Launching the Spring 2023 RAIN Issue of ArabLit Quarterly: ‘Pouring All Night Long’

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By M Lynx Qualey

Rain, both dreaded and hotly anticipated—a curse and a blessing—is at times a curtain that hides the worst of human behavior and at others a shower that washes away sin and leaves us magically clean, ready for a new day.

The pounding rhythms of rainfall are echoed in Arabic poetry, as in one of the formative poems of the twentieth century, Badr Shakir al-Sayyab’s “Rain Song,” to which Wael Almahdi writes a tribute in this issue, titled “Acid Rain.” And rain is a central feature in many pre-twentieth-century works as well. In his new book The Beauty Hunters, on Sudanese Bedouin poetry, Adil Babikir writes that “Rain, in particular, is the most eagerly anticipated event of the year and a trigger of poets’ imagination.” For the most part, he writes, the start of the rainy season is a moment of celebration. It sits as a central theme in the poetry of al-Hardallo (1830–1916), a leading Sudanese poet. In this poem by al-Hardallo, translated by Babikir, rain makes the dormant world come to life:

Confirmed news from home: The Butana plains were hit by heavy rain.

Pouring all night long, it continued unabated into the morning.

Male crickets raged with lust; udders, even of young cattle,

grew full, and she-camels enjoyed a lush meal within a short stroll.

As Salma Harland illuminates in this issue’s “Making It Rain: Rain Deities in Pre-Islamic Arabia,” humans have long written about their desire for rain—and their annoyance when it doesn’t come. One anonymous supplicator in what is now Yemen carved into stone that he wanted to know why the god al-Maqah “did not grant them irrigation before the rainy season of spring … and [instead sent them] insects and locusts.”

Yet rain is also dangerous, a bringer of ill-health and misfortune. In “On the Rain’s Bow: Folk Rhymes from Bahrain,” Ali Al-Jamri and Zainab Almahdi bring us cheerful children’s rhymes about the rain, although these come with an occasional dark edge: “When the rains fell with intent to drown, / Hajji Majid’s house fell down!”

In a passage by twelfth-century litterateur Ibn al-Jawzi, translated for this issue by Dima El-Mouallem, Basra’s heavy rains make their way “to orphans who are sleeping in their beds.” In a reverse echo of the pre-Islamic prayers described by Salma Harland, al-Jawzi writes that the pious women of Basra prayed for an end to the rain that was sieging their roofs and falling on their children. Fortunately for the children, their pious mothers’ prayers were answered.

In many contemporary prose works, rain has a yet darker aspect. The Yemeni novelist Badr Ahmad writes of rain as a metaphor for recent events in his country in a text translated by Katherine Van de Vate: “Weren’t people waiting for a merciful rain to save them from a long dry spell? But instead, they were drenched by a filthy rain that killed everything beautiful in their lives and brought the hyenas out of their lairs.”

In Egypt, the things that happen under the cover of rain—in Naguib Mahfouz’s “Under the Bus Shelter,” translated for this issue by Simon Leese—are a magical-realist range of vices. And in Mohamed Makhzangi’s magical short story “The Water Cords,” translated by Enas Eltorky, rain takes on a mystical character. Here, falling water has an ability to transmit the world’s suffering. For one man, “The cords of rainwater, as well as tap and shower water, summon with their vibrations the sounds of screams, cries, wails, and laments,” so that the man must flee human contact, to find a place where the sound of water doesn’t carry the history of human agony.

Some of the poets in this issue are more open to the magical side of rain. Saudi poet Ashjan Hendi, in Moneera al-Ghadeer’s translation, writes: “the cloud dips / her silver face in water / and her lips gleam in the lightning mirror,” while Muhammad Al Turki glories in “A Celebration of Drowning”: “We celebrate the rain because we have been taught to drown / the missing roof no longer startles us / and our house is wide open to the clouds[.]”

However, in Almahdi’s “Acid Rain: A Tribute to Badr Shakir al-Sayyab,” the rhythm of rains are a horror, as, “The jaw of the night expansive with clouds / bleed onto the country their terrible tears[.]” And in Moroccan poet Nisrine Mbarki’s force-of-nature “flood,” from her award-winning debut collection in Dutch, Oeverloos, it is her mother who is the rain, and, “my brothers dig deep trenches to catch her in / my sister listlessly chops tree trunks with a sharp axe and builds dams / sisters-in-law gather their children and scream silently / before lifting their skirts to the knee[.]”

In this issue, we also have the abundant shower of stories shortlisted for the 2022 ArabLit Story Prize, as well as the winning story by Belal Fadl, “The Kid Sheikh,” translated by James Scanlan, and art by Kuwaiti artist and picture-book author Zahra Marwan. And, as a kicker, Leonie Rau shares historical Arabic recipes that make use of rainwater.

May the rains fall, yet not wash us away.