Fawwaz Haddad’s The Unfaithful Translator was shortlisted for the second-ever International Prize for Arabic Fiction, way back in 2009:

This sometimes biting, sometimes hilarious story centers on a minor literary translator living in Damascus who disdains strict fidelity to the text, and freely adapts the novels he translates.

Disaster strikes when, in translating a novel by a Sudanese writer, our unfaithful translator changes the ending—from what he considers self-indulgent defeat to a more patriotic one. The novel wins an award and is thrust into the limelight; so too its unfaithful translator.

As translator Sophia Vasalou writes: “Not so much through literary integrity as out of old and petty pique, he’s attacked by an eminent journalist and subjected to mud-slinging throughout the Syrian media. The story that follows, which documents the struggle of the hapless translator to restore his reputation, is as much about a positive vision of the purpose of art and creativity, as it is about an anatomy and critique of intellectuals working within an authoritarian culture, and about the relationship between intellectuals and political power.”

It is also, at moments, bitingly funny. Here, a translation of Chapter 7, by Sophia Vasalou.

#

The Critic: In Literature We’re All Equals, There’s No Room for Exceptions

By Fawaz Haddad

Translated by Sophia Vasalou

But his plight was far from over, even two months after he’d withdrawn his article and distanced himself from the coterie of journalists and writers, for all one might have supposed they would have forgotten all about him. Their inclemency toward him was not without justification; for culture is inherently antagonistic to forgetfulness. And if they failed to show him any mercy, it’s because, just as culture knows how to mellow human hearts, it also knows how to make them harsher. Besides, why should intellectuals behave any differently than most other people? Thus, there should be nothing surprising in the fact that they didn’t leave him in peace or spare him from their sarcastic jibes. The latest in this series had been particularly sordid. Appearing in an article written by someone who belonged to the journalist’s clientèle, it had likened him to a disfigured midget trying to scale the high stature of great writers. And at noon on the same day, one of his acquaintances had told him, Watch your back, Shareef Husni hasn’t had his fill of revenge yet.

“But he’s done me harm enough – he’s done me more than enough.”

“The problem is that he doesn’t get to see you and so take his malicious pleasure. Watch out, he’ll be launching a second round of assault, a final round that brings the game to a close. I’m warning you – find some way to offer him your apology.”

Hamid exploded.

“That’s all that’s left – for me to go to him crawling on hands and knees to ask for his forgiveness, and have him trample upon my head and my dignity, hoping he might show me some mercy afterwards…Never! Let him go hang himself.”

The cup had overflowed, and he took an irrevocable decision not to allow them to put him on the rack a second time; he would resist. The question that brought him up short was in what way he ought to pursue his resistance without having to appear at the front line of the battle. That night he thought and thought for a long time without reaching a result, and his sleep was fitful and disquieted.

Just before waking up, he had a dream in which he saw himself standing at the door of a large hall that had been engulfed by a fine film of fog, through which one could glimpse enormous plush volumes of books, paintings from around the world and pictures of famous Western writers. Little by little, the fog lifts. Far inside he makes out the figure of the critic Jameel Halloum busy reading or writing; then, he lifts his head and gazes far into the distance, piercing the walls to look out toward the sprawling expanses of literature. But what a shock…he wasn’t looking out toward the expanses; he was looking at him,and he was on the look-out for his arrival! As soon as he’d caught sight of him he sprang to his feet and rushed toward him, welcoming him warmly, arms wide open. At that point he woke up, and recollecting his dream, he asked himself: what could it possibly mean?

Hamid doesn’t believe in dreams or in any of the predictions they make about events still residing in the depths of the mysterious unknown. His attention was nevertheless drawn to the sight of the volumes of books, the paintings and the pictures of writers…and the fog which receded to reveal a man unsheathing a pen. The dream needed no interpretation, for it interpreted itself by itself. It was exhorting him to take up the cudgels for his cause, exactly as he had thought he should, covertly and without openly being seen to do so, thereby exposing himself to the vindictive machinations of his cantankerousadversary. And what’s more, it had been so kind as to present him with a man who would take his defence in charge; the critic who had appeared in the dream, and who also existed in reality, and was perhaps waiting for him this very moment.

