Presented here for the first time in English, the cult writer Charles Chahwan—"Lebanon's answer to Charles Bukowski"—tells a tale of rival militiamen euphoric with violence.
Under the gentle afternoon sunlight, Serge’s body appeared limp and more slouched than usual as he rested against the back seat of the shared taxi, a Morris Princess. He was the sole passenger in the service as it made its way down the coastal highway, as if other potential passengers had unconsciously decided to leave him be, perhaps so he could burrow deeper into his solitude. The light streaming in generously through the window descended on top of his broad winter jacket and baggy trousers. That very light shaded a portion of his face and his crooked hand behind the smoke of a half-lit cigarette. His face was covered in deep creases that surrounded his two small, gloomy eyes. He was a young man, not yet thirty, but with the features of an old man. Everything about him—his face, his eyes, his hands, his clothes—seemed worn out, as if whatever was inside him was remote and forgotten long ago. It never occurred to him that the pain he suffered from at night or when he woke up feeling weak was caused by some chronic illness. My body has nothing to do with all that is happening, he would tell himself, the two things are unrelated. The body has no capacity to remember pain. Everything ailing me is rooted within myself. This thought always settled it for him.
Serge bit down on the end of his cigarette and tried to recall what the place he was headed to looked like. What he could summon were scant and hazy details. He fidgeted in his seat, and pulled a large black wallet from his jacket pocket, fishing out a flimsy, cropped photograph. He peered at the photograph for a moment, then took a pair of prescription eyeglasses from his other jacket pocket. He put on the glasses and peered again at the picture like someone gazing and trying to make out a figure far away. In the picture, he could see himself and his friend Francis, scrawny and laughing. They looked like a pair of mummies in the flesh—his friend Francis with his black hair and he with his long wavy hair. They were standing facing the camera with their hands on the balcony railing of Francis's apartment with its view to the harbor. The deep red and blue colors and their smiles re-ignited the spark of a lost simplicity within him, and he could picture once again the same image replicated in other disfigured photographs. He put the picture back in his wallet and peered into the area visible through the front windshield. In the opposite direction, the sun descending below the water created a radiant glimmer that mainly reminded him of the smell of fruit. The taxi turned off the highway and entered the harbor area, continuing its journey toward the shore. He murmured something to the driver to alert him where to let him off. Having lived there for a long time, he knew the area by heart. The taxi stopped at an intersection right next to an old textile factory and he got off. When he stood alone in front of the different roads branching out, he felt a tremendous, incomprehensible sense of warmth. He felt a desire to revisit and reconnect with many places he recognized. This feeling was all he needed before arriving at the house of his friend Francis. He knew full well that all he had to do was to free his emotions and open the door to anything that could put him on a different plane of consciousness. At that moment, what he felt was not that he was reliving old memories but rather as though he were a zombie. He was certain this was the explanation. When he looked out at the small square near Francis’s building, everything he saw appeared to be just as he’d known it. This feeling gave him great reassurance, so he continued moving forward with his head down; there was no need to look, this place was more real inside his head than it was in front of his eyes.
Francis lived on the third floor above the shop of al-Beiruti, the ice cream vendor. Serge had also lived in the same apartment, no. 14, for a long time. He slowly climbed the dirty stairs, stopping now and then in front of the open-air window in the wall facing the staircase to look at the buildings in the near vicinity. Opposite the building there was a small amusement park with its colorful steel rides and a giant elevated Ferris wheel adjacent to a large brick building. He reached the apartment and twice knocked weakly on the door, then looked again to confirm. Yes, this was it—no. 14. He knocked again, this time with more force. When the door suddenly opened, Serge was leaning on the adjoining wall. He gazed straight into Francis’s eyes for more than a minute, without either of them uttering a word.
They were like a pair of pouncing wolves as they embraced. They kept holding each other while shouting each other’s names. When they finally let go of each other, their gazes glowed with tenderness. Francis was the same age as Serge, but his facial features were quite different. He was tall and dark-skinned with pitch-black eyes, and although the rest of his body seemed scrawny, he had prominent, bulging biceps—a young man full of vitality.
At sunset, the two sat down on a couple of straw chairs on the balcony that looked onto the dilapidated swimming pool. They began slowly sipping cups of tea held between their hands, then placing them on the small coffee table between them. They carried on like this for a while. When they had finished their tea, Francis got up and slipped inside. Serge remained on the balcony for quite some time, watching the evening unfold in front of him. When Francis finally came back, he grabbed Serge by the shoulders. Serge wasn’t startled at all, not even bothering to turn around. When it was completely dark, Francis ushered Serge inside, shut the door to the balcony, and they sat inside facing each other. They exchanged words every now and then, but most of the time they grinned broadly each time their eyes met. Later, it began to rain. The rain became unbelievably heavy, to the point that the raindrops obscured most of the balcony’s glass door facing them. It soon became cold and Serge asked Francis to turn on the electric heater. When he did so, Serge took off his shoes and sat on the couch with his legs folded underneath him. Everything was peaceful. The rain did not stop for quite some time and it made strange sounds on the balcony and on the water between the boats docked nearby. When Serge told his friend that he liked these sounds, Francis's response emanated from the kitchen: “They mean nothing to me.” The apartment had no books, just an empty birdcage. Francis appeared at the kitchen door, and then suddenly flung himself onto the cot in the other corner of the living room. Serge looked over at him and saw his face was as calm as could possibly be, just as he noticed a black revolver below Francis’s pillow, and nothing else.
Neither of them felt like sleeping, and the room had become warm, almost hot. Francis started talking about his old car. At some point, Serge got up to turn on the television but then decided against it. Each one was staring uneasily at the room in a different direction when there was a violent knocking at the door. They glanced at each other; then someone called out Francis’s name. Evidently, Francis recognized the voice. He got up slowly, muttering, “What could this guy want at this hour?” He arrived at the door, and when he opened it, he could not see anyone there (nor could Serge from where he was). Then he heard someone’s voice again call out from the end of the hallway. Annoyed, Francis stepped outside. Before he could see anything or react, bullets riddled his body and sent it flying all over the place as if it were dancing. His body did not land in front of the door; the bullets were like tremendous punches driving it farther and farther away.
Serge watched it all unfold but could not seem to hear anything. Then he suddenly started hearing everything and got as close to the door as he possibly could. The bullets coming out of the barrel of the machine gun flashed like lightning, emitting a thunderous, painful din. The gunshots ceased. He heard men jostling as they all bounded down the stairs. He could also hear them cursing filthily. He took a deep breath and picked up the revolver—the first time he’d ever held one in his hand. He felt certain he was breathing not air but hatred.
