Chip Rossetti on How Mohamed Makhzangi’s ‘Animals In Our Days’ Displaces our Anthropocentric View of the World

Mohamed Makhzangi’s short-story collection Animals in Our Days appears this month from Syracuse University Press in Chip Rossetti’s English translation. These fifteen short stories, which originally appeared in حيوانات أيامنا in 2006, illuminate Makhzangi’s obsession with the intersections of the scientific and the fantastical, and in an international, sometimes peripatetic vision of humanity.

Makhzangi studied in Kiev, Ukraine, in the mid-1980s — which sparked his acclaimed memoir Memories of a Meltdown, translated by Samah Selim — practiced medicine in Egypt, worked as a science editor while living in Kuwait, all while a prolific author of short stories. The stories in this collection distill some of his most perceptive work about the boundaries between what we consider “human” and “animal.”

To mark the release of the English version of the book, Chip Rossetti answered a few questions about his translation.

Photo: Chip Rossetti

Reflections on the lives of animals — and the relationships between humans and (other) animals — is a vibrant area of short fiction. There’s the recent short-story collection by Haytham al-Wardani, some of the novels of Ibrahim al-Koni, and Ismail Fahd Ismail’s brilliant al-Sabiliyat (which has my all-time favorite donkey). Not to mention all the classic Arabic works on animals (several of which are excerpted at the start of Makhzangi’s stories). 

One of the interesting aspects, to me, is that sometimes Makhzangi fully inhabits the animal persona, and sometimes the human. Another thing that jumps out at me, about this collection, is the way in which animals are dragged into the human landscape of violence and war. What do you feel distinguishes Makhzangi’s approach to the animal world?

Chip Rossetti: It’s true that there are plenty of examples of short fiction that focus on the lives of animals, but as you point out, novels do this as well: I’m thinking of novels like Muhammad Hasan Alwan’s al-Qunduz and Ismail Fahd Ismail’s al-Sabiliyat, a favorite of mine. In both those books, the protagonists have an emotional connection to an animal (an Oregon beaver and a donkey, respectively) that is stronger than their bonds to their own family members, who come across as bothersome and self-absorbed.

It’s a jarring, estranging view of our species, one that particularly suited to the genre of ecofiction: one of its hallmarks is that it aims to question or displace a traditional anthropocentric view of the world.

Most of the stories in Animals in Our Days have human protagonists who find themselves drawn to or empathizing with animals. Only “Deer,” “Foal,” and “Puppies”—all of which are set in the immediate aftermath of the US occupation of Baghdad in 2003—are told from the animals’ perspective. For the animals’ point of view, humans are irrational and cruel, and act from incomprehensible motives. It’s a jarring, estranging view of our species, one that particularly suited to the genre of ecofiction: one of its hallmarks is that it aims to question or displace a traditional anthropocentric view of the world.

Contemporary fiction about the relationship between humanity and nature often focuses on environmental pollution, destruction of natural habitats, or climate change (i.e., “cli-fi.”) In al-Sabiliyat, for example, the war’s primary effect on the natural world is on plant life and agriculture: the rivers have been blocked to hinder invading frogmen, and the plants and trees suffer accordingly. In Makhzangi’s stories, however, the emphasis is on animal life—rabbits caught up in a popular uprising and its violent crackdown, or mules made victims in a dispute over cross-border smuggling. What I find fascinating is how these stories directly link humans’ high-handed treatment of animals with humanity’s tendencies toward political oppression and tyranny over other humans.

Can you talk about how Makhzangi’s work plays with classic texts, not just al-Jahiz’s famous Book of Animals, but lesser-known ones as well, and how these are woven together with quotes from more recent nonfiction narratives about animals? What role do these prefatory quotes play?

CR: Almost every story in the collection opens with an epigraph about a particular species from a classical Arabic text, either al-Jahiz’s Book of Animals, al-Qazwini’s ‘Aja’ib al-makhluqat, or al-Damiri’s Hayat al-hayawan al-kubra. I read the inclusion of those quotes as Makhzangi’s way of reminding his readers of the long tradition in Arabic literature of interest in and respect for animals, a tradition that viewed animals as living examples of the divine creation in all its marvelous diversity, and as an intrinsic part of our human experience of the world. As Annemarie Schimmel put it in her book on animals in Islam, animals “can serve as symbols for a spiritual truth and as warning or admonitions for those who understand.” It’s clear from those pre-modern quotations that there was a tradition of close observation of animal behavior, something that fell by the wayside with the modern, industrialized world.

These pre-modern epigraphs are usually paired with excerpts from contemporary nonfiction books or science articles on animal behavior. It’s an interesting juxtaposition of modern science with medieval adab. As I mention in the introduction, Makhzangi has written about the concept of “two cultures” that was outlined by the British author C.P. Snow in 1952: namely, the fact that in the modern world, science and literature have come to occupy two separate spheres, and people who are interested in one sphere can be happily uninformed about the other. As a trained physician and a long-time science journalist, as well as an author of literary fiction, Makhzangi straddles both those worlds, and he has written about his endorsement of Snow’s hope for an eventual “third culture” that will somehow merge the two.