***

Jameel Halloum was a man of letters by profession and one of the most important literary critics of the present time, and he was the only one who bestowed on literary writers long-term and guaranteed attestations of competence, elevations of status, and categorisations, not because of any shortage of capable literary critics, but because of his widely acknowledged broad learning. He was an authority in his field, and he had acquired his harsh reputation on account of his stern judgments and polemical views. He’d been able to survive as a critic throughout the last quarter of the previous century, a century of unprecedented unrest and upheaval, and he had demonstrated his abilities by writing long, recondite articles in which one strove to fathom whether they aimed to praise or lambast and which baffled those praised and lambasted alike. And writers eagerly paid court to him in order to preserve themselves from the torrent of his wrath and from the solid arguments he brought forth drawing on his profound knowledge.

With his dream to support him, Hamid saw the critic as his last chance. At the very least, he had not taken an interest in the petty vociferations that had surrounded his translations, and to the extent that he had not sought to draw any advantage from this situation, it was possible to trust him. And one should not give any credence to what people said about his untrustworthiness as a critic. For some people had claimed that he exploited his intellectual connections for personal ends; because as rumour would have it, he had lifted women and young girls from the worldly trough to the lofty summits of high literature and helped them shoot to fame. So for example, he’d shown no qualms praising a novice poetess with a disreputable past but with a pretty face and flowing hair in a brilliant article that brimmed with quicksilver-slippery, helical-spiralling interpretations which read a unique profundity into her poetic work, in which the meaning of every single word, full-stop and comma soared upward to become a discerning diagnosis of human misery and an experiential discovery of the edges of the universe. By contrast, he could pour scorn on a talented and good-hearted young man who needed to hear a word of encouragement, and whom he punished as if he had committed the gravest sin by dismissing his poetry as so much flimsy inanity.

It would take a bold man to presume the task of analysing the personality of the critic Jameel Halloum. Critics do not have personalities that are easy to disclose, perhaps because they are compound in nature, comprising two or sometimes more conflicting literary personalities, especially when critics hold themselves to be creative minds just like other writers and not merely humble interpreters of literary works. And indeed some of them hold their critical writings to be creative works that far surpass the novels and poems of great writers in greatness. So how could they eat humble pie before a novel when they know themselves to be greater than it is and capable of taking it apart at the joints, making a harsh example of it and reducing it to a pile of debris? That’s an indispensable reminder for us, so we may realise that novelists and poets are no more important than critics, even if the latter make a living out of what is written by the former.

Jameel Halloum became famous for wielding a powerful pen and for an unyielding temperament, and for defending political causes whose time had passed and national causes deemed unassailable verities, which he would embellish with a brute show of knowledge and mockery that verged on impudence, displaying the sincerity of a dreamy revolutionary. When it came to literature, he would often join abstruse literary questions with clever theorisations filled to the hilt with intellectual conceit and enhanced by his windingly voluble commentaries. This stemmed from his conviction that it was not the task of intellectuals to simplify and popularise ideas, but rather to render them more complex, even if this should restrict them to the select few. He was the first to have broached sensitive critical questions and to have restored the standing of real critics, distinguishing between two separate types. One type he designated “the menial servant” of literature, who amounted to nothing more than a book tout and whose criticism was all about promoting capitalist literature, marketing it through misrepresentations and misleading commentaries. The revolutionary critic, on the other hand, was the “faithful servant” of literature. The word “servant” raised the hackles of revolutionary writers and did not leave them pleased. For if there was a servant, then there had to be a master, and hadn’t that word been struck out of the radicals’ vocabulary, whether or not literature was the master, or a mister, or its Excellency, its Majesty, or its Highness? So he replaced it with “the faithful guardian”, meaning one entrusted with the protection of literature. And literature thereby became a burden of trust placed on the shoulders of critics.

