On publication day for Haji Jaber’s Black Foam, a discussion with the author and translator Sawad Hussain about the origins of the book and the process of moving it into English.
Marcia Lynx Qualey: Back in 2019, after Black Foam was longlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, you told me that the topic of the Falasha Jews had long been on your mind. When did you first start thinking about the characters in Black Foam?
Haji Jaber: In 2015, I was affected by the killing of an Eritrean immigrant at the hands of Israeli forces—they thought they were killing a Palestinian who they’d been chasing. I was affected not only by the incident, but also by the reactions that followed it, which belittled and even ridiculed the news, because the dead man was an undocumented migrant.
I expressed my sadness and my anger in a long article, in which I explained the reasons that Eritreans immigrate to Palestine, but that was not enough to empty my feelings. A novel was the perfect way to say all the things that had remained stuck in my mind. Still, it wasn’t easy, since it was important not just to vent my emotions and write something like an angry screed. It was important that art not be absent while I was writing with anger and sadness. That’s is why I ended up dedicating the novel to the soul of the murdered Eritrean man, Habtom Weldi Mikael.
MLQ: I first came across this book when it was longlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, and I remember being intrigued by the premise and reaching out to Haji to ask a few questions. What about you, Sawad?
Sawad Hussain: I wish I could say that I had known Haji before Black Foam was longlisted for the 2019 IPAF. I had never read a book by an Eritrean author before, in any language. I also had no Idea about the Falasha Mura, and I was really impressed with the degree to which Haji did his research when doing this book. I guess what really drew me is that the book is a real page-turner. It was gripping, and I just felt completely transported. There was a real palpable sense of place and it’s not like didactic in any way. I was shocked when it wasn’t shortlisted for the IPAF.
And the character that struck me was the main character. He really spoke to me because you just get to see such a vulnerable side of him. You may not really like him all the time, but you’re still rooting for him.
MLQ: For me, the main character was compelling, but I liked some of the complex and funny supporting characters, like Yaqub and Yohannes, and that crass European guy who is interviewing our main character in the refugee camp. Haji, do you remember how the characters originated? Have you met a Yaqub, a Yohannes, a Sarah?
HJ: In Black Foam, I had to furnish the necessary conditions for the protagonist-of-many-names to grow and move toward his tragic fate. As for the rest of the characters, their role is imposed by the narrative technique, which is to make the main character grow and develop throughout his journey. So unlike the main character, the other characters were created based on the needs of the main character.
MLQ: How did you think about character and voice when translating, Sawad? You once told me that when you were translating Sahar Khalifeh’s Passage, you spoke the dialogue aloud.
SH: I do a character sketch, so I make a little mind map about what forms the majority of this character’s life experience, what motivates them, what are they afraid of, what makes them angry. Even if that’s sort of stuff you don’t see at all in the book, you can conjecture, and then make a fuller picture of who this character is. If they have a particular career or hobby, then the vocabulary from that bleeds into their daily vernacular. After I do the character sketch, I then read around other books—basically shopping around for a voice. It doesn’t need to be a 100% match, but if I can take elements from another character’s voice from a different book, and then mix it with elements from another narrative, then that helps me put together the voice that I’m looking for. Some of them come really easily—because we have a shared life experience or I know somebody who resembles them, but other characters take a lot of research and a lot more time and consideration to think about how they should sound on the page.
MLQ: Haji, I know that you traveled to Jerusalem in order to do research for the novel. Can you talk a little about one of your interviewees who was particularly memorable?
HJ: The truth is that the person who didn’t leave my mind is someone I didn’t talk to; rather, we kept looking at each other without speaking. He was an Israeli conscript from the Falasha community who I met in the alleys of Jerusalem that lead to Al-Aqsa Mosque. He was talking to another white conscript, and, as soon as he saw me, he stopped talking and kept looking at me as if he was going to say something or ask me something. When I began to write, I brought him in and made him speak. I imagined something that didn’t happen, or let’s say what the conscript might have wished would happen had it not been for his hesitation.
MLQ: Did you have a tour guide in Jerusalem? Jerusalem also appears to be a character in the novel.
HJ: I owe my friend Nidal Rafae for everything that happened in Jerusalem. She led me through the city’s streets and alleys, brought me into her house, and told me a lot. Her presence gave me courage, as if I were a son of the place.
MLQ: Sawad, what kind of research did you find necessary? I had to look at a lot of Wikipedia pages, watch videos, look at images. I remember I particularly read up on the history of that ladder on the windowsill at the Holy Sepulchre. I really identified with that poor ladder.
SH: I found Instagram really helpful, actually. Just typing in words on Arabic and coming up with words on Instagram of certain buildings and roads in Eritrea, and how they’re referred to by people in English. Because I think a difficulty we had when translating is that Haji’s referring to things in Eritrea in Arabic which are actually Amharic, and the Amharic’s been transliterated. So you have to do a lot of detective work. Haji is very generous when answering questions when I felt like, with the research, we didn’t get enough. I spent a lot of time looking at maps of Jerusalem. As I’ve gone on further in my career, I’ve realized that sometimes you need to sacrifice some of the way the prose is structured in the Arabic … And my friend Jessica Cohen helped immensely with all the words in Hebrew. Because again, Haji had transliterated Hebrew into Arabic, so some of the sounds and spellings were coming out different. For some of the religious texts, things that were in Hebrew and written in Arabic script…
MLQ: This book wasn’t only a co-translation, but also there was a rather involved collaborative editing process with the publisher. So if someone reads the book in both languages, they’ll find a few points of divergence. How do you ultimately feel about that, and about the process?
SH: What was really key for me during the process was that we had each other’s support to agree (or not) to suggestions during this developmental editing phase, which I have never experienced on any other book. But it boils down to the question of what is good literature. I felt there were instances where I was happy we were happy to push back, but other things I feel were welcome. I’m really glad that we were abel to run everything past Haji and we were able to push back in some cases.
MLQ: How do you feel about the English translation of Black Foam? What surprised you by publishing a novel in English?
HJ: I was, of course, delighted by the news of the novel being translated into English, and every further reading of this work cheers me. It creates an opportunity for a broader reading and thus a deeper understanding of what the regions that I wrote about are experiencing, whether in Eritrea, Ethiopia, or Palestine.