On Translating ‘Cry in a Long Night,’ a Novel Jabra Ibrahim Jabra Originally Wrote in English

By M Lynx Qualey

Beloved Palestinian novelist Jabra Ibrahim Jabra (1919-1994) wrote صراخ في ليل طويل — which was originally titled Passage in the Silent Night — in English in the mid-1940s. As William Tamplin writes in his introduction to his English translation, which appeared yesterday from Darf Books in Cry in a Long Night: And Four Stories, it would have been Jabra’s second English-language novel. His first was Echo and the Pool.

But Jabra held on to the novel, re-writing it in Arabic between 1952 and 1954, and then publishing it as صراخ في ليل طويل, or Cry in a Long Night.

In celebration of the book’s publication in English translation, Tamplin talked about the potential “fool’s errand” of translating a novel that was written originally in English, what might have happened to the English first draft, and what drew him to the book.

Also, listen to translator William Tamplin read from a section of Jabra Ibrahim Jabra’s Cry in a Long Night, in his English translation.

And listen to translator William Tamplin read from a section of Jabra Ibrahim Jabra’s Cry in a Long Night, in the Arabic original.

What brought you, personally, to a relationship with this book, and ultimately to translating it? How does it change the process, feeling that there is some underpinning of the novel — some bones — that were originally written in English? And that, were the novelist alive, he would have opinions about your translation?

William Tamplin: For better or worse, what brought me to this book was the Google algorithm – al-shaykh gūgal. I was looking for apocalyptic Arabic novels to write my dissertation on, and up popped an article on Palestinian literature by Mattityahu Peled, the Israeli general turned peace hawk and Arabic literature scholar. Peled characterized the atmosphere of Cry in a Long Night as “apocalyptic,” so I had my work cut out for me. Then, once I began reading it, I couldn’t stop. 

In the first few years of graduate school, I’d read lots of canonical modern Arabic novels, and Cry in a Long Night was different. It wasn’t cloyingly sentimental, and it wasn’t overtly political – two issues I’d had with many of the Arabic novels I’d been reading. Cry in a Long Night was an allegory, but it was artfully done. Amin Samma is an intimate narrator, a brutally honest one. He’s hyper-self-aware, thoughtful and reflective, contrarian, literary. I could listen to his thoughts and musings all day. Amin is a thinker, he’s a writer, and he’s alone. And as a graduate student, you spend a lot of time writing and thinking alone. So maybe that’s why the novel spoke to me. Also, Amin is processing a breakup and reconstituting the shattered pieces of his identity and sense of self. When I first came to this novel, I was going through a breakup. So I connected with it on more than one level. 

Knowing the novel was originally written in English made me wary of going on a fool’s errand, at least initially. As soon as the manuscript is found, wherever it may be — there goes all my effort, right? That’s what I figured. So before I began translating, I wanted to make sure the original wasn’t out there somewhere, ready to reveal itself only after I’d translated it. I asked friends of Jabra’s and scholars who study his work — Roger Allen, Bashir Abu-Manneh and Issa Boullata, as well as Jabra’s son Sadeer — if they knew anything about an original manuscript. They all speculated that the original had been destroyed in 2010, when Al Qaeda bombed the Egyptian embassy down the street from Jabra’s family home on Princesses’ Street. In the explosion, Jabra’s papers were burned or looted later on. 

Would the original have sounded like Jabra’s English in Hunters in a Narrow Street, a product of the 1950s, in which the characters swoon and passionately exclaim ‘Darling!’? And if the original of Cry in a Long Night sounded like that, was I beholden to translating it back into such an idiom? Or did I owe my reader the language of 2022? 

The existence of an English original at some point in the past of course made me wonder what that original sounded like. (Also, translation seminars could have a field day comparing the original to the translation to the back-translation.) Would the original have sounded like Jabra’s English in Hunters in a Narrow Street, a product of the 1950s, in which the characters swoon and passionately exclaim ‘Darling!’? And if the original of Cry in a Long Night sounded like that, was I beholden to translating it back into such an idiom? Or did I owe my reader the language of 2022? 

Jabra would definitely have opinions about my translation were he still alive, and I wish I could hear them! In the introduction to my translation, Roger Allen writes that while he and Adnan Haydar were translating Jabra’s two major novels – The Ship and In Search of Walid Masoud – Jabra read the drafts of their translation against his original and made suggestions. However, he ultimately let the decision about the English translation lie with Allen and Haydar. I flatter myself to think he would allow me the same leeway! 

