By Mona Elnamoury, with Mona Khedr
When the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) announced its six-book shortlist for 2023, one of the writers to appear for a second time was Egyptian novelist Miral Altahawy, with her Days of the Shining Sun. Like her earlier Brooklyn Heights, this is a work of diaspora literature; yet Days of the Shining Sun takes on our third-millennium world and turns out a complicated picture of the miserable lives of the immigrants in an imaginary yet realistic town on the Western coast of the United States. The novel gives a concentrated glimpse of characters who are hanging “between two worlds,” to borrow a phrase from Edward Said, and of the gender, linguistic, cultural, and identity issues that entangle their alienated existence. Not only are there the residents of the town called “Shining Sun”—a place that’s less than mediocre, its people unable or unwilling to see their misery—but there is also the adjacent luxurious mountainous compounds of “Eden,” whose inhabitants hire the lower town’s people for gardening and cleaning and all manner of menial work. Those compounds constitute a continuously tantalizing dream for the immigrants who simultaneously ridicule their existence. Whether the immigrants are voluntary dreamers of better lives, or forced ones escaping hellish homelands, the writer reveals how they carefully pretend otherwise in their messages and photos back “home.”
The novel begins tragically: Nea’m Alkhabaz comes home to find her elder son has taken his own life. It ends with another tragedy: a refugee ship forced to leave the shore, while seven babies are thrown into the water in life jackets in the hope that they will have better lives than their parents. Since the readers already know by now that this place is far from being the land of dreams, they end the novel haunted by those seven babies growing to be as miserable as the other characters of the novel.
Not only does Days of the Shining Sun belong to migrant literature, but, in its wide survey of man’s inability to fight the world’s insurmountable powers, it also belongs to existential, naturalistic literature. This is a godless world, even though Allah is mentioned all the time. The only possible heroism in the novel is that of survival in face of misery.
In Brooklyn Heights, Altahawy began this deep search into the lives of immigrants via the story of Hend, a divorcee with a son in New York. Her search was more or less personal, and the novel reflected the author’s own life in many ways. Days of the Shining Sun, on the other hand, continues the exploration of the writer’s yet unanswered queries into modern man’s dilemma and again reflects the writer’s fascinating ability to cross the borders of subjective experiences and tackling a variety of immigrant lives. While in Brooklyn Heights the female characters exemplify “otherness” and exile, in the city of Blazing Sun Ville, both male and female characters do. In the latter novel, there is less fixedness of the exiled subjects, more fluidity in their positions, and brutally subjugated male characters side by side with women characters. Sometimes, the male characters are subjugated by women (Ahmed Alwakeel by Nea’am Alkhabaz, Selim Al-Najar by Aliaa Aldoori.)
Translating such a work into English will prove challenging. Right from the title, we have a quandary. The title’s satiric nature is a translational problem in itself; the shining sun is usually a pleasurable phenomenon, but once you read through the novel you realize it is a lie, a mirage. Altahawy refers to this sun as more of a blazing sun than a shining one. In a long texting thread with Altahawy, she mentioned that it is tiring and metaphorically scorching to the people who live under it. We suggest adding the word “Ville” would facilitate a faster grasp of what the shining/blazing sun actually is, even faster than the original Arabic. Yet—
should we make things easier for the reader?
“Blazing Sun Ville” has been a title I discussed with Miral. We discussed that the nature of the sun in that place is rather scorching than pleasant. On the other hand, Dr. Mona Khedr, the literary critic and translator, tried her hand at the title and came up with “Sol Vale,” which seems a perfect solution. It is linguistically Spanish in origin and thus suits the town’s nature as an immigration point; it has the flavor of historically coastal border towns full of documented as well as undocumented immigrants. Moreover, it does not exist in reality and it has the same deceptive nature of the original.
So, as you can see dear reader, translating such a novel is going to be an exhilarating job where direct communication with the author will be intertwined by a deep critical perspective by two literary critics/translators.
A Brief Excerpt in Translation
Translated by Mona Khedr
This is how the story begins:
“Ne’am al-Khabaz doggedly tread the alleyways of Sol Valle with heavy, weary steps. Her heart was thundering for no apparent reason. She tramped along these roads she knew all too well until, in front of her house, she noticed a cluster of police cars and ambulance paramedics awaiting her arrival. She stood there in shock. She caught sight of a few of her neighbors who were staring at her vacantly. It was only at that moment that Ne’am realized she was about to confront a disaster, even though the magnitude and dimensions of what she was about to see still eluded her. In this neighborhood, disasters and losses are too hard to count.”
A Second Brief Excerpt in Translation
Translated by Mona Elnamoury
“Ne’am Alkhabaz cared nothing for her attire, which spoke of poverty, lack of taste, and a confused gender identity. She believed she was harmonious within herself, comfortable with her appearance, and free from the immigrants’ mania of showing off their exotic local clothes. When all is said and done, she was civilized and open to her new world with maximum energy for adaptation. She wore jeans and cotton T-shirts that had prints she did not know how to pronounce. She liked short sweaters that barely covered her behind, walked gracefully in her white sneakers pulling her rough hair up in a ponytail, and went out clean-faced, without any makeup. She paid no attention to her facial scars, thinking of herself as genuine and free; she was an example of a citizen faithful to her newly discovered continent. In fact, we can safely say that she, with everything she represented, created a new taste for a gradually growing social class; hers had become a general fashion for the newcomers and workers who became professional house cleaners or nannies and the like. With this particular attire that symbolized their status, they formed a new class: in the end, they were all “cleaning staff.” Despite differences in their features and colors, they all were made of the same metal that most of the “Blazing Sun Ville” inhabitants were made of. The mixed-race town had turned into a huge settlement for African, Mexican, and Asian household workers and nannies. They, in turn, expressed their immersion into the new society by giving up their old mode of dress and adopting Ne’am’Alkahabaz’s style in the course of time.”
Mona Elnamoury is a Cairo-based university teacher, literary critic, creative writer and literary translator. Elnamoury translates from English into Arabic and vice versa. She published English translations of Ahmed Zaghoul Alsheety’s “Three Green Canaries” in Metamorphoses in 2011, Ibrahim Aslan’s “A Two-Bedrooms Apartment” in Arablit.org, Ammar Aly Hassan’s “Tales of the First Love” in Two Lines in 2015 and, “The Void Hunter” by Ammar Ali Hassan in Banipal in 2022. At the same time, she brought out Arabic translations of Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones who Walk Away From Omela”, in Akhbar AlAdab in 2011, and LeGuin’s A Wizard of Earthsea for the NCT, Cairo in 2015, as well as three books in The Young Scientists Series for Children for the NTC, 2020. Elnamoury is also a creative writer. Her first book, Chichat Over the Thames, a travel literature tale, was published by Alain publishing House in 2017.
Mona Khedr is a theater academic and a literary translator based in London, Canada. Her research and translations focus on interpretation studies and interculturalism in theater and literature, and have appeared in academic journals including Ecumenica, African Theatre, and Performing Islam.