In general the numerous stances he took in controversies gave witness of his sound nationalist feelings, which were far in advance of his opponents’ and which went beyond the old, well-trodden nationalism and displayed acutely leftist leanings that surpassed the claims of nationalist and revolutionary writers alike. Similarly, he had written against the authorities, against repressiveness, censorship and terrorism, he had criticised the American intervention in different parts of the world, and he had been at the head of campaigns to sign petitions of protest in defence of freedom of thought and freedom of thinkers, and he had shown no leniency toward recusants and self-excusants and those who’d lamely slink away from the task. There was hardly a petition that did not carry his name at the very top.

He ingested the succession of critical theories which asserted themselves in the region for over half a century, in addition to all theories foundational and essential, flitting between them with remarkable agility. And while keeping up with the latest literary fashions, he remained steadfastly devoted to engaged art despite openly expressing his disdain for it, and it was with this as his basis that he pronounced his stern judgment on different types of literature, and refused to let it veer from its progressive task. The slightest suspicion of reactionism was enough to pit him against it, and he became proverbial among writers for his adamantine asperity. He took the view that novels were turning into crime stories, and in his opinion this demeaned novels and it banished them to the realm of cheap thrills if a policeman should so much as make an appearance, even if only as a passer-by crossing the road or standing at a junction recording a breach of traffic regulations.

(This makes us fear for our novel and the charges that may be raised against it, little though it deserves them, especially given that one of the characters in the novel will assume a number of different personalities and disguise himself under several different names, not to mention the fact that one of the characters of the novel is a naïve and amateur criminal pretending he’s into real crime and offering his services publicly for all to hear, as we have just seen. We only bring up these and other examples because this kind of categorisation will draw them into its sweep, for it contains all the things we mentioned and even more thrown into the bargain; to which one might add a premeditated and resolutely predetermined crime with a fair measure of incitement and criminal intent – though this is not something that can be asserted with any certainty at this stage, for the story is still at the beginning. But the most important element yet is a mysterious band of people whose roots go back even before the beginning – a band which might even be a Mafia. Good God, not a Mafia as well! That’s just the peevish thing he’ll say.)

What that means is that according to his critical approach, the fast-paced crime novel is not worthy of being placed in the class of profound literature, whose natural pace is slow and whose events unfold unhurriedly and with due reflectiveness. The thrill of suspense, on the other hand, is a superficial thing, and makes a novel forfeit its sobriety and its place among serious writings which afford the reader the opportunity for extended meditation, and thus for something akin to the piercing insights of philosophy, and the leisurely enjoyment of big ideas. All of this is in danger of being lost, should a novel be infected by the merest trace of criminal activity, or even a mere disturbance in the air that results from a few shots being fired, though this be in a wedding celebration.

(For this and other reasons, Halloum the critic will cast this novel aside to a faraway place where no eye need ever alight on it, and he will not place it next to those novels which he has shown such splendid skill in extolling and dissecting and wringing the life out of through an excess of anatomical zeal, these novels numbering no more than a few dozen works in Arabic whose number might wax or wane depending on the strength of his personal relationships.)

And in spite of his repeated assertions that his critical standards were purely literary in nature, he would often dismiss older romantic writers and be full of praise for novelists producing nationalistic and ideological novels who happened to occupy positions in governmental departments that commanded great respect. He was proud of his analytical powers and had once claimed that, should he so wish, he was capable of discovering cholesterol levels and their relationship to cardiovascular diseases inside a novel, or if he was so disposed, to banish the greatest novel from the world of art, even if it was written by Dostoyevsky and Proust put together. In the view of most literary writers and literary wannabes, the facts testified to his influence and his destructive powers, so it was no wonder that many of them should have purchased his silence by fawning.

