Last week, the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF, or “Arabic Booker”) team put out a “book of excerpts,” featuring 3,000-ish word sections from each of the shortlisted novels in English and Arabic. Really, it was a fantastic idea: I hope it can be distributed more widely.
The book of excerpts also included author bios, as well as information about the translators and judges, but I saw only the excerpts (in English).
The strongest works—if you can judge by the English translation, and the excerpts—were A Cloudy Day on the West Side, by Mohamed Mansi Qandil, America, by Rabee Jaber, and The Lady from Tel Aviv, by Rabai Al-Madhoun. I have a very soft spot for Qandil’s clear, engaging stories, and I was intrigued by Jaber’s America, but I think The Lady from Tel Aviv is the best bet to win the prize. (Note: I was wrong; Abdo Khal won the prize for Spewing Sparks As Big As Castles.)
Also today, The National has interviews with each of the shortlisted authors.
A Cloudy Day on the West Side
Mohamed Mansi Qandil, translated by Issa J Boullata
I have a strong affection for Mohamed Mansi Qandil. His earlier Moon over Samarqand (2005), which appeared in English in 2009, does have its failings, but it also has its electric, charming successes.
Throughout, the excerpt of A Cloudy Day on the West Side has clarity of prose and of purpose. The words are large, strong. A mother and her twelve- or thirteen-year-old daughter are on a journey; a wolf has followed. We find that the mother is having her daughter tattooed here, far from home, so she will appear to be Christian. The process is terrible and violent and painful. Although tattoos are common in Egyptian Christians, it is not yet clear why the woman is marking her daughter (Ayesha, obviously a Muslim name) in this way.
From the girl’s perspective:
Was it possible the wolves could have followed her from her distant village to this place? … They were like large, dust-coloured dogs with tongues hanging out, and they never stopped panting.
There is a crispness to each move here. When they have crossed the river:
“Will you stay here and wait to take us back?” shouted the mother to him.
“Where else can I go?” he responded. “In the river, there are whirlpools; and on the other bank, wolves.”
What happens to the girl now? How does it comment on the relation between Christians and Muslims in Egypt, the woman’s own difficulties, life in Asyut?
I applaud translator Issa J Boullata for this clear, beautiful text. There was even a moment when I pressed my hands together and shivered; I look forward to reading the whole book.
Quote from Qandil in his interview with The National: “There are many constraints on the freedom of the writer. My Moon Over Samarkand was mutilated by the editor of Dar al Helal, who omitted more than one third of it for political reasons. Later on, I had Dar Merit publish it in full.”
The Lady from Tel Aviv
by Rabai Al-Madhoun, translated by Elliott Colla
I might have picked any other nationality – anything but Palestinian – in my fear that someone might overhear us and shout out to all the other passengers: “Palestinian! This man’s a Palestinian!” It’s possible. What if one of them got up and made the announcement? “Ladies and gentlemen: there’s a Palestinian on board this airplane!”
But then a moment later, he says he’s “not reluctant at all” to tell her. If this is ironic, it isn’t clear to me.
But after that awkward moment, the text goes down quickly. The narrator, a Palestinian, is flying beside an Israeli woman, and he tells her both his story (he is traveling back home after a long absence) and the story in his novel (the protagonist travels home to Palestine after a long absence).
There are a few oddities in the text, such as some of the long, monologuish speeches—perhaps, though, these are suited to a novelist narrator. But the excerpt—and, I assume, the book—has both emotional and intellectual interest, stories and shadow-stories.
At the end, I must know: What will happen to the narrator, and, moreover, to his characters? What will happen with the characters’ love story, and is this another shadow of the narrator’s own life? I eagerly anticipate the English translation.
From Rabai al Madhoun’s interview with The National: “After The Lady from Tel Aviv, I will continue to explore the dimensions of the Palestinian-Israeli question. I will visit Nazareth, Haifa and some Arab villages in Israel where, if everything goes to plan, some of my future fictional characters will reside.”
by Rabee Jaber, translated by William M Hutchins
In this excerpt, Martha is going to America to join a husband who hasn’t written for a year. I’m not sure exactly what year it’s set in, perhaps about a hundred years ago?
In a very lovely interchange, which happens before she leaves, she and her uncle fail to understand one another. Indeed, at this point, it’s not clear what has set her off, what has driven her to this difficult journey:
Her uncle had served in the Russo-Turkish War. He had been snatched off the road, had his head shaved, been dressed in a uniform, and given a rusty rifle. How he had survived and why we don’t know but at this moment – when he was trying to save Martha from herself – he felt that he had returned from the land of frost for a reason; it behoved him to save this young woman from herself.
The prose is clear and largely calm, creating an echo of what seems like Martha’s forced calm as change and difficulties swirl around her.
That afternoon, when she was admiring the orange colour that flooded the earth and the houses that were racing by, she heard the old woman ask where she was going. She did not reply. The old woman might have thought she hadn’t heard. (She knew these words of French. She also knew enough Russian to say: good morning, good evening, I’m well; and how are you?) But the old woman spoke again, saying that her trip would end in Paris and once more asked where she was heading.
