Al-Mutanabbi and Elias Khoury’s ‘As Though She Were Sleeping’

Humphrey Davies’ translation of Elias Khoury’s 2007 كأنها نائمة, As Though She Were Sleeping, is now available in the UK. I wish the Marilyn Booth translation (Archipelago, 2012) were out at the same time, so we could compare their strategies. This book is a particularly complex beast: Khoury’s novels have long been interested in what language can’t (and can) do, but كأنها نائمة is perhaps his most language-obsessed work.

It’s full of linguistic challenges. For one, the protagonist’s husband (Mansour) is fascinated by the power of poetry:

I memorize poetry, but I don’t want to be a poet. My dear girl, for a native speaker of this language whose vehicle is verse that blends ecstasy with wisdom and dances with the interplay of vowelled and vowelless consonants, it’s enough to recite the poetry, play with it as you wish, and become drunk on its rhythms to your heart’s content. The poets, poor chaps, labour under the burden of those who went before them and have no idea how to extricate themselves from beneath the sandbags of poems already written, so they fall to their knees, or imitate, or kill themselves. Listen, my darling, listen.


He told her the story of how al Mutanabbi had visited Tiberias and stayed there for a while, and how he’d described the lion as no-one had done before him. “And did he walk on water like Christ?” Meelya asked.

“No, he walked on words,” Mansour replied.

“Then he wasn’t a real prophet,” she said.

“Why? Did all the prophets walk on water?” Mansour asked.

“I have no idea,” she said.

“Listen, Meelya,” Mansour said, and fell silent. He had wanted to say that words were al Mutanabbi’s water and music his waves, that he mixed wisdom with rhythm so that his poetry became a door to awareness, and that the door had closed behind him when he died and no-one had been able to open it again for the last thousand years.

“If he couldn’t walk on water, he wasn’t a prophet,” she said.

“Listen,” Mansour said:

“Who has not loved this world betimes –
Yet still we find no road to love and consummation.
Your lot, in this life, of love
Is as that, in your dreams, of a phantom.”

Meelya listened to the two verses and memorized them, but when she recited them, she would reverse the last words of the second so that they went:

“Your lot, in this life, of love
Is as that of a phantom in your dreams.”

The lines are these:

من لم يعشق الدنيا قديما ………….. ولكن لا سبيل الى الوصال
نصيبك في حياتك من حبيب ……….. نصيبك في منامك من خيال

They have been translated elsewhere, for instance somewhat clumsily by Margaret Larkin:

Who has not loved this world from of old?
But there is no path to union.
Your share of the beloved during your lifetime
is like your share of a phantom during your sleep.

(Surely you agree that Humphrey’s version, while not being Al-Mutanabbi, is a far sight better.)


A.Z. Foreman has written, here about why classical Arabic poetry “resists” translation.

I just discovered Adam Ahmed’s new poetry translation blog.  He works in the fields of al-Mutannabi.

Margaret Larkin’s book, Al-Mutanabbi, is available free online.