Arabic Literature in Persian, Persian Literature in Arabic

Last week, Iranian journalist Farahmand Alipour (@FarahmandAlipur) had a fascinating interview with Farsi-Arabic translator Ghassan Hamdan:

Kalila w Dimna, a text that traveled from Persian to Arabic.
Kalila w Dimna, a text that traveled from Persian to Arabic.

In a wide-ranging talk, the two addressed Hamdan’s personal history, the growing interest in Iranian novels in Arabic, the particular difficulties in distributing novels published in Iraq, and what sorts of Arabic novels are published in Persian.

On that topic:

 According to research conducted a few years ago about Persian and Arabic novels, only 2% of the novels that have been translated into Persian in modern time were Arabic novels. Those Arabic novels that have been translated into Persian usually have historical and religious themes — for example, works of Jurji Zaydan, who is also popular because he has a simple writing style and uses an easy and understandable language. Gibran Khalil Gibran is also popular among Iranians, because the mystic theme in his books interests Iranians. There have even been articles written in Iran about Khalil Gibran, and he has been compared with Iranian poets such as Sohrab Sepehri.

Certainly Zaydan is also interesting because his historical novels, which address history of the Islamic empires, are as relevant to Iranian readers as to Arabs. There also have been TV adaptations of Zaydan’s novels in Iran. Hamdan continues:

Of course, after the Arab writer Naguib Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize, Iranians became interested in Arabic literature, but not all of his writings have been translated into Persian.

Because of political reasons, Palestinian writers have received a lot of attention in Iran. Their works have been translated into Persian, and numerous meetings and discussions on the importance of Palestinian resistance literature and how it has influenced the literature of the Islamic Republic were held in Iran. There have also been meetings and talks regarding the importance of Palestinian children’s literature. However, since only a certain group of Iranians are interested in these works, the Palestinian writers and poets have remained unknown to Iranian society at large.

Religion has also hobbled the contemporary relationship between the two literatures, according to Hamdan:

Aside from the anti-Arabism that exists among some Iranians and the political struggle in the region, the fact that Iranians have a religious culture different from that of the Arabs has resulted in translators being less interested in translating Arabic works and readers less interested in reading them. Also, in Iran, students of Arabic literature are educated in a more traditional and conservative fashion, and thus are unaware of new developments in the Arabic language and new Arabic literature, including plays and short stories.

Some Arabic-Persian translators have been active, Hamdan said, although more have focused on poetry than on prose:

In recent years, however, a few important Arabic novels have been translated into Persian, and we should thank people like Yousef Azizi Bani-Torof for this. Bani-Torof translated works by the Sudanese writer Tayeb Salih, Naguib Mahfouz and the Syrian writer Hanna Mina, among others, but he eventually withdrew from cultural activities because of political reasons. Others active in this field are Mr. Reza Ameri, Mr. Rahim Foroughi and Ms. Amel Nabhani. I have also translated three novels from Arabic to Persian, and I hope I can publish them in Iran in the near future. Of course, we should mention that translators have been more interested in translating poetry than prose. Works by contemporary Arab poets such as Nizar Qabbani, Ghada al-Samman and Adunis have been well received by Iranian intellectuals.

There are some infelicities — Hamdan’s overly enthusiastic characterization of Egyptian media as entirely free — but it ranges over wonderfully interesting ground.

Read the whole interview: Iraqi writer brings Persian literature to Arab world