April Translation Challenge: Konafa v. Qatayef

For our most recent Translation Challenge, hosted by Adam Talib, participants tried their hand at translating an 1882 text on taxation by ʿAbd Allāh an-Nadīm, and the results were  “cruel and barbarous, blood-curdling and gut-wrenching.” For this month’s translation challenge, we hope the results will be sweeter.

Join in the comments below or by emailing your translation of the challenge text to info@arablit.org. Any participant who wants free digital access to past issues of ArabLit Quarterly can mention that in the email. One participant will win a hard copy of the magazine. Have your translations in by April 20, 2022:

Hosted by Brian Powell

With Ramadan beginning at the start of April this year, I thought it would be fun for this month’s translation challenge to propose a Ramadan-themed text. Beyond the religious significance of this holy month of fasting, Ramadan has accrued a wealth of various traditions and customs all across Muslim-majority countries, many of which have been observed and commemorated by writers of different genres, including poets, historians, travel writers, mystics, and theologians. These include descriptions of the fānūs and the misaḥḥarātī, accounts of the Mamluk sultan’s procession through Cairo on ‘Īd al-Fiṭr, and discussion of traditional foods for ifṭār and for suhūr, among others. 

But perhaps the most contentious issue is the debate over Ramadan sweets — and two in particular: konafa and qatayef. 

It should be little surprise that these two desserts attract their own passionate partisans, as they each offer radically divergent ways to satisfy one’s sweet tooth at the end of a long day of fasting. With konafa, although the vermicelli-like pastry that forms its base gives it a slight crunch, there is a gooey moist sweetness throughout, both due to the sugar syrup with which the pastry is infused and the cream or cheese filling that is layered inside. Topped with pistachios, glistening with sugar, and with a honeycombed architecture oozing with sweetness, konafa is arguably the more visually impressive of the two sweets. 

Meanwhile, qatayef are more for the connoisseur who appreciates hidden surprises. Deep-fried dumplings that can be filled with sweet cheese or an assortment of hazelnuts, walnuts, pistachios and raisins, qatayef do not look like much from the outside. Were it not for the syrupy glazing that coats them, they might even be confused for a salty appetizer like sambusek. But the first bite explodes with favor, revealing the treasure that qatayef hold inside.

Both of these desserts have a long history in the Arab world, especially in Egypt and the Levant. One story related in the Masālik al-abṣār fī mamālik al-amṣār by Ibn Faḍl Allāh al-‘Umarī attributes the invention of konafa to the doctor of the Umayyad caliph Muʿāwiya b. Abī Sufyān:

One time in Ramadan, Muʿāwiya was very hungry and he complained of this to his doctor Ibn Athāl. So Ibn Athāl prepared konafa for him, which Muʿāwiya would eat for suhūr. He was the first to adopt konafa.

This particular anecdote appears to be apocryphal; the history of konafa does not stretch back quite so far. But certainly by the 7th and 8th centuries after the birth of Islam (13th and 14th centuries AD), both konafa and qatayef had become a frequent motif in the poetry of the period. By the early 1500s, enough poetry on these desserts existed that the Egyptian polymath al-Suyūtī was able to compile an entire collection on this theme, entitled Manhal al-Latā’if fī al-Kunafa wa-l-Qatā’if (The Fount of Witticisms on Konafa and Qatayef). 

A poem from the late Mamluk period shows just to what extent these sweets were prized, as well as how elaborate their literary treatment had become. In his chronicle Badā’i‘ al-Zuhūr fī Waqā’i‘ al-Duhūr, the historian Ibn Iyās notes that in Ramadan 917/1511, sweet desserts were becoming expensive due to the rising price of sugar. In response, he lodged an appeal in verse to the market inspector (muhtasib) in Cairo at the time, Zaynī Barakāt:

The Grace of Our Age was generous with blessings (barakāt) through various types of sweets that diffuse a fragrant odor when spread forth

The lips of beautiful women emulate them in sweetness – do you not see that I have not had my fill of tasting them?

There is no blame in them, other than that the one who loves them squanders his money on them and falls into ruin

How many lovely ladies with Zaynab’s fingers bring together all that the soul desires!

How much ka‘k resembles bracelets of silver, and how many necklaces have adorned the entire spread!

Handfuls of sweets are laid out for you, offering you a pious prayer

How much has Egypt been sweetened by qāhiriyya, as well as that latticed fritter whose link is unbroken

In his puffed-out garb, he comes forth in splendor. How lovely are his lights when they shine!