***

Hamid Saleem had met the critic Jameel Halloum on only a handful of occasions. On those few occasions, the translator had displayed an attitude of spontaneous and unaffected respect toward the critic, and had listened to his views and expressed his agreement with them even though they weren’t all to his liking. Their political disagreement was not a problem, for he wasn’t really interested in politics. Nor was their literary disagreement a serious hurdle, for he didn’t understand his positions, which were at the time structuralist and deconstructive.

Hamid felt sanguine that he would meet with understanding from a critic who had been undaunted and undefeated by a famous literary theory which based its arguments on rhetorical lines and circles and squares and rectangles, and who had risen above petty literary squabbles, and had not joined the fray in the campaign against him, not with a single direct or indirect word. And Hamid took the critic’s silence in the dream to signify his objection to the scandalous way in which they’d all taken sides against him.

The meeting took place in the critic’s home, after Hamid called him up to ask for an appointment so he might consult him on some literary matter.  And from the very moment one of his people let him in and led him to the library room before turning to leave, it seemed to him as if his dream was about to come true. For from the threshold of the room where he stood, he could see a fine film of grey fog descending and enveloping everything in sight, in the midst of which the critic could be distinguished writing or reading. As expected, he rose to greet him, but he didn’t open his arms for him and only shook his hand. Later on, when putting the dream straight in his mind, the fog of reality would only appear like a passing deception that blinded his vision.

The library that met his gaze was a teeming welter of books and paintings and small statues, and seeing the whole of it spread out before him in its splendour, elegance, and dusty hoariness gave him a wonderful surprise, and made him feel as if he was stepping into a shrine reflecting an intellectual life filled with knowledge and the quest for truth which refused to be bound by prohibitions and stop at the limits of what’s permitted. For there were the yellowing books on history, culture and religion, the red communist books, the blue books about sex and in flaming scarlet the erotica, and next to them the books about different philosophical schools and all types of venerable classical world-wide trends in literary criticism, as well as scintillating ponderous modern ones, next to which stood a bookcase all in French, loudly testifying to his francophone culture and his having gained a doctoral degree – in what, no-one knows – from the Sorbonne, which no-one knows whether it ran to single or double digits. At the same time, the paintings hanging on the wall gave evidence of his refined taste for visual art, as he had secured perfect prints of Renaissance nudes, of the sunny paintings of Van Gogh, the elongated paintings of Modigliani, the rose paintings of Picasso, the surrealist paintings of Dali, the nightmarish paintings of Bosch, the grotesque ones by Bacon, alongside throwaway pieces of pop art as well as statues of Venus, Voltaire, Marx, Gorky and Lenin, fixed landmarks pointing to the wellsprings of the critic’s diverse and ramified culture.

His expectations were disappointed from the first moment of their encounter. The short, broad-shouldered critic was looking out at him with the frown of a pessimist philosopher and the fierce look of a professional boxer, and it wasn’t long before he meted out to him a sudden, painful blow below the belt, without the slightest warning and with a smile of derision which was far broader than was absolutely necessary. He had composed an article against him, and was about to send it to the newspaper in order to make his contribution to the furore to come, and he issued a prediction:

“This article will make mince-meat of you.”

He wagged his finger confidently as if he had just scored a victory against his eternal sworn enemies, impudent imperialists and self-styled Muslim terrorists, declaring that what he was about to write would be sufficient to finish him off.

Hamid did not lose faith in his dream, despite the disappointing overture, for what the situation was telling him was this: the dream was vying with linear time and was leagues ahead of it, and if it had assured him of the way matters would end, the way they began could do him no harm. After all, hadn’t he gotten to the critic before he’d sent his article to the newspaper? The critic’s broad smile had narrowed and was now tightly pursed, and it looked more like a smile of malicious satisfaction than a smile of regret, and seen from another angle it seemed like the scheming smile of someone about to wage a war of extermination that would see to it that he was chopped to pieces, or as he had phrased it moments ago, would mince him like mincemeat.