The rain outside had stopped. Serge threw on his loose-fitting overcoat and grabbed the revolver from the bed. The overcoat flapped from side to side as he charged into the hallway. With the revolver in his hand, he looked as if he’d come straight off the cover of an old crime novel. He stopped and knelt beside Francis, who was no longer alive. Serge began stroking his forehead, begging him to say something, to at least wake up. Francis’s eyes were wide open but he did not wake up, nor did he speak. Serge picked him up and held him close to his chest. He held him close to his beating heart, then pressed his face to his own and wept profusely. Then he heard the voices of the same men in the street down below. They were yelling like wild animals. He got up and ran down the staircase to a window on the landing. He took a look at the revolver in his hand, then looked at them below. They hovered around their dark-colored military jeep and appeared exactly like cold-blooded killers. The square around them was damp and glistening from the rain. It did not feel right to him, but he knew hesitating was impossible. He fired a round of shots in the killers’ direction and watched as some of them dropped to the pavement. He could hear their bodies hit the damp ground with a thud. The others returned fire, the bullets whizzing past him. When his revolver had run out of bullets, he retreated. The shots fired near the window continued unabated. In his dazed view, the brick houses across the street seemed crooked. That’s how they should be, he thought. He tossed away the revolver and knelt over Francis’s body to kiss him one last time. He could hear them coming up the stairs, screaming with a terrifying savagery. It seemed there was nowhere to escape but the roof. He started to run toward the stairs, then scurried up them until he reached the roof. The rain had begun again. He felt so frail that his body felt like a flimsy sheet of paper.
When the wind passed through his hair, he could feel it had grown slightly longer, as it was brushing against his shoulders. He stopped for a moment to look at the houses, then turned to look at the sea. He could feel both looking back at him, as if they were meant to do so. Then he suddenly found himself before the sloped brick roof of the neighboring building. Down below, he heard them again firing their guns and screaming like wild animals. Serge realized he was barefoot. It was not going to be possible for him to go back for his shoes. He hurried to the building ledge and in a single move jumped to the sloped roof, sprawling across the brick surface as he landed. When he sensed that he was all right and not in danger of falling, he started to carefully crawl along the edge of the sloped brick roof until he reached the iron ladder that led to the courtyard of the house below. He descended the ladder toward the courtyard and jumped over the fence to the neighboring courtyard. He climbed the ladder up to the neighboring house’s roof and then began jumping from one roof to the next. He looked like a white butterfly in the night flitting above a river of blood. When he reached the roof of the last building on the block, he went down its ladder into the building’s courtyard. While standing there, he could make out the sound of the heavy gunfire, which penetrated deep inside his ears with every shot. At that moment, the rainfall became heavier. His overcoat became wet and the moisture seeped through, soaking his body and chilling him to the bone.
Serge spotted a door on the balcony of one of the higher floors. He had no choice but to climb up to it on the building’s ladder. He climbed over the edge, then stepped closer and grabbed the doorknob. It was unlocked. He pushed the door open and went inside. Dripping wet, he continued until he found himself inside a bedroom. In front of him stood a young woman staring at him in the darkness.
“I beg you,” he said, then said in a hushed voice. “They’re going to kill me.”
There wasn’t another sound in that cold room high above the ground. There was complete silence as they stood facing each other in that cold room high above the street. The woman drew closer and gently caressed his face. “Don’t be afraid,” she reassured him.
He stood there as she locked the door. He said he could not see her well. Then, as his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he was able to discern her a little better. He repeated that he was still scared. Only when she switched on the dim lamp near her bed could he properly see her face and body. She was remarkably attractive. She drew near again and ran her fingers through his hair as she gazed into his eyes. “You have a beautiful face,” she murmured.
“You need to take your clothes off,” she continued. “Come here and sit on this chair. I’ll help you.” Serge went and sat down. Her bed seemed comfortable. She helped him remove his clothing, and when he was undressed, she brought a large towel from her wooden closet and wrapped it around his torso. “You’re so skinny,” she remarked as she tightened the towel around him, “but you have a pretty face.” Then she dried his long hair. The weak lightbulb gave off a strange purple light in the dimly lit room, which reflected eerily off her bedsheets.
When she was finished, she took Serge by the arm and led him, still wrapped up in the towel, to her bed. There, she removed the towel and covered him with a warm blanket. The sweet scent of the bedsheets penetrated deeply into his nostrils. His eyes followed her as she walked to the other side of the bed and slipped beneath the sheets until their bodies were touching. She began to run her hands all over his body, which was still cold. When he could feel her warm breath right on his chest, Serge closed his eyes.
© Charles Chahwan. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by Suneela Mubayi. All rights reserved.
In the first of a new series of quarterly columns, Maya Jaggi, our Critic at Large, explores how Lebanese literature has been a vital space for personal memory in a country seemingly intent on bulldozing its past. The October 2019 protests that led to the fall of then-Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri, Jaggi suggests, augur not just a new political moment for the country but a new national literary chapter.
In the National Museum of Beirut, an exquisite Byzantine mosaic with animal motifs bears a gaping hole in one corner. The wall-mounted mosaic, The Good Shepherd, was damaged by a sniper during the Lebanese civil war of 1975–91, as militias overran this Egyptian-revival landmark on Damascus Road. Many Phoenician, Greco-Roman, and Byzantine treasures from the country’s multilayered past were safely bricked up in the basement or encased in concrete by the museum’s resourceful director, Maurice Chehab. But after the museum reopened in 1999, the battle-scarred mosaic was left unrestored as a fragile totem of the madness of war and the dedication of those who resisted it.
The Good Shepherd mosaic in the National Museum of Beirut (detail), its left corner damaged by a sniper. Originally from a church in Jnah, Lebanon, 5th–6th century CE. Photo credit: Maya Jaggi.
Known simply by the Arabic for museum, “Mathaf” sits on the wartime Green Line that divided Christian East Beirut from the capital’s mainly Muslim West—a lethal strip of no-man’s-land where rival militias faced off. Farther north, toward the Mediterranean port, the yellow sandstone Beit Beirut (Beirut House) reopened in 2017 as the Museum of Memory. Built in the 1920s, this elegant neo-Ottoman apartment building became notorious as a snipers’ den. Saved from postwar demolition by a dogged campaign, its bullet-ridden structure has been scrupulously frozen in time. Upstairs, the gunmen’s sandbagged nests give a chilling insight into how militiamen, immune to incoming fire, would shoot clean across the building’s interior and out the other side, omnipotent lords of the streets they terrorized.
Yet such salutary reminders of the civil war are rare in a city seemingly intent on forgetting. Beirut’s ruined Ottoman heart was razed, not renovated, to be replaced by concrete souks and Dubai-style high-rises. This sanitized, soulless downtown is known to many Beirutis as “Solidere,” after the controversial company that transfigured it. The blackened ruin of the Holiday Inn still towers over the Bay of Beirut with its palm-lined Corniche. But it is officially forbidden to photograph the charred remains—a fiat defied by artists.
In Lebanon, “we’ve been champions of forgetting in a most negative way,” the novelist and essayist Dominique Eddé told me at a cafe in Clemenceau, western Beirut, this past fall. “The country has no inhibition toward destroying its past like a bulldozer. It’s merciless and fascinating—it speaks of a huge vitality. But how do people’s minds and memories adjust?”
