Category Archives: Sci-Fi / Fantasy

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.

Arabic Fantasy & Science Fiction

An ongoing list of Arabic fantasy and science fiction, including some of my reviews…
    • I recommend anything by Ahmed Salah Al Mahdi, a bright new talent in the Arab World. His books provide great suspense, enchanting world building, satisfying storylines, and compelling characters.See here for his website, and here for an interview with him.

ملاذ : مدينة البعثملاذ : مدينة البعث by Ahmed Salah Al Mahdi

My review of Malaz, a futuristic fantasy novel. The prequel is coming out soon!

In this book, the plot was unpredictable in the beginning. It surprised me more than once! Eventually it was clear where the story was going, but the beginning set up space for multiple possible directions. In a sequel, it would be fun to see another possible direction explored (for example, the protagonist’s personal relationships, or the politics of various groups of people within Malaz or outside of it, or a journey through different parts of this world). The protagonist character learns, grows, and succeeds. In a sequel, it would be fun to see this character develop even more, as well as the character Jihad. I enjoyed the imaginary, futuristic Egypt. In a sequel, I would like to read even more about the landscape.

At the end of this book, I want more! I hope to see a sequel some day! However, I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in an imaginative, fun story. It includes adventure, revenge, coming-of-age, and a hint of romance!

    • Rabee Jaber of Lebanon has a book available only in Arabic, كنتُ أميرً / I Used to Be a Prince, inspired largely by the tale The Frog Prince.

كنت أميراًكنت أميراً by Rabie Jaber

My Review: I liked the first and last chapters. The rest was bizarre and/or rambling. Jaber is a talented writer, but I prefer a more focused plot and more developed characters. That said, this book is remarkable for its use of a fairytale / folktale for part of its inspiration. Based on the tale The Frog Prince, the first and last chapters form a sort of frame story. It has nice parallels to two other famous pieces literature: 1) The Thousand and One Nights / ألف ليلة وليلة in that the prince is like the king, Shahrayar (they have almost the same fear), and 2) Beauty and the Beast in that the prince receives the same curse / عقابة. Finally, the ending has a surprise twist for readers familiar with The Frog Prince. Altogether, the first and last chapter provide a pleasantly refreshing Arabic contribution to folklore-inspired fantasy.

  art: ‘Warrior’ by Matt Leines

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Historical/Classical Selections:

  • A True Story: Parallel English and Greek by Lucien de Samosate, the Syrian, who was born in the 2nd century when eastern Turkey was part of Syria, and whose tale A True Story concerned a voyage to the Moon: he was therefore one of the early proto-SF authors.
  • The story “Jullanar” in 1001 Nights (which tells a mermaid tale – one of my personal favorites).
  • The Time Travels of the Man Who Sold Pickles and Sweets ( رحلات الطرشجي الحلوجي) by Egyptian Khairy Shalaby, translated to English by Michael Cooperson

Websites and Discussions: