Launching the MIRRORS Issue: Recovering Their Medieval Magic

You can order the Spring 2022 MIRRORS issue of ArabLit Quarterly in print via GumRoad and Amazon (US, UK, Canada, Germany, France, the UAE, Japan, Italy, Spain, Australia, and elsewhere); digitally on GumRoad or Exact Editions; with issues forthcoming at the best bookshops, including Diwan and Khan Aljanub.

By M Lynx Qualey

In the story “Of Prince Zayn al-Asnam and the King of the Djinn,” published in the eighth volume of Antoine Galland’s Les mille et une nuit, contes arabes, an orphaned prince receives a gift from the king of the djinn: a magic mirror. Young Zayn must use this mirror to find a virgin (human) girl, who he is to turn over to the djinn ruler. In exchange for this celibate teen, the djinn promises to cough up the location of the great treasure that belonged to Zayn’s late father.

Don’t worry, no other text is reversed.

The magic of this particular mirror is that the prince can hold it up to any young woman and discover, with a quick glance at her reflection, whether she has had any unlawful relationships with men. Zayn uses it to view all the unmarried women of Cairo and is, naturally, disappointed in his quest. Thus he must travel to Baghdad to find one untouched adolescent. (When he does find her, Zayn does not turn her over to the djinn, but rather marries the precious, un-precocious commodity.)

Perhaps Antoine Galland’s publisher was hoping that the old man wouldn’t page all the way to the end of this volume. But apparently he did. Thus, in the ninth volume of Les mille et une nuit, the French scholar-translator opens with an announcement that the final two stories in Vol. 8—the Zayn al-Asnam tale and one other—were slipped in without his knowledge. These two tales were translated from a Turkish collection, Ferec bade Şidde, by Galland’s colleague, François Petis de la Croix.

The Turkish collection was probably translated from one titled al-Faraj bad al-shidda, although the Turkish tales are unlike al-Tanukhi’s famous “relief after adversity” stories. The Ferec stories, according to scholar Hakan Karateke, were probably translated from a Persian collection that is now lost. Also, Karateke adds in “The Politics of Translation: Two Stories from the Turkish Ferec bade Şidde in Les mille et une nuit, contes arabes,” there was no mirror in the Turkish tale. The translator invented it.

“Zayn al-Asnam” is thus an Orientalist reflection, a falsified relic that’s part Shahrazade, part Snow White. And yet the prince’s mirror-tale has persisted in its relationship to the Nights, appearing in an echoing English, in the second volume of The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments, as well as in Richard Burton’s Supplemental Nights.

In de la Croix’s version of the story, the djinn’s mirror purports to tell a truth that humans cannot see with eyes alone. In this issue, our thirteenth, there is a mirror with similar properties in Enas Eltorky’s surreal, Sufi-esque “Closer Than They Appear.” But in Eltorky’s short story, when the mystic’s mirror reflects the naked truth, we don’t get a royal wedding or happily-ever-after. Instead, the community’s social fabric swiftly unravels.

Throughout this issue, the mirror is an uneasy metaphor for truth, just as it is an uneasy metaphor for translation. Kuwaiti scholar and memoirist Shahd Alshammari reflects on what the mirror can—and can’t—-tell us about the disabled self. In her essay, “Talking Mirrors: Bodies and Dis-ease,” she recalls Sylvia Plath’s description of the mirror as “silver and exact.” Yet she experiences the mirror’s supposed honesty less as exactness and more as an insistence to conformity: that she must look and walk and smile the same as some imagined ideal. 

A mirror is not always unwelcome. In ninth-century Basra, al-Jahiz was interested in the scientific and philosophical properties of mirrors, and he wrote about them in Kitab al-Tarbi’ wa-l-tadwir, an excerpt of which is translated by Michael Payne for this issue. In thirteenth-century Andalusia, Nawal Nasrallah tells us in her essay “Mother of Happy Endings,” a mirror was used in making sweet-savory chicken pie. But if medievals used their rare and precious mirrors for philosophy, cookery, divination, and trickery (as in al-Jawbari’s thirteenth-century Book of Charlatans), the contemporary writers in this issue seem surrounded, haunted, and beset by reflective surfaces.

In Rema Hmoud’s “Glass,” here translated by Ibrahim Fawzy, the narrator is haunted by her image distorted in reflections, while other women’s faces appear normal. In Maheera Migdadi’s “Sad Woman’s Mirrors,” reflective surfaces follow the protagonist everywhere, until she stares into a puddle and asks plaintively: “In this entire universe, isn’t there one mirror, one shiny reflective thing, that makes me look pretty?”

In the pieces included here, men seem more likely to link mirrors to a past, while for women they are part of an encircling present. Yet it is not only women who shy from mirrors. The great Moroccan writer Mohamed Choukri’s reflections in “My Face Through the Seasons,” translated by Jonas Elbousty, opens with: “We didn’t have a mirror at home, / because none of us wanted to see his face in it.” And in Abdalrahman Alqalaq’s poem “On to the Next Room,” here translated by Sara Abou Rashed, one of the characters who is constantly on the move opens a suitcase “and takes out a mirror and a watch. / Neither of you can bear the presence / of these two objects at once.”

In this issue, we also have the four stories that were shortlisted for the 2021 ArabLit Story Prize as well as the winner, Mustafa Taj Aldeen Almosa’s “How Kind They Are,” translated by Maisaa Tanjour & Alice Holttum. The translations were judged not only for their vibrancy, wit, emotional depth, and originality, but also for how they mirrored their originals. Yet this mirroring does not mean a one-to-one correspondence. 

In a video interview with AUC Press, the late Humphrey Davies said, in response to a question about whether he “mirrored” an author’s style, “I like the idea of mirrors and reflecting. But you see, a mirror [image] is not identical. It’s subtly changed.” (Or, as in the case of François Petis de la Croix, the change is not subtle at all.)

Translations also can be multiple, and broken mirrors can reflect a more salutary—and interesting—multiplicity of meanings. In Alshammari’s “Talking Mirrors,” it is the broken mirrors that make her feel safe, as they “help us see wholeness in lack.” And in Reem Abbas’s encantatory poem “Heads/Tails,” tongues are refracted, and there are: “Chinks & shards: healing the colonial / wound is a museum of mirrors.”

Mirrors, once precious, have become ubiquitous. We hope this collection of works brings back a little of their medieval magic.

Including work by:

Features: Shahd Alshammari, Mohamed Choukri, al-Jahiz, Nawal Nasrallah.

Fiction & Poetry: Rasha Abbas, Reem Abbas, Ra’ad Abdulqadir, Karima Ahdad, Ali Jaafar Al Allaq, Mustafa Taj Aldeen Almosa, Abdalrahman Alqalaq, Hilal Badr, Enas Eltorky, Duna Ghali, Ahmed Magdy Hammam, Rema Hmoud, Rym Jalil, Qassim Majeed, Maheera Migdadi, Said Takieddine.

Translations: Sara Abou Rashed, Layla AlAmmar, Ghada Alatrash, Nawara Belal, Madeline Edwards, Jonas Elbousty, Dima El-Mouallem, Zeena Faulk, Ibrahim Fawzy, Katharine Halls, Burnaby Hawkes, Alice Holttum, Shakir Mustafa, Michael Payne, Maisaa Tanjour, Katherine Van de Vate.

Click to enlarge the table of contents: