Archive for the 'Pop Culture' Category

Arabic Epics

As I talk with people about my current translation project, more and more people want to know about Arabic epics. These epics (Arabic: سيرة / sira) are long adventure tales that recount the exploits of a group of heroic characters and villains. Siras draw on historical events, although they are not to be considered conventional accounts of history. Peter Heath* has observed that heroic cycles cover almost all of recorded pre-Islamic and Islamic history:

  • Early Persian history (Sīrat Fīrūz Shāh)
  • Alexander the Great (Sīrat Iskandar)
  • The Sassanid dynasty (Story of Bahrām Gūr)
  • Pre-Islamic South Arabian history (Sīrat al-Malik Sayf Ben Dhī Yazan)
  • Pre-Islamic North Arabian history (Sīrat ‘Antar and the Story of al-Zīr Sālim)
  • Early Islamic history (Sīrat Amīr Ḥamza)
  • Tribal feuds and holy wars of the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates (Sīrat al-Amīra Dhāt al-Himma, Ghazwat al-Arqaṭ, Al-Badr-Nār, Sīrat ‘Alī al-Zaybaq, Sīrat Sayf al-Tījān)
  • Conquests of North Africa (Sīrat Banī Hilāl) (this is my own addition to the list)
  • Fatimid and Mamluk history (Sīrat al-Ḥākim bi-Amr Allah and Sīrat al-Malik al-Ẓāhir Baybars)

These epics are the product of oral storytelling traditions. Today they are available in printed editions in Arabic. There are not many translated into English. Probably the most comprehensive English version is the scholarly The Arabian Epic by M.C. Lyons (2 volumes). The most accessible is The Adventures of Sayf ben Dhi Yazan by Lena Jayyusi. In my current translation project, I am beginning to produce a similar edition of Sirat al-Amira Dhat al-Himma. My primary source text is the most common printed edition (ed. Maqanibi et al., published by Al-Maktaba al-Sha’biyya, Beirut 1980). It consists of seven volumes, and each volume is about one thousand pages long. The length is one reason why no one has attempted to provide an English edition of this epic before. However, fortunately the genre of epic includes the repetition of clichés and a limited number of types of scenes. I would like to prepare a rendition of selected episodes, chosen for their importance to the overall storyline and for their appeal to a general audience. I hope that it will appeal to a broad audience, as it features fight scenes, love scenes, warrior women, and vibrant storytelling.

* See Peter Heath, The Thirsty Sword: Sīrat ‘Antar and the Arabic Popular Epic (Salt Lake City: U of Utah, 1996) xv.

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NEA Grant Recipient!

Aug 25 2016 Published by under Pop Culture,Pre-Modern Lit,Sci-Fi / Fantasy

Melanie A. Magidow Receives NEA Literature Translation Fellowship

Fellowship will support the translation into English
of The Adventures of Dhat al-Himma

(the Arabic epic Sirat al-amira Dhat al-Himma)



Washington, DC — Today, the National Endowment for the Arts announced that Melanie Magidow has been recommended for an NEA Literature Translation Fellowship of $12,500. Magidow is one of 23 recommended fellows for 2017. In total, the NEA is recommending $325,000 in grants this round to support the new translation of fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry from 13 different languages into English.

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“Translating a work of literature takes not only deep knowledge of another language, but also skill, artistry, and dedication,” said NEA Chairman Jane Chu. “I am proud of the NEA’s long commitment to supporting literary translation. This art form plays an important role in providing Americans with a truly unique insight into other cultures as well as access to some of our world’s greatest writers.”

Since 1981, the NEA has awarded 433 fellowships to 383 translators, with translations representing 67 languages and 81 countries. For the complete list of FY 2017 NEA Literature Translation Fellows, visit the NEA’s website at

Established by Congress in 1965, the NEA is the independent federal agency whose funding and support gives Americans the opportunity to participate in the arts, exercise their imaginations, and develop their creative capacities. Through partnerships with state arts agencies, local leaders, other federal agencies, and the philanthropic sector, the NEA supports arts learning, affirms and celebrates America’s rich and diverse cultural heritage, and extends its work to promote equal access to the arts in every community across America. For more information, visit the NEA at

The announcement on the NEA site is here.

