New translations from Saudi Arabian, Sudanese, and Algerian authors

I'm happy to announce a few new translations this spring. My co-translation of Raja Alem's The Dove Necklace was published earlier this month. Read reviews here, herehere, and here.

I'm also happy to announce two new short story translations:

Ahmed al-Malik's "The Tank" published in The Book of Khartoum (ed. R. Cormack and M. Shmookler, Comma Press, 2016)

Abderrazak Boukebba's "The Death Shroud" published in The Common journal, special issued devoted to Contemporary Arabic Fiction (ed. H. Bustani and J. Acker, 2016)

Credibility in Cairo 2015

One of my favorite texts to teach is the massive travelogue of Ibn Battutah (d. 1377), which is available in an excellent Arabic edition as well as a complete English translation. His descriptions of flora, fauna, famous people, and unfamiliar customs boggle the mind. He describes the strange plants (e.g. the mango) and animals (e.g. the rhinoceros) he encountered as well as the harrowing incidents he survived, like shipwrecks and highway robbery in which more than a few people are actually killed. He also describes very famous incidents of alterophobia, the most famous of which is his description of three widows immolating themselves on their husbands' funeral pyres (Sati). Part of the reason Ibn Battutah is such an engaging read is because he, or his amanuensis Ibn Juzayy, writes about everything he sees with an air of credibility, which verges on naïveté, and a healthy dose of sanctimony. Alterophobia, naïveté, and sanctimony happen to be qualities that characterize official political discourse in Egypt at this moment as well (see e.g. the case of Sama El-Masry, a bellydancer who was banned from running in this month's parliamentary elections owing to her un-ladylike and morally dubious public persona).

One of the things I've struggled with most since coming to Cairo to teach in 2012 is how to teach students to think critically about Classical Arabic texts. Critical thinking is not an easy skill to learn and it's a buzzword in every school and university on every continent, I know, but the ability to think critically about texts in Classical Arabic is a separate, though related, challenge. For one, there are material circumstances that most people are not aware of having to do with manuscripts and the way in which editions (of varying quality) and their authoritative-seeming footnotes and glosses are produced. This is a story that can be told over and over again but unless you put manuscripts in students' hands and challenge them to produce a text, the lesson rarely sinks in. Language is also an issue. I'm not imputing ahistorical, magical qualities to Arabic and unthinking Orientalist spiritualism to Arab students if I say that their relationship to Classical Arabic (the literary language, 6th c. – 19th c. AD) is less immediate than their relationships to other Arabics or other languages. A fun game I like to play with my students is to see which Arabic equivalents of English terms used by their other professors in lectures will cause them to flip out (answer: homophobia, transgender, homosexuality, wa-halluma jarran as we say). It can be a lot easier to explain the idea of genre conventions and tropes to students and these are the clues they recognize most quickly. In his section on the Egyptian Delta, Ibn Battutah informs his readers about a Sufi order whose adherents all shave their faces (incl. eyebrows) and heads. He claims—actually he never claims, but reports the claims of others—that they do this because the founder of the order once found himself being pursued assiduously by an amorous older woman and the only way he could get her to leave him alone was to disfigure himself by shaving off all the hair on his face and head. The students didn't appear to find the story questionable on a first reading, but when pressed it didn't take them long to come around to the idea that the story was probably apocryphal. This type of archetypal criticism is a slippery slope though. I wonder how they would react if I asked them to compare the tale of the Chinese emperor Ai and "The Passion of the Cut Sleeve" to a well known story about you-know-who and a cat.

I think about my teaching a lot but most of it isn't fit for print. This exercise is inspired by my colleague Amina El-Bendary's new teaching blog:


al-Mutanabbi in his own words

I gave a talk last April as part of the al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here activities at AUC. Here is a video of that talk.

This my translation of al-Mutanabbi's "bi-mā at-taʿallul" (skip to 25:38 for the poem in Arabic, 28:20 for English)

What's left to divert me? No family, no homeland,

no one to drink with, nothing to drink from, nowhere to live.


I want fate to give me

what fate itself has failed to attain


Take it from me: Don't confront fate unless you're totally indifferent,

not as long as your body and soul are one


Fate will never give you more of the thing that makes you happy,

nor will it ever give you another shot at something you were grieved to lose


The problem with lovers is that they

fall in love without knowing the way of the world nor what it wreaks


Their eyes are dissolved in tears, as are their souls,

for ugly soul with a pretty face they meet


Every swift she-camel has borne away your burden

and now every separation is entrusted to me.


Nothing in your camel-litters can take the place of my heart

should I die of passion, nor can you afford to pay the price of compensation


You, in whose presence they announced my death when I was absent,

everything the death-messengers said is guaranteed


How many times have I been murdered? How many times have I died among you all

Only to rise again? My grave and winding-shroud turning to nought.


Those who swore they'd seen me buried

have each died before the one they laid to rest


A man can never gain everything he hopes for:

The winds blow contrary to what ships wish


I've studied you all: your neighbors don't give a damn about your good name,

and milk flows only stingily from your herd


Whoever grows close to you is rewarded with boredom

and any who loves you, his fortune is spite.


You resent any to whom you give a gift

and in return for his gratitude he receives offense.


Separation has left a wayless desert between you and me

in which even one's eyes and ears do deceive


The camels, treading heavily, creep forward over the surface

and the earth asks their calluses about camel hooves


My only companion is perseverance and it's a blessing

But I wouldn't waste a moment on it if I were steadfastly a coward


I never continue taking money that debases me

and I never take pleasure in anything that sullies my honor


Soon after I left, I lay awake missing you

but then I pulled myself together and sleep returned anew


If affection like yours should befall me again

then I deserve yet another separation like this one


My colt was worn out in the service of someone else

and its reins and its halters were exchanged in Fustat


with the prince, Abu al-Misk (KAFUR), whose generosity has

drowned red Mudar and Yemen


Even if any of his promises ever come late

my hopes are never postponed nor do they ever slacken


He is always loyal, but because I mentioned to him that

I love him, he is putting me to the test