Alex Elinson on Translating the ‘Power of Laughter in the Face of Economic and Social Despair’

If you’re in NYC today, translator Alex Elinson will be discussing A Beautiful White Cat Walks with Me at the Middle East and Middle Eastern American Center at the City University of New York:

According to Elinson, the talk will be informal, and it will be followed by a reading of some passages by himself and Mark Drury, a PhD candidate in Anthropology who is working on the Western Sahara. They’ll discuss the novel’s context and Elinson will talk about Fadel, his use of darija, and, Elinson said, “what I perceive to be his move from the local Moroccan scene to the broader Arab market.”

How would you describe Youssef Fadel’s writing in the current constellation of Moroccan, Arabic, and world literatures to someone unfamiliar with his work? What would your elevator pitch for Fadel and this novel be?

Alexander Elinson: Youssef Fadel is a novelist, television and movie screenwriter, and playwright. All of his works deal with everyday people and everyday problems – emigration, un- and underemployment, sexual frustration, violence, suspicion and distrust between family and friends.

He is an established writer who has been experimenting over the years with different uses of voice, language register, levels of realism and magical realism, and narrative structures. His extensive work for stage and screen results in novelistic writing that is vivid, visual, and character driven. A Beautiful White Cat is a novel about Morocco in the 1980s during Morocco’s war in the Western Sahara, narrated by a comic writer son and his royal jester father who are both striving to find their way in a country where assertions of power and control are played out and felt on a macro (state) and micro (personal) level. It is the story of the power of laughter in the face of economic and social despair, and the ultimate struggle to keep smiling when all seems lost.

What was your journey to translating A Beautiful White Cat Walks With Me?

AE: I came to know Youssef Fadel and his work by way of my research on language change in Morocco, specifically the increasing use of colloquial Arabic (darija) in writing. Fadel’s earlier works (Hashish, Zoo Story, A Metro Tall?! Impossible to name three) utilize darija extensively and I was very interested in his motivations for doing so, how this fit into larger questions of language change in writing in Morocco and the Arab world, and how the works were received critically.

After spending considerable time with his work, I can only say that I became quite taken with it and decided to translate it. It is interesting that although it was my interest in Fadel’s use of darija that initially brought me to his work, A Beautiful White Cat has almost none. Perhaps this is because it is the first of his novels to be published outside of Morocco (jointly by Fennec in Casablanca and Dar al-Adab in Beirut) and thus must take into account a non-Moroccan readership. However, what I still find so compelling about Fadel is his ability to write using a language that sounds colloquial and natural. He creates characters that one can imagine, hear, and sympathize with.

One of the reasons it moves so beautifully into English is your smooth and colloquial translation of course, but also the simultaneous specificity of the Moroccan landscape and yet how many things are not named (the king, the year, the state visitor, the reasons for protest and war), such that it feels like this could be, well, Trump and his court jester and his war. (Does Trump have a jester?) Just so, there is a moment when a man builds a house bigger than the king’s (and loses it) and it could be an anecdote from the Abassid era. What do you feel are the (literary) influences on this novel and the way it reconstructs history?

AE: Talking about influences is a tricky business. I prefer simply to place the novel into a certain constellation of recent works that are set in imaginary (or semi-imaginary) yet entirely recognizable settings – works such as The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz, Otared by Mohammed Rabie, Paul Beatty’s Sellout, Dave Eggers’ A Hologram for the King, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. All of these novels take us to places we can imagine, that seem real or are partially real, yet at the same time, cannot possibly be for all of their absurdities and inhumane acts (can they?). It is this juxtaposition between fiction and fact, the unreality of reality, that makes works like these so powerful.

