‘Freefall in the Shattered Mirror’: The Story of a Story in Arabic, in English

The magazine The Common is publishing its first work of Arabic literature in translation in Issue 6, which is set to be released on October 28. We asked a few questions about the process of Jennifer Acker, the magazine’s founding editor and editor in chiefand of Hisham Bustani, whose work is featured in the magazine:

06 cover lowresArabLit: Hisham Bustani’s “Freefall in a Shattered Mirror” is the first piece of fiction translated from Arabic published in The Common. Why that piece?

Jennifer Acker: In its innovative structural form, the story introduces to our readers a kind of nested storytelling we have not published before — in which there are several short scenes that can stand poetically and structurally alone on their own but are also contained within an overarching narrative and tension. The central character is a woman struggling emotionally and psychologically to break free from traditional confines, but she is held back by forces that overwhelm her. Her mental landscape is rich, and the author examines her dilemma from several different angles.

AL: Where did the idea for “Freefall in a Shattered Mirror” come from?

Hisham Bustani: It came from real life. As soon as they arrive at university in the morning, many female students in Jordan go to the bathroom and remove their veils and the conservative clothing they left home in and start a parallel life away from the restrictions of their immediate society — a life that lasts until it is time to go home again. This also happens when some girls go out with friends — they remove their conservative clothing in taxis or at a friend’s house. It is a fascinating duality, one that tackles the issue of self-expression within different social contexts and the manifestations of societal and authoritarian oppression, plus the internal struggle to compromise and balance all those elements.

To complete the picture of social/authoritarian oppression, and so as not to appeal to an orientalist audience, I added a secondary character struggling with this duality and conflict: the tango dancer, a male character who is divided between his love of dancing, and the social pressure of a society that looks down on dancers, especially when they are men.

AL: How do you (Hisham) read the English version of the story? Is it different from how it felt in the original? Does it make you see it any differently?

Hisham 1)
From Hisham Bustani.

HB: Arabic is a poetic language, very malleable and it flows smoothly, a characteristic that is very important to my style of writing. The comment I usually have when I read translations of my work is: This or that sentence does not sound a lot like the Arabic original, the Arabic original has more flow.

My translator Thoraya El-Rayyes has a theory about that. She always snaps back: Of course Arabic flows better, it is because the tashkeel [diacritical marks] at the end of each word makes nearly every Arabic word end with a vowel sound. The vowel sound at the end of each word makes each Arabic word flow into the next, whereas many English words end with consonants.

I can’t but agree!

AL: You (Jennifer) are directly involved in editing a lot of the material that appears in The Common. What was different in the editor-writer collaboration when it came to literature in translation, especially with Hisham’s piece?

Jennifer Acker Montague crop Credit Paul Franz
Photo credit Paul Franz.

JA: In my brief experience, Arabic is a difficult language to render into English. Discussing the editing and translation of the story with Hisham was a wonderful learning experience for me. Not only was I reminded of how so often our American ears reach for a kind of casual language — which is not necessarily appropriate to every story, and wasn’t for Hisham’s story — but also of certain peculiarities of translation. For example, the small but noteworthy difficulty of the pronouns: A reader of the Arabic would know the gender of the person speaking, and the English language does not allow for that.

I must add a word about the important role of technology, here, too. Our global and mobile world. As the founding editor and editor in chief of The Common, I created a magazine that emphasizes the value of reading literature in print on a page and of examining the issues related to sense of place. Since I was a kid, growing up where I did, I’ve carried with me this tension between the ideal of certain rural environments where few people moved around much, and the knowledge and romance of travel. (I inherited a great desire to travel from my grandparents, who were experts in the chemistry and engineering of the brewing industry and traveled all around the world consulting on the making of beer.) This push-pull created an interest in “sense of place.”

So while technology has fragmented our traditional sense of home, it’s also, of course, brought the world’s disparate communities closer. It’s worth pointing out that Hisham and I would likely not have found each other if I had not spent a year teaching far away from my home at NYU Abu Dhabi and traveling to a few places in the Middle East and if we weren’t both engaged in literature online. It is because I was traveling to Jordan that I became interested in researching and writing about a few current cultural trends in the country.

I came across Hisham’s writing online and mentioned it in my short essay “Elswhere, in Jordan”. When Hisham discovered that essay, and my interest in his work, he sent me his story. We have been able to communicate seamlessly via email, both while I was in Abu Dhabi and now that I am back in the United States. Our communications transpire quickly and, thankfully for me, in English. I am in my initial stages of learning about Arabic literature, both classical traditions and contemporary incarnations, and it’s my hope that working with Hisham and publishing his story, which is both timeless and of-the-moment, will be the beginning of an ongoing personal and editorial relationship with him and a connection that leads to the discovery and publication of other similarly talented authors writing in Arabic and living in the Middle East.

AL: Do you (Hisham) imagine the English-language reception will be any different from the Arabic-language reception, as it situates the story in a different tradition?

HB: The story is about the conflicting identities, desires, passions and senses of belonging within a person, and the internal struggle to compromise between those elements or balance them within the frameworks of society and authority. I think many people in different social contexts and different parts of the world experience that on a daily basis, and will be able to relate to the story from that angle. The new thing will be the particular issues portrayed, the manifestation of the struggle and conflict.

More by Hisham Bustani, trans. Thorayya El-Rayyes:

World Literature Today: History Will Not Be Made on This Couch

ArabLit: Author Hisham Bustani and Translator Thoraya El-Rayyes on Translating, Together

ArabLit: Nightmares of the City