraqi who negotiates with the smugglers for her, a Libyan novelist, and a child whose mother deserted her.
Hassan Nasr was born in 1937 in Tunis. He has been active in Tunisian literary life since Independence in 1956, and started publishing short stories in magazines in 1959. He studied literature in Tunis and Baghdad, and lived for two years in Mauritania. He worked mainly as a high school teacher while writing short stories and novels. He lives in Tunis. The translation by William Hutchins of his novel Return to Dar al-Basha was published in 2006 by Syracuse University Press. His other novels include Sijillat Ra’s al-Dik (Mr. Cockhead’s Files, 2001), Dahaliz al-Layl (Corridors of the Night, 1977), Khubz al-Ard (Bread from the Earth, 1987) and Ka’inat al-Mujannaha (Winged Creatures, 2010). His short story collections include: Layali al-Matar (Rainy Nights, 1978), 52 Layla (52 Nights, 1979), al-Sahar wa-l-Jurh (Insomnia and the Wound, 1989), and Khuyul al-Fajr (Pipe-dreams, 1997).
The sibling rivalry between Yusuf and Yunus is already toxic in their childhood and goes ballistic as they mature, swap wives, trade identities, and adopt multiple additional aliases. The bleak setting for this tale of Cain and Abel is Iraq during the last years of Baath Party rule and the beginning of the American Occupation. Much of the story is recounted in flashbacks recorded on cassettes by Yusuf, but the “live” action occurs during only a few days as the hero traverses Baghdad to locate those responsible for a series of phone calls threatening him with punishment for crimes committed by his brother. Although Yunus has been declared dead by Iraqi authorities, Yusuf suspects that he may still be alive, may have returned with the Americans, and may want him dead. While both looking for and fleeing from his brother, after living under so many aliases, Yusuf finds that the one person hardest to get a clear picture of is himself.
Most of the characters’ names in this novel have some extra layer of meaning. In a tribute to Kafka, one character refers to himself as Josef K. Yusuf is the name of the Biblical patriarch and the Qur’anic prophet Joseph, who in Sufism stands as an exemplar of human perfection. Yusuf’s wife is Sarab, whose name means mirage. Yunus is Jonah, and his second wife, Maryam, whose child brings hope to the novel, is Mary. His four daughters by his first wife take their names from the cries for mercy of prisoners he has tortured. Harun Wali, the hero’s friend who has fled Iraq, has a name that is suspiciously reminiscent of the author’s, suggesting there may be some autobiographical scenes–like the one where children are thrown into Yusuf’s cell–to this novel, which is this tribute to a lost generation of Iraqis.
Fatima Yousef al-Ali is known for her stories about Kuwaiti women. She praises her father’s encouragement for her career and says that while she is happily married, few of her characters are. She portrays the lives of women from different strata of Kuwait society, whether the school assistant in “Behind a Locked Window,” the schoolgirl in “Nothing Shameful,” or the wealthy sophisticate in “A Woman’s Pains Never End.”
Being a pioneering Kuwaiti woman author has meant a degree of marginalization, evidenced by a need to improvise publishing arrangements. One benefit of writing beneath the radar of public scrutiny, though, has been her ability to describe and discuss human sexuality in a candid fashion.
Fatima Yousef al-Ali’s short stories open a window on a world that seems a bit mysterious to some Americans. The heroine’s spouse in “Vote for Me!” is not overtly abusive but will certainly not be voting for her. The administrator of public grants detects so many flaws in the applicants that he decides to award all of them to himself. Lismira, in her story, is stranded in a gloomy city far from Kuwait and from her lover and her spouse. The heroine in “A Woman’s Pains Never End” is as much a predator as the self-righteous religious admirer who climbs in bed with her in a hotel room in Asia and scratches her with his beard. It is hard to strike the right balance in considering the status of women in Kuwait. Fatima Yousef al-Ali’s depictions of women from many walks of life help the reader better understand the challenges facing them, and thus helps us learn more about ourselves, too.
We salute all of the NEA’s FY 2012 awardees, and extend especially warm congratulations to those whose work has been featured in The Brooklyn Rail and InTranslation:
Ibrahim al-Koni, like Joseph Conrad, has found international acclaim as a novelist while publishing primarily in his second language, Arabic, which he learned to read and write at the age of twelve. The Tuareg language, Tamasheq, has its own alphabet, Tifinagh, that dates back at least to the third century BCE. The American scholar and translator Elliot Colla, in a piece written for al-Ahram after al-Koni’s most recent award, remarked that “Al-Koni’s reception with Arab audiences is particularly significant since it reminds us of one of the oldest strengths of Arabic literature, namely that for its entire history, the Arabic language has served as a universal literary language.”
In the same article, Colla also commented: “By now, al-Koni has earned as many literary awards as any other living Arab author, and he has done so across the entire breadth of the Arab world, from the Gulf to the Atlantic Ocean. Unlike most Arab novelists who still tend to be read as national writers (Egyptians, Lebanese, Iraqis and so on), al-Koni is one of a few whose reception has effectively transcended the national borders that divide the Arab world.”
The excerpt featured here is the final chapter from the final volume of a trilogy consisting of “New Waw,” “The Puppet,” which was released by the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas at Austin in 2010, and “The Scarecrow.” This trilogy traces the rise (first volume), flourishing (second volume), and destruction of a Tuareg (nomadic Saharan Berber) oasis community. The novel is set in the mythological past, but the oasis also represents the modern state of Libya. The final ruler of the oasis is literally a demon who has adopted a human form, which he sheds when the armies of the world are besieging the oasis. Some readers may choose to understand the portrait of this final ruler of this oasis community, which was named for the lost paradise of the Tuareg people, the original Waw, as a caricature of a current head of state.
Mohamed Metwalli was born in Cairo in 1970. He was awarded a BA in English Literature from Cairo University, Faculty of Arts in 1992. The same year, he won the Yussef el-Khal Prize by Riyad el-Rayes Publishers in Lebanon for his poetry collection Once Upon a Time. He co-founded an independent literary magazine, el-Garad, in which his second volume of poems, The Story the People Tell in the Harbor, appeared in 1998. He was selected to represent Egypt in the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program in 1997, and served as Poet-in-Residence at the University of Chicago in 1998. He compiled and co-edited Angry Voices, an anthology of offbeat Egyptian poetry published by the University of Arkansas press in 2002. His most recent collection, Lost Promenades, was published by al-Kitaba al-Ukhra in 2010.
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).