Category Archives: Pre-Modern Lit

Adventure!

Here’s to travel, expanding one’s horizons, and taking on new challenges!

My friend Barbara Romaine recently published a series of poems here, including the following celebration of roaming (Arabic here).

Wanderlust

by al-Imam al-Shafiʿi (d. 820), translated by Barbara Romaine

To a mind wise and cultured, what ease in a place?
Pull up stakes, leave your country, and roam!
Those you meet on your travels will make up the loss
Of those left behind you at home.

Water by its own stillness made foul have I seen;
It can only stay sweet when it flows.
There’s no prey for the lion that ventures not forth;
No mark for arrows stuck in bows.

Should the sun in its heavenly orbit stop short,
One and all we would tire of its blaze;
If the moon never set but stood still in the sky,
It would draw not the eye’s eager gaze.

Much like scattered dust lie the earth’s lodes of ore;
Reeds to burn grow in numbers untold.
The latter remove, and you’ll want it; the former,
When rare, is no less than pure gold.



Teaser

Here is a tiny teaser excerpt from my Work in Progress translation of the epic Sirat al-Amira Dhat al-Himma/سيرة الأميرة ذات الهمة from Arabic to English. (This translation project is funded by a grant from the NEA.) Note: I’m playing with the name of the main character. She was born Fatima, but is known as Dhat al-Himma in Arabic. It’s a mouthful in English, so I’m calling her Valor for now. Let me know if you have opinions about this!

 

For a full year, the Fiend of Bani Tayy conducted raids on the lands of Bani Kilab. Valor came and went with no trace, hunting on their lands, until one day she raided a clan allied to Bani Kilab (by her parents’ marriage, unbeknownst to her). Some of the people who had been tending the livestock came to inform Mazlum, and he called out to his men to make haste. They lept up like ferocious lions, seized swords and spears, and set out. Mazlum was in the lead, wearing iron armor and chain mail. Meanwhile, Valor had just reached a stretch of flat, unprotected land when she heard horses neighing, bridles clattering, blades hissing, and warriors whooping in pursuit. Mazlum shouted, “You bastard! No matter which sky shades you or which bit of earth upholds you, you are going down!”

“Shit!” Valor hefted the spear in her hand, and called to Marzuq, “Cover my back, brother!” She left the men who rode with her to look after the herds as she raced toward her pursuers. She saw that Mazlum was in the lead, and he saw her approaching and knew her to be the Fiend of Bani Tayy.

Image Source

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.

NEA Grant Recipient!

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)

 

الأميرة-ذات-الهمة

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 arts.gov.

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 arts.gov.

The announcement on the NEA site is here.

Retelling Tradition

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 / What 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.

Portrait Of Sultan Muhammad Mirza. Attributed To Sayyid Mirza. Persia, C. 1835. source

 

Teaching Arabic Literature in Translation

I’m writing in response to mlynxqualey’s recent post. She provides some great suggestions, and I just wanted to add my two cents:

Classical Poetry: Marcia limits her list to only materials that are free and available online. I agree with her recommendations of Khalidi’s translations of Al-Buhturi’s “The Poet and the Wolf” and Al-Ma‘arri’s “A Rain Cloud.” Then, instead of Arberry’s translation, I highly recommend Desert Tracings: Six Classic Arabian Odes, translated by Michael A. Sells. The translations and explanations are much more accessible, and this slim volume should be very affordable.

Modern Poetry: I would add Mahmoud Darwish’s poem To My Mother, which is free online in places such as here. I also highly recommend showing a video of Marcel Khalife’s sung rendition because he broadens the poem’s audience exponentially. Also, especially for high school and older, I recommend Ahmed Fouad Negm’s poetry of political opposition and free speech. There is a free book of his poems available at the bottom-left corner on this page.

Classical Fiction: If you can use a book (instead of online materials only), then I highly recommend the imaginative tales in The Adventures of Sayf ben dhi Yazan or Tales of Juha or this anthology of Classical Arabic Stories.

Contemporary Fiction: If you can use books, then I recommend short stories by Salwa Bakr, and the novella by Radwa Ashour, Siraaj: An Arab Tale, translated by Barbara Romaine.

Neighbors

I’m opening a space here for connections to more information about languages and cultures that neighbor Arabic: Persian, Turkish, and Hebrew to start. Feel free to send me any recommendations!

For Persian culture / art / history, see Caroline Mawer’s blog. For literature in translation, Words without Borders (July 2013) has an issue dedicated to literature post-(1979) revolution.

Arab Culture in the UK & Europe

This post is a place for collecting all the interesting projects I’ve found in the UK and Europe that showcase arts and culture from the Arab world. More to follow…

London

 

Paris

Enlightenment

 

Check out this interview with German scholar Angelika Neuwirth on enlightenment in Arabic and Islamic cultures !

Some highlights:

  • On Enlightenment: “The claim that Islam lacks an Enlightenment is an age-old cliché. Pride in the Enlightenment–even though this pride has died down somewhat–continues to lead people to believe that Western Culture is way ahead of Islam.”
  • On the status of women: “…the Koran is not a reference work for social behaviour…The Koran was a proclamation to people who were familiar with other norms and were willing to call these norms into question…the Koran takes a revolutionary step forward: it puts woman on the same level as man before God.”
  • On language in the Qur’an: “While it might be possible to sum up the mere information in the Koran in a short newspaper article, the effect would not have been the same. It really is about enchantment through language. Language itself is also praised in the Koran as the highest gift that humankind received from God…Language is the medium of knowledge…The entire Koran is basically a paean to knowledge…”

There’s also a lecture by Angelika Neuwirth available online:

Literature

My academic training is in Arabic literature. By literature, I don’t mean written materials alone. I mean instead the manipulation of language in all of its various forms (whether stories, poems, rhymes, etc.) to reach an audience–expressing feelings, communicating experiences, asking questions, offering advice, and so on.

When I first studied in Morocco, I had to reevaluate my own definition of literature. Having grown up in a very bookish anglophone family, it took some adjustment to understand how people can live quite fully without any great use of books in their lives. The book lovers were few and far between, and yet most people enjoyed some kind of art. Being a fan of myths and fantasy, I found myself searching for stories in Morocco. People didn’t necessarily understand my quest, offering me instead music, dance, or poetry. I came to the conclusion that the role that books tend to play in the United States is filled by a variety of related arts in Morocco and throughout Arabic and some other cultures.

I went to graduate school and studied Arabic literature, in a variety of forms, for almost a decade. My studies included prestigious Arabic classical literature (such as Jahili poetry, the Qur’an and early Islamic texts, the maqamat and akhbar, medieval literary criticism, and philosophy). I felt particularly compelled to study examples of oral and folk literature as well (such as the historical epics, tales of the trickster Juha, and traditions of public storytelling and poetic performances). My studies also included an introduction to Hebrew language and medieval Hebrew literature. This site is a place for the culmination of my studies to share what I’ve learned and to provide a resource for others.