On the Anniversary of Jurji Zaydan’s Birth, that Bad Bitch Shajar al-Dur and 5 More

Earlier this month, historian Kurt Werthmuller took the opportunity of the “badder than Taylor Swift” meme to direct our attention to Shajar al-Dur, or “Tree of Pearls”:

Although there were no Top 10 singles — of which we know, at any rate — Shajar al-Dur was the hero of one of Jurji Zaydan’s (December 14, 1861-1914) fun historical novels, translated into English by Samah Selim as Tree of Pearls, Queen of Egypt (2012).

Back in 2012, Selim likened Zaydan to Walter Scott, adding that she:

“…felt that Zaydan had even gone beyond Scott in the way his [Zaydan’s] main characters are situated in a gray zone – neither heroes nor villains but always a bit of both. Or put another way, rather than being defined by scales of good and evil, they live in and through a combination of politics, self-interest, and  emotional attachments. Rukn al-Din Baybars is a good example of what I mean. All through the novel you see him working out his inner conflicts between these three poles in a really subtle and ‘realistic’ way. If he were a character in a Walter Scott novel, his ambivalence about his responsibility to Shwaykar would define him as more of a villain, but in Zaydan, he is first and foremost a good politician and a great warrior.”

Five more of the Lebanese historian and historical novelist’s works have been translated to English, thanks to a project started by his grandson, George Zaidan. The Zaidan Foundation  worked with scholar-translators to bring The Conquest of Andalusia, The Battle of Poitiers, The Caliph’s Sister, The Caliph’s Heirs , and Saladin and the Assassins into English.

Zaidan in his 40s.

In honor of Zaydan’s birthday, we’ve dug up a 2012 email conversation between ArabLit and George Zaidan.

I’d like to know how your interest in this project began.

George Zaidan: Actually, the original idea came from my wife, Hada whose grandfather Jabr Dumit was a very close friend of my grandfather. Here’s what happened. After retiring from a 30-year career at the World Bank some twelve years ago I formed a consulting company. A few years ago I had committed myself to a major contract, refusing several others. But that major contract fell through and I unexpectedly found myself with little to do in between contracts. This is when Hada in early 2009  suggested that I should look into how to promote my grandfather’s works in the anglo-saxon world. I got in touch with Thomas Philipp who had written a book about my grandfather in the 70s. I also read many of his novels to decide which should be translated. This led to the formation of the Zaidan Foundation and the program which it is supporting and involves much more than the translation of my grandfather’s novels. You can read all about that program on our website at www.zaidanfoundation.org.

How did you first experience your grandfather’s books? What relationship do you have to them?

GZ: It seems incredible to say that until this project began I had not read a single one of my grandfather’s novels. I was too busy studying in my youth and had planned to read them all after finishing my studies and before beginning my professional career in Dar-al-Hilal. But the latter was never to be. As I completed my studies abroad and became absorbed in my thirty year professional career in finance and development at the World Bank I never got around to reading them.

With this project, I made up for this gap with a vengeance. As said earlier I read most of them to decide which of them to select for translation. In the process I not only enjoyed the suspense and adventure of these stories but learnt much about Arab and Islamic history. This was, of course, the major reason that led my grandfather to write them in the first place. To personally experience the educational journey he had envisioned was exhilarating and for me one of the most rewarding aspects of this whole project.

 Were you personally influenced by Zaidan?

GZ: Jurji Zaidan died twenty five years before I was born. His influence was passed on to me indirectly through the values he ingrained in his two sons and that explain the success they had in greatly expanding Dar-al-Hilal into one of the biggest publishing houses for periodicals in the Middle East.

His main traits were his honesty, moral courage, modesty and an incredible ability for hard work. Getting to appreciate in great detail the kind of person he was in the course of researching the paper I prepared for the [Library of Congress] Symposium was for me another most rewarding aspect of this project.

