I heard the Master Musicians of Jajouka at a Moroccan music festival several summers ago, and then visited Jajouka to do a radio piece about them. Rather than try to describe their really entrancing music, I’ll just direct you to their website.
Al Koni on translation
The Complete Review reviews “Thou Shalt Not Speak My Language,” a book about the vagaries and issues of Arabic translation.
Twenty years on, nice discussion of The Satanic Verses controversy and its aftermath.
Censorship snafu at Dubai lit festival
Margaret Atwood has pulled out of the inauguraul Emirates Airline international festival of literature in the wake of a novelist being blacklisted for potential offence to “cultural sensitivities”.
The book in question is former Observer journalist Geraldine Bell’s “The Gulf Between Us,” a romantic comedy set in the Gulf. It appears that a minor gay character–a local sheikh with a foreign boyfriend–may be the cause. You can read the author’s take here.
I am so bored with these “homosexuality/art/censorship” controversies in the Arab world. As the director of the festival himself points out at the end of the following statement he released, the controversy will only help the book’s sales.
I have lived in Dubai for forty years. Based on my knowledge of who would appeal to the book-reading community in the Middle East, and having read 150 pages of Bedell’s manuscript I knew that her work could offend certain cultural sensitivities. I did not believe that it was in the festival’s long term interests to acquiesce to her publisher’s (Penguin) request to launch the book at the first festival of this nature in the Middle East.
We do, of course, acknowledge the excellent publicity campaign being run by Penguin which will no doubt increase sales of her book and we wish Ms Bedell the very best.
But I do think this snafu points to larger problems with the Gulf states’ increasing patronage of the arts–from the many literary festivals they are organizing to the gigantic new Guggenheim Abu Dhabi museum. The Emirates want to put themselves on the world map as art and culture patrons, but they are out of step with international expectations about an artist’s right to express herself and to tackle all manner of provocative subjects.
(P.S. Thanks for the tip, Sumita)
Al Aswany to Obama: You should speak out on Gaza
We saw Mr. Obama as a symbol of this justice. We welcomed him with almost total enthusiasm until he underwent his first real test: Gaza. Even before he officially took office, we expected him to take a stand against Israel’s war on Gaza. We still hope that he will condemn, if only with simple words, this massacre that killed more than 1,300 Palestinians, many of them civilians. (I don’t know what you call it in other languages, but in Egypt we call this a massacre.) We expected him to address the reports that the Israeli military illegally used white phosphorus against the people of Gaza. We also wanted Mr. Obama, who studied law and political science at the greatest American universities, to recognize what we see as a simple, essential truth: the right of people in an occupied territory to resist military occupation.
But Mr. Obama has been silent. So his brilliantly written Inaugural Speech did not leave a big impression on Egyptians. We had already begun to tune out. We were beginning to recognize how far the distance is between the great American values that Mr. Obama embodies, and what can actually be accomplished in a country where support for Israel seems to transcend human rights and international law.
It had to happen
I had to, after reading yet another article (in the New York Times Magazine) about the way social networking software is sweeping across the Middle East.
The story focuses on the April 6 Facebook group that was established last year to plan a general anti-government strike, and currently has about 70,000 members. While this is clearly an interesting development, the article’s title–“Revolution: Facebook Style”–promises more than it can deliver: last April, despite the Facebook mobilization, there was no strike to speak of. (Meanwhile, like almost all US media coverage, the piece barely discusses the numerous labour protests that have been going on in the country for years, and that did culminate, on that day, in anti-government rioting in the city of Mahalla.)
I enjoyed the article because of the lively portraits of the online activists and of “Facebook Girl” Esraa Rashid, and some of the details about their relationships and disagreements.
That said, I wonder why they don’t send someone who speaks and reads Arabic to do a story of this kind, since the #1 thing it requires is hours and hours of reading posts and comments online, getting a sense of the tone and scope of discussions. I for one would have liked it if the piece had quoted the online-discussions more.
Egyptian art divide
Thou Shalt Not Speak My Language
The book is a series of historical anecdotes and ruminations on the translation process and the politics that surround it. Kilito’s observation that “the process of reading and writing [in Arabic today] is always attended with potential translation” is true not only of the Middle East but of all national literatures. Yet reviewer Kanishk Tharoor gently questions the “whiff of the parochial” in Kilito’s view that one can only be loyal to a single language (a view he ascribes to the politicization of the French-Arabic divide in the Maghreb).
My own view is that translation is always an imperfect process-you strive toward an ideal, the perfect translation, which can never be reached. And of course it’s deeply inflected with the cultural, historical and political relations between the two languages and countries across which this imperfect transfer of meaning is taking place. But it’s a nonetheless a worthwhile and often fascinating activity. A great translation of a great book is a gift to the world–a kind of gift I’ve been thankful for many times.
New Arabian Nights
Warner also reviews a new book of essays, “The Arabian Nights in Historical Context: Between East and West,” which she argues engages (implicitly) with the legacy of Said’s “Orientalism.” I find this kind of a discussion–are the Thousands and One Nights the products of Orientalism? Can they be reclaimed by the East?–reductive and a little boring, but I admittedly haven’t read the book (and won’t, as long at it retails at 55 Pounds Sterling).
One big quibble I had with the review: at one point, discussing the Thousand and One Nights’ repercussions on modern Arabic literature, Warner writes:
“The Yacoubian Building, by Alaa Al Aswany…continues the process: an enthralling piece of storytelling as well as a brave and straight-dealing account of Cairo, al-Aswany’s novel adopts the urban labyrinth of The Arabian Nights while containing its cast of intricately connected characters within a single, many-chambered building.”
I really struggle to see what in particular relates The Yacoubian Building to The Thousand and One Nights, other than the fact that they are both Arab works of literature. Other authors (Elias Khoury come to mind) have drawn much more explicit inspiration from the nestled, circular, divagatory narration of the Nights. To say that the Yacoubian Building “continues the process” is to say, really, nothing–it does so as much as any other work of Middle Eastern literature does, and just as any contemporary work of English literature “continues the process” of Shakespeare, or Dante. The automatic comparison of any work of Arabic literature to the 1001 Nights–just like the inevitable description of any Middle Eastern female narrator as a “Sheherazade”–is a bad habit that reviewers should lose. After all, as the rest of Warner’s review makes clear, the Nights as we know them are in great part a European invention, and have influenced Western literature as much if not more than that of the East.
But Madbouli’s always had a wide selection of books, and always promised to get you the one you wanted if it wasn’t available at the moment. (I recently asked an Egyptian friend to look for some books in Beirut for me and she came back laughing, saying the Lebanese clerks had told her “You have to look for this at Madbouli’s, in Cairo, in Midan Opera”–wrong address, but close.)
Hagg Madbouli has a quite striking story of personal success: he started out as a child selling newspapers on the street, and ended up running one of Cairo’s main book stores, and eventually, publishing houses. We did a profile of him [PDF 6.8MB] years ago at the now-defunct Cairo magazine, and there have been articles the Hebdo and the Daily News recently. Despite the anecdotes about him providing intellectuals with censured or hard-to-find books under Nasser and Sadat, I have to say that I have a less idealistic view of the Hagg than most of this eulogizers–he usually struck me as a grouch and, as far as literature was concerned, a philistine. I suspect he saw book-selling merely as a profession and that his choice of books to sell and publish were dictated by a cunning reading of the market more than by any literary principles of his own. And the outpour of articles about him just goes to show, in a way, how small the cultural and publishing scene in Cairo remains.
Still, we need successful and entrepreneurial publishers, and the Hagg will be fondly remembered as a Cairo institution.