Request for Submissions: Your Favorite (Arabic) Literary Quotes (in English)

Beau Beausoleil, the founder and driving spirit behind the “Mutanabbi Street Starts Here” project, is interested in branching out into the best quotes and excerpts from Arabic literature:

quotation-marks-free-stock-photo---public-domain-pictures-o7a2klhxBeausoleil said that he’d particularly like to focus on ones that are “not already in public view. They don’t have to be from well known writers, they just have to turn an idea over in a new or unusual way. I’d especially welcome quotes from women writers and artists from the MENA region.”

Of course, men also occasionally have interesting things to say.

“I’d like quotes that get at the interior of writing and translation, quotes that illuminate and inspire, maybe even some that make us laugh at ourselves.  Quotes on process and place, quotes on the ability and impossibility of language conveying the complexity of one moment of memory.”

He added: “I want quotes that inspire and challenge us!”

Even though I probably have any number from past interviews, I’m not at all good at this, but I’ll start. Egyptian novelist Salwa Bakr:

In most cases, women continue to write from a man’s point of view on the world, because the foundational literary references are those written by men. For example, when a female author describes a woman, she writes as a man would, saying ‘She was like an apple, or a flower.’ As a woman, I don’t notice these things in other women. I would say that a character is clever, or heroic, because I don’t see a woman through the eyes of a man, I see her through my own eyes. I don’t see her physical features alone, or see her as an object, the way a man sees her. This isn’t just a problem in Arab literature, but in world literature throughout its history.

Palestinian poet Mazen Maarouf:

Maybe we are talking now, on Skype, and maybe exactly two other people, in Africa, or in China, are doing the same interview, more or less. We never know. We became multiples, kind of copies. I’m not saying in a bad sense. The way we live, the tools we use. This makes me feel more encouraged and more like I’m intended to talk to these people who do not know me. Not necessarily Palestinians or Lebanese — anyone.

A heartbreaking quote from Syrian novelist Nihad Sirees last April:

Any audience in Providence, [Rhode Island], they’ll say: ‘Leave your books, tell us what is happening in your country.’ But I want to say: It’s still not late to help these people, to help this country, so that it doesn’t become worse and worse.

And from Syrian poet Ghayath al-Madhoun:

I think the Syrian revolution will change you, will change the West, will change everything.

You think these people in the West who stay silent, you think they will be the same people?

Also al-Madhoun:

I had arrived at a point where I was blaming the translator: Why did they do that? But then I understood. There is some point where it’s impossible to cross the wall between two languages if you don’t change the poem.

Anyhow, I’m sure you’ll be much better at it. Please post your favorites below, tweet them at me, or send them directly to Beausoleil.


  1. How I first heard this: “Sell your cleverness and purchase awe.” I think that was Rumi, but the first time I saw it, it was being attributed to Viktor Frankl.

    “If you are irritated by every rub, how will you be polished?” ~Rumi

    “Out beyond the ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” ~Rumi, as interpreted by Coleman Banks

    “And don’t think the garden loses its ecstasy in winter. It’s quiet, but the roots are down there riotous.” ~Rumi

    “I have lived on the lip of insanity, wanting to know reasons, knocking on a door. It opens. I’ve been knocking from the inside!” ~Rumi

    1. Nothing Arabic about old Rumi, though…

      1. Oh?!
        Well then I guess I wouldn’t know one if it bit me!!
        I tried, and it is one of my favorites.
        Good luck finding what you’re looking for.

  2. Following qoutes by al-Jahiz, Kitab al-Hayawaan:

    “Excellence with regard to the art of poetry is limited to the Arabs and those who speak the Arabic language. Poetry cannot be translated and does not render itself to transmission. And whenever it is converted into another language its concinnity (nazm) is broken, its meter is rendered defunct, its beauty evaporates, and that something that inspires wonder and admiration simply absents itself. This is unlike the case with expository prose, though it is likewise true that what was originally written as such is superior to and more genuine in its constitution than prose that has been written by converting metrically balanced poetry.”

