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I’ve been immersing myself in translated Arabic writing these past months, from novels, to movies, to short story and poetry collections. The latest is Emerging Arab Voices and is, in fact, a bi-lingual edition!  Not that I have the smallest hope of ever reading Arabic but it is interesting to see it on the page, and even to work at a title or the page numbers.  Peter Clark is the editor and translator of three of the eight offered stories. The authors are Tunisian, Lebanese, Sudanese, Egyptian (2), Saudi, Yemeni, and Emirati.  Five of the translations were done by Britians, and the others by a Moroccan, a Tunisian and a Sudanese — all in very fluid English.

I mention the latter because it is almost an article of faith that translations should be done into the mother tongue, the native language of the translator. Almost always, an astute native reader will catch certain infelicities popping up in translations by those who acquired the target language — in this case, English– later in life. There are a few such weeds in these otherwise well tended beds, but not limited to non-native speakers. What is one to make of the phrase “groping baffled bosoms or hidden bums” ? Of course it is highly informative that all the covering in the world doesn’t keep prying male hands off of women’s bodies in crowds, but “baffled bosoms?”

On the other hand one of the most imaginative beginnings comes from a Sudanese author in the hands of a Sudanese translator.  From “The Ghosts of Fransawi:”

Fransawi was hovering with foggy wings over the isthmus between this life and the next. From here, all journeys begin, journeys to the isthmus, earthly journeys , as well as journeys of no return, no sleep, no rest, nothing…  There was no past or no future, no you and no I.”

But then a nasty weed pops up. “Look for loose threads, my son, and mark them with post-its.” Very odd, very odd. Of course I have no idea what the original Sudanese Arabic image was, or if  “loose threads” is an image roughly corresponding to a phrase in Arabic.  In any event you don’t mark loose threads with post-its. Maybe, “look for wandering pages…” or “look for loose threads and keep good account of them…”

The volume is made up of 8 stories, 8 authors and 7 countries: Tunis, Lebanon, Sudan, Egypt (2), Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Emirites.

The story from Sudanese author Mansour el-Sowaim caught my attention most strongly on the first read through;  not only by the imaginative beginning, but the sort of floating modernism, where the reader has to work to piece the story line together.  The opening is addressed to the reader, or listener:   “…remember, in his time Fransawi was part of this story.”  But then it pivots to address Fransawi, himself.  “D0n’t forget, don’t… don’t let yourself be distracted, son.  Keep on going.”  Then, back to describing his journey:  “Guided by the call of the isthmus, the boy went away overwhelmed by exhaustion and flashbacks of broken roads ….” Then, back to addressing the, long departed boy: ” Where do we go from here, Fransawi?”

I don’t know of this change of addressee is part of native Sudanese story telling but it joins modern fiction writing with filmic sensibility, cutting from scene to scene and relying on the active participation of the audience to hold pieces of a puzzle and match them with those later to come.

We read on to learn of Seargeant Bashir and the proofreader Muhammad Latif, haunted by Fransawi’s ghost, 25 years after his brutal killing:

He sees you in his brief interrupted naps!  He imagines you hanging from the branches of the neem tree with your feet tied.  Someone wearing kakhi approaches you and cries, “Now, ready!”  Then he pushes you with both hands and springs back as you swing like a cradle upside down with your eyes closed.  He sees the khaki-covered bodies of many men standing nearby with Kalishnikov rifles on their shoulders.  The thundering sound of bullets off stone is deafening.  They laugh and shout as your slim body hangs helpless, swinging.

 The selection then goes on to follow Bashir, working for a mad Colonel in a rural outpost, with more traditional themes of corruption, evasiveness, love of ease and escape from work.  We don’t know where it goes from here, or how Fransawi re-enters the narrative, as this is an excerpt from a novel which, as far as I can determine, hasn’t been translated yet.  I’ll be very interested to read it when it does.

Déjà Vu ” by Egyptian, Mansoura Ez-Edin, with a novel, Beyond Paradise, [not yet in English] to her credit, brings a modern Egyptian woman to our attention.

Samiha, taking a wrong turn off the ring-road around the city, finds herself in a working-class district she has never been in before — much like an area her lover has described to her.  Then,

She started to feel uneasy, and slowed down. Suddenly she felt she had been here before — it was as if she was not really in this place, so much as remembering that she had been there in the past. … she felt that this place she was seeing for the first time had opened a door on a region of darkness inside her, on a life that she had possibly lived in the past.  She saw herself apparently trying to escape from the wreckage of a horrific accident.

The story unfolds mysteriously, as she imagines she has killed her maid, and after talking to her lover about this strange vision, goes out, to come back earlier than planned and finding lover and maid together — not in delicto, but clearly comfortable and familiar, across social lines. Driving with the maid as the story comes to an end, what had been déjà vu now seems to be happening in real time; her maid is in the car; Samiha is driving too fast; the wheel turns… Very well done.  As well, to read an Arab woman author writing of love-making:

She looked at him and recognized that look of his when he desired her.  She wished he would make love to her now… Even when making love, she never let go of the smile that was carefully drawn on her lips. She would close her eyes and seem to be in another world…

 “The Beaver“, by Saudi, Mohammed Hassan Alwan, despite the inscrutable title, has some nice lines and, as we hope when we read about cultures and peoples distant from our own, revelations about those “others.”

“Alone, my family is mute; but in the presence of other people, they are very talkative.  We have created our own scandals under the cover of so deafening a silence that no one can tell what others are concocting in the next room.”

Describing his older sister, Hind, he says:

As a little girl, Hind, had cold eyes, void of everything eyes have, except the function of seeing.”

And and incident that cursed Hind’s first marriage:

It seems that the ugly fistfight Hind and I had in his presence had not helped to make her look beautiful , as he would have like his wife to be.  Nor had she shown the self-posession he expected.  As far as he was concerned, she was the sister of a foolish young man who must never be the uncle of his future children… they separated while she was still a virgin and half crazy.

 Fist-fights, indeed!

And who could resist a story that begins:

“The first time my grandfather died….” and goes on to tell of a foundling infant, with a full beard and a man-sized penis which, upon use, turns women younger? So it goes in “Temporary Death,” by Moahammed Salah al-Azab, of Egypt.

Some I didn’t like so much, but all in all, a book to introduce us all to some interesting young writers in Arabic, and to share with friends in exile here, who might like to read the Arabic of the bi-lingual edition.