In Banipal 46, there are excerpts of each of the six novels shortlisted for this year’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF), which is set to be announced the evening of April 23:
Four of the excerpts center on intimate portraits of relationships and reflections, while two are milieu sketches that revolve around a larger-than-life central character.
Bamboo Stalk, by Saud Alsanousi, (trans. Thomas Alpin):
This excerpt translates compellingly, if occasionally a bit stiffly. Although the novel explores a charged issue — race in Kuwait — here, the action centers around a talk the narrator’s Filipina mother is giving to her Filipino-Kuwaiti son about how he should see in Kuwait. Race is ever-present, but in the foreground is the difficult relationship between mother, son, and absent Kuwaiti father.
From the excerpt:
In our house there, I sat at my mother’s feet, listening to her as she told me about my father, while my aunt sighed, as was her custom whenever my mother spoke of him. My mother said: “I loved him and still do. I don’t know why or how. Perhaps because he was kind to me when everyone else treated me badly? Or because he was the only one who spoke to me in the old lady’s house, other than to give me orders? Maybe it was because he was handsome? Or because he was a cultured young writer, who dreamed of finishing his first novel, and I was addicted to reading novels?”
How strange. She smiled as she spoke, tears almost spilling from her eyes, as though what she described had happened only yesterday.
The Beaver, by Mohammad Hassan Alwan, (trans. Paul Starkey)
This is the second excerpt of The Beaver that Banipal has run; the first was translated by a BCLT Arabic Literary Translation Workshop, led by Paul Starkey, and is available online. This new excerpt is not always a fluid read, and has small infelicities, such as, “If she hadn’t married a second time, she would have kept on and on blaming me for her first divorce despite the fact it was an unconsummated marriage.”
Nonetheless, it has both funny and painful interactions between the narrator and his sister, as well as some beautiful lines: “Her piety seemed to me like a last attempt to carve her name on a wall somewhere in the world.”
The narrator goes from being a young man who pushed “Badriyya in front of her husband-to-be, screaming ‘Go upstairs, girl!’ in a sham hysterical way” to an older one who mocks his sister’s piety while he speaks on the phone with her from Portland, Oregon.
From the excerpt:
Sometimes I think Badriyya has perhaps been the most important woman in my life, despite the fact that she is a long way from me in spirit these days. I have shared with her a cup and a salty loaf — as we say — and important period of our lives, and memories I could not share with anyone else. I am amazed both and how little we have had in common and at how powerful and influential our relationship has been.
Hail Mary, by Sinan Antoon (trans. Maia Tabet)
Hail Mary takes place in Baghdad in a single day. At its center are two characters: Youssef, an elderly man who’s refused to leave his city, and Maha, a woman from a very different generation. The excerpt, which comes fluidly to life in English, focuses on how Youssef sees Maha, seeing him.
Youssef, in the excerpt:
In any case, for me to stop living in it, the past would have to be dead — and it wasn’t. The past was alive and well, in one form or another, and it not only co-habited with the present but continued to wrestle with it. Or was it merely being held captive inside the framed photographs hanging on the wall and in our albums?
Perhaps the past was like the garden which I so loved and which I tended as if it were my own daughter just to escape the noise and ugliness of the world. My own paradise in the heart of hell, my own “autonomous region” as I liked to call it at times. I would do anything to defend that garden, and the house that went with it, because that was all I had left.
I really had to forgive her. My youth was not her youth, her time and my time were worlds apart. War and sanctions were what her green eyes beheld when they had fluttered open, and her earliest tastes of life were deprivation, violence, and displacement. I, on the other hand, had lived in prosperous times which I still remembered and continued to believe were real.
Me, Her, and the Other Women, by Jana Elhassan, (trans. Ghenwa Hayek)
This excerpt sometimes has an over-generalized portrait of love and sex, which doesn’t translate interestingly into English. The excerpt is at its best when it shows the specific power struggle between this particular (Lebanese) husband and wife.
In the span of a few moments, I would become a tiny kitten waiting for the giant lorry barreling down a narrow road to crush it. It was as if I could hear the roar of the engine and as if I were surrendering to death by terror in the face of an impending onslaught.
On relationships (generally):
I often wondered whether it was every woman’s fate to weep into her pillow once her husband was asleep because she wasn’t sure whether she existed or not. Do the fates of women only depend on their husbands’ characters? I compared the tears of my mother to those I shed today and could not believe my life had become so miserable.
Specifically, about their relationship:
He asked me questions with the single-mindedness of an inquisitor, reducing me to tears, forcing me to tell him that he was right, that his ancestors, who were like pieces of ancient furniture, were treasures the like of which would never be found again, that he, like his elders, was an inimitable man, and that I knew I should thank my lucky stars every day that I had found him.
Our Master, Ibrahim Eissa, (trans. Ruth Ahmedzai)
From the excerpt:
Whether he was at the pulpit or delivering a lecture, on Facebook or on his website, in the company of friends or those who came to study and pray with him, in a restaurant or relaxing at home — he was always in the red spotlight. Even in his car, people would gather round wanting to greet him and shake his hand, praising him, asking him for a blessing or firing questions at him. Like a famous storyteller performing on a street corner, being coaxed into telling another joke, he would find himself surrounded by crowds lurking out of curiosity, hankering after his informed opinion on one thing or another. He even basked in this red light when he went to the bathroom in a restaurant or when he parked his car at his apartment block and had to fight his way through the swarms of security guards and doormen. … For Hatem, this red light seemed to occupy the space between his soul and his body — and Hatem was confused about whether there was an imaginary gap between the two or whether they somehow touched — and it compelled him to obey. … The result was that his real self seemed to have gone astray, and he was no longer sure he would recognise it or its distinguishing features, making him resort permanently to this other self, the reassuring, well-trained performing self.
Q&A with Eissa: I Do Not Write Novels as a Political Act
His Excellency, the Minister, Hussein El Wad, (trans. John Peate)
This also focuses on a single, dominating character who is losing his identity as he’s caught between the powerlessness of his relationship with His Excellency, the (Tunisian) President and with those who he can dominate.
At a meeting with the president:
“What if he questions you about matters unrelated to your ministry?” he asked. I said: “I’ll reply with what I know and what I believe to be true.” He fired back a blunt: “No!” Then explained: “I would advise you not to. We must not tell His Excellency anything other than His Excellency would love to hear. Never spoil the joy of his days with troubles. That would also harm the national interest.” I didn’t understand him and asked: “What will I say to His Excellency, then?” He replied: “You tell him everything is going well. That things could not be better thanks to his conviviality, sophistication, great wisdom and good fortune.”
Interview with El Wad: This Was a Novel ‘Published in Gratitude to the Revolution’
To read the full excerpts, you can grab a copy of Banipal 46.