“What does it mean to be BRAVE with books?” a sign asks as it floats above a twenty-first century collection — or micro-canon — of Arabic-language poetry in English translation:
The “bravery” lens — the slightly more respectable cousin of “taboo-breaking” — is a common way of framing Arabic literature in English translation. This brave-facing pop-up exhibit, now at the University of Arizona Poetry Center, comes paired with a children’s area that features its own “Brave Books: Bold Librarians, Readers & Booksellers of the Arab World.”
Bravery, naturally, implies there is something large and scary that one is being brave against. If we were going to posit that the readers and librarians at the University of Arizona are brave, we would need — I think — some additional context.
So what is brave about the poetry collected here? And which Arabic poetry in translation (less brave, perhaps) was left out? It is not brave poetry in the Antarah-ian sense, and the sign, “What does it mean to be BRAVE with books?” uses a ding-dong-ditch approach, asking the question and caroming off down the street.
The pop-up exhibit was curated by Julie Swarstad Johnson “with thanks to Khaled Mattawa for additional suggestions,” and thus it’s understandably heavy on Mattawa’s translations — you’ll find Mattawa’s 2002 translation of Saadi Youssef but not Sinan Antoon’s more twenty-first-century one. There are some brilliant collections, of course, such as Golan Haji’s A Tree Whose Name I Don’t Know (tr. Haji and Stephen Watts) and Qassim Haddad’s Chronicles of Majnun Layla (tr. Ferial Ghazoul and John Verlenden). I couldn’t say why either of those collections is particularly brave, except that any honest act entails courage.
The list has a palpable absence of Mahmoud Darwish.
There’s no Najwan Darwish, either, although Kareem James Abu-Zeid’s translation of his Nothing More to Lose received considerable acclaim. Fady Joudah and Ghassan Zaqtan’s Like a Straw Bird it Follows Me, which won a Griffin Prize, misses out, although presumably that’s because it’s a one-collection-per-customer sort of display.
As to some of the poets (Ashraf Fayadh) the answer to the BRAVE question is obvious: Fayadh was and remains imprisoned in Saudi Arabia, by and large for his poetry. As to others, the answer involves more juggling. What holds them all together, from the Magrheb (The Blueness of the Evening) to the Gulf (Gathering the Tide)?
The answer seems to be that Arabic is enough of a frightening backdrop that merely writing poetry in it is brave. Except, well, if you’re Darwish.
Books on display:
Adonis, translated by Khaled Mattawa, Selected Poems (Yale University Press, 2010)
Asad Ali, translated by Kabir Helminski with Camille Helminski, Mahmoud Mostafa, and Ibrahim Shihabi, Civilization of Paradise: Revelation Poems (Fons Vitae, 2014)
Fadhil Al-Azzawi, translated by Khaled Mattawa, Miracle Maker (BOA Editions, 2003)
Tamim Al-Barghouti, translated by Radwa Ashour, In Jerusalem and Other Poems (Interlink Books, 2017)
Faraj Bayrakdar, translated by John Mikhail Asfour, Mirrors of Absence (Guernica Editions, 2015)
Ashur Etwebi, translated by Brenda Hillman and Diallah Haidar, Poems from Above the Hill (Parlor Press, 2011)
Ashraf Fayadh, translated by Mona Kareem, Instructions Within (The Operating System, 2016)
Jawdat Fakhreddine, translated by Jayson Iwen and Huda Fakhreddine, Lighthouse for the Drowning (BOA Editions, 2017)
Joumana Haddad, edited by Khaled Mattawa, Invitation to a Secret Feast (Tupelo Press, 2008)
Qassim Haddad, translated by Ferial Ghazoul and John Verlenden, Chronicles of Majnun Layla and Selected Poems (Syracuse University Press, 2014)
Golan Haji, translated by Stephen Watts and Golan Haji, A Tree Whose Name I Don’t Know (A Midsummer Night’s Press, 2017)
Amal Al-Jubouri, translated by Rebecca Gayle Howell with Husam Qaisi, Hagar Before the Occupation, Hagar After the Occupation (Alice James Books, 2011)
Maram Al-Massri, translated by Khaled Mattawa, A Red Cherry on a White-Tiled Floor (Bloodaxe Books, 2004)
Iman Mersal, translated by Khaled Mattawa, These Are Not Oranges, My Love (Sheep Meadow Press, 2008)
Dunya Mikhail, translated by Elizabeth Winslow and Dunya Mikhail, Diary of a Wave Outside the Sea (New Directions, 2009)
Hassan Najmi, translated by Mbarek Sryfi and Eric Sellin, The Blueness of the Evening (University of Arkansas Press, 2018)
Ibrahim Nasrallah, translated by Omnia Amin and Rick London, Rain Inside (Curbstone Press, 2009)
Amjad Nasser, translated by Fady Joudah and Khaled Mattawa, A Map of Signs and Scents: New and Selected Poems, 1979-2014 (Curbstone Books, 2016)
Samih Al-Qasim, translated by Nazih Kassis, Sadder Than Water: New and Selected Poems (Ibis Editions, 2006)
Saadi Youssef, translated by Khaled Mattawa, Without an Alphabet, Without a Face (Graywolf Press, 2002)
Ghassan Zaqtan, translated by Fady Joudah, The Silence that Remains: Selected Poems 1982-2003 (Copper
Canyon Press, 2017)
Gathering the Tide: An Anthology of Contemporary Arabian Gulf Poetry, edited by Jeff Lodge, Patty Paine, and Samia Touati (Ithaca Press, 2012)