The civil war was suspended some thirty years ago without a formal peace or reckoning. School textbooks leave off in 1943, with Lebanon’s independence from the French mandate. Even “civil war” is a moot term to describe a succession of wars and massacres among proliferating militias in shifting alliances, sponsored by foreign powers including Syria, Iran, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. Yet, with no consensus on history, and an official amnesia imposed from above, Lebanese literature—in Arabic, French, and English—has been a stubborn repository of personal memory; a space to question the formation of history, as well as sectarian identities made more rigid by war.
That the remembered past weighs heavily on the present was clear from the protests that began, in fall 2019, in Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square on the former Green Line. Spreading throughout Lebanon, they mobilized people across sectarian lines in an unprecedented rejection of the postwar status quo. The so-called October 17 Revolution—the country’s biggest demonstrations since the Cedar Revolution of 2005 ousted the occupying Syrian army—prompted the resignation of the prime minister, Saad Hariri, on October 29. Ostensibly sparked by a youthful rebellion against a tax on WhatsApp calls, it was stoked by widespread anger against corruption and economic mismanagement, amid the daily attrition of power cuts, lack of clean water, and festering trash heaps. But the mood was caught by men and women of all ages, Sunni and Shia, Maronite and Druze, joining hands in a 170-kilometer human chain that ran through Beirut, from Tripoli in northern Lebanon to Tyre in the south. Targeting an entire ruling class—some of whose sect-based parties are still headed by wartime militia leaders—these demonstrations have been hailed in some quarters as the definitive end of the war, and the beginning, at last, of a healing process of memory and reconciliation. As one slogan against those in power ran: “We are the popular revolution. You are the civil war.”
On the eve of the protests, I spoke with Elias Khoury, one of Lebanon’s leading novelists and formerly global distinguished professor at New York University, who has described Beirut as the “capital of amnesia.” We met near his home in eastern Beirut after tire-burning protests—a harbinger of the October 17 demonstrations—had erupted in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Chatila in south Beirut. The 1982 massacres in these camps—among the worst atrocities of the civil war—are at the heart of Khoury’s 1998 masterpiece Gate of the Sun (whose English version by Humphrey Davies won the inaugural Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation in 2006, when I was a judge). The novel—which now has a sequel, Children of the Ghetto: My Name is Adam (2016; translated by Davies in 2018)—wove a tentative oral history of the Palestinian Nakba (catastrophe) of 1948 from the persistent memories of love, flight, and dispossession that Khoury heard in Beirut’s camps.
Writer Elias Khoury at a café in Achrafieh, Beirut, fall 2019: "The civil-war collapse of the nation-state exploded the Lebanese novel." Photo credit: Maya Jaggi.
“The dominant amnesia is not really about forgetting,” Khoury cautioned. “The militia leaders now in government imposed a collective amnesia, but that doesn’t prevent each community from having its own memory. It creates separate memories that can emerge at any time and cause another war.” In Gate of the Sun, he wrote that “memory is the process of organizing what to forget.” Yet, “especially after terrible wars like ours, that work wasn’t done,” he told me. “You have to forget in a decent way; to mourn so you can live. But you need to feel the victims are respected.” Instead, “when the Syrians imposed peace, there was a general amnesty [in 1991] so none of the war criminals governing us could be questioned. At least 17,000 people disappeared during the war. Till now, we don’t have a hint of where they’re buried.”
We were sitting on a café terrace in traffic-filled Sassine Square, in Achrafieh, the hilly district known as Little Mountain where Khoury was born in 1948 into a Lebanese Christian family. A leading journalist and critic who worked with the poets Mahmoud Darwish and Adonis when prewar Beirut was a dynamic hub of Arabic publishing, he said the war reinvented Lebanese fiction: “The novel is the outcome of the bourgeois nation-state. But here, the collapse of the nation-state exploded the novel. Civil war opened the windows of reality, bringing in colloquial Arabic and an avant-garde stylistic approach to the details of daily life.”
Khoury’s wartime involvement with left-wing and Palestinian forces (Christian and Muslim) had exiled him to West Beirut. Little Mountain, written in Arabic in 1977 in the midst of the fighting (and published in Maia Tabet’s English translation in 1989), was one of the war’s first novels—along with Etel Adnan’s Sitt Marie Rose (1977) in French. A picaresque narrative of a youthful urban guerrilla, his family home raided by militiamen wearing crosses who target him as a traitor, it expressed the author’s disillusionment as all sides became implicated in atrocities, and melded memoir, pastiche, and fable into a restless, fragmented, postmodern form.
First edition of Elias Khoury’s novel Little Mountain in English translation (Maia Tabet; University of Minnesota Press, 1989) with later novels. Photo credit: Maya Jaggi.
Khoury is among Lebanese novelists whose fiction unsettles sectarian identities. His novel Yalo (2002; translated by Peter Theroux in 2008), exploring memory and truth through a man’s unreliable confessions under torture, has an antihero who is Syriac and Kurd, Muslim and Christian. In Jabbour Douaihy’s Chased Away, Nizam is born a Muslim and raised a Christian. In Rabee Jaber’s punningly titled Confessions (2008; translated by Kareem James Abu-Zeid in 2016), the narrator, Maroun, is the adopted son of a man from Achrafieh who orphaned him, killing his parents at a roadblock before kidnapping the boy and naming him after his own dead son. Maroun pieces together an unspoken history of his adoptive father’s atrocities—including the Karantina massacre of 1976 near Beirut port—from fragments of hearsay. Blanketed in silence, and without a solid framework of historical facts, such characters struggle to make sense of their own memories.
The Paris-based novelist Amin Maalouf traces fluid identities back to the region’s pluralistic past in novels such as the Prix Goncourt–winning The Rock of Tanios (1992; translated by Dorothy S. Blair in 1995), set in early nineteenth-century Lebanon as the seeds of sectarian bloodshed were sown. Jaber, too, looks beyond living memory for clues to the present. His novel The Druze of Belgrade, which won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (the “Arabic Booker”) in 2012, is set in the aftermath of the 1860s civil war, as 500 Druze rebels found guilty of massacring Christians are ordered to a Balkan jail by the Ottoman pasha. When one bribes his way out, a hapless hawker in Beirut port—ironically, a Christian—is incarcerated in his stead. An unlucky innocent, he could just as easily be of the wrong faith or sect at a checkpoint a century later. Jaber, a major novelist and journalist who rarely gives interviews, once told me that, to him, such books are not historical novels, because “the world doesn’t change as much as we like to think. The same violence gets repeated,” including “arbitrary arrests though people are not guilty. This is our world. Though it may be imaginary to other people, to us it’s real.”
This absurd quality can loom larger in childhood memories, as in Lamia Ziadé’s graphic memoir that breaks the comics mold, Bye Bye Babylon: Beirut 1975-79 (2010; translated from French by Olivia Snaije in 2011), or the macabre surrealism of Mazen Maarouf’s Arabic short stories, Jokes for the Gunmen (2015; translated by Jonathan Wright in 2019). Both reveal a child’s-eye bewilderment at violence. But Ziadé’s wry commentary and vivid inventory of all that is gone, including cinemas and sweet shops (“I’ll remember it always”), contrasts with Maarouf’s darkly oblique take on lingering trauma. His Beirut—though transformed on the surface—is haunted by repressed memories. In one story, a man “unable to smile” stops the heart of a homeless person “who lived under a bridge that had acquired a bad reputation in the war” simply by announcing himself as the angel of death.
