Release Party for Winter 2020 ArabLit Quarterly: Dreams

The fully packed Winter 2020 issue of ArabLit Quarterly is available today at Gumroad and Exact Editions, and print editions are available via Amazon (US, UK, Canada, Germany, France, Italy, Australia, and elsewhere):

By M Lynx Qualey

“One of the trickiest, most mysterious secrets of the Arabic language is the root h-l-m.” 

Thus write Suneela Mubayi and Rana Issa in this issue, in an essay where they do a séance to reach the ghost of the author Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq. The words حلم and dream both emerge from a murky past, they say. Both have an uncertain history, false friends, and no clear origin.

Such is the wondrous nature of dreams: that they have origins we cannot clearly trace. This issue delights in dreams in all their wild murky turns. We feature the sort of visions that one sees while asleep (as in the wonderful excerpt from Abd al-Ghani al-Nabulsi’s dream manual) as well as the dreams that foretell an alternate future (as in Ameer Hamad’s beautiful short story “The Wooden Castle”). We also look at dreams that straddle both worlds, as Gretchen Head describes in “Sufi Dreams in the Maghreb.”

One of the wondrous things about sleep-dreams is how bizarre they are, how distinct from our predictable and rule-based lives. And yet they are not so bizarre that dreams aren’t relatable, from person to person. We can read a dream manual from al-Nabulsi or Ibn Sirin and use it as a rough dictionary to understand our own night visions. N.A. Mansour cautions us about feeling too sure about this prospect. In “How to Read a Dream Book,” she asks: “Is there really something universal about dreams and the concerns we have about them?”

Naturally, dreams shift with new habits and technologies; nowadays, many people have dreams about showing up unprepared for an exam, about losing babies, getting lost, or being chased. People often struggle to be heard in a dream. Many of us find ourselves unable to run from danger. Dream manuals offer a google-translate service for our night visions. They offer us a key to the realms we see while asleep. 

A few weeks ago, I had a pandemic dream, which must be common in this Year of Our Covid-19. In mine, there was an outbreak of some new and unnamed disease, and I was struggling anxiously to contain it. I remember shouting, horror-film-style, at a group of the unaffected to “run!” while I herded those touched by the virus into a smaller and smaller area. I shouted for help to people nearby, but they sat beyond a glass partition, seemingly unable to hear me. 

All of this seems quite pedestrian, something of a paint-by-numbers pandemic dream. The only interesting part was that, in my pandemic, the disease’s main symptom was vomiting out tens of thousands of miniature marshmallows, followed by tens of thousands of miniature marshmallows that were covered in tiny marshmallow-spikes. 

There are a number of dream manuals that mention vomiting, which is generally equated with the expulsion of something unwanted. In her essay on Sufi dreams, Gretchen Head tells us about a dream in which al-Yusi (1631–1691) reported vomiting out excrement. He interpreted this to mean he was expelling ignorance. After a deep dive into contemporary dream manuals (via Google), I found a few that offered to interpret my marshmallows, suggesting they meant “ease and sweetness.” Yet I could find no dream manual that brought the two elements together: vomiting and mini marshmallows. Much less during a pandemic. 

Yet this, too, is one of the wonders of dream interpretation: the space it leaves us for imagination. 

Some people, as is evidenced in this issue, learn from their dreams. Al-Yusi learned that “knowledge is, in every way, excellent and beautiful while ignorance is, in every way, vile and loathsome.” I am not sure what I learned from my own dream of vomiting, except that the human body can hold a lot of mini marshmallows.

Several of the short stories in this issue operate on this sort of surreal dream logic. In Sherin Younis’s “A Fish in Search of Its Limbs,” translated by Enas Eltorky, the protagonist might be a harried Egyptian housewife, or perhaps she is a gill-bearing ectotherm? And in Iraqi writer Muhammad Khudayyir’s “The Dream of the Tower,” translated here by Chip Rossetti, the tower is both a surreal echo of the past and a dream of dominance.

This issue also has a special feature: the five stories shortlisted for this year’s ArabLit Story Prize, which were selected by judges Sawad Hussain, Donia Kamal, and Hilal Chouman. The stories are chosen both on the basis of the original and its translation, and also for how well they work together. The shortlist ranges from a delightfully satiric story by Egyptian writer Bilal Fadl (translated by Mahmoud Younes) to a classic by Syrian writer Zakaria Tamer (translated by Aidan Kaplan), to the winner, a story about isolation by Iraqi writer Hadiya Hussein (translated by Shakir Mustafa).

We end the issue on a much more positive gustatory note, with Nawal Nasrallah’s Zalabiya: The Stuff Sweet Dreams are Made of.” She takes us through a brief history of the sweet, which is “alternatively pronounced zlabya in Iraq, zulbiya in Iran, or named mushabbak (lit. latticed) and shubbakiyya in the Levant and North Africa, and jilebi in India.” This dessert, which “oozes with luscious syrup,” also shows up in the dream-writing of Egyptian Ibn Sudun (d. 1463). He describes diving naked into a pool of syrup and using nets of sweet zalabiya fritters to catch banana “fish,” which he eats, one after the other. 

Since this issue is being published in December, readers might find themselves revisiting the classic dream-scene that Scrooge attributes to an “undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato.” Although Scrooge certainly has other problems to sort out, such as the ill effects of capitalist industrialization, we also suggest he solve one of his digestive problems with Nawal Nasrallah’s zalabiya recipe, which comes at the end of the issue. It will undoubtedly sweeten his dreams. 

With appreciation to Nashwa Gowanlock and Lucie Taylor for the edits.

The Table of Contents:

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