You write, in your introduction, that Jabra said he’d “written this novel in English in Jerusalem in the summer of 1946.” He fled the city in 1948, moving to what became his new home in Baghdad, and then translated it to Arabic over the course of 1952-54, while studying in Cambridge, Massachusetts. We don’t have the original, so it’s difficult to say. But you seem to suggest that significant parts of the novel seem to have been composed in the 1952-54 period. Did he write about why he didn’t publish earlier, and why he decided to transform the book into Arabic?

WT: Jabra decided to translate his novel and publish it in Arabic because, in his view, the modernization of the Arab world had to take place first and foremost through culture (to be followed closely by political, economic, technological modernization). It’s a conservative position: culture first, then the institutions. (Yet Jabra, though temperamentally conservative, was politically liberal.) He believed that liberal democratic change in Arab society had to begin “with the pen.” He wrote an essay, “Why Write in English?” where he lays out his reasoning; he returned to these ideas later on in his life in the essay “Translation and the Modern Arab Renaissance.” So, Jabra reasoned, he couldn’t contribute to the cultural modernization of the Arab world by writing in English, a foreign language. The Arabs would have to use the bootstraps of their own language; change would have to come from within. 

As for why he didn’t publish Cry in a Long Night soon after he finished it, I’m not sure. I’d hypothesize that Jabra had bigger fish to fry in his late twenties and early thirties. He became a war refugee in January 1948 (at the age of 28), and he spent the next few years looking for a home and a job. He was trying to get a job at UNESCO in Paris and later aspired to be a translator at the UN in New York. Neither job panned out. In fall 1948 he settled in Baghdad and found work teaching at (I think) three different institutions. I imagine he was working his tail off. So when he got the Rockefeller Fellowship to Harvard for the academic year 1952-1953, he wouldn’t have had to worry much about money, at least for the duration of the fellowship. I’d venture to guess that that hiatus gave him time and space to work on his writing and translation, and that that’s why Cry in a Long Night came out in 1955 and not in 1947 or 1948. It’s a shame that I keep saying “I think” and “I’d venture to guess”; there’s still a lot we don’t know about Jabra’s biography. 

I strongly suspect – but do not know – that portions of the novel were composed in the 1952-54 period. Especially the scene with Sumaya’s parents, who are totally opposed to her marriage to Amin but who eventually come around to the idea after the two young lovers elope. Jabra’s marriage in 1952 to Lami‘a Barqi al-‘Askari shook Baghdad society. Although he may have spoken like an English lord, Jabra was still a marked man: a Christian, a Palestinian, an ethnic Assyrian, and a refugee. I’m guessing Lami‘a’s family would have preferred a rich, landed Iraqi Muslim like themselves for their daughter. This tension comes up in Cry in a Long Night just as it does in Hunters in a Narrow Street, a semi-autobiographical novel. Jabra is more discreet about the many tensions surrounding his marriage in Princesses’ Street, one of his autobiographies. Yet in the notes of John Marshall, who administered the Humanities Division of the Rockefeller Fellowship and secured Jabra a spot at Harvard, his marriage to Lami‘a caused “annoyance”  and “deep resentment” in 1952 Baghdad. (For John Marshall’s notes on Jabra, see screenshots below.) For Jabra, it may have been “good for his health” to skip town for a year or two. So again, the scene in the novel that expresses anxiety about his in-laws’ acceptance of him, I imagine, was written as he translated the novel from English to Arabic after he’d skipped town. 

John Marshall’s notes on Jabra for the Rockefeller Foundation from the Rockefeller Foundation Archive: 

I’m making a big assumption here: that Jabra revised as he translated. Writers revise, especially after the passage of months or years. And for Jabra, six very tumultuous years passed between the completion of Cry in a Long Night (1946) and his beginning to translate it (1952). During that time, he fled Jerusalem for Bethlehem, Beirut, Damascus, and Baghdad; held a number of jobs; traveled to France for a summer of language study and some raunchy adventures (all detailed in Princesses’ Street); and married. Around 650,000 of his countrymen and -women were uprooted. Seeing as he matured personally and literarily in those years, I don’t see how he couldn’t have made some changes here and there. But as with so much about this novel and this man, who knows?! 