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Arts of the Arab World III: Print Culture

Jun 21 2016 Published by under Modern Lit,Pop Culture

EgyptianPreacherWomanPhoto of Magda Amer from BBC







Resources for Arabic Literature & Culture

Note: Manuscript photo from l-Jaami‘ l-Kbiir of Meknes, Morocco.

For more on the role of literature in Arab society see here.

For SciFi, see here.

For Moroccan literature in English, see here.

Note: Manuscript painting of a library in Basra

in Al-Maqamat by Al-Hariri (1054-1122),

copied and painted at al-Wasili in Baghdad (1236).

Manuscript held in Paris, BnF.

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Arts of the Arab World II: Popular Culture & Verbal Art

Jun 21 2016 Published by under Folkarts,Pop Culture






Image of Bayad playing his oud



Some of my favorite contemporary Moroccan artists:

See here for a concert of psalms sung in Arabic, performed by Lebanese Catholic nun Sister Marie Keyrouz.

 Poetry and Oral Compositions

The oldest extant example of Arabic literature is poetry, composed and performed orally. Here is a 9th century poem in English translation.

See here for James Montgomery’s translations of “Horse, Hawk, and and Cheetah: Three Arabic Hunting Poems by Abu Nuwas” (from the early 9th c.)

Check out this post for spoken word of the present day.


The most influential example of Arabic literature is the Qur’an, the sacred text of Islam, and it too was recited orally. German scholar Angelika Neuwirth has written of the Qur’an as a “late antique text” that emphasizes knowledge. See here for more on the implications of her work.

Note: Qur’an Manuscript photo from l-Jaami‘ l-Kbiir of Meknes, Morocco.


 Public Culture

In addition to poetry, aphorisms, and tales, oral culture can also include rumors that mold public discourses.

Broader than oral culture, public culture can include almost any art. Here are more resources on public culture in specific areas:


Moroccan Malhun (Sung) Poetry

(more to be added later).

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Arts of the Arab World I: Material Culture

Jun 21 2016 Published by under Folkarts,Pop Culture

I have read a lot about the glorious accomplishments of “the Arabs” or “the Muslims” in the distant past. Instead of focusing on some mythic golden age, this site includes any material culture that I find beautiful and noteworthy. So while some examples are historical, some are contemporary.

For some incredibly beautiful historic art and architecture photos and information on patterns, see here.

Photo by Radwa El Barouni, carving in Fes


One of my favorite pieces of art is a blue and white lamp from the sixteenth century. For some contemporary ceramics that I think are well worth checking out, see the work of Myriam Mourabit (Rabat, Morocco).


One of the most distinctive kinds of woodwork in the Arab World is mashrabiyya, latticed screens traditionally fitted together without any adhesive or hardware. Historically, they developed as a strategy for comfort and privacy so that urban families could enjoy fresh air from the outdoors without exposing themselves to public scrutiny. For contemporary woodwork, I can recommend Nadim (Cairo, Egypt).

(Photo by Ruth B.)

Painting / Drawing

One of the most valued arts throughout the Islamic world is calligraphy. See here for the highlights from a contemporary calligraphy exhibition in Malaysia. This site has featured the work of Moataz Nasr of Cairo here.


Preview: khyamiyya appliqué (Egypt), Tally Art (southern Egypt), embroidery in Palestine and Jordan…


Top-of-the-line Azza Fahmy jewelry (Egypt)

More kinds of material culture to follow…


Photo by Radwa El Barouni


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New Year, Old Words

Jan 06 2016 Published by under Pop Culture


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 Published by under Pop Culture

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 Published by under Modern Lit,Pop Culture



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.

For anyone interested in more translations into English by women writers, see this database by translator and blogger Meytal Radzinski.

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Labor Day

Sep 07 2015 Published by under Modern Lit,Pop Culture

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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Favorite Egyptian Films

Jun 14 2015 Published by under Modern Lit,Pop Culture

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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