“Judging the 2018 Saif Ghobash-Banipal Prize was a most enriching experience. It reminded me that literature can be a force for good – no bad thing! We need to be shocked out of a comfortable complacency that suggests that books should not attempt to bring about social and political change. The entries provided no shortage of shocks.” Pete Ayrton, Chair of Judges, the Saif Ghobash-Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation.
Being part of a translation prize committee is a way to make a little bit of a difference. I was delighted and honoured to be invited to join Pete Ayrton, Fadia Faqir and Sophia Vasalou on the judging panel of the 2018 the Saif Ghobash-Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation.
The award was inaugurated in 2006 by the literary magazine Banipal which promotes the diffusion of contemporary Arabic literature through English translations and the Banipal Trust for Arab Literature. It is administered by the Society of Authors and is awarded annually to a translator (or translators) for the published English translation of a full-length literary work in the Arabic language. The prize money (3000GBP) is sponsored by Omar Saif Ghobash and his family in memory of Ghobash’s late father Saif Ghobash.
The prize rewards books that combine literary merit and general interest – everyman’s reading. So what is literary merit? We agreed that the term encompasses quality of writing, style, voice; subject matter and universality; innovation and the work’s own unique merits; authenticity.
This year’s shortlist – two novels about the war in Iraq, a modernist avant-garde Egyptian novel and an extended poem about Jerusalem – amply fulfill these criteria and, most of all, each of the four books is a good and masterful translation in its own right of a good book.
“The ideal is to find brilliance on both sides.” Paula Johnson, Head of Prizes & Awards, Society of Authors.
The judges met on 30 November at The Royal Society of Sculptors to deliberate and choose the shortlist and winner from the books under scrutiny. The LONGLIST is here.
So in no particular order, here is the shortlist of the four titles which exemplify the vitality and variety of contemporary Arabic literary culture.
A winner is first among equals: who will get the prize?
Using Life by Ahmed Naji trs. Benjamin Koerber, with illustrations by Ayman Al Zorkany (The Centre for Middle Eastern Studies, University of Austin Texas)
“It is a highly accomplished translation.” Sophia Vasalou
“In Arabic Using Life is ground-breaking, it is different it has challenged the status quo, the author has paid a heavy price [. . .] The text is very brave.” Fadia Faqir
Using Life is an adventurous and unconventional piece of experimental and fragmented fiction which combines superb graphic illustrations and comic strips. It offers an unusual take on modern life in Cairo.
“In spite of its teeming millions this is a city that is hopelessly repressed. A coalition of social, political and religious taboos conspires to keep everything that ferments in the city’s underbelly from rising to the surface.” Ahmed Naji was imprisoned in 2016 for allegedly corrupting public morality.
The narrative opens with dust storms enveloping Cairo – a great quake, the wrath of God, the tsunami of the desert – and their aftermath. It reads in part like a diary, in part like a documentary on the page. The young narrator makes love and smokes joints. Enjoys tequila shots with Mona May who is writing a novel. Is hired by a secret society in Garden City to make a documentary drama about civilization and the architecture of Cairo – and “what might happen if the city lost the Nile”.
“For a bunch of teenagers in a city like Cairo, all that was available were the images of sex, not sex itself.” Bassam and Reem are from a conservative family – though she does not wear the hijab – and they split to become just good friends. She marries her college sweetheart, has a baby, divorces him. He heads to New York. Moud works for a multinational corporation and gets depressed. Youssef Bazzi has wild parties.
There are literary references – Rimbaud, Joyce, the brothers Grimm among them – pen portraits and vignettes. The animals of Cairo – junkyard dogs, the black rat, cockroaches – are particularly memorable, as are the slimeball, the girl in the veil, the biological taxi driver, the dervishes and others.
There is an undercurrent of anxiety; the influence of the past on the future is inescapable. Using Life is weird and wonderful: it’s the best literary headfuck I’ve read in a while. Not since William Burroughs in fact.
The President’s Gardens by Muhsin Al-Ramli trs. Luke Leafgren (Maclehose Press)
“The Arabic original is splendid therefore it is more challenging to translate. The President’s Gardens is idiomatic . . . very high literary language plus there are different voices, different dialects, quotes. Even the best of translators would have found this book quite demanding. Luke Leafgren has done a good job. He captures the voices of the characters and the music of the text fluidly.” Fadia Faqir
Herdsman Ismail astride his donkey finds a series of disfigured, severed heads (along with their I.D. cards) in nine banana crates. This gruesome opening sets the tone of this epic novel. Through the fate of three lifelong friends, the impact of generations of warfare on an entire country and its people is portrayed.