Which parts of the book seem to map onto Jerusalem, and which on Baghdad? And how does it change the book, to be set in an unnamed city (vs. if it were explicitly set in Jerusalem)?

WT: Jabra didn’t want to particularize his book and its message. By setting it in Jerusalem, by mentioning the Zionist/ Israeli threat by name, by limiting the conditions, he would have made it a “Palestinian” novel and not an ecumenical vehicle for the cultural modernization of the Arabs, which, again, was his mission in the 1950s and 1960s. It’s like what Miles Davis said about jazz: as soon as you define it, you limit it, and it dies powerless in its enclosure, not allowed to adapt. In my opinion, Jabra’s allegory is tasteful. I consider that a feat, especially because allegories can so easily devolve into morality plays. And the characters are rich and complex and well-developed despite the lack of specific times and dates. It was supposed to be a pan-Arab novel. 

And although some of the more fraught social scenes, like the marriage proposal, may map onto Baghdad, Amin’s “city” is 90 or 95% Jerusalem: it has an “old city” with thick walls built by the Ottomans; it was reconquered by Saladin and his lieutenants; it was governed by a Turkish-speaking aristocracy for centuries and fell under the influence of Muhammad Ali Pasha. Check, check and check. It’s hilly, it’s full of roadblocks and random explosions, and it’s teeming with prostitutes and thieves. That’s pre-1948 Jerusalem, just before the apocalypse. 

Soon after I read this novel, I was obsessed with mapping the events of it on to Jabra’s life. Once you go down that rabbit hole, it’s hard to come out. One summer in Jerusalem, I visited Jabra’s neighborhood in Qatamon and walked from there to the Antonius villa in Shaykh Jarrah, which I always figured was the model for the Yasser family mansion in Cry in a Long Night; Jabra was a friend and frequent guest of Katy Antonius, the widow of George Antonius who threw lavish parties in 1940s Jerusalem. 

On my walk from one home to the other, it was clear that some things have changed and some haven’t. Jabra and his family fled their home after the Hagana blew up the Semiramis hotel down the street; when I visited the neighborhood, the site of the Semiramis was still undeveloped and surrounded by chain-link fencing with opaque tarp across the sides. I asked an Arab construction worker at the site where the Semiramis used to be, and he pointed at the rubble. Were those the original ruins? I don’t know. But the experience was surreal. 

The Antonius home, located on top of a hill in Shaykh Jarrah, was converted into a hotel, then partially destroyed to make way for a housing development a few years ago. I’ve recently read that it’s going to become a synagogue. The route from Jabra’s house to the Antonius villa takes you right through Zion Square, the heart of Jerusalem, where the Zion cinema used to be. And in Cry in a Long Night, there’s a scene where Amin passes through “the heart of the city” to witness a crowd pouring out of a movie theater. I met an old Israeli shopkeeper just off Zion Square whose family had owned the shop since before 1948; he pointed out the property where the cinema used to be. It was eerie to walk that route and imagine Amin, or Jabra, doing the same on a balmy Jerusalem night 80 years ago. 

So much for the rabbit hole! 

But in the capacity of literary critic (and not fan), I strive to err on the side of the New Critics: let the text tell its own story independent of its creator. Let it make its own self-referential universe. We should at least afford the artist that much freedom. Because, in the end, Amin is not Jabra, however much they have in common. None of Jabra’s many semi-autobiographical protagonists is Jabra. 

The opening is so rich — the rifle-toting policeman who checks his ID, and turns out to be someone he’s vacationed with, and then he immediately heads into the cafe, the narrative grabbing the reader by the hand and tugging them along, as though through narrow alleys, around packed shops and cafes on either side. But even before that, it begins with a woman: her red-painted toenail, her elegant shoe, both of which he rejects. What do you make of that first paragraph? And in general, the characters’ fraught attitudes toward the book’s women characters?