By ossifying religious identities, the civil war also stymied women’s rights. The memory of a sniper terrorizing her Beirut neighborhood on the Green Line was the trigger for Hanan Al-Shaykh’s influential Arabic classic The Story of Zahra (1980; translated by Peter Ford in 1986)—a novel that shocked many readers (including the nine publishers who turned it down) by refusing to take sides in what Al-Shaykh saw as a “men’s war.” A prominent journalist when war broke out—and recognized as a founding rebel in a special issue of Banipal magazine last year—she once told me that “there were two wars happening: the civil war, and the one fought all the time with family and traditions.” Her self-harming antiheroine, Zahra, experiences rape, back-street abortions, and electroconvulsive therapy at the hands of men in peacetime before finding sexual pleasure with a stranger she suspects is a rooftop sniper. Written forty years ago in London, the novel was groundbreaking not only in its richly colloquial language and sexual frankness, but for its insight into how warlords of all stripes mirrored the power of fathers and clerics.
Writer Hanan Al-Shaykh: “There were two wars happening: the civil war, and the one fought with family and traditions."
Decades after the ambiguous liberation Zahra seized in wartime—and despite Beirut being one of the Arab world’s freest cities—women still grapple with straitjacketing notions of femininity and honor. Al-Shaykh revisits these themes with scathing humor in her novel The Occasional Virgin (2015; translated by Catherine Cobham in 2018), whose protagonists are Lebanese women in the diaspora. In Alexandra Chreiteh’s Always Coca-Cola (2009; translated by Michelle Hartman in 2012), the main characters are Beiruti women in their twenties—a generation steeped in global brands, and for whom the Israel-Hezbollah war of 2006 looms larger than the civil war. Yet they face many similar constraints to their mothers and grandmothers. Women’s rights have been held back, not simply by custom or religion, but by a sclerotic confessional system that enforces archaic laws—such as that preventing mothers from passing their nationality to their children. Women’s freedom has been a potent rallying cry in the recent protests alongside the icon of the “kick queen”—a viral image of a protester’s defensive kick at the groin of a politician’s bodyguard.
First edition of Hanan Al-Shaykh’s wartime classic The Story of Zahra in English translation (Peter Ford; Quartet Books, 1986) and her latest novel, The Occasional Virgin (Catherine Cobham; Bloomsbury, 2018). Photo credit: Maya Jaggi.
If the collapse of the nation-state reinvented the Lebanese novel, its reconstitution could galvanize literature. Eddé commends young historians charting the civil war one day at a time, striving to encompass multiple memories and points of view—rather as fiction has done. But as she wrote in Le Monde before last December’s intensifying crackdown, Lebanon could face “much suffering” at the hands of a “vicious circle of manipulators” before the sectarian system falls or a consensus on history is reached.
“You agree on history when you create a secular democratic state,” Khoury said. His words to me as dusk fell on Achrafieh carried both warning and hope: “Every community here has its memory. When we arrive at a collective memory of the war, we’ll have a country.” In massing together as individuals under the Lebanese flag, the protesters not only proclaimed the end of the civil war. They also brought the prospect of a shared memory—and a new literary chapter—a step closer.
© 2020 by Maya Jaggi. All rights reserved.
A mother sheep tries to protect her lambs from a devious wolf in this Qatari folktale, translated by Rana Elmaghraby.
In the name of God the Merciful:
Pray to the Prophet, peace be upon him.
Majana1 ela kheer lafana w lafakom w shar ta’adana w ta’adakum: May nothing affect us but goodness for us and you, and may evil stay away from us and you.
There once was a small sheep with children. The innocent sheep would take care of her lambs. She woke up every morning, told her children to wait in the house, and went out to gather grass for them. She left early in the morning to eat and fetch food. She would return home only when she had enough food for her lambs.
The mother sheep would warn her children of the wolf that prowled the town. She told them not to open the door for anyone who knocked on it, except their mother. The children agreed to obey their mother’s orders.
The next day, the mother sheep left the house to get the food. When she came back, she said, “Ya Fatoum, ya Hamoud, and ya Hamed, open the door for me. I am your mother and I brought you milk and grass to eat.”
The lambs recognized their mother’s voice, so they opened the door for her. While she was talking to them, the wolf came and listened to everything she said. (Even the king had warned everyone of the notorious wolf!)
The following day, the mother left to get food for her children. Then the wolf came and said with his growling voice, “Open the door, I am your mother and I brought you grass and milk and lots of food.”
The lambs said, “No, you are not our mother, because you have a growling voice and our mother’s voice is soft!”
Then the wolf said, “I am your mother, indeed. I am just sick—that’s why my voice changed.”
But they refused again. Then the wolf went away and drank oil and covered his tail with oil. He knocked on the door again. He told them with a softer voice, “I am your mother, open the door.” Then the wolf slid his tail under the door and said, “You can even touch my tail, and you will find it smooth. This will prove to you that I am your mother.”
So the lambs said, “Yes, indeed, it is our mother,” and they opened the door.
The wolf attacked them, eating Hamoud and Hamed! But when he was about to eat Fatoum, she clawed him, and he bled and ran off.
Later that day, the mother returned and said, “Ya Fatoum, ya Hamoud, and ya Hamed, open the door for me.” But no one answered. She quickly entered the house to find two of her children missing.
She went to the king and told him her story. The king immediately called a large gathering with lots of food and invited everyone, including the wolf.
When it was time to go, the wolf couldn’t leave because his stomach was full. So the king asked him suspiciously, “Why didn’t you eat, and why can’t you leave already?”
The wolf answered, “No, it’s just that I have a stomachache.”
The king sensed that the wolf was lying. He grabbed a knife and tore the wolf’s stomach open, and out came the two sheep: Hamoud and Hamed. They were alive, alhamdulillah.
The mother thanked the king and returned home with her three children. Then she told them, “Didn’t I tell you to listen to your mother and not to open the door for anyone?”
They replied, “Yes, Mother, we’re sorry. We’ve learned our lesson.”
W rohna anhoom w jeena w ma atoona sheey: And we came and we left, and they brought us nothing.
1In Qatari dialect, the “j” turns to a spoken “y.” So majana in this case would be pronounced “mayana.”↩
Told by Umm Khalaf. Translation © 2020 by Rana El Maghraby. All rights reserved.
A magical fish helps a young woman escape the clutches of her evil stepmother in this folktale from the Qatari oral tradition, translated by Kholoud Saleh.
Translator’s Note: The fish in this story—a two-banded porgy that lives in the Arabian Gulf—is known as Al Fisaikra in Qatari dialect (and Fusijaira, Fusikaira, and Bint Al-Nowakhtha in standard Arabic). In Gulf Region folklore, Fusijaira is a supernatural being who helps deserving people in need.
