On the Constraints the Arabic Language Imposes on Arabic Literature Writers

July 23rd, 2016

The Exact Spot Where We Pitched Camp Yesterday

The Exact Spot Where We Pitched Camp Yesterday

 

It’s been one helluva ride. Whenever I tell people that I translate Arabic literature, I know they’re wondering, Is that even a thing?

Well, kinda. And there are probably several reasons for the world’s reluctance to translate literature written in Arabic. In this post, I will try to uncover some of those reasons.

First, I am going to explain how the way people answer the age-old chicken-or-egg question of “What came first, language or reality?” depends mainly on the language with which they’ve been raised. In other words, I am going to expound on how language determines how we accept reality. Next, I am going to focus on the structure of the Arabic language to try and prove my theory that the way the language works influences the way Arabic speakers write when creating literature. My hypothesis is that, due to its inner structure (which, in my opinion, doesn’t equip Arabic speakers for acknowledging the indispensable figure of the third party—the arbitrator), the Arabic ...Read more

Till the Bitter End

September 21st, 2017

Church Notre-Dame d'Afrique, Algiers, Algeria

There are nineteen children inside the candle-lit church. They are sitting on the benches and enjoying a dinner consisting of broth, while chatting about the situation outside. They are not heeding Father John Paul’s warning about chewing before swallowing. He goes to the statue of the Virgin Mary, kneels down in front of her and asks her to help him provide for the children. Since its outbreak six years ago, the tuberculosis epidemic has wiped out one third of the city’s population already. The first to die were the elders, who were then followed by the children. The few who managed to survive the disease are now killing each other over the last scraps of food. As if that wasn’t enough, the country has run out of oil. The wells that once dotted the desert have run dry. Hence, it is not safe to live here any longer.

Father John Paul made the right call, when, two years ago, he decided to turn Notre-Dame d’Afrique into a children’s shelter. He used to go out, ...Read more

My City

September 19th, 2017

Madinet Zefta, street view, Egypt

The small city I call home lies on the Nile Delta. It’s a very peaceful place, where the wind’s moaning can be heard, and hence, everyone treasures silence. Most of its residents are either farmers or work at the local cotton ginneries. The city, which is the capital of a province that includes several villages and is known for having been politically significant in the past, houses some schools and governmental buildings, and its edges peter out into bucolic countryside, where the warbling of birds and the crowing of cock fuses with the bray of ass and the grunts of camels, as well as with the yelling of the vendors on its streets. The locals are good-faithed people who take life as it comes and don’t fret over anything. Their leave-for-tomorrow-what-cannot-be-done-today general attitude slows life down. Even the conversations they so effortlessly hold expand until it almost seems like they won’t ever cease. Their carefree ways are certainly enviable. There is never a problem that is deemed too knotty to be solved.

Everyone is back from work by the time ...Read more

On Top of the Museum

September 14th, 2017

Egyptian Museum, Cairo, Egypt

All eyes were fixed on her. She was standing on the roof of the Egyptian Museum, right on top of the main entrance. Nobody knew how she had gotten there and she could barely remember it herself. She looked like she was about to jump.

One could tell the people on the ground were scared. They were running around like headless chickens. Some yelled at her that she should come to her senses and get down from there.

She was an unemployed widow without means to provide for her children. The country’s spiraling inflation hadn’t helped either. She had heard people talk on the news about the loan Egypt was going to receive from the International Monetary Fund, as well as about Egypt’s policy of letting its pound float free. She didn’t have a clue as to what all that yapping was about, but she wondered why anyone would want them to starve to death. Then, one day, she felt tempted to murder her own children and have them for dinner. That’s when ...Read more

The Bath of the Damned

September 13th, 2017

Hammam Maskhoutine, Algeria

Once upon a time, something happened in this neck of the woods, the memory of which still plagues the locals to this day. Despite knowing, by all accounts, it’s best not to dredge up the past, I am going to relay to you the episode that marked a before and after in this town’s history on a night similar to this one.

This is the story of a young man who possessed all the desirable attributes of a Sir Galahad. One day, his father, who was the chief of the biggest tribe in the region, which, thanks to its fertile land, made for a very comfortable and care-free life, fell seriously ill and died abruptly. Hence, the tribe elders assembled and, after a long meeting, decided that they would only agree to name the latter chief’s son—the hero of our story—his successor on one condition: On the day of his nomination as chief, he would have to marry a woman they deemed his equal. The problem with that condition was that our hero was all of a sudden really pressed for time, ...Read more

On the Inner Outsider

September 12th, 2017

I don’t know why, but I am infatuated with this café, even though I didn’t get what I came here for the first time I stepped inside. In comparison, I felt like this eensy-weensy thingy, for the café is an institution nonpareil that provides a public forum for the locals, where they are welcomed to pour their hearts out without having to keep a civil tongue in their heads. One has to be wary of being ripped off, though, for what is set on the tables tastes like sheer ambrosia for good reason: fancy don’t come cheap. The fine sea views its windows give wound up prevailing on me and I sat down on one of its chairs and forked out some money for a drink.