WT: It needs to be said: the main character is a chauvinist, a misogynist. Though it’s no excuse, Jabra was writing in the 1940s and 1950s, when women weren’t allowed in many of the intellectual spaces he inhabited in Cambridge (UK), Jerusalem, Baghdad, and the other Cambridge (US). That kind of talk wasn’t as eyebrow-raising then as it is nearly 80 years later. However, at one point, the main character, Amin, reflects that because of his failure in marriage, he’d come to despise all women. That’s obviously absurd. So there’s a kind of tacit recognition that he knows his stance is unfair. But he doesn’t correct it. So, I think Amin is past reason: his wife Sumaya left him, and now he’s a cuckold licking his wounds. He’s a stung man, a man whose wife left him unexpectedly and made him wander in the “lethal labyrinths of the past” for two whole years. Fortunately for Amin, he came out of those labyrinths a stronger man. So I understood his flippant or just downright insulting attitudes toward women as just a projection of his own wretchedness. 

As for the first paragraph, it has always puzzled me. The whole first chapter is a hodgepodge of incoherent images and scenes. (I’ve always felt the novel hits its stride in chapter two.) The image of the woman baring her foot for him might be a nod to prostitution in Jerusalem. Prostitutes show up later in the cafe and in the city square. Or the scene might be totally internal to the novel – the prostitute could represent feminine temptation rejected by a protagonist determined to be his own man, to be unswayed by the affections, charms, wiles of women. Because immediately afterward, Amin says to himself that he’ll proceed toward the city, towards “something more fit for a man.” What’s the connection between masculinity and the city, I’ve always wondered? Is it the old Greek idea of the polis and civil society, and man’s being a social animal (in Greek, literally, a “political animal”) whose nature is tied up with that of the city (polis)? Jabra reflects on this idea in Hunters in a Narrow Street, published in 1959, so maybe he’d been pondering it for a while. 

The rifle-toting policeman reminds me of Jabra’s English friend who ended up serving in the British military in Palestine. Jabra writes about that friend, Michael Clark, in Princesses’ Street, one of his two autobiographies. In the days leading up to the 1947-48 civil war and then the 1948-49 regional war, Jerusalem was divided into three zones, and I believe the zones were guarded by British soldiers and MPs as well as local Jews and Arabs working for the British Mandatory administration. 

Yet it’s not necessarily appropriate to rely on the social or political conditions under which a novel is written as a key to its interpretation. The policeman’s presence is meaningful enough in the context of the novel: Amin craves connection with an old friend, but that old friend is too busy to meet up. In the context of the first chapter, it represents another failed personal encounter for Amin, another failed attempt at connection. A few chapters later some of his friends mock-seriously call Amin a hermit living on his hill with no companion but his staff. And then in the last paragraph – actually, I won’t ruin it for you. But it has to do with a man and his city. 

If you were going to make a playlist to go with the novel, what would you include?

WT: I’m not sure how important music is to the novel. Jabra mentions music, as when he and Sumaya listen to the gramophone on the couch in Cry in a Long Night. But I don’t think there’s any mention of any specific songs or composers in the novel.

I’d include the folk song Ala dalouna, from the story “Singers in the Shadows,” sung by Sabah Fakhri. 

The story “The Gramophone” alludes to one of the characters’ personal and financial ruin because he fell in love with the famous Egyptian singer “Mounira al-Turkiya,” probably a reference to the actual (and contemporaneous) Egyptian singer Mounira al-Mahdiya. One of her albums is on YouTube.

Around the time he wrote this novel, Jabra was interested in mostly Western classical music: Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Debussy, Suppé, Purcell, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Field. Jabra founded the “Arts Club” at the Jerusalem YMCA in 1944, and the annual report (screenshot below) shows the club’s itinerary and the music, poetry and films that the club put on. 

Jabra had a lot of criticism of Arab music that he lays out in a newspaper article called “Creativity and the City,” which he wrote in 1947 for the al-Minbar: he thought Arab music was stuck in the past, slow to innovate, too reliant on the “lover’s complaint” as a subject.

Tonally & stylistically, what about the original did you most want to capture and re-create in your English translation? 

WT: The lyricism. Like Nabokov, Borges, and many great prose stylists, Jabra started out as a poet. Tawfiq Sayigh said that Jabra’s novel and the shorts stories he wrote in his first collection Arak resembled poems in how tight, coherent, and punchy the imagery was. There are passages in Cry in a Long Night – when Amin remembers the rainy night he spent with a childhood friend in the old city, when he recalls a funeral in his childhood village, when he and a friend visit his father, who worked in a monastery – where I hope I’ve captured some of that lyricism. 

Also see:

Photos & Archives: Companions to Jabra Ibrahim Jabra’s ‘Cry in a Long Night’