His optimism did not last long, for the smile of malice proved stronger than the dream and threw him off balance, and he was struck with a sense of vertigo faced with the critic’s uncharacteristic intransigence. For he was gnashing his teeth and looking at him like a butcher sharpening his cleaver in preparation for pulverising him into fine shreds of meat, so that the banner of literature might continue to stream in lofty winds. His predatory appearance was such as to fill Hamid with self-reproach and incline him to give credence to the tendentious rumours circulating about him. How had it slipped his mind that this was the critic who turned right and wrong on their heads, not because he nursed any particular like or dislike for either, but simply by way of making a display of his critical virtuosity; that his ambitions went beyond his tasks as a critic and took criticism as an expedient for creating an entirely new text that retained only a flimsy relation with the text under criticism, and that was nothing but a springboard for him to make a show of skill in wielding devious stylistic features laid thick with subtle rhetorical moves and complex structures, twisting and winding his way around a small idea until it grew into something exceptionally big and vacuous, so that his praise for others was only an opportunity for him to praise his abilities and advertise his cultural modishness?

The translator stood at a loss, and he could bring himself to utter but a single, flaccid word:

“But I…”

It gave the best expression to the disconsolate end he now sensed lying ahead of him. At that, the critic hesitated. This “but I” which the translator had succeeded in uttering had found its mark, making a plea that was effective despite the fact that it had numbered no more than a few letters, for it had pointed toward an entire sentence: “But I haven’t even uttered a single word!” He took pity on him, and threw out to him contemptuously:

“Convince me of your point of view.”

A sense of foreboding came over Hamid, but he hadn’t entirely lost hope – there had to be some truth to the dream. He began stammering. The critic quickly said in reassurance:

“Convince me and I’m prepared to tear it up.”

But it was not a matter of convincing as it was of understanding and showing lenience. Would he show lenience if he understood? He made his confession tersely:

“What I did was shameful.”

“Agreed.”

The critic would not save him from having to falter through his words, though he had received his confession with pleasure and had assumed a leisurely aspect of anticipation, allowing the translator to take his time spluttering and stuttering. Hamid said:

“I mean, I’m a special case when it comes to translation, and I’m the first person to complain about it.”

“In literature we’re all equals, there’s no room for exceptions.”

Nevertheless he expressed a desire to be apprised of his case, though not before giving him a caveat:

“I will not count your particularity as a ground for turning a blind eye on the offences it resulted in.”

The critic’s willingness to hear him out made a strong flash of hope appear on the horizon, though the situation remained difficult: more than once in the past, he had been forced to defend his special vision of translation, and he had tried to justify it using expressions that he strove to present as reasonable, but which were never free from a certain weakness. With the critic now ready to listen to him, he would take special care with every single word that came out of his mouth, so that he would not misinterpret him. Especially since critics have a habit of interpreting things whichever way they please. Was he capable of that? No. The truth was therefore the best defence. In fact what he felt bubbling within him was reaching boiling point, and he had to release it by removing every obstacle from its path. At that critical moment, the truth confronted him forcefully and he grasped it with perfect clarity, and he could now speak it out loud for the very first time:

“I have an inveterate weakness when faced with literary characters.”

He fell silent, fixing the critic with a stare in the hope that he might exempt him from the need to say more. The thought of uttering something whose extreme strangeness he realised – a strangeness that surpassed his own expectations – struck him with a sudden terror. His own thoughts were devouring him and breathing fear into his mind. The critic said encouragingly:

“I also feel a certain kind of weakness when faced with the characters of great novels. I feel they’re stronger than the characters I meet in real life.”

The translator felt a surge of enthusiasm. Let him then go ahead and reveal what he’d been prepared to say without reservations. The critic Halloum was the only person capable of understanding the thoughts fermenting inside his head. His condition might be similar to his own; so let him speak his mind.