One of the severed heads is that of Ibrahim, son of a Damascene. His daughter, Qisma, wants to find the body of her father to give it a decent burial. She asks his chain-smoking, philosophical friend, Abdullah Kafka, to help.
As a baby, Abdullah, the fruit of a hidden scandal, was found abandoned in “the pit” or “earth crack”. A childless couple gave him a home. His adoptive father, Suhayal, who fought in the 1948 Palestine war, had ended up with just holes for a nose since it had been made rotten by a boil.
Abdullah did military training with Ibrahim in Basra. After war broke out against Iran he ended up being held captive for nineteen years. (People in the West generally do not realise the extent to which the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war was similar to World War One in Europe, in terms of the tactics used, trench warfare and the devastating loss of young men. Almost every family in both countries was affected.)
Ibrahim loses a foot and is rescued from a pile of corpses. When Abdullah returns home from captivity in Iran, he describes the horrors of internment, torture and death in the rock camp inside the mountains. Men would be pulled apart by two cars and burst apart, or else be buried alive in a trench of earth.
Sheikh Tariq (the Imam’s son) oversees Ibrahim’s last rites and funeral: he and Abdullah and Ibrahim had been inseparable from childhood. Yet he has a treacherous streak: he surreptitiously blocked Abdullah from marrying his sister, Sameeha, resulting in huge heartbreak.
After the Iraq-Kuwait invasion 1990, Ibrahim ends up working for the President in Baghdad, burying tortured, mutilated corpses. A cruel regime, its victims are buried in a beautiful secret garden like paradise on earth. He keeps records in notebooks and odd remnants of things. As the bodies are interred, he recites quotes from The Koran. The decent old peasant withdraws, becomes mute, and gets lost in world of the dead.
The way in which the characters and their relationships with others and themselves evolve throughout the narrative, is deftly and movingly handled. The plot of this many-layered novel never sags and gels well.
Surviving chaos and madness becomes a matter of life and death. Laced with a bleak, black humour, The President’s Gardens is an overwhelming and unforgettable read.
Concerto al-Quds by Adonis trs. Khaled Mattawa (Yale University Press)
“What wall are you pointing to, Book of Job?
This wall rises from sand that was never a labyrinth. It was once a sail, and in it the gold of law blended with the silver of architecture.
It has fallen from towers that abut planets obscuring any possibility of a horizon. And now it stands as a rubble of barbed wire, a recklessness filling the air’s skull.
The wall lives multiple lives in this ephemerality, this earth. In the hereafter it will
be merely a military shirt, guarding a camp filled with captives being tortured by divine executioners.
Anxiety fills a northern crack in the wall, shaded by words that know the unknown and sleep that resembles waking. The sun above dares to confess her age and
infirmity. And in the shadow of the wall, the sun looks out from a window facing the Mediterranean – a sea that has no middle ground, only tomb or sky.” [page 29]
Both Fadia Faqir and Sopia Vasalou agreed that the translation is accurate and mindful of the original text; that the translation by award-winning poet Khaled Mattawa is “outstanding”. It is very difficult to translate Adonis who is considered by many to be the greatest living Arabic poet.
Ali Ahmad Said Esber was the eldest of six children born in 1930 to a family of farmers in Syria’s Al Qassabin village. Though they could not afford the cost of formal education, Adonis’s father taught his son to read and helped him memorize poems while he worked on the family farm.
His extended, innovative poem on Jerusalem / Al-Quds is a hymn to a troubled city. “In the beginning was the word / in the beginning of the word was blood.” One of the oldest cities in the world, Jerusalem is considered holy to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Both Israel and the Palestinian Authority claim the city as their capital. Various sources are knitted together to create an unusual mosaic of pungent, painful, powerful words. The language is extraordinary. The end notes make for a riveting read.
“[Khaled Mattawa] does a fantastic job of capturing the vocabulary, the stark imagery, the nuances of the original and is faithful to the spirit of the original, at the same time being quite inventive and fresh.” Sophia Vasalou
Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi trs. Jonathan Wright (Oneworld)
“It’s a great translation.” Pete Ayrton
“It stands out within what is available in Arabic literature head and shoulders above the rest. The folkloric and religious connotations are well developed.” Fadia Faqir
After the US invasion of Iraq in April 2003, Baghdad is a place of lawlessness, sectarianism, corruption and political bungling. Bomb blasts such as the one in Tayaran Square which opens the novel are a regular feature of life. An old lady on the bus is en route for Mass at the Assyrian Church of the East: Elishva is deaf and oblivious to the bloody chaos, her mind is elsewhere. Her daughter, Matilda, calls the church weekly from Melbourne to find out how she is, and desperately tries to persuade the stubborn old lady to leave Iraq and come to Australia – to no avail. The old lady fervently believes that her son Daniel who disappeared twenty years ago is not dead. She hates the Baathist barber who took her boy away.
