On Translating ‘The Art of Party-crashing in Medieval Iraq’ and Why ‘Everybody Loves a Joker’

Syracuse University Press recently released Emily Selove’s translation of al-Khatib al-Baghdadi, Selections from the Art of Party-crashing in Medieval Iraq.  She answered a few questions about the project:

partyArabLit: What brought you to this project? Why this particular text (in the whole world of classical Arabic lit, and beyond)?

Emily Selove: I am interested in trickster figures in Arabic literature and beyond. My translation of this text began as my undergraduate thesis, for which I originally intended to translate the more famous Maqamat of al-Hamadhani, but since I was only in my fourth year of Arabic at that time, the language was a little above my head.

AL: What do you find especially charming about it that you thought would charm a reader (in translation)?

ES: I think that it comes as a pleasant surprise to a lot of people to find these roguish characters and their humor so familiar and likable, despite being from so long ago. Everybody loves a joker who strays outside of everyday codes of behavior in a funny way that also shows the absurdity or hypocrisy of these societal codes. You can find such characters all over the place, from ancient Greece to modern Hollywood. They seem especially popular in medieval Arabic literature.

AL: Can you talk a little bit about why it works to “persist in your error” of calling the time period medieval? And what sort of associations you were hoping to trigger with the translation into “medieval Iraq”?

ES: Greater dialog among scholars of medieval European literature and medieval Arabists could prove extremely fruitful for a number of reasons, but there is a tendency to think of these two bodies of literature as being separate, and many of the terms we use when referring to these two literatures help maintain a divide between the two fields. Since I focus on the “picaresque,” it is especially useful for me to be able to look all around the Mediterranean, since this is one genre that people strongly suspect was actually influenced in Europe by Arabic literary traditions.

AL: As you translated, did you have any English-language models/corollaries in mind? Is this similar, in your mind, to any particular English-language cultural phenomena?

ES: The original text is itself a collection of disparate literary styles from a wide range of sources, so I tried to reflect that in my translation as much as possible.

AL: You’re already working on another party-crashing translation? What makes that one particularly interesting (for someone who’s already read the al-Baghdadi?) Are you also hoping to publish this new translation in a format accessible to a wider audience, beyond just Arabic-literature scholars?


ES: Al-Baghdadi’s book is very typical of a certain type of literature (adab literature, which gathers a number of anecdotes and poems on a particular subject). The book I’m currently translating (Hikayat Abi al-Qasim) is highly unusual in its structure; it takes place over the course of a day and can be read in that same amount of time (i.e. it unfolds in real time), and deals entirely with a particular party-crasher named Abu al-Qasim, who is himself meant to represent a microcosm. Unlike al-Baghdadi’s text, this text contains strongly obscene language, and is absolutely shocking for a number of reasons.

As a microcosm it contains quotations and samples from virtually every genre of contemporary Arabic literature, but at the same time it challenges all kinds of expectations we might have about this literature by seemingly deliberately breaking all the rules in its structure and presentation. I’m very excited about this translation because I absolutely love this book, and I think it’s time we expand our idea of what’s possible in medieval Arabic literature, and this book helps do that like no other.

I’m trying to make the translation as accessible as possible (and I don’t shy away from using modern colloquial obscenities where appropriate), but the fact is, the original text can be pretty obscure and is far more complex linguistically than al-Baghdadi’s text, so my translation will have to reflect that. I am translating it* for the new Library of Arabic Literature series, a series produced by NYU and modeled on the Loeb classical translation series, with a critical edition of the Arabic on the opposite page from the English translation.

*Selove notes that she is co-translating the book with LAL veteran Geert Jan van Gelder.