The scenes you mention about the king’s minister who attempts to build a house bigger than the king’s, and the fact that the king has a jester do draw from a broader, folkloric 1001-Nights-like context that seems to come from another era. Indeed when I first sat with Fadel to talk about translating this book, I asked about the difference in meaning and sense between clown and jester (both muharrij in Arabic) – the Arabic version of the novel is adorned with pictures of clowns on the cover – adding that in English, jester seems strange because it evokes a medieval setting of a royal court. He replied that it is exactly this seeming disconnect between a bygone age and the present that he wanted to depict, that the system in Morocco, while quite real and in the present, seems to harken back to another time. It is exactly this unreal, medieval quality that he wished to evoke. At the same time however, King Hassan II did have one, Mohamed Binebine who died in 2008.

The two narrators’ relationships with women are universally difficult, with the jester-father Balloute seeming to misunderstand just about everything: Aziza’s premarital suicide attempt, for instance, about which he reflects, “Who can understand women?” But even the more sensitive Hassan is unable to understand his wife Zineb or his relationship with her, and she is continually moving further from him. (At least he understands his relationship with the general’s spoiled daughter Joumana.) How did you read the opacity and difficulties of the male-female relationships?

AE: Balloute is, quite simply, a pompous, self-centered ass, but there are definite aspects of his character that are sympathetic, I think. It is true that he is unable to see how his actions affect others, and his treatment of women is entirely for his own self-satisfaction. However, he is also very much caught in a web of power that in many ways reproduces itself from the top down. He comes off as very confident and sure of himself when we first meet him, but we very quickly realize that he is running scared – scared of spending his whole life as a petty performer in Marrakech, scared of running afoul of the king, scared of losing his place in the palace.

He views the women in is life as either useful for his physical pleasure, for his upward mobility, or not useful at all. He never tries to ‘understand women.’ He barely gives them a thought, but, then, he barely gives anyone a thought. Hassan is entirely different, but also almost completely unrealistic in the way he views his relationship with Zineb. When it comes to women, he is an idealistic dreamer. Having had little to no experience with women before meeting Zineb, he views her in almost cartoonish fashion – beautiful, modest, seductive, dutiful, all his. Hassan’s relationship with Zineb is like everything else in his life – elusive, frustrating, ultimately tragic. Actually, that’s not entirely true. Hassan seems to view everything in life with a certain cynicism, except for his relationship with Zineb. This is the one thing in his life that is perfect, so it seems.

If someone were going to build a class with/around this novel, what would you suggest they teach alongside it?

AE: Selections from Aristotle’s Poetics (on tragedy and comedy)

Anatomy of Criticism by Northrop Frye

Western Sahara: War, Nationalism, and Conflict Irresolution by Jacob Mundy and Stephen Zunes

Any number of short stories by Mohammed Zafzaf, Yusuf Idris

Yes! Short stories by Idris would teach really well with this. If someone were to build a library display with/around this novel, what expected and unexpected texts would you suggest they put with it?

AE: Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

The Theocrat: A Modern Arabic Novel by Bensalem Himmich

Redeployment by Phil Klay

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

The Secret Life of Saeed: The Pessoptimist by Emile Habiby

This a tragicomedy where often it’s the comedy that’s tragic, and the tragedy that’s comic, with the two bleeding into each other. (Like for me one of the funniest parts was where the activists don’t want to pay Hassan for his comic work, which is probably resonant for any freelancer in any capitalist or quasi-capitalist economy, anywhere. Other funny parts, like his “Who can understand women?” are more painfully funny.) How would you describe the relationship between tragedy, history, and comedy in the book?

AE: What better way to tell the story of war, corruption, and heartbreak in Morocco than with the voices of two comic performers, both walking a fine line between comedic success and failure on all fronts?

A Beautiful White Cat is a painfully sad story. The juxtaposition of comedy and tragedy in the work is a necessary element, I think, both in terms of internal plot, and in its effect on how it is read. Hassan’s and Balloute’s job is to make people laugh, and for a while they are quite successful at it. However, laughter and what is funny are complex and elusive, as Balloute describes in detail in an early chapter when he attempts to define them. Each character represents a different aspect of comedy – Hassan the political satirist and Balloute the buffoon entertainer. Hassan’s job is to focus attention on injustice and the absurd (although he often denies being political at all), whereas Balloute’s job is to entertain the king, to make him forget his troubles. In the end, though, real life events become too overwhelming for both of them and their ability to make people laugh, including the reader is lost. From a reader’s perspective the quick movement from laughter to social realist critic is startling, like have a rug pulled out from under you every few pages.