I had just bought two books, mainly to look smarter than what my age made me seem. I was looking for someone with whom to engage in stimulating conversation and had been told to come here.

Time went by, but the increasingly-crowded café was doing little to match my expectations. Even straining my ears, I found it almost beyond ...Read more

Playing God

September 5th, 2017

Borg Rashid, Markaz Rasheed, El Beheira Governorate, Egypt

To her feet, she asked: “Why do you keep dragging me to this place?”

“Why do you keep punishing me?”, she enquired of her heart.

She was again on her way to Borg Rashid, the place where they used to meet and on which stones they used to carve a heart with their initials. Back then, it stood for hope for the future, because, coincidentally, it was also where the boats crossing illegally over to Europe chugged out to sea from.

They loved each other very much, but they couldn’t marry straight away. First, he had to raise enough money to be able to start a new family with her, as well as win her parents over. To see that happen, he resolved to pay them a visit. She tried to dissuade him from making the perilous journey by sea that traveling to where her parents lived entailed, but he was rather adamant in his decision and no amount of begging seemed to make a difference. Just the price of the boat ride should have ...Read more

The Square of the Lions

September 4th, 2017

Place 1er novembre, Oran, Algeria

Some call it the Square of the 1st of November and some, the Square of Weapons, but its most popular name is that of the Square of Women, even though, contrary to what one might think, there aren’t usually any women loafing about the area.

To me, it is the Square of the Lions, because of the two colossal lion statues that stand in it. Their regal bearing makes them stick out like a sore thumb. I call one “the Sun” and the other one, “the Moon”, which are the names my daughter spontaneously chose for them last time we went by the square. I know they might not seem like the most original of monikers, but they still serve their purpose, which lies in allowing the light of their inner soul to shine through their shell.

My father didn’t like me developing an aesthetic appreciation of them when I was little. He once told me to be very careful, for God could forgive many things, but, apparently, idolatry wasn’t one of them. Worshipping false gods was as well, as far ...Read more

The Stuff Nightmares are Made of

August 31st, 2017

Dawood Hotel in Sanaa, Yemen

Sanaa’s lights could be seen twinkling from above. The plane was about to land. I was very excited about returning home.

After picking up our luggage, we hailed a taxi and told the driver to take us to the Dawood Hotel, which is a historic hotel lying in the old city center. Upon arrival, I was pleasantly surprised to find that its sign was written in three different languages. That told me our choice of accommodation was a happy one. My German friend and I had booked two adjacent rooms. He had read a lot about the old walled city and was eagerly looking forward to discovering it.

Hence, the next day we started our visit to the city early in the morning. At noon, the call to prayer started blaring from the mosques’ minarets, all the shops closed down and everyone trooped to the nearest mosque.

At some point, my friend pointed at one of the small rectangular containers that could be seen attached to the building walls and asked me if I knew what purpose they served. I ...Read more

Freelancer

August 30th, 2017

Street in Cairo in 1906

I had moved to that flat over two years ago, and since, even the least ill-intentioned of taunts brought me to tears. The apartment was only comprised of the one room, where I had a small table to work on my computer and a window to the outside world. Aside from that, there was a bathroom opposite the room and a narrow, short and obstacle-ridden corridor leading to the entrance.

My landlord lived right underneath me. Sometimes, while sitting on the toilet, I felt observed and wondered whether he might have installed some camera inside of it. That better not be the case, though, if he cared to keep being able to pee while standing up.

I had been looking for a place to rent for a while before I stumbled on this apartment. I found it advertised on the website of a pizza restaurant. “An apartment for a beaver in Cairo’s old city, applicants are asked to keep their cool.” I called the number provided below, but it seemed to be out of service. Hence, I left a message on ...Read more

The Unidentifiable

August 28th, 2017

Khairat, El-Sayeda Zainab, Cairo

The speech of the honorable chief was being relayed live everywhere and his impassioned lecturing was even more unbearable than the honking cars outside. Through the TV screen, he asked, “Who are you?”, an existential question that kept everyone in the crowded café on their toes while waiting to catch the names of those being referred to; and all that collective excitement had to be handled without any sort of air conditioning, which had stopped working after the price of electricity had skyrocketed.

According to Mr. Star—the proud owner of the kiosk around the corner—the only way of reaching Rafiq’s place without being seen was taking the dark side alley. He also told me he hadn’t seen him leave his apartment in weeks. After giving me the papers I had asked for, he whispered, “Godspeed, míster!” Hence, I scooted off, the chief’s question, still echoing in my ears, and the patronizing smirk on his face, engraved in my mind.

Close to the mausoleum that was built a few years back for some politician, I turned on ...Read more