“They’re immeasurably stronger; I can neither escape them nor resist them. They rise out of the paper and I take leave of reality. We go together to a region lying somewhere at the boundaries between them, there between the paper and reality. They tear off their masks and they bare their souls, and they goad me to delve far into their uncharted depths. I follow on behind them and I discover some of the secret recesses and shadowy nooks of my self – oh what whirlwinds and wild gales seize me and carry me off to a place of no return! I go no further; I stop. I find it arduous to confront them. I’m overwhelmed by fear. If I’ll be honest, courage fails me.”

“A unique literary state,” the critic commented with envy.

“They’re not all like that; these are rare cases. The characters vary, and some of them I attach no importance to.”

“I can understand that – I don’t blame you.”

“While for others, I feel a sense of love and gratitude and compassion, and I might even identify myself completely with them. I want to give them something, and something within me incites me to try and enrich them with a thought, to contribute a small detail to them, or to remedy a flaw in their construction. And permit me to say, however well the writer may be acquainted with the human soul, he can never express his characters in a way that gives them their dues, there’s always something that falls short, and some of this I try to redress. Sometimes I’m so closely connected and intimately involved with them that I feel their pain, I feel the misfortune that has befallen them and the gross injustice they’ve suffered and I want to give them a second chance, and this impels me to reconsider the novel, its plot and its style, and to rectify matters that eluded its author, and remove imperfections he was oblivious to. To be sure, these things don’t happen to me of my own accord, nor because I’m trying to be clever or trying to worm my own literary contributions into the text. What I do is a result of my complete immersion in the characters, and of my effort to anticipate the effect that events will have upon them. All this gets played out in my mind because I’m living and breathing them and interacting with them in imagination, and a not insignificant amount of this seeps out into my translations.”

“There are characters that are weak-willed or unfortunate or hopelessly flawed. Is there anything that could fix these up?”

“Oh, these I simply wish I could re-write from scratch.”

“I, too, have encountered literary characters that struck a cord in me and dominated my thoughts and actions for days and weeks on end, which it demanded supreme effort to free myself from.”

The critic did not finish what he was saying about himself. He caught himself in time before he’d had a chance to mention two characters that had exercised a great influence on him during the stifling period of his adolescence, Kafka’s transmogrified cockroach and Dostoevsky’s outcast who spoke from the underground. The translator would not take these in a spirit of literary innocence, as a reference to alienation and despairing solitude, but he’d take them as a reference to misery, resentment and misanthropy. The critic realised he’d already gone too far with the translator in this enticing adventure. And he worried that any display of sympathy might make him think he assented to his views. He put his guard up before he could let himself be drawn into talking about his own case – there was something a little too beguiling about describing its charms – and went on sharply:

“You’re capable of committing more than one idiocy, in fact several different idiocies at the same time. In all this, where does translation come into the story – you know, accuracy in rendering the text, integrity in the way uses language?”

“I don’t disregard these issues; I care about them. But the associations of the narrative take me with them and the characters overpower me. Things begin fermenting inside me, they produce effects, they germinate thoughts and feelings within me, and I express them by translating what I’ve started thinking and imagining or even dreaming about them. I know these are associations which my own nature brings forth, but what I do is something I participate in without deliberate intention, I’m not compelledto do it, I’m calledto it. Should I turn my back on them? No, I must answer the call, otherwise – let me say this openly – the process of translation would lose all the beauty, allure and pleasure it holds for me. This is my chief reward.”

“These are not concerns that can be taken into consideration. The translator translates only what’s there on the page, without intervening and without adding or subtracting. What you’re doing – if we’re to call it by its rightful name – is an aggression on both the author and his work.”

“But the readers stand to reap the rewards, for they get a work in a higher degree, one that’s been written twice over.”

“On the contrary, you’re deceiving them, for what they’re reading is not the original book.”

“But I am giving them a book which they have a stronger connection to.”

“What you’re rather giving them is a disfigured book. Can you pretend to deny its relation to the first book when it’s based on it? What you’re doing not only inflicts injury on the idea of translation; it puts paid to it.”