    “The books of India have come down to us, and the Greek philosophies have been translated, along with the literary tradition of the Perisans. Through this process some of these works have increased in excellence and some have forfeited a portion for their original quality. And had the genius of the Arabs been converted, that miracle which is meter would have been rendered null and void. Had they nevertheless converted this corpus, moreover, they would have found nothing that had not been mentioned by the non-Arabs in works dealing with livelihoods, fields of knowledge, and philosophies, books that have been passed on from people to people, from century to century, from language to language, until they have ended up with us, and we have been the latest to inherit them and examine their content. Thus it has been confirmed that books are superior to the monuments and poetry in their ability to preserve the grand achievements of civilizations.”

    “Then it has been said by some among the proponents, connoisseurs, and advocates of poetry that the particular meanings in Aristotle’s work, specificity of his doctrines, the intricate implications of his abridgements, and the subtleties inherent in his definitions are never conveyed by the translator with perfect fidelity. He is unable either to afford these things their due and convey them faithfully or to discharge the duty of steward or proxy. For how can he convey these things, safely deliver their meanings, and inform (us) about them according to what is true and unperjured, except that he be absolutely certain as to their meanings, the manner in which these meanings have been packaged i.e. the authors’ locution, and the interpretations of those portions which may be construed in a number of ways with a number of implications? He must know these things as well as the original author of the work himself. But now since when have Ibn al-Bitriq (God have mercy on his soul), Ibn Na’ima, Ibn Qurra, Ibn Fihriz, Thifiil, Ibn Wahili, or Ibn al- Muqafa’ been comparable to Aristotle?! And since when has Khalid stood on equal footing with Plato? ”

    “Conditions to be fulfilled by the Translator
    It is vital that the translator include (directly) in the text of the translation his own formal statement clearly indicating the level of knowledge he has attained in the field presented in the translated piece. He should, above all, be most learned in both the target and source languages, to the point where he has mastered them both and is equally at home with either one of them.”

    “Even so, however, whenever we find that such a man speaks two languages we know that he has committed injustice to each of them, for each of the two languages attracts the other, takes something from it, and impedes its function. How can his proficiency in the two languages together be equal to the proficiency he would have in using one of the two alone, since he has only one faculty for language, which is exhausted whenever he speaks any one language? By the same token, if he speaks more than two languages, translation into each one of these languages will be (adversely) affected at a rate proportional to this interlanguage attrition (which itself increased with the number of languages involved). And the more difficult and vexatious the area of study and the fewer its erudite scholars, the more difficult still will be the task of the translator and even more prone will he be to committing errors, to the point where he will never find a translator to convey the work of one of these scholars with complete fidelity.”

  3. Many thanks Marcia-

    A few additional guidelines came to mind. I’d like to make this a Rumi/Coleman Banks free zone. Rumi quotes abound on the internet, and I’d like to mostly range back and forth over the last few generations (with an emphasis on contemporary writers and artists). Also, I’d ask people to not send me really lengthy quotes, rather ones that are not more than 150 words. And if possible I’d like some sense of where the quote was found ie: magazine article, catalog, interview, novel, panel transcript, their own translation, etc. etc. and a link to more information on the writer or artist would be great. I want cultural communities in the West to be inspired and challenged by these quotes from their sisters and brothers, all working artists and writers of the MENA region, including those in exile. .

    All best,

  4. “Write, yourself, the history of your heart, from the moment Adam was struck with love until the resurrection of your people. And write, yourself, the history of your kind, from the time you borrowed the sea’s rhythm and manner of breathing until your return to me alive. You lie before me like a rhyme that cannot carry the rush of my words. I elegize and I am elegized. Be me so I can be you! Rise up so I can carry you! Come near so I know you! Go far away so I can know you!”

    -Mahmoud Darwish ‘In the Presence of Absence.’

  5. كيف نضجر وللسماء هذه الزرقة ، وللأرض هذه الخضرة ، وللورد هذا الشذا ، وللقلب هذه القدرة العجيبة على الحب ، وللروح هذه الطاقة اللانهائية على الإيمان. كيف نضجر وفي الدنيا من نحبهم ، ومن نعجب بهم ، ومن يحبوننا ، ومن يعجبون بنا.

    -نجيب محفوظ في زقاق المدق

    How do we despair when the sky is this blue and the earth is this green? When the roses are emanating this sweet scent? When the heart has this curious ability to love, and the spirit has this infinite capability to believe? How do we despair when there are people in this world who we love, who inspire us, and people who we love and inspire in return?”

    -Naguib Mahfouz in Midaq Alley

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