Retelling Tradition

Apr 06 2016

I have a new translated short story online at K1N here !

The author, Somaya Ramadan, and I discussed its publication ages ago. It’s nice to have it see the light of day at last. This story comes from a fun volume titled Qalat al-Rawiya / قالت الراوية / She Said, which consists of stories written by women in Cairo with the purpose of retelling tradition, reimagining canonized stories and telling new stories with traditional flavors and new ideas.

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Love & Poetry

Feb 05 2016

One of the most inspiring couples I know of in contemporary Arabic literature are the writers Mourid Barghouti and Radwa Ashour.


So it was hard when Radwa Ashour passed away in 2014: I would miss her writing and her activism. And I could only imagine how much her family would miss her. One of her husband’s responses to her passage represents for me their constant attitude of gratitude and love:

I recently got the opportunity to read Barghouti’s collection of poetry, Midnight (or, my translation, Middle of the Night), available in Arabic-English parallel translation. It was another shared project for the couple, Barghouti writing the poetry and Ashour translating it to English. My comments on the collection are here. In this post, I just want to share my favorite excerpts of love poetry…

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Take me now!
Take me, no one but you, to the window of your morning
so that we can see from it together:
so I can see the roads as less arduous.
Girl, take me
that we may both become more disturbing to the institution of lov
and more defiant
than I could bear to be
alone.                                       – My rendition ( p. 144)

On the value of human connection:

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Nothing equals one more hour with you. (p. 112)

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New Year, Old Words

Jan 06 2016


Here in Rhode Island, we have had fairly warm weather. So many people receive it with trepidation, citing global warming. They worry what this means for the future. In other locations, people worry about an influx of refugees or an exodus of the most educated and skilled workers. Nearly everyone worries about violence, whether in schools or in terrorist attacks. At this time, when the Gregorian Calendar restarts, I find it important to recognize that in the midst of these concerns, there are many voices that express principles of courage, steadfastness, joy, and flexibility.

These words by Eleanor Roosevelt seem as apt today as they did in 1960…

“There is another fear problem which is growing more widespread and which, I think, we must do all we can to check at the source. Increasingly people are growing afraid of what is in store for the world. They wonder whether they should plan to go in for professions and build homes and bring up families.

‘There is so little security,’ they say. ‘We don’t know what to plan for.’

Well, what security did our first settlers have when they embarked on the Mayflower? Only what they could create for themselves with their own courage, their own activities, their own trust in themselves to be able to meet any situations–all unknown, all threatening–that they might encounter. It is the only way anyone can plan his life.

Today the world faces a great challenge: on one side a government preserved by fear, on the other a government of free men [people]. I haven’t ever believed that anything supported by fear can stand against freedom from fear. Surely we cannot be so stupid as to let ourselves become shackled by senseless fears. The result of that would be to have a system of fear imposed on us.

Courage is more exhilarating than fear and in the long run it is easier. We do not have to become heros overnight. Just a step at a time, meeting each thing that comes up, seeing it is not as dreadful as it appeared, discovering that we have the strength to stare it down.”

Source Text: You Learn by Living by Eleanor Roosevelt (NY: Harper & Brothers, 1960): 40-41.

Photo: Hiroshi Sugimoto, Indian Ocean Bali, 1991 (from here).

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Psalms in Arabic

Nov 17 2015

In response to the recent violence in Beirut and Paris, I offer this video featuring the music, philosophy, and singing of Sister Marie Keyrouz, a Lebanese Catholic nun who sings in Arabic. For more, see her website.

Also, I recommend this article: A Muslim Woman’s First Thoughts After the Paris Attacks by Hasnaa Mokhtar. She does an excellent job of showing why Muslims should not be held responsible for terrorist attacks. When mainstream American culture embraces Islamophobia, it holds Muslims hostage and endangers the humanity of all of us.

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New Book

Sep 21 2015



Here’s a sneak peak from my new translation I have coming out this December. The following two excerpts introduce the three main characters in this social comedy / drama…

Excerpt 1

Captain Murad’s house was crammed full of antique furniture and relics, like the Egyptian Museum. As Hazim’s eyes roamed the villa, he felt like retching, for nothing irritated him like extravagant taste and flamboyant designs. It seemed to him that the captain had flung gold at his floor as if that would give it value, but the gold was lost amid the junk, dust, and massive furniture that devoured everything like dinosaurs.
Pouring wine in his glass, the captain asked, “Does it bother you if I have a glass before dinner?”
Hazim shook his head.
The captain drained the bottle. “I only drink it to preserve my heart. Red wine is good for the heart.” He sighed. “In the seventies, no Egyptian house was without wine. Do you remember? How old were you? You look to me like you’re in your forties.”
“Right. In the seventies, a bottle of Black Label whiskey resided in every Egyptian kitchen in the summer, just in case of hard times, and no one got upset or angry about it. What a time! I don’t know how to describe it. When I was little, people told me: ‘Stay out of politics.’ We Egyptians don’t interfere in politics, as if our country were run by an unseen magician. Then, when the 1952 revolution started, they said, ‘This is your country, returned to you, but stay out of politics: leave the bread to its baker. You’re young and inexperienced, and we’re in a state of emergency.’ For fifty years, we’ve been in a state of emergency.