Why did you decide the book needed a foreword? What else would you have included (if anything) with more space?

AE: The book is both very Moroccan in its setting and context, and quite universal in many of the themes it treats. I think the book could read beautifully and effectively without the foreword. However, this would have removed much of the context of the book, and risked stranding the English language reader alone in the desert with very few signposts to help guide the way.

While no names are mentioned, Moroccans, at least of a certain age, would recognize many of the references to the king and other known figures such as General Ahmed Dlimi, commander of the armed forces in the Sahara, or Mohammed Binebine, King Hassan II’s boon companion and jester. The suggestion to include a forward came from the publisher, and while it does risk locating the novel too squarely in a particular Moroccan context, and even reading too ‘academically,’ I agree that it’s important to provide the English language reader with a context to fully understand not just the historical events where the novel occurs, but its boldness too. A story about absolute power and a war of questionable motivations is, in itself, a compelling one. Writing about a specific absolute power and a particular war that is not supposed to be questioned is extremely bold.

Translation involves not just moving from one language to another, but also moving the context along with the original into the translated text as much as possible. This novel was written in a context where questioning the king’s motives for any action, and critically discussing the Western Sahara region are red lines not to be crossed, and the book represents a bold challenge to these pieties. When translating, it is important to try to keep the original’s impact intact. If a work is oppositional and rebellious in its original language but, when translated into another language confirms certain stereotypes (“those Moroccans have always been a violent, dishonest bunch!” said the English language reader), it is only a partial translation and hasn’t fully brought the spirit of the work to the reader of the translated text. The forward gives the English language reader some help in understanding what this place was like, and what it means to criticize it.

What is this beautiful white cat smiling at him?

AE: Lost in translation is the wordplay between the word ‘sentence’ in the book’s epigraph and the ‘cat’ of the title that appears at the end of the novel. Both words are the same in Arabic (qitt); a relationship I’ll leave to experts in etymology to explain. Reading the epigraph (Qur’an 38:16: They say: ‘Our Lord! Hasten for us our sentence even before the Day of Reckoning!’) along with the brief mention of the white cat walking alongside the narrator at the end of the novel during his darkest hour, the white cat may evoke hope or light, or a darker, inescapable fate.

How does this novel fit in with the narratives and builds of Fadel’s other recent novels?

AE: A Beautiful White Cat is the first in a trilogy about Morocco in the 1980s, a period that was a particularly important one in terms of Morocco’s transition from an extremely repressive state in the 1970s and 1980s during the ‘Lead Years’ into the 1990s when Morocco began to enact several human rights and other reforms. Each of the three novels focuses on well-known aspects or icons of Moroccan life during that period. A Beautiful White Cat Walks with Me centers on the palace and the war in the Western Sahara. A Rare Blue Bird Flies with Me focuses on forced disappearance and the prison, and Farah looks at the building of the Hassan II mosque, the effects of that project on the Casablanca neighborhood where it was built, and the residents it displaced. All three novels, and in fact most of Fadel’s novels, are about regular people; lower and lower middle class people trying simply to survive in a place where it seems that everything is stacked against them, and success is fleeting.

If you were going to recommend any Moroccan work for translation, what would it be?

AE: Hot Maroc by Yasin Adnan

Exile by Abdallah Laroui

Any number of works by Moroccan zajal (colloquial poetry) poets such as Driss Amghar Mesnaoui, Ahmed Lemsyeh, Adil Latefi, Mourad Qadery, Nouhad Benaguida

If you were going to recommend any Moroccan work (other than this) as a must-read that’s already translated, what would it be?

AE: A Rare Blue Bird Flies with Me by Youssef Fadel

Whitefly by Abdelilah Hamdouchi

The Bottom of the Jar by Abdellatif Laabi (or anything else by him!)

The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami (written in English)

Many thanks!