February Translation Challenge: ʿAbd Allāh an-Nadīm’s Powerful 1882 Text on Taxation

All participants in this month’s #TranslationChallenge will receive a digital copy of a back issue of ArabLit Quarterly of their choice, and all will be entered into a drawing for a print issue of their choice:

Hosted by Adam Talib

I’m happy to be setting out this translation challenge for the month of February and to have the opportunity to engage with readers of ArabLlit who are interested in the multiple forms and resonances Arabic takes on when it is translated into other languages. For this month, I’ve chosen an uncharacteristic text. It is uncharacteristic because the text comes from an article published in a revolutionary Egyptian newspaper in 1882 and because it is about a topic that some may consider mundane. It is also uncharacteristic of me because my research is firmly pre-modern and often revolves around some combination of poetry and sexuality, while my translations are usually of 21st-century fiction. I chose this text for a number of reasons, only some of which I’ll bore you with.

I think this text is worth thinking about and translating multiply and experimentally because—despite its unique connection to anti-colonial and anti-aristocratic resistance in Egypt—it also exemplifies a large and living archive of Arabic writing against oppression and state violence. These texts are usually only translated out of Arabic in very specific circumstances (in the moment as part of an active campaign or retrospectively by historians) and they are rarely considered worthy test-cases for translation theories or promotional activities such as this one. How many language enthusiasts want to read about oppressive taxation when they could be reading a happy text studded with obscure adjectives?

I promise you there’s always enough challenging vocabulary, evocative imagery, and dynamic syntax in ʿAbd Allāh an-Nadīm’s writing to make it worth reading and translating, but I understand why texts such as this one aren’t popular. Language teaching, like book reviewing, is an effective way of communicating political attitudes and drawing the boundaries of an ideological horizon. The texts that we present to students and readers and the things we say about them—the performance of valuation and devaluation of different forms of writing that we are all constantly engaged in—reflects our political values, interests, and priorities. Contrary to right-wing critics of universities and the media, this is usually done implicitly and subtly. We curate our reading lists, decide which books to translate and review, and choose the topics that are worthy and appealing. This is all usually done before the student or reader has even appeared on the scene. It is true that—in the search for trends and in response to them—the landscape of what is important and worthy is constantly transforming within a narrow band, but the monotony of our literary world results directly from the stunted horizon of our politics.

It would be silly of me to claim that ʿAbd Allāh an-Nadīm doesn’t get enough attention. He is one of the most prominent Arabic writers of the 19th century and a hero of Egyptian nationalism. Stories of elite oppression such as the one he describes in this extract are a stock scene in Egyptian novels and films about rural life before socialism in large part because of his impact as a writer. This level of fame generates its own particular kind of neglect, however. An-Nadīm is so firmly rooted in a tragic historical narrative—he belongs so richly and consequentially to that moment in the 1880s—that his vivid, entertaining, and stirring language becomes inert, maudlin, and hackneyed. We can see this happening with ʿAbd Allāh an-Nadīm especially clearly because of his pivotal role in Egyptian national history and politics, but it is true of many famous Arabic authors. They are handcuffed to the past. Translation is an opportunity to engage with these authors not as romantic legends, but as people attempting to persuade others through language. Further, translation is an opportunity to bring together a new community of readers around a translated work and to persuade them through new-old language.


Or, as plain text:

كانت طرق تحصيل الضرائب وحشية بربرية تقشعر منها الأبدان، وتذوب من هولها الأكباد، ألا وهي طريقة الضرب والإذلال والإهانة والإيلام، فكنت ترى المدير أو الوكيل إذا نزل ببلدة لتحصيل ما عليها، طلب أهاليها واحدًا بعد واحد، فمن دفع ما عليه لجانب الحكومة منضمًا إلى ما عليه لشخص الحاكم نجا من أليم العذاب، وإنما يشتم أو يهان أمام أهل البلدة قيامًا بحق الإمارة وإظهارًا لسطوة الحاكم. ومن قصرت يده عن واحد منهما ألقاه الأعوان على الأرض، وقطعوا إهابه بالسياط والكرابيج، فتارةً يقضى عليه حالة الضرب أو بعده بقليل فيستريح من الحياة، وتارةً يبقى حيًا فيودع في ظلمات السجون بعد الهجوم على منزله وتفتيشه، وأخذ ما فيه من ثمرات الزراعة وغذاء أبنائه


Where to submit: Here in the comments or to info@arablit.org.

Deadline to submit: February 20, 2022.


Source: The article “aḍ-Ḍarāʾib wa-ṭuruq taḥṣīlihā” (“Tax and Tax-Collection”) by ʿAbd Allāh Nadīm was first published in aṭ-Ṭāʾif, no. 41, on 29 April 1882. It was reprinted in Najīb Tawfīq, ʿAbd Allāh Nadīm: khaṭīb ath-thawrah al-ʿUrābiyyah (Cairo: Maktabat al-Kulliyāt al-Azhariyyah, 1970), pp. 187–90 and in ʿAbd Allāh an-Nadīm, Nuṣūṣ ʿAbd Allāh an-Nadīm, ed. ʿAlāʾ ad-Dīn Maḥmūd (Cairo: al-Marāyā lil-Intāj ath-Thaqāfī, 2020), vol. 2, pp. 85–86, where I read it.


  1. The way they came for the taxes was fucked-up – some sick shit man. They’d smack you about, cus you, give you a beating. When the top honcho bothered to make an appearance, he’d line the tenants up and demand his money. If you could pay up – his share and the ‘government’s’ – then you’d be spared a beating though they’d still cus your old lady and make you look like a cunt in front of the others. It was all about showing who’s boss – when to fucking bow down and all that. But if you didn’t have it then you were proper fucked. His goons would have you on the ground and give you a proper fucking beating – I saw them take a crowbar to someone once. If that wasn’t the end of it then you’d end up rotting in a cell somewhere after the cunts had made of with all your stuff and left your little ones to starve.

  2. So cruel they would make your blood run cold, so barbaric they would send a shiver down your spine; these were the ways of the tax collector. Those who were prepared to pay tribute faced violence, assault, humiliation. One would witness first the arrival of the tax collector and the landowner’s agent in the village, intent on taking what was owed them. Then, one by one, the people of the village would file before them, so the agents might demand of them their two tributes: one for the government, and yet another for the landowner. All those who paid escaped savage punishment, and were subject only – only! – to the cruel insults of the tax collectors, their debasement and humiliation to be witnessed by the whole village, such was the right of their ruler to reign over them. Any who fell short would be thrown to the ground, the whip cracked over them, slicing into their flesh. For some, their beating would be cut short, their only reprieve death itself. He who survived would rest only in the dark gloom of a prison cell, his home having been stripped and searched. All the fruits of his hard labour would be taken from him, all nourishment snatched from the bellies of his children.

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