In the name of God the Merciful:
Pray to the Prophet, peace be upon him.
Majana1 ela kheer lafana w lafakom w shar ta’adana w ta’adakum: May nothing affect us but goodness for us and you, and may evil stay away from us and you.
There was, my dear, a fisherman. This man was very good and kind, and he was married and had a daughter named Hamda. But by Allah’s will, his wife passed away, and the daughter was left alone with her father. The father went fishing every day, and the daughter would cook his catch for the both of them. They lived in joy.
One day, the father said to his daughter, “My darling, I want to get married.”
Enthused at the idea, the daughter said, “Dear father, that would be nice!”
The father explained, “I want someone to be with you at home. My wife will help you and be a mother to you. And when I’m not around, she will keep you company.”
The daughter said, “Father, we have a neighbor who's very sweet. I will go and ask her to marry you!”
The beautiful daughter went to the neighbor and asked her to marry the father, and the neighbor agreed. Soon they were married.
By Allah’s will, the woman became pregnant. She delivered a baby girl. Soon after the child’s birth, the woman began to despise her stepdaughter. She made her cook, clean, wash, and do all the household chores, while she treated her own daughter with love and dignity.
The daughter complained to her father about the stepmother’s behavior. But oftentimes he did not believe her.
By Allah’s will, the father passed away, and his daughter lived alone with her stepmother and stepsister.
One day, their neighbors brought them some fish in a basket. The stepmother took the fish and told Hamda to go to the sea and clean them by the shore.
Hamda said, “Oh, Stepmother, must I really go now, in the middle of the night?”
The stepmother answered, “Yes, go clean the fish now.”
The poor girl went to the shore and began cleaning the fish. Before she left, however, the stepmother warned her to be careful. “I counted the fish, so don’t lose a single one.”
Hamda cleaned all the fish, and the last fish that she needed to clean was Al Fisaikra.
Al Fisaikra spoke to Hamda and said, “Set me free and I'll make you rich.”
Hamda replied nervously, “No, I'm afraid of my stepmother.”
“Let me go and I’ll make you rich,” Al Fisaikra repeated.
But Hamda replied again, “No, I'm afraid of my stepmother.”
Al Fisaikra grew impatient, bit Hamda’s arm, and slipped from her hands. Then the fish hid in a hollow between the rocks, beyond Hamda’s reach.
Hamda went home with all the fish except one. When the stepmother saw the fish, she said in anger, “There’s one missing!”
“Oh, Stepmother, one of them slipped away into the sea.”
“Go and bring it here now!” said the stepmother.
Obedient Hamda asked, “Will you save some lunch for me?” The stepmother assured her she would.
Hamda reached the shore and looked for Al Fisaikra but was unable to find her.
She returned to her stepmother and said, “I couldn't find the fish. May I have my lunch?”
“Of course; it’s in the kitchen,"2 her stepmother replied.
In the kitchen, Hamda found only bones. She went back to her stepmother and said, “Oh, Stepmother, you left me nothing but bones!”
“That’s all you deserve,” said the woman. “Yes, we left you nothing but bones. The fish you lost in the sea is the one that would have been yours!”
Dejected, Hamda took the dishes to the beach to wash them. She sat on a rock and began to cry. “Oh, Fisaikra, oh, my dear, they ate all the lunch and left nothing for me.”
“Didn’t I tell you that if you freed me, I would make you rich?” the fish answered. “But you said you were afraid of your stepmother.”
Hamda repeated, “Oh, Fisaikra, oh, my dear, they ate all the lunch and left nothing for me.”
Al Fisaikra answered again: “Didn’t I tell you that if you freed me, I would make you rich? But you said you were afraid of your stepmother.”
Then Al Fisaikra felt sorry for Hamda, and brought her rice, mashkhool, and biryani.
The poor girl ate until she was full and content. Then she finished cleaning the dishes and went home. On her way, she overheard an announcement that the sheikh wanted his son to get married and was looking for a beautiful girl for his son.
When Hamda reached the house, she found her stepmother adorning her daughter in makeup and fine clothes. The stepmother planned to take her to a party that the sheikh was hosting. But before leaving, she took Hamda, locked her in the tanoor, covered her, and then went with her daughter to the party.
When the stepmother was gone, Al Fisaikra came to Hamda and said, “Hamda! Why didn't you go to the party?”
Hamda replied sadly, “They didn't take me!”
“Come, come, I'll take you out and get you ready.” The fish cleaned her up, put makeup on her, and brought her beautiful clothes. Al Fisaikra told Hamda to go to the party. She put a bracelet on Hamda’s hand and told her not to drop it.
“Insha'Allah,” said Hamda.
And so Hamda went. The sheikh’s son saw her, and he liked her beauty and her long hair.
The stepmother never recognized Hamda, who was transformed. She enjoyed a good time with her daughter, believing that Hamda was still in the tanoor.
Hamda ran home before her stepmother returned. In her hurry and fear, the bracelet fell off.
The sheikh’s son found the bracelet and said, “I want the girl who wore this bracelet. Whomever it fits is the girl I will marry.”
His servants hunted for the girl from place to place and from home to home.
They finally reached Hamda's house, knocked on the door, and waited for an answer. When the stepmother heard the knock, she took Hamda and hid her again in the tanoor.
Luckily, the family had a rooster. The rooster saw what the stepmother had done to Hamda.
The servants tried to fit the bracelet on the stepdaughter’s wrist. They asked, “Don’t you have any other girl here?”
“No, no, no, there is no one else,” the stepmother said. “This is the only daughter I have.”
The rooster cried: Ko-ko ko-ko, Auntie Hamda the Beautiful is in the tanoor!
The servants tried to listen, but the stepmother said, “Kish, kish, kish!” to frighten the rooster away.
The servants said, “Wait! Let us listen to him.”
“No, no, the rooster has nothing to say, nothing!”
But the rooster cried again: Ko-ko ko-ko, Auntie Hamda the Beautiful is in the tanoor!
This time the servants heard the rooster clearly, and they stepped into the house and opened the tanoor to find Hamda inside. They brought her out and tried the bracelet. It fit perfectly!
They rushed to tell the sheikh about finding the girl. The sheikh’s son ordered them to go back to her house and ask her family for permission to marry. The stepmother, however, demanded a dowry. “I want a beeb of seawater, a galat of dates, and a beeb of small fish.”
The servants were surprised by her orders, but they agreed, and brought the dowry on the eve of the wedding.
Al Fisaikra—who was really a djinni—came to Hamda in the form of a woman. She cleaned her, made her beautiful, and put kohl and henna on her. When the stepmother saw Hamda, she was shocked and angered. She asked Hamda, “Who did that to you? How did you do it?”
Hamda was not allowed to say, so she just replied, “I don't know.”
Once Hamda had completed her bridal preparations, the stepmother brought the sheikh’s gifts to her and forced Hamda to drink and eat it all.
"Oh, Stepmother, I'm really full!" Hamda cried. But the stepmother ignored her complaints and forced Hamda to finish all of it until the poor girl’s stomach bulged.