“Don’t forget that a good translation tries to encompass both the book and the character of the author.”

“Nobody can encompass anybody, how much less an author!”

“I don’t comprehend him entirely, but I try. During the time that I’m working on my translation of the novel, my mind is not immersed in it exclusively. There are things stored up inside me which provide me with a great deal and interact with what I’m reading. A state of lucidity descends upon me in which I contemplate everything around me and my eyes and mind and heart open widely to what’s happening in real life, and even though it’s only a scattered, desultory narrative, it interleaves itself with the narrative of the novel. Characters from my past and from my own imagination drift in and out of stage, they enter into relationships with the people in the novel and they exchange woes, feelings, and experiences, and each of them takes things from the other.”

“You’re failing to convince me. That kind of confusion won’t go far with me.”

“How can I translate any novel whatsoever, whatever its language or time or the country it comes from, without being affected by the time and place in which I’m living?”

The critic made no reply; he was busy thinking. At that, the translator cried out in a burst of fervour:

“If it’s fidelity that concerns us, then it’s to life, not to books, that we owe our fidelity.”

There the critic called him to a halt and asked him for a brief description of his way of translating, delivered without embellishments. The synopsis Hamid came out with was an outright defence of his approach:

“I don’t just translate a book coming from another time and place, but along with it I also translate what connects it to the present place and time; all of it together, intermingling. The thoughts that course through me, my God – what vistas lie open – !”

The critic Jameel Halloum gave a start of surprise. The idea appealed to him despite the rebuttals he could administer to each and every one of the translator’s assertions. Indeed, when he scrutinised it more closely, he found it to exude dynamic elements imbued with a future universality, which would encompass the present at the same time as it would encapsulate history, cleaving its way on the printed page with visionary audacity. He reformulated it to himself in his own dazzling style: the germinating seed of an unprecedented prophetic vision, which came shimmering out in the idealistic form of an ultimate and genuine fidelity, one not devoid of a distinct seditiousness; a matter admitting no jejune simplifications and not devoid of a certain warmth, of a provocative sense of faith that defies conceptual understanding, and can only be experienced through feeling. He was standing face to face with a special case, a case of special genius, that drew life and the world into a relationship with what what was past, what was present, and what lay yet in store, inside the forge of writing and translation. He had to think it all carefully through from the beginning, so he said to him gravely:

“Give me time to think.”

Without a doubt it was a brilliant novelty and it could be released into the world and be assured to plunge into convulsions the whole dulled cultural atmosphere, with its avid thirst for all things new, however inane – imagine, then, when something so acutely surprising and so brazenly strange should come along! It could be dispatched to Europe and America as a Middle Eastern fad promising an interaction between two times and places, the West and the East, between the covers of a book, giving birth to a mutual understanding between others, and to a dialogue that takes place between the lines on a white sheet of paper in a calm and conciliatory manner free from entrenched animosities. He expressed the rapture he felt at this dazzling find by saying to the lowly genius standing beside him in all his mundaneness:

“I promise you a counter-attack.”

He only asked Hamid for a two-day respite, so that he could think matters through for himself and see how the battle might be turned in his favour, after he had first ascertained how far it extended. It would not be a merely local skirmish – he planned to take it to the wider Arab world. Their meeting was fixed for three days later.

Truly, dreams are full of wonders.

Fawaz Haddad is a Damascus-born novelist who has been a full-time writer since 1988. In 2009, he was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction for The Unfaithful Translator and his novel God’s Soldiers was longlisted for the 2011 Prize. Max Weiss also translated an excerpt of Haddad’s Solo Piano Music.

Sophia Vasalou is Senior Lecturer and Birmingham Fellow in Philosophical Theology at the University of Birmingham. Her books include Moral Agents and their Deserts: The Character of Mu’tazilite Ethics, Wonder: A Grammar, and Ibn Taymiyya’s Theological Ethics. She is also translator of Ismail Fahd Ismail’s charming The Old Woman and the River.