PEN American recently invited writers, including Sudanese-British novelist Leila Aboulela, to a “great book swap,” where they were to bring “just one beloved book originally written in a foreign tongue.”

Aboulela chose Tayib Salih’s The Wedding of Zein, trans. Denys Johnson-Davies.

One of the reasons she chose the book is, “It’s just so Sudanese.”

She said that, when she first moved to London, “I used to read The Wedding of Zein in Arabic every day, to sort of block out the rain and the reality of my life and sort of go back to a kind of lovely world that I left behind.”

She reads from the book (video below, reading at 21:00), and explains how Zein, the village outcast, is about to strangle another man, when Zein’s Sufi-mystic friend appears, pulls him back, and tells him: “‘Don’t worry, Zein, tomorrow you’ll be marrying the best girl in the village.'”

Aboulela: “And with these sort of prophetic words, a lot of changes happen in the village, and this kind of miracle is really very beautiful, and this is what I love so very much about this novella.”

She also speaks very interestingly at 1:10:00 about needing to invent her own language when “translating” the lives of her Arab characters into English prose:

“I write in English, of course. So when I want to write about any kind of spiritual aspects or Muslim practice, it’s hard to write about it in English. Because the English words don’t have the same meaning. If I go to the dictionary for example, and I want to translate the Arabic word تقوى, that’s in the…Arabic-English dictionary, that would lead me to piety or pious. Then you go look in the thesaurus, and someone who’s pious is a bigot. So it’s not the same word in Arabic. In Arabic, تقوى would always mean respectful, it would always mean God-fearing. So I can’t write pious. I can never describe one of my characters as pious, because then the reader would just hate them….

So and then the other thing, if I’m describing someone who’s praying, and they go down, that’s called prostrate, and that sounds like you’re sick or something. So I can’t use that word either. I’ve got so many words that I can’t use, and I have to make my own language.

So sometimes I would then describe it physically, I would have to say, he knelt down, put his forehead on the ground, and the grass was wet, you know, anything like that, just to give the reader a sense of it. Because if I say prostrate, the reader is just going to go off in a different direction.

Read excerpts from Salih’s work:

An excerpt from Wedding of Zein on Amazon.com.

An excerpt from Seasons of Migration to the North on NPR.

Watch the video:

4 thoughts on “Leila Aboulela on Why She Loves Tayib Salih’s ‘The Wedding of Zein’

    1. Sorry, let me add that above. It’s translated very well by the venerable Denys Johnson Davies.

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