I have gone mad with love describing qatayef, and you can see me knocking at the door of konafa

O market inspector! If only the price of sweets went down, we would be cheerful and could eat to our heart’s content

This poem brings together many of the elements found in Ayyubid and Mamluk-era poetry on sweets. Most notable is the abundant word play. The poem begins with a pun on “Barakāt” and then proceeds to pun on the names of the sweets themselves: “qāhiriyya” was both the name of a pastry of the era or could mean “Cairene woman.” “Zaynab’s fingers” could be understood to describe the hands of the “lovely ladies,” but it is also the name of a dessert (asābi‘ Zaynab, or “sawābi‘ Zaynab in Egyptian dialect). Furthermore, the tropes of Arabic love poetry are playfully adapted, with the sweets themselves taking the place of the love object. So the poet presents himself as loitering at konafa’s door like a spurned lover, and going “mad with love” for qatayef. 

But konafa and qatayef are jealous mistresses, and many poets of the period dramatize the rivalry between the two with verses that praise one and disparage the other. 

The Damascene poet Ibn ‘Unayn (549-630/1154-1232) writes:

Konafa went and mocked qatayef, saying:

I’m more deserving of merit than you

Your charms are folded away and mine are laid plain

What a difference there is between being folded and being spread flat!

My sweetness is visible and yours is hidden

Sweetness that is apparent is more renowned

Meanwhile, Sa‘īd al-Dīn ibn al-‘Arabī  (618-656/1221-1258) voices qatayef’s counter-riposte: 

Qatayef said to konafa:

Why do I see you so thin of body?

I have filled my sweet stuffing with hearts

So go die of envy, cut to the quick.

The Egyptian poet Abū al-Ḥusayn al-Jazzār (601-679/1204-1281) felt the pull of both konafa and qatayef. One poem of his begins:

By God! Neither the kissing of lips nor the joining of embraces

Lands more delectably in my gut than konafa and qatayef 

As his laqab “al-Jazzār” indicates, Abū al-Ḥusayn al-Jazzār was originally a butcher. Born in Fusṭāṭ to a humble family, he was elevated by his poetic gifts to the role of panegyrist for the rulers and notables of his day. A large part of his diwan consists of such praise poems. At the same time, however, al-Jazzār also has a cutting satiric streak and a classic Egyptian khiffat al-dam (sense of humor). In one example, replying to a friend who chided him for abandoning poetry and taking up again as a butcher, he wrote:

How can I not thank the butcher trade that helped me survive, and abandon  

         literature?

As a butcher, the dogs come begging to me, but as a poet, I begged from dogs.

In the selection that I am proposing for this month’s translation challenge, al-Jazzār brings this sense of playfulness to the rivalry between konafa and qatayef. Here he portrays konafa as a jealous lover who accuses him of cheating on her with qatayef:

The biggest challenge here for an effective translation will be how to capture the word play that al-Jazzār is engaging in. More subtle than Ibn Iyās, he plays not with the names of the sweets themselves but rather with the conventional epithets used to describe them. For example, on one level the word riqqa, meaning “delicacy” or “daintiness,” is a common quality ascribed to the beloved in love poetry. Beyond this, however, it also evokes the typical description of konafa as being “thin” or “flat,” in contrast to the stuffed fullness of qatayef. 

A more abstruse reference occurs in the last line with the word hashw (stuffing). When the poet speaks of making “stuffing” his “sect” (madhhab), on the surface he is referring to devotion to that stuffed pastry, qatayef. But hashw is also a term from Islamic theological literature, where it is used as a polemical word to describe the doctrines of a sect pejoratively known as the Hashwiyya, who advocated a crudely anthropomorphic vision of God. In this usage, hashw means something like “anthropomorphism.” Al-Jazzār is thereby dramatizing his rejection of the sect of qatayef by placing it on the same level as a dangerously heretical doctrine. 

All in all, this piece is an interesting example of how Arabic poetry of the post-classical period breathed new life into old tropes by recruiting fresh images from daily life. Although Arabic literature of this period has been undergoing a reevaluation in recent years, there is still precious little on these poets in English. Hopefully this translation challenge will help bring new attention to a neglected body of work. And any cravings this article inspires for konafa, qatayef, basbousa, sawabi‘ Zaynab, zullabiyya, balah al-sham, baklava, halva, ma‘mul and so on is purely incidental!

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Brian Powell is a professional translator and translation manager for Industry Arabic, a firm specialized in Arabic-English translation. Although primarily working in political and legal translation, he has an enduring fascination for Classical Arabic literature. His translations have previously been featured on the Arabist.

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