5 Books: Remembering Jabra Ibrahim Jabra

Towering Palestinian-Iraqi writer, artist, and translator Jabra Ibrahim Jabra (1920-1994) — who spent much of his life in Iraq — died twenty-four years ago tomorrow:

Painting by Jabra Ibrahim Jabra

Jabra was born in Bethlehem, was educated in Jerusalem, Exeter, and Cambridge, and then returned to Palestine in 1943 as a lecturer in English literature. In 1948, he and his family were forced to flee, and moved to Baghdad, Iraq, where he eventually married an Iraqi woman and took Iraqi citizenship.

In Baghdad, Jabra crafted both novels and poems, first composing in English and later shifting into Arabic. He was also a practicing artist for most of his life, and a member of the Baghdad Modern Art Group. As a profile in This Week in Palestine notes:

In his childhood autobiography The First Well, Jabra recounts that the Bethlehemite mother-of-pearl artists had influenced his perception of art as a child, and that his first attempts at drawing and painting were in 1931, in Bethlehem, where he would imitate a barber who used to enlarge photographs in his shop

Jabra was also known as a translator of Shakespeare, William Faulkner, and Samuel Beckett. As Elliott Colla wrote back in 2015, “Without Jabra’s translation of The Sound and the Fury, it is unlikely that novels like Men in the Sun, Miramar or Voices would have been written.”

Jabra also had a day job: he was head of publications at the Iraq Petroleum Company in Baghdad from 1954 – 1977.

1) Hunters in a Narrow Street (1960)written originally in English.

As the publisher writes: “Jameel Farran, a Christian Arab, is forced to flee his destroyed Jerusalem in 1948. Teaching at Baghdad University, he falls in love with a beautiful Muslim girl, Sulafa, but their turbulent affair meets almost insurmountable obstacles of tradition and circumstance.”

2) The Ship (1970), translated by Adnan Haydar & Roger Allen (1985)

The Ship is co-narrated by men traveling from Beirut to Italy: Baghdadi architect Isam Salman and Palestinian businessman Wadi Assaf, who lives in Kuwait. An exploration of the homelessness of exile as the ship moves around the Mediterranean, docking here and there but never arriving.

3) In Search of Walid Masoud (1978), translated by Adnan Haydar & Roger Allen (2000)

Palestinian writer and activist Walid Masoud disappears, causing his friends and loved ones to reconstruct his life.

4) The First Well: A Bethlehem Boyhood (1987), translated by Issa J. Boullata (1995)

A memoir of Boullata’s childhood and youth in Bethlehem and Jerusalem.

5) Princesses’ Street: Baghdad Memories, translated by Issa J. Boullata (2005)

A memoir that continues what Jabra began with The First Well.