Revisiting Mohammed Mustagab

There was a very particular look that translator Humphrey Davies gave me in 2009, when I suggested that it was “too late” for me to review his translation of Mohammed Mustagab’s Tales from Dayrut. He turned his head, tensed his brow, and stared at me in a sort of irritated disbelief.

Let’s say he was right and I was wrong.

Mustagab (Mustajab), who died in 2005, was a writer whose biting, funny, wonderful stories were little-translated before his death. Generally, that would be that: Publishers tend to skew towards the younger, sexier, up-and-coming-er authors, and certainly — except in rare cases — prefer those among the living. AUC Press did publish Tales from Dayrut after Mustagab’s death, but to little notice, outside a review from Susannah Tarbush and perhaps a mention in Banipal.

We’ll not place the whole blame for this quiet reception with reviewers; AUCP probably could have tried a bit harder to interest reviewers, professors, TAs, Arabic students, book groups, awards-givers, and so on.

But like much of what is published in translation, Tales from Dayrut — if we are to anthropomorphize the book — found its way to a handful of happy English-language readers, and then went quietly to a back shelf to await interested scholars.

And so it will remain, until a passionate translator (or editor, or writer) appears to bring Mustagab to a wider public in translation. And here enter the anonymous QISASUKHRA (I like the site’s dramatic capital letters) with a fresh translation of “The Battle of the Rabbits.” The story begins, rather irresisitably:

I donned the dark suit, the tight new shoes and leapt into the street. The hour was early. Plans had been laid with modern precision.

I told my sweetheart, the evening before, that I was terrified of meeting her father. She tweaked my ear, brought her eyes closer, caught her breath for an instant, then laughed.

Her father, she said (like any father) loved his daughter and she (my sweetheart assumed an air of gravity) had cleared all obstacles for this encounter. She (she laughed) had paved the way: all that remained was to charge. She (her fingertips tickled my chin) cared for nothing in this world but me.

Her efforts, I said, were deserving of my fullest admiration. Nevertheless, I was not going to meet her father. I gazed into her eyes and my voice a whisper, underscored my point: It’s not a father I’ll be meeting, it’s a former prime minister…  Keep reading.

I suppose this means one must find a copy of Tales from Dayrut and write something about it.