Now when the sheikh’s son arrived to take his bride, he came in the form of a black dog! He took her home, and the stepmother was jubilant. "Oh, I really hope he eats her, I hope he tears her apart!” she prayed.
At home, alone again with Hamda, the sheikh’s son turned back to his human form. Hamda wept, telling him of the pain in her stomach. He took off his ghutra, placed it on the ground, and said, “Try to empty everything in your stomach out onto this.”
Hamda vomited, but all that came from her stomach was pearls and corals. Beautiful!
Filled with joy, the sheikh’s son brought her to her very own house, where Hamda lived with love and dignity3 in her husband’s home.
Now the sheikh’s son had a brother, and the jealous stepmother said to him, “My dear, I would give you my second daughter to marry.” She asked for the same dowry she had requested for Hamda.
She forced her daughter to eat it all, exactly as she had done to Hamda, expecting her daughter to vomit pearls and corals as well.
That night, a terrifying black dog came for the daughter. When they were alone, however, he did not turn back into a man. The daughter cried of her stomach pain. The dog said, “Really? Your stomach hurts?” And thinking that she would produce pearls and corals, he took his ghutra and put it on the ground for her. This time, however, the daughter vomited only digested food! This angered the sheikh's brother—and he ate the girl and tore her apart.
When the mother came in the morning to visit, she found her daughter eaten and her bones lying on the floor.
W rohna anhoom w jeena w ma atoona sheey: And we came and we left, and they brought us nothing.
1In Qatari dialect, the “j” turns to a spoken “y.” So majana in this case would be pronounced “mayana.”↩
2The Arabic term is al merfarah, which can also mean a shelf or a plate for leftovers.↩
3Muazzazzah mukarramah, a common saying.↩
Told by Umm Khalaf. Translation © 2020 by Kholoud Saleh. All rights reserved.
A pious merchant confronts a difficult business decision and an untrustworthy friend in this Qatari folktale, translated by Tariq Ahmed.
Once upon a time, a Sunni man in Qatar had an ungodly friend who was a seasoned merchant. The Sunni was just an ordinary person. One day, the Sunni inherited a large estate with which he bought a large ship named Saphar.
Saphar was built for long voyages, and had sailed to Oman and Aden, then from Aden to Mombasa, and from there to as far as India.
One day, the Sunni visited his ungodly merchant friend and said, “I bought Saphar. What’s your advice? What goods and merchandise shall I take with me to sell in Africa and exchange for others on my way back to Doha?”
“Well. Let me think about it. Give me one day and I will come up with a great idea!” the friend replied. However, he didn’t really want to help; instead, he had a will to harm.
Two days later, the Sunni came back and asked, “Any luck?”
“Yes, of course.”
“So what sort of goods shall I take aboard?”
“Cats. Carry cats!”
“Cats?!” the astonished Sunni wondered.
“Yes! Go and catch as many as you can, load them onto your giant vessel, and sail to Africa. There you’ll see the benefit.”
The Sunni gathered workers to help him catch a load of cats, and once the ship was full, he set out on the long journey.
In Africa, naforje traders populated the high seas. Whenever the traders caught sight of a flag, they would approach the ship to see what it carried.
The traders stopped the Sunni’s ship and asked, “Where do you come from? What do you have on board?”
“From Qatar,” he answered. “I brought cats.”
“Welcome, you’re welcome,” said the traders. “God has brought you to us! How did you know that rats have been bothering us, eating our harvests and stocks, and emptying our stores?”
The Sunni started out selling his cats at ten riyals per head, and then the price rose to as high as fifty. It was a lucrative deal, and the man took the money and bought wood, robes, and a variety of goods for the people of Doha.
The Sunni returned to Qatar, where his envious friend had been waiting. The friend was startled when he saw the vessel full of fine cargo. Curious to investigate, he shook hands with the pious sailor and asked, “How was your journey?”
“May God reward you for your sincere advice,” said the happy Sunni. “Believe me, the moment I arrived in Mombasa, I was warmly welcomed, and the men asked about my merchandise and then said that Allah had sent me, because rats had been troubling them! I sold my cats until the price reached fifty riyals per head.”
The friend was taken by surprise. “Well then, next time I will travel on your behalf, and you can stay here and collect rent. What do you say?”
“Of course,” said the Sunni. “You’re my friend, and your advice was so kind.”
The ungodly man gathered friends and collected cats from Qatar and abroad until the vessel was full, then started the long journey. Off Mombasa, naforje traders stopped his ship and asked, “What do you have on board?”
“Cats,” he said.
“Stop where you are!” they shouted at him. “The cats we bought last time befriended our rats and now they play with one another.”
“Impossible!” he said. “It took me a whole month to get here.”
“You can’t enter the town,” they insisted. “Go back now!”
“If so,” said the ill-intentioned sailor, “give me proof of my arrival, so my people believe me.”
“We will give you the letter, but we don’t want your cats!” they replied.
The man returned to Doha, and the Sunni owner asked him about the experience.
“Not good. When the traders learned I had cats, they stopped me and complained about the cats befriending the rats. Here is the proof.”
The Sunni said to him, “Indeed, he who digs a pit for his brother often falls into it!”
Told by Khalifa Al Sayed. Translation © 2020 by Tariq Ahmed. All rights reserved.
Doha is a city in the midst of swift transformation. Between the wind-etched dunes of the Qatari desert and the bright shores of the Arabian Gulf, luxury towers, art museums, shopping malls, top-tier universities, mosques—new, old, and in construction—bloom beside tailors, shawarma vendors, shisha cafes, cafeterias selling intriguing juice blends (the Rolex, the Computer), construction barriers, and morning fish markets. Traffic whirs down streets necklaced with roadwork, debris of a small and newly rich country surging forward at breathtaking speed. Yet beyond the humming city remain traces of a vanishing era: trackless desert, abandoned fishing boats, grazing camels, sprawling date farms, and eroding stone and mud houses emptied to sand and wind.
Qatar’s ambitious modernity is rooted in a diverse cultural inheritance passed down from pearl divers and fisherfolk, traders and merchants, and Bedouin nomads with complex family clans and tribal alliances. These regional and ancestral histories are deeply etched in Qatar’s intangible cultural heritage—its songs, poetry, dances, jokes, proverbs, and especially its folk stories. Known in Qatar as hazawi, folktales are the oral stories of everyday life, transmitted within families for education and entertainment in the home, the majlis, or the desert camps. Common characters in Qatari folktales include donkeys, goats, magic fish, jealous wives, orphaned children, sneaky thieves, sea monsters, djinn, folk heroes, and clever old women. Details change with every rendition as a storyteller adds their own flourishes, so that each tale is a dynamic, evolving performance. The stories are abundant with social wisdom, moral instruction, and cultural knowledge, and reflect the lessons and concerns of the past and present. They may begin with a prayer to Allah and a ritual opening:
May nothing affect us but goodness for us and you, and may evil stay away from us and you.1
And end with a ritual close:
And we came and we left, and they brought us nothing.