Faraj the estate agent is trying to get Elishva to sell her gorgeous but decrepit house built by Iraqi Jews. His great rival is Abu Anmar, owner of Orouba Hotel, who has few clients other than students, long distance bus drivers and migrant workers. Long-stay residents include the ambitious young journalist Mahmoud al-Sawadi who fantasises about his corrupt boss Saidi’s fuck buddy, the sexy documentary film maker Nawal al-Wazir. Saidi is quietly embezzling 13 Million USD in aid money. Journalists come and hang out in the hotel, or at Aziz the Egyptian’s coffee shop, to research their documentaries and newspaper articles.
Elishva’s neighbour, Hadi, finds a nose on the street and takes it home to his shed where among the decrepit furniture, statues of the Virgin Mary holding baby Jesus and broken kitchen units there lies “the body of a naked man, with viscous liquids, light in colour, oozing from parts of it”. The anonymous victim of sectarian violence, he has been retrieved from the streets by Hadi who is upset by the idea of disrespectful, hasty burials of disfigured, incomplete corpses that are often treated as rubbish and cleared away. The body’s face is a mess, “Where the nose should have been [it] was badly disfigured, as if a wild animal had bitten a chunk out of it.” Hadi carefully stitches the new nose in place: it is a perfect fit. He calls the corpse Whatsitsname.
The soul of a young family man, a guard at Novotel, who was killed by the exploding garbage truck, finds Whatsitsname inanimate on Hadi’s table and slips “inside the corpse, filling it from head to toe”. When Hadi wakes from having a nap, his composite creation has gone.
Whatsitsname is possessed by righteous rage and sets about killing those who have had a hand in making Baghdad a slaughterhouse. “There are no innocents who are completely innocent, and no criminals who are completely criminal . . . every criminal he had killed was also a victim.” He returns to Hadi who begins to replace the parts of him that are rotting with the flesh of innocent people blown up by bombs and killed in the general lawlessness. He is also welcomed into old Elishva’s home and sleeps on the sofa in the sitting room. She calls him Daniel as she is convinced her son has returned home to her. Her moulting cat, Nabu, flees.
The police and Brigadier Majid in the Tracking and Pursuit Department are worried. Four beggars were found sitting upright in a lane, each having seemingly strangled the other. The old Baathist barber is found dead in his chair. Stories about ghostly figures abound. Astrologers and fortune tellers do a roaring trade.
Bleak, surreal and funny, Frankenstein in Baghdad is an absurdist horror show depicting the pointlessness of war and how it leads to random violence becoming a feature of daily life, with gangs and militias roaming the streets. The reader is left questioning WHO (or WHAT) is the monster?
A skilled and clever work of literary fusion, the author plays with Western and Middle Eastern forms of storytelling to great effect – including aspects of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the keystone cops, and the old lady and her cat of European fairy tales and Russian folklore. The text was skilfully edited for an English-language readership all the while remaining faithful to the original. It reads very fluently as a translation: hats off to Jonathan Wright!
“Awards have more influence now than reviews,” Robert McCrum wrote in The Guardian back in 2013. Being shortlisted and winning a prize makes a particularly important difference when it comes to getting a translation on to bookshop tables amidst the avalanche of English-language publications. So here’s to hoping these four books now sell like hotcakes!
The Man Booker International, the IMPAC Award, English PEN’s Writers in Translation Programme* and the Society of Authors’ series of prizes for outstanding literary translations from works in Arabic, Dutch, French, German, Italian, Spanish and Swedish are the leaders of the prize-giving pack.
Elevating world literature in translation for the UK market from other cultures and promoting cultural understanding is crucial as Brexit Britain becomes more inward looking. Even more so since language learning is on the decline following the abolition of a compulsory language GCSE in 2004.
* The inaugural committee meeting of English PEN’s Writers in Translation Programme was held on 20 April 2004 in Lancaster House N1, comprising Pete Ayrton, Jo Balmer, Anthea Bell, Euan Cameron, Georgia de Chamberet, James Daunt, Julian Evans, Wangui wa Goro, Kate Griffin, Amanda Hopkinson, Rosemarie Hudson, Catheryn Kilgarriff, Koukla MacLehose, Richard McKane, Susie Nicklin, Alastair Niven, Rachel van Riel, Ros Schwartz, Catherine Speller (minutes), Laura Susijn, Stephen Watts, Brett Wolstonecraft.
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