Does Martha ever make it to America? What does this trip mean for her, for Syria, for her husband, for America? Is there an America?
I know we have asked many of these questions already, but the forced calm of the prose is intriguing, as is Martha. Also: I have been waiting a while to see something in English by Jaber. He was named by translator Kareem James Abu-Zeid in The Quarterly Conversation’s “Translate This!” as the Arab writer most in need of translation into English.
A quote from Rabee Jabir, in his interview with The National: “The Arabic writer lives in the margin but maybe that is not such a bad destiny. Maybe in the margin he keeps himself intact. Like Homer, like Kafka, he better pray not for recognition first, but for two more important things: good health and enough time to finish his work.”
When the Wolves Grow Old
by Jamal Naji, translated by Nancy Roberts
This excerpt—titled “Sundus”—begins a bit unpromisingly, with the female narrator somewhat awkwardly supposing that she always wanted to be subjugated. She adds, “Azmi was the one who managed to storm my defences and break down the walls to the point where I obeyed his every command without thought of the consequences.”
The excerpt then dallies a while in description of the neighborhood before telling the engaging story of Sundus’ first, unconsummated marriage, which her father and in-laws wrecked before it began.
My father had gone on stubbornly refusing to take another step in the direction of the car despite the fervent pleas of my mother, my relatives, Abu Azmi and his wife Jalilah, as well as the groom’s family, whose tone was gradually beginning to change, and had now gone from pleading to threatening.
It proceeds from here to Sundus’ second marriage, and she becomes a much more interesting character, adding a little sexual heat as she mentally takes control of her situation while physically subjugating herself to her second husband-to-be.
The language is unremarkable, and perhaps even little too casual (at least in the English translation), although there is a musico-comic repetition of “despicable coward” in reference to her first husband. I assume we will hear more about Sundus’s attempts to understand herself.
Quote from Jamal Naji’s interview with The National: “It wasn’t easy to write When the Wolves Grow Old because I used multiple voices in the narration. Each character has its own vocabulary and mood. This technique is one that the readers love but it is exhausting for the writer.”
Spewing Sparks as Big as Castles
by Abdo Khal, translated by Anthony Calderbank
This except takes its time. In the beginning, it gives a sun’s-eye view of life in a poor Jeddah neighborhood, and then talks about the narrator’s ancestors, then about a beloved, and poor fisherman. We learn little about the narrator except that he has strong sexual desires: His beloved appears, but then disappears and we’re at the beach, with an interesting discourse on the inequalities inherent in how Jeddah authorities have walled off the sea.
Lyrical language that takes on the sacred and the not-so-sacred sometimes successful:
The alley awakes to the rattle of padlocks on shop doors as the owners open up, and the cries of street hawkers calling after young school children, tempting them to purchase a sweetie or a poorly manufactured toy or a snack that begins with the mouth and ends up with a runny tummy for whoever’s bowels have not been previously fortified.
Elsewhere, no. Another comma or two would’ve helped me here, but even so the imagery here confuses:
Night was a warm tunnel that directed us towards stolen pleasures and when evening fell, we would gallop amorously towards our tryst and when the moment of encounter came we would know the excruciating pangs of unconsummated love and our dreams would leak out and our wishes drip through glowing coals.
I’m not sure where to pick up the threads of the story next. The love story? The fishermen? The ancestors? Youssef Rakha says it’s a “grotesque satire of power,” but that’s hard to see in this excerpt.
by Mansoura Ez Eldin, translated by Paul Starkey
Grammatical mistakes and other difficulties in translation make this excerpt hard to asses.
The excerpt had a grabby first sentence: “Salma Rashid went down the eight steps of their house like a raging tiger, followed by a servant staggering under the weight of the huge wooden trunk he was carrying.”
But the sentences in the second half of the paragraph are a bit tangled, perhaps attributable to quick translation; indeed, a good portion of this seems hastily translated. For instance: “before turning back to the front steps of the house and hurried up them.”
On the other hand, I really appreciated moments like this, where Salma is revealed: “Ever since her childhood, she had believed the steps had to be taken at a run, and despite being two years into her thirties she still unconsciously retained this belief.”
Ez Eldin continues to be interested in dreams (dreams are often the focus of her short stories, and of her first novel, Maryam’s Maze), and the connection between dreams and consciousness: “Several times her dreams had taken control of her real life, making her detached from it….” and “What was the secret she was harbouring, do you suppose, the secret that pursued her in her dreams?”
That’s the thrust of the excerpt: A violent, angry secret is pursuing Salma through her dreams. Good possibilities here.
Writer Ahmed Khalifa puts Beyond Paradise on his “Best of 2009”; I’d like to re-assess it after a more loving translation.
Quote from Mansoura Ez Eldin’s interview with The National: “I wrote a major part of my first novel, Maryam’s Maze, holding my baby in my left hand while I typed with my right. Sometimes I put her in her crib to play while I wrote, and when she cried I stopped.”