Stories passed down from nomadic tribes illuminate survival in the austere inland desert: tales of ailing camels, unreliable strangers, and Umm Hamar, the donkey lady, who prowls in the dangerous noontime heat. Families descended from coastal villagers recount stories of pearl diving and a life tied to the perils of the open ocean, of long, grueling trips away from home, and encounters with Bu Darya, the Father of the Sea. One such tale presented here, “The Sunni and His Friend,” humorously depicts the practical tribulations of a high-seas trader while also imparting sharp moral commentary on dishonest motives. Tales of Persian origin may recall landscapes never seen in Qatar: wolves and deer, forests and lakes. The stories can be witty or tragic, dark or even bawdy, and frequently concern themselves with familial relationships, particularly those most fraught in a time when girls married young. Such tales depict malicious stepmothers, envious wives or sisters-in-law, and unheeding fathers or brothers, and may involve abandonment in the desert or forced feeding of the bride or daughter—or the consuming of them. So is the final, dire fate of the jealous stepsister in “Al Fisaikra.”
Folktales are not contained; they take on the flavor of a place, they migrate and cross-pollinate over time. This is why similar folktales are often found in very different parts of the world. Just as the mother sheep in “Fatoum, Hamoud, and Hamed” who warns her children against the wiles of a sneaky wolf in her absence recalls the Brothers Grimm tale of the wolf and the seven little goats, so “Al Fisaikra” shares much kinship with Cinderella. Yet the tale remains very distinctly Qatari: no glass slipper but a bracelet, and instead of a prince, a sheikh who transforms into a black dog.
As in many other traditional societies propelled by rapid modernization, lifestyle changes have led to a decline in Qatar’s oral storytelling tradition, and folktales that have been passed down for generations are now told and recalled with increasing rarity. Moreover, in their colloquial rendition, Qatari folktales often transmit tribal dialects and ancestral vocabulary, another aspect of nonmaterial heritage. As the older vernacular and its “grandparent words” slip from common usage, the bygone materials and practices they describe also fade from memory.
Qatar’s folktales have not been extensively documented, although recently, state-driven national interest in preserving oral literature has led to a surge of individual and institutional efforts. Collections that share a few folktales of Qatari origin among other regional stories include Tales Arab Women Tell (El‐Shamy, 1999), Folktales from the Arabian Peninsula: Tales of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, The United Arab Emirates, and Yemen (Taibah & MacDonald, 2015), and The Donkey Lady and Other Tales from the Arabian Gulf (Paine, Ulmer, & Hersrud, 2013). In Arabic, Ḥikayat shaʻbiyah min al‐Khalij (Ṣayyagh, 1994), reprinted in English as Folktales from the Arabian Gulf: A Selection of Popular Tales Collected in the Field (ibid., 2003), includes stories from the Qatari tradition, as does Myths from Qatar Heritage (Al-Ghanim, 2015). The now-defunct Arab Gulf States Folklore Centre formerly published a quarterly journal, Al-Ma’thurat al-Sha’biya, presenting a number of Qatari folktales, selections of which have recently been reprinted in English as Studies in Qatari Folklore 2 (Qatar Ministry of Culture and Sports Public Libraries and Heritage Dept., 2019). Finally, a few folktales appear in illustrated children’s books through local publishers, such as Ghosoun and Her Brother, the Gazelle (Al-Ghanim, 2016).
To date, however, the most comprehensive collection of Qatari folktales is Mohamed Taleb Salman Al-Duwayk’s al-Qaṣaṣ al-shaʻbi fi Qaṭar (Folktales of Qatar), a substantial two-volume book locally printed in 1984. It is now difficult to find and remains untranslated to English. In his research, Al-Duwayk collected folktales from pearl divers, fishermen, and students who recorded folktales within their own families. When faced with multiple variations of the same folktale, or a folktale with missing or forgotten elements, Al-Duwayk collaborated with the storytellers to select or complete the most representative version. He published the stories in Fusha (literary Arabic), rather than in the colloquial dialect of the storytellers. While this validation is valuable and important, it loses the orality of the narrator.
The three stories presented here were gathered with the support of an Undergraduate Research Experience Program grant (UREP 08-081-6-006) awarded by the Qatar National Research Fund. At the time, I was a writing faculty member of Weill Cornell Medicine in Qatar, and my interest in Qatari folklore was first piqued by stories of djinn in abandoned houses, and the donkey woman who devoured straying children. As I sought to hear more local folktales, I also learned of their increasing scarcity and the accelerating decline in the tradition. With the support of the UREP grant, two colleagues and I trained a team of nine students from Qatar University and WCM-Q with the aim of reaching out to local storytellers and documenting their stories. Our research method followed a code of ethics that protected the rights and wishes of the storyteller. Each researcher recorded their interviews in Arabic, transcribed them in colloquial dialect, and translated them to English, retaining the orality of the narration as much as possible.
The Qatari family is a private sphere, and collecting these stories required sensitivity and respect for local traditions. Some women did not wish to be recorded, so a female interviewer transcribed the story by hand; in other cases, permission to record was granted, but only on the condition that no men would be allowed to listen. Some elderly interviewees could not read, so the researchers read aloud an oral consent form. An interview ideally began not at the first meeting, but at the second or third, over tiny cups of fragrantly bitter coffee and the sweet, sticky dates beloved in Qatar.
While our project sought to document folktales and ultimately publish them, detaching these stories from their social, performative context and transferring them to print arguably only serves to memorialize them. With that in mind, I collaborated with the Qatar Heritage and Identity Centre (QHIC), a government organization that hosts cultural exhibitions and school programs, an archive library, and publication and research on Qatari folklife. Together with the QHIC Director, Dr. Khalid Al Mulla, and its Director of Heritage, Sheikha Noora Bint Nasser Bin Jassim Al Thani, who has deep experience documenting Qatari folktales and traditions, we created the “My Identity, My Story” project: a workshop series that aimed to invigorate Qatar’s oral storytelling tradition by raising awareness and engaging the community as partners in preservation. Over the six-week event series, local storytellers and folklorists delivered free public talks about Qatar’s folktale heritage, oral storytelling, ethical fieldwork, and translation. Participants who wished to document folktales within their own families were equipped with audio recorders and mentorship.
The three tales presented here offer a glimpse into Qatar’s folk storytelling tradition as it exists today—diminished, perhaps, and endangered certainly, but as yet still alive. The tales now told in Qatar are the ones that have endured, that speak the most meaningfully to the people who tell them, and are in turn enriched with each new telling. We are grateful to the storytellers who shared their time and their stories with us, and hope these folktales and their treasures will live on not just preserved in books, but in the way they have always lived: organically, affectionately, from memory and by mouth to listening ears.
1Another variation: Majana wala yakom illa alkhair lafana w lafakom, waash-shar ta’adana w ta’adakum, man lah nabee yasalee alaiah: Whatever came to us or to you was good, and the bad escaped us and escaped you. And whoever has a prophet, let them praise that prophet.↩
© 2020 by Autumn Watts. All rights reserved.