Excerpt 2

Since she had given birth to her first son, Asma had believed that he would become Egypt’s ambassador to the United States. Since she had given birth to the youngest boy, she had believed that he would become a prominent police officer, and then the First Assistant to the Minister of the Interior. When she had her daughter, she never doubted that she would become the first of the Abid family to go to medical school, the first to build a private hospital, and the first to discover a cure for hepatitis C. Asma thought nothing of the obstacles she would face to realize her dreams. She did not think of the greatest obstacle until quite a bit of time had passed. Asma’s children may have been geniuses, as she claimed, more intelligent than anyone, Egyptian or not. They may have memorized all their schoolwork, scrutinizing their books into the night and gulping down arithmetic, logic, and chemistry like a bitter daily medicine. They may have studied nonstop for hours. However, poor Asma forgot about the most important thing needed to realize her dreams. Poor Asma did not think through how things would turn out. Poor Asma forgot that she was completely unknown!
Who was Asma? Who was her husband, Muhammad Abid? They had several acres in Benha, a large house, and one agricultural employee to maintain the land. Asma was, unfortunately, an utterly unknown woman.


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Labor Day

Sep 07 2015

Happy Labor Day (in the U.S.) !

My favorite labor day quote, by philosopher Olfa Youssef of Tunisia from here (my translation) :

“It’s not so important for workers to have a holiday. The important thing is for work to be more like a holiday. That won’t happen until humans stop exploiting other humans. You can’t expect someone to be happy when they’re working to exhaustion for less than a living wage. You can’t expect someone to celebrate when they’re disrespected, and their work is belittled. And you can’t expect someone to be cheerful, when their work is repetitive, like a cog in a machine, with no acknowledgment or encouragement. A work ethic is important, but a human ethic is more important.”

قيمة العمل هامة لكن قيمة الإنسان، صانعِ العمل، أهمّ

ليس مهما أن يكون للشغالين عيد…المهم أن يصبح الشغل عيدا…ولن يتحقق ذلك إلا إذا قل استغلال الإنسان للإنسان…فلا يمكن أن تطلب من شخص أن يكون سعيدا وهو يعمل مرهقا بأجر لا يفي بالحاجة…ولا يمكن أن تطلب من شخص أن يكون فرحا وهو يعمل مهانا أو محتقَرا…ولا يمكن أن تطلب…من شخص أن يكون جذلان وهو يعمل برتابة آلة دون عرفان أو تشجيع. قيمة العمل هامة لكن قيمة الإنسان، صانعِ العمل، أهم

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Love in a dark corner

Sep 06 2015

A beautiful image for today:


by Moataz Nasr in Cairo, from here.

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Favorite Egyptian Films

Jun 14 2015

Egypt has prioritized its film industry more than any other Arab nation, and it shows in the quantity and quality of its output. (It also shows in the predominance of Egyptian Arabic throughout Arabic media internationally.) The following films stand out to me for their entertainment value and also for their intellectual contribution to social and cultural studies. They are also available with English subtitles.

Terrorism & BBQ was the first Arabic film I ever saw; I was studying Arabic at Emory University. I liked it because it made me laugh. It’s a comedy of errors, focusing on the tenuous position of common people living through bureaucratic challenges. It has some talented actors, and a cast of characters that shows multiple parts of Egyptian society.

The Open Door is a classic from the sixties generation, based on the eponymous feminist novel by Latifa Zayyat. If you want a black-and-white cinematic experience, from the days of the silver screen, that envisions independence for Egypt and for individuals, then this is your movie!

The Yacoubian Building is a classic. The novel on which it was based was the best-selling book in the Arab world (after the Qur’an) when it came out, and the movie was the most expensive Egyptian film when it came out. I heard the author speak in 2004, and he explained how his day job (as dentist) gave him the material for his book, in which he explores Egyptian society and a number of controversial issues (such as homosexuality, religious extremism, violence, and illicit relationships). This film stars plenty of talented actors, and portrays downtown Cairo (prior to the 2011 Arab Spring), with plenty of both grit and glamour.

Feel free to write to me with more suggestions!

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Alif Baa Supplementary Materials

Feb 25 2015

For English speakers beginning to learn Arabic, the most popular and most effective book is Alif Baa by Brustad, Al-Batal, and Al-Tonsi. Based on the order of its vocabulary, here are some materials that I like to use for providing cultural input in Arabic class:

Unit One

Unit Three

To be continued…

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Alice Walker, Writing from Gaza

Feb 04 2015

(Photo from here.)

Because I have studied Arabic for a long time, people sometimes ask me for my analysis of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I usually let others steer the conversation, not because I have no ideas or opinions, but because sometimes I have little to say. I recently read Alice Walker’s book The Cushion in the Road (2013). These quotes regarding the situation in Israel / Palestine resonated with me:

“I think one reason it is so hard for people to deal with the Palestine/Israel issue is that so much of it is unbelievable.  Even when you’re standing there, in the middle of it, the mind has to struggle to grasp what is happening.  What has been done for the past sixty-odd years, and what is being done now.  Just as my niece finds it impossible to imagine what a segregated American South felt like, I find it hard to believe Israelis assume they can live through generations of brutally oppressing the people whose lands they occupy.  The greatest, most obvious expression of their intent to do this is THE WALL.” – p.305 and here

“There is, finally, a sense of overwhelm, trying to bring comfort to someone whose sleeping child has been killed and buried, a few weeks ago, up to her neck in rubble; or a mother who has lost fifteen members of her family, all her children, grandchildren, brothers and sisters, her husband. What does one say to people whose families came out of their shelled houses waving white flags of surrender only to be shot down anyway? To mothers whose children were, at this moment, playing in the white phosphorous laden rubble that, after 22 days of bombing, is everywhere in Gaza? White phosphorus, once on the skin, never stops burning. There is really nothing to say. Nothing to say to those who, back home in America, don’t want to hear the news. Nothing to do, finally, but dance.” – p. 335 and here

As Alice Walker says, “Hard times require furious dancing.”

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