 When did you first decide you wanted to spearhead this translation process personally, rather than leave it up to a publisher? What have been the positives and negatives of doing this yourself, rather than relying on a publisher?

GZ: It never occurred to me to let a publisher design or manage the program of translations as I had my own ideas on this score. But at the beginning of the project, I had visualized that a publisher – academic or commercial – would publish the series after the translations were completed. But as the project progressed, I became aware of the significant advantages of self-publishing or POD (Publishing on Demand). And now all the novels are available at www.Amazon.com and other outlets.

As far as I am concerned, I can only think of positives for self-publishing. Speed is a major one. I was able to have the five translations published in under two years from the time I signed up the translators. This was critical as all these had to be completed in time for the Library of Congress Symposium last June (I believe it took closer to five years for the Tree of Pearls to see the light of day – obviously this is for your information not for the article J). But speed was not the only advantage – royalties were much more attractive and I had greater freedom on the structure (e.g. including Study Guides; using the simple transliteration form of Arabic) and presentation (cover and interior design).

But there were also costs – it took considerable time and effort which I adjusted to and actually welcomed; some might feel differently on this score. And, initially, I did not have any advertising or marketing capabilities. But I found ways to develop these capabilities which again I enjoyed but which others might find onerous.

How did you select translators? How did you get a sense of who you wanted to work with?

GZ: Identifying suitable translators was at first a slow process. Not being keyed into the fraternity of translators it was difficult to find them and also, given my lack of any track record, to credibly approach them. My few contacts suggested some names as did some publishers whom I was considering to publish the translations. I read the translations and selected other works of those recommended to me. But at the end of the first six months of search I had only one translator who was prepared to translate a novel. I was not prepared to compromise on quality and for a time thought that I would have to be content with the translation of only one novel. But then, as is often the case when one is launching a new venture, things started to snowball and fall into place and before I knew it I had more outstanding translators willing to become involved than I had candidates for translation! Before signing up potential translators I made a point, with one exception, of going to meet face-to-face with them to make sure to the extent possible that we would both be comfortable in working together. In retrospect everything worked out perfectly on all fronts with all these outstanding translators who were scholars in their own right!

 There are some translations into French, correct? Once you’ve finished the English translations, do you have plans to branch out into any other European languages, or is this the extent of the project? Do you think perhaps these translations will inspire more?

GZ: I do not plan to branch into translations of these novels into other languages but I hope to commission the translation of more novels into English. Candidates include Fatat Ghassan one of Zaidan’s earliest and more popular novels set in pre-islamic times in greater Syria as well as novels that precede or follow those already translated. For example the third Zaidan novel that is set in Spain or the one which deals with the establishment of the Abbasid dynasty before the one on Harun Al-Rashid, already translated. Fortunately there are many outstanding translators keen to participate.

And, of course, I also hope that others will be inspired and elect to translate a novel at their own initiative with no need for me to approach them – as happened with Samah Selim who was busily translating the Tree of Pearls before I started my project as well as with all the French translations.

Samah Selim said she was hoping that a broad, popular audience would read Tree of Pearls. What sort of audience were you hoping might pick up these translations? Did you have an ideal reader in mind?

GZ: As you know, these novels in the Arab world appeal to the general population especially to the younger generation, just like the novels of Alexandre Dumas and Walter Scott in the western world. But Zaidan sought to do more with his novels than just entertain. They were written in a very simple style to appeal to the “barely literate” and educate them about Arab and Islamic history in an enjoyable manner – with fictional love stories full of adventure and suspense. But given that Zaidan’s primary purpose was education they incorporate much more political and cultural history than the novels of Scott and Dumas.

With this background, I sought to continue Zaidan’s educational mission in the translations by including Study Guides in all of them as well as some scholarly assessments in some. So yes – like Samah I hope that these novels will appeal to a broad popular audience, though attracting the general English-speaking public that does not have a Middle East heritage or interest will be challenging.