The pre-modern text that Animals in Our Days seems most in conversation with is one that doesn’t appear in the book at all: it’s “The Case of the Animals Against Man,” a narrative that appears in the lengthy and wide-ranging Rasa’il Ikhwan al-safa’ (“The Epistles of the Brethren of Purity”) from Abbasid-era Iraq. In that story, animals bring a law case before the king of the jinn against humans for their history of tyranny over animals.

The pre-modern text that Animals in Our Days seems most in conversation with is one that doesn’t appear in the book at all: it’s “The Case of the Animals Against Man,” a narrative that appears in the lengthy and wide-ranging Rasa’il Ikhwan al-safa’ (“The Epistles of the Brethren of Purity”) from Abbasid-era Iraq. In that story, animals bring a law case before the king of the jinn against humans for their history of tyranny over animals. In many ways, Makhzangi’s stories echo similar themes, updating them with a modern context.

The stories range widely across space and time (and in some instances, as with She-Asses, reallllly widely). But it seems that while the foreign cities (Hanoi, Rome, Bangkok) are described in some detail, even with street orientations, the details of Arab cities are often effaced (with the exception of the aforementioned “She-Asses,” although it takes place in a somewhat imaginary Cairo). What do you make of this?

CR: I have to admit that that difference in how Makhzangi treats the settings of his stories hadn’t occurred to me before, but of course, now it seems perfectly obvious! Many of the international settings for these stories come from the author’s own wide-ranging travels, many of which he undertook as a journalist when he worked for Kuwait’s al-‘Arabi magazine. In 2011, he published a collection of his travel writings, titled Januban wa-sharqan (South and East), covering the places and people he visited in Africa, Asia (particularly South and Southeast Asia), the Middle East, and parts of Eastern Europe. As a result, the stories in Animals in Our Days set outside the Arab world read quite a bit like travel literature: they are mostly written in the first person, in the voice of a visiting foreigner. Makhzangi’s real-life travels bleed into his fiction. It works the other direction, too, since his storyteller’s eye and sensibility as a writer of fiction made their way into his nonfiction memoir لحظات غرق جزيرة الحوت (published as Memories of a Meltdown in Samah Selim’s English translation).

Many of his stories without specific settings, on the other hand, feel very Egyptian. A story like “Water Buffalo” could be about a farming village in the Egyptian Delta, but there are no specific place names that tip the author’s hand, just a reference to a “distant capital.” In some ways, that makes the story feel more universal. Its themes—about the hubris of modern technology, the damage it causes to nature, and nature’s violent retribution—are globally applicable. In my translator’s introduction to the book, I speculate about the two unnamed countries in “Mules,” and what their real-world counterparts might be, but those details seem less important to me than the story’s themes about the artificial nature of political borders and the short-sighted self-interest that drives human beings, no matter what their stated political affiliations, particularly when they hold power.

The stories all seem to have very different structures & engines, and in particular different attitudes toward an ending. Without giving anything away, there are endings of discovery (“Brass Grasshopper,” “Puppies” “The Sadness of Horses,” “Little Purple Fish”), endings of flourish (“On an Elephant’s Back”), endings that leave you with a question (“Deer”), and endings where you return from a past to a present reality, unsettled or with new understanding (“She-Asses,” “Pursuing a Butterfly in the Sea,” “The Elephants Go to Drink”). Did you approach the different styles in different ways? Were you looking for a unifying voice, or for the voice of each individual story?

CR: The one commonality I found among all these stories was their ability to unsettle me as a reader: even the stories that end with a flourish or with the protagonist’s newfound wisdom have a bittersweet flavor to them. That makes sense for a work of ecofiction that upends the usual starring role that humanity assigns to itself in literature. In these stories, our encounters with animals make us wiser, but that wisdom is tinged with sadness at past, or ongoing, wrongs.

Many of the stories in the collection conclude with a tantalizing glimpse of the supernatural, of a kind of elemental magic associated with animals, such as in “Enchanted Rabbits,” “The Sadness of Horses,” or “The Elephants Go to Drink.” Other stories, like “Foal” and “Mules,” present a very different kind of realistic ending. Given this range of styles, when I was translating, I felt it would be best for me to treat the voice of each story differently, rather than try to force them into a single unifying style.

Can you talk about your relationship with this collection of stories, and its (long-ish?) journey to publication? What were the particular logistical challenges of seeing this collection through to publication in English?

CR: I bought this book around the time of its publication in 2006 when I was living in Cairo. I had read about it in the weekly magazine Akhbar al-Adab and immediately went to find a copy at the Dar al-Shorouk bookstore. I was intrigued by the idea of contemporary animal stories and specifically how Makhzangi reframed an older tradition of folktales and fables about animals for a modern readership. I translated part of the book for my M.A. thesis in graduate school, and at the suggestion of my doctoral adviser, Roger Allen, I submitted it for a PEN/Heim translation grant offered by PEN America and won. That was in late 2010. A few months later, in the wake of the Tahrir Square demonstrations and the Arab Spring, I ended up putting the project aside, and I turned to other work, including other translation projects. It was only with the lockdown in early 2020 that I felt I had the time to revisit Animals in Our Days, revise my earlier translation, and make a concerted effort to find a publisher for it. I’m delighted that after all this time, English readers will have an opportunity to read Makhzangi’s stories for themselves.

Also read: 10 Books: Animal Tales in Arabic Literature

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