In a way, the cover of the English translation of Ghada Abdel Aal’s عايزة أتجوز is completely appropriate. It looks like a Sophie Kinsella cover, and even the font screams “fun!” “chick-lit!” “no straining required!”
Sure, in real life (oh, and in the book) Ghada Abdel Aal wears a headscarf, rides a microbus, and her engagement (if there were one) would not entail a big and sparkly diamond ring.
Nonetheless, the cover assures me: This is any(Western-friendly)woman’s story! Indeed, the back cover asserts: “The rules may differ from country to country, but the dating game is a universal constant.”
Is it? Anyhow, the whole package screams: This is a fun book! This is not a foreign book! This is a book that could be about any brunette with an i-book, a cute haircut, and some simple, tasteful jewelry!
But I Want to Get Married is not just a fun piece of chick lit, it’s also part of the University of Texas’s new series on “Emerging Voices from the Middle East.” So, once I open the cover, I’m greeted by a scholarly-ish essay by series editor Tarek El-Ariss on the current state of Egyptian fiction (yes, yes, we’re bored of big issues) and a very interesting essay on translation issues by Nora Eltahawy, but….
If I were to pick up a copy of Twilight in Arabic (which I probably won’t), I doubt I’d find a scholarly essay at the beginning, followed by a translator’s essay, and footnotes explaining every cultural reference. Generally, I like these sorts of essays and footnotes. But Ghada Abdel Aal is not Ibrahim al-Koni, and I don’t learn enough from the footnotes to know who (the singer) Shabaan is, anyway.*
Don’t get me wrong: I think Ghada Abdel Aal is hilarious.
No, she’s not feminist, and no, this book will not lead to a women’s revolution, and no, it’s not a literary trailblazer, either. But Ghada Abdel Aal is funny.
Diana, the book’s reviewer at MMW, gets mired in the “memoir” label attached to the back of the book, since obviously much of what occurs in عايزة أتجوز is what I’d call “surrealist memoir.” Perhaps it would be better for American readers if this were simply called “fiction” that cleaves somewhat, but not faithfully, to the author’s real experiences.
Did I mention that Ghada Abdel Aal is funny?
I can’t be the only one who feels that way, because someone at the University of Iowa’s prestigious International Writing Program chose Abdel Aal for the “oldest and largest multinational writing residency in the world.” I do hope Abdel Aal learns some tricks during the residency, and, while it’s OK with me if she loses all the ?!, I also hope she doesn’t bury her humor in literary dress-up.
Abdel Aal’s book does present a number of translation quandaries, not least among them the profusion of Arab pop stars’ names, but also: switching between fos’ha and 3meya for comic effect (something that renders oddly in English, as when the translator tries to pass off acquiesce and extremities as really hard “fos’ha” words), the wild profusion of !?, and my favorite, arugula vs. gargeer.
I might not have noticed it, except that I recently insisted to translator/chef Maia Tabet that جرجير is not available in the United States. Tabet told me that جرجير is just…arugula. I said: No, this can’t be, because arugula is fancy people’s food, whereas جرجير is a staple of the people. (If Maia weren’t so nice, she would’ve rolled her eyes at this point.) Nonetheless, she said: It is what it is.
I can’t currently find the passage—this is, after all, the sort of book you suck down pretty quickly—but as the narrator imagines her suitors should bring her some sort of gift, she says sarcastically that she’d even settle for جرجير. But when you read it in English, well, she wants the groom to bring arugula? The sort of yuppie green you buy at Whole Foods? Well, I found it twice as funny.
Generally, I think Eltahawy fares admirably well with all the translation minefields, and, most importantly, the book is breezy and easy to read. Should you pick it up? I mean, it won’t feed your brain like Radwa Ashour’s Specters or al-Koni’s The Puppet or Darwish’s Journal of an Ordinary Grief, also out this fall. But what if you have insomnia, and it’s the middle of the night, and you can’t concentrate on anything? What if you just want a laugh? Plus, you get to learn about—for instance—what comes to a young middle-class Egyptian woman’s mind when she hears the word “police detective.”
“Squad cars, and a police station, and someone being violated with a broomstick.”
“A broomstick?! I said he’s a detective, not a janitor!”
“You’re a sweet little thing, Mama. There really isn’t much difference anymore. The same instruments are being used in both jobs.”
And! Speaking of schizophrenia and sex…from Al Masry Al Youm: The ‘S’ word: Egyptian documentary film examines Cairo’s sex life
*Yes, don’t worry, I know who Shabaan is. Sheesh.