Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Haddad, Qassim. Trans. Ferial Ghazoul & John Verlenden. (2014). Chronicles of Majnun Layla & Selected Poems. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press. ISBN: 9780815610373

This was a beautiful book in the Arabic tradition of Akhbar Majnun Layla, which the translators chose to phrase as the Chronicles of Majnun Layla. It is a common genre in Arabic literature about a man named Qays who wanders the desert, mad with desire for Layla, who he cannot have. I really enjoyed learning about the genre through this book. Haddad is a Bahraini poet, who elevates the tale beyond a Romeo and Juliet story into the story of a poet and the Word. It also reminded me a bit of Abelard and Heloise, and I am now psyched to research the influence of Majnun Layla tales on that story. The edition also includes some of his poems in translation, which are eloquent. Phrases like this stick out, "A mountain goat--wind defeating his horns--/makes light/of a mountain rock." That reminds me of another point. Some of the Majnun Layla poetry echoed parts of the Song of Solomon and the book of Revelation where Christ spreads his tents wide for His Bride. It is wonderful to trace a literature back to those fundamental, shared roots. This book has helped me grow as a reader. Another Arabic into English translation I'm so thankful I didn't miss.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Siraaj: an Arab Tale

Siraaj: An Arab Tale by Radwa Ashour. Trans. by Barbara Romaine.

Siraaj: an Arab Tale, part of our Lost in Translation collection, is a fictional account of a small island sultanate in the late nineteenth-century. A tyrannical sultan is caught between maintaining his power, based on slave labor and making concessions to a vast Victorian Empire.  On might be tempted to sympathize with the Sultan were it not for his equally evil, childless wife, his weekly romps with concubines, his stereotypical fondling of his precious gems or the bloody coup against his brother.

Told from multiple points of view, this novella is a densely layered volume of the inter-relationships that can be found among Arabs in the Arab world, the very essence of which is buried in a tale-within-a-tale, “The Ringdove”: “Don’t you know that nothing of good or evil befalls any of us other than that which is enjoined upon us by fate? In the full course of our days, whatever our weaknesses or our strengths, each of us will be tested, whether in poverty or prosperity. So it is destiny that put me in this predicament, that drew me to the bait, and hid the net from me so that I got caught in it, together with my companions” (37).

Against the backdrop of a British naval base being built on the island, rumblings of discontent among the slaves on the island begin, and those who formerly had no reason for revolt find themselves caught up in a revolution for reasons only they can tell.

Post-Arab Spring, this “Arab Tale” is more radical than ever. The Sultan. The People. The West. Who wins?

Sadly, Radwa Ashour passed away in December 2014. For more on her life and literary career, please check out the links below.  She was a remarkable person and should remain in our literary conscience.

Vital Stats:
Ashour, Radwa. (2007). Siraaj: an Arab Tale. Trans. By Barbara Romaine. Austin: Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.