‘A Banquet for Seaweed’ Finally Coming to English: Read an Excerpt

One of the Syrian novelist Haidar Haidar’s most important works — and certainly his most controversial — A Banquet for Seaweed — is nearing the end of a long translational journey with scholar-translator Allen Hibbard and poet-translator-publisher Osama Esber:

JIY5NyEYT6oThe novel was published in 1983, and Allen Hibbard came to know it in the early 1990s, when he was teaching at the University of Damascus on a Fullbright. That’s when he met Osama Esber.

“We did a collection of contemporary Syrian writing for the Cimarron Review,” Hibbard said over Skype. “We did some poems by Adonis.” And when Hibbard asked Esber which Syrian novels might need to be translated, “He mentioned that right away.”

Esber said, in a subsequent email interview, that:

A Banquet for Seaweed is Haidar’s best novel. It is set in a critical period of the region’s history, the period characterized by the end of colonialism and the rise of the national liberation movements, which was crowned with despotic monarchies and military dictatorships. It is also about the war on the left, the rise of Islamism and disintegration of the possibility of building a safe future for the region’s peoples. This is the general climate in which the narrative moves. The novel deals also with gender issues, the condition of women in a male-dominated society, and the repression of brutal authoritarian regimes, all this affects the lives and destiny of the novel’s characters, who seem desperate and frustrated. What is also important is Haidar’s artistic approach and his poetic powerful language that benefits from the achievements of modernism in Arabic literature.”

Hibbard said that, for him, translation “became of friendship, an act of doing something. It’s always been collaborative.”

Esber, who also translates from English into Arabic — and is currently working on a translation of Raymond Carver’s collected short stories — usually works by himself, but said that, “When the members of the team move easily from language into another, when they are writers themselves, when there are two native speakers, I think this will lead to a good, team-produced translation.”

However, the project didn’t go forward quickly, Hibbard said. After he left Syria the two found it difficult to collaborate across distances.

Then, in 2000, there was a major event in the life of Banquet for Seaweed, which Max Rodenbeck wrote about extensively in the NYRB: It was on the wrong journalist’s bookshelf at the wrong time; he misrepresented the book. Protests against the publication of the book ensued, and the government both arrested the protesters and charged the Ministry of Culture officials who’d been part of reprinting the book, yanked copies from shelves, and questioned novelist Ibrahim Aslan for eight hours for his role in recommending that the book be reprinted.

In August of 2012, Esber made the difficult decision to leave his Dar Bidayat publishing house, his home, and relocate with his family to Chicago. This leant both new possibilities and a new urgency to the project; an excerpt of the work is now up at Interlitq, and they hope to be finished by the end of the year.

I asked Hibbard if he had any models for the translation — as Samah Selim said she had in mind Sir Walter Scot’s prose when she translated Jurji Zaidan:

I do, in fact. I have in my mind Herman Melville. One reason is that the epigram for the novel is from Melville. We translated it back into English without knowing where it came from. It was from Mardi. … [But also,]  the way in which a novel like Moby Dick moves around a lot in terms of the registers and in terms of the heteroglossic feel, reminds me of “وليمة لأعشاب البحر.”

Both Hibbard and Esber noted that Haidar Haidar, who is now in his late 70s, is still living in Syria. “But he lives a different way of life,” Esber said, “in a small cottage on the beach, isolated from people, where he is writing and fishing, giving himself to more meditation.”

More from these two interviews is forthcoming, but meanwhile, read:

An extract from Banquet for Seaweed on Interlitq

Poems by Esber in translation at Interlitq

Poetry by Esber in Arabic, on Jadaliyya