Although we have encountered not a few difficulties in the road to this issue, we are today launching the road-themed Spring 2020 issue of ArabLit Quarterly — the first issue of the year — as PDF and EPUB. The print editions are currently available via Amazon (US, UK, Canada, Germany, France, Italy, Japan, and elsewhere), and those for Exact Editions subscribers, it is also now available:
If I think about a طريق, or a road, my mind autofills with the routes I must’ve taken with taxi drivers most often: Tariq al-Nasr and Road 9, which, I realize, suggests I didn’t get out much around Cairo. But if I let my mind wander a little, it makes its way down a different set of roads, first to Fatima Sharafeddine’s picture book “طريق البطيخ” and then to M. Scott Peck’s 1978 work of spiritualist kitsch, The Road Less Traveled. That book must have appeared in so many used bookstores and library displays and guest bathrooms over my lifetime that its cover is etched into my memory. It smothers Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” like a 150-pound Great Dane that has snuffled its way onto the poem’s lap, thinking itself a floppy-eared puppy.
I have never read Peck’s ubiquitous self-help book, but I did skim the opening, gleaning the dollar-store-Zen suggestion that, once one accepts that life is difficult, life will cease to be difficult, “Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.” (Every time I read this sentence, it leads to a new set of eyebrow gymnastics.)
The book then takes a sharp right turn away from pseudo-Sufism into bootstraps Americana: “Life is a series of problems. Do we want to moan about them or solve them? Do we want to teach our children to solve them?”
Peck’s book is underpinned—sort of—by Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” which was written as a bit of joke verse for his friend Edward Thomas. Apparently, the two liked to walk in the woods, and Thomas never could decide which path to take. He always regretted choosing one or the other, feeling that the grass must’ve been greener somewhere else. Frost’s friend Ed apparently didn’t get the poem’s joke, and bristled when he realized it was about him, writing: “I doubt if you can get anybody to see the fun of the thing without showing them & advising them which kind of laugh they are to turn on.”
Apparently, Ed was right. In high-school English classes, as in Peck’s book, the poem is most often read as a hymn to rugged American individualism, instead of as the silly-ironic meditation it seems Frost intended, on how we suddenly look at our life stories and declare, triumphantly, that our random choices have “made all the difference.”
The fiery humorist-Islamist Safynaz Kazem saw Robert Frost in Chicago in 1962, when she was a young student in the US. The underappreciated Egyptian author and critic wrote about Frost’s humor in her Romantikayyat, a part of which is here—finally brought to English by Hadil Ghoneim. There is a certain rhyme to the ways in which both Kazem and Frost have been misread.
In any case, Frost’s small poem had to take its own road, parting ways with its author, much as the works in this issue of ArabLit Quarterly must make their own journey into a new life in translation, where they can be understood in ways that might be foreign (or even obnoxious) to their authors. Another anecdote from this issue, about stories getting away from their creators, is from the literary playlist, “Songs for the Years of Lead.” The popular Nass al-Ghiwayne song “I Am Only Concerned About Men if They Are Lost” was heard as a stern critique of Hassan II’s oppressive rule of Morocco. But songwriter Larbi Batma wrote, in his memoir, that this song was composed in the back seat of a car after Batma had been rejected by a Frenchwoman he fancied.
Not all is misdirection and misunderstanding. There is a strong spiritual road in this issue. Wafik Khansa’s “The Hadith is Written” reclaims the hadith as a literary genre, although it probably should not be read without a Frostian sense of irony. Maqbul al-Alawi’s short fiction “A Group to Honor the Deceased,” translated by Andrew Leber, follows what happens on a WhatsApp group made to honor the spirit of a dead friend. And in Mohammed Khudayyir’s “The Ancient Storyteller,” translated by Zeena Faulk, the spiritual path is Hindu, in a mid-twentieth-century Basra where a young Iraqi follows his guru down paths that are both hypnotic and terrifying. Some roads are more frightening than others; I felt the need for therapy after being sucked down the path of Khudayyir’s story.
The issue is also interested in other metaphorical roads, both culinary and exilic. While not as famous as the Silk Road, couscous was also carried on a journey from Western North Africa to al-Andalus, Sicily, Libya, Alexandria, and Marseille, before it retreated back again. Chef and scholar Anny Gaul attempts to follow it in “Couscous: Light Enough to Travel.”
Mohammad al-Amin, whose poems are here translated by Ghareeb Iskander and David Allen Sullivan, remembers the streets of Baghdad long after they have been taken from him: “Fires ravage the body of Baghdad, rooted in me, but flames can’t drive me away from the familiar folds of her mazes.”
Real roads are here, too. Iraqi poet Ammar Bin Hatim is interested in the literal, day-to-day path through Baghdad. Here, in Hind Saeed’s translation, we see: “The checkpoint that broke the street’s back/ Two lovers in a conversation, unaware of their surroundings/ Water-sellers/ The artist Mohammed Gani’s final statue/ Traffic congestion/ An elderly shoe-shiner” and more. And in an excerpt from Jan Dost’s The Green Bus Leaving Aleppo, translated by Madeline Edwards, a man struggles to travel the fraught road to his daughter’s house, where he finds her wild and unwilling to budge from the home she is desperate to protect from Daesh.
The works in this issue extend from Rabat to Aleppo to Baghdad to al-Qunfudhah, suggesting an interconnected map not unlike the one in Samira Negrouche’s “Seven Little Jasmine Monologues,” which ends, in Marilyn Hacker’s translation: “Let the TGV Express awaken, let it bring back the breeze from Tanger and let it start a new route from Tunis to Alexandria and from Beirut to Istanbul. Let a new day open and let Midnight be fragrant with jasmine.”
Negrouche’s poem looks different now than it did in 2011, when anti-tyranny uprisings seemed to be echoing one another across the region. In 2020, we are pressed to think more specifically about each city’s protests and challenges, Negrouche told me in a conversation last month. “Putting a group of countries in the same storyline didn’t tell enough about the complexity of the situation,” she said. Yet while “the lines of conflict are also more tense, there is an urgency to understand more of who we are as a collective and why it is important to rise as one multiple.”
Indeed: May this issue take the road that rises as one multiple.
From the Table of Contents:
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