In “Contacts,” Melanie Leclerc’s graphic memoir of her childhood, her famous cinematographer father gives her his Leica and teaches her how to use it. As he takes her through the steps of creating photos, he tells her, “Framing’s the most fun. Because framing means choosing, out of everything it’s possible to see, what’s going to stay. What’s going to tell the story.” In this, our fourteenth annual graphic novel issue, Leclerc and five other artists do just that, capturing both words and images to convey narratives individual and collective. From a hushed night at a museum to a noisy protest in a teeming city, in moments of private reflection and public confrontation, the resulting works reflect the storytelling power of this endlessly expressive form.
In “A Seam of Light and Black,” artist Moussa Kone, who previously worked as a museum security guard, curates an alternative guided tour. Moving through the deserted administrative wing at night, Kone and his collaborators, Walter Pamminger and Bastian Schneider, highlight elements of the offices—photos, desk chairs, bookshelves—to construct their own exhibition, a series of still lifes and found art. Like many museum catalogs, the result is a work of art in itself, images selected and organized around a singular artistic vision.
A similarly imaginative perspective informs Thomas Mathieu and Juliette Boutant’s “Crocodiles Are Everywhere,” which addresses the #MeToo movement with a metaphorical turn. In a series of vignettes of daily life, men take the form of leering crocodiles perpetuating the worst forms of chauvinistic treatment. The ubiquity of these grinning reptiles—powerful, relentless, omnipresent—suggests the obstacle course that many women find themselves running every day. French graphic novelists Mathieu and Boutant first started documenting women’s experiences on a Tumblr, Projet Crocodiles, which grew into the book excerpted here.
Lola Larra and Vicente Reinamontes’s South of Alameda: The Story of an Occupation enters the mind of a contemplative Chilean teenager as he joins a group of student protesters in the Penguin Revolution of 2006. The student movement protested the inequalities of the country’s educational system in multiple ways, including occupying schools throughout the country, and South of Alameda includes both images and an excerpt from the ambivalent teenager’s diary of the events. A Chilean writer and journalist, Larra based her text on her observation of school occupations during the Penguin Revolution; Reinamontes, a graphic novelist and activist, was himself a member of the student movement as a teenager.
Frustration with another country’s government also leads to an uprising in Barrack Rima’s Beirut Trilogy. After decades of improper disposal of waste, Lebanon’s overflowing main dump shuts down. The resulting buildup of trash—a visual representation of the city’s corrupt and dysfunctional political system—unites Beirut’s residents and drives them into the street in protest. Rima’s graphic work has appeared in Arabic and English in addition to the original French.
And in a turn to the interior, poet Marlon Hacla contemplates evolution and growth in his dreamy “The View,” illustrated by Apol Sta. Maria. Text and image complement each other in an impressionistic meditation. Hacla made his English-language debut in our Philippines issue. This is his first collaboration with Sta. Maria, the author of several graphic works in both Filipino and English.
Although Leclerc’s father was speaking literally, we think the authors here display admirable framing skill in both the literal and figurative senses. These stories and images are prime examples of the graphic novel’s powerful and infinite range.
© 2020 by Susan Harris. All rights reserved.
This month, we’re engaging one of the more pressing questions facing the literary sphere. Reading, it is commonly averred, can make us better versions of ourselves. Without ceding that notion, we ask a different version of it: can international literature make us better travelers?
Our debate includes contributions from four writers who bring wildly different perspectives: M. Lynx Qualey writes about Arabic literature and translation issues; Tomaso Biancardi is an Italian editor and literary translator living in Istanbul; Emmanuel Iduma is a Nigerian writer, editor, publisher, and art critic; and Shahnaz Habib is a US-based Indian writer and translator. Together, they invite us to question our roles as readers, writers, translators, and editors, and perhaps even help us to begin to arrive at an answer to our question.
Can international literature make us better travelers?
| The Desire to Travel Responsibly Must Come before the Desire to Learn through Literature
by Tomaso Biancardi
| We Usually Ask Literature to be Humanizing Only When It’s from "Over There"
by M. Lynx Qualey
| The Reader's Openness to the Unfamiliar
by Emmanuel Iduma
| On the "Good" in "Good Traveler"
by Shahnaz Habib
M. Lynx Qualey is the editor of ArabLit Quarterly. Should we, she asks, really place the onus for responsible travel on international literature—and can such literature even improve us as travelers?
Mark Twain read Arabic literature. Not widely; there were no English translations of Twain’s Arab contemporaries circulating in the mid-1800s. He’d surely have loved the satiric, word-spinning work of Ahmed Faris al-Shidyaq, had it been available. Some of the grimmer American intellectuals read Ibn Tufail’s twelfth-century magnum opus, but I’ve seen no suggestion Twain partook. Yet Twain was unquestionably influenced by the 1001 Nights, which he probably read via Edward William Lane. Twain put it on a list of favorite books, right between “Crusoe” and “Gulliver.” He probably didn’t know the 1001 Nights was one of a number of popular fourteenth- and fifteenth-century collections, scorned by many Arab literati of its time. He probably did know the collection was a wild hit in Antoine Galland’s French translation before it moved to English.
Twain’s whole generation was marked by reading the Nights. He was one of many nineteenth-century authors to pen his own burlesque 1002nd Night, which he did in 1883. Apparently, it was so unfunny that his publisher cut it down, then shelved it.
Twain was also, famously, a traveler. In the 1860s, he took a long trip that encompassed several Arab-majority countries. Still a young journalist, he talked his newspaper into paying his way on the Quaker City steamboat, promising to send back dispatches, which he later turned into The Innocents Abroad.
You can imagine his hearty portraits of stupid savages, dim-witted travelers, and ugly women. In Jerusalem, he compares the locals to Indians, as if prescient of a settler-colonialism to come: “They sat in silence, and with tireless patience watched our every motion with that vile, uncomplaining impoliteness which is so truly Indian, and which makes a white man so nervous and uncomfortable and savage that he wants to exterminate the whole tribe.”
Clearly, Twain meant to exaggerate and entertain. Perhaps he was a decent enough guest in “real” life: he took off his shoes before entering a home and paid fair wages. But his caricatures had consequences. Popular literature is constantly in motion, being used in ways its authors cannot necessarily foresee. The absurdist way he constructed Palestine is now promoted as proof that there were no nineteenth-century Palestinians.
The Nights may well have made Twain a better writer. But did it make him a better traveler? Probably not. Certainly, no one would suggest that any international literature leads to self-improvement; if I were to read a sloppy, racist, and misogynist novel written by a Kuwaiti (for good measure, let’s imagine the translation is wooden), I might even be a worse person for the experience. On the other hand, let’s assume I’ve read Ismail Fahd Ismail’s al-Sabiliyat in Sophia Vasalou’s translation (as The Old Woman and the River). I’m sure it must’ve improved me a little, or at least my environmental sympathies. Still, any reading is a mental staging of the book, where the reader is both director and producer. Other directors would find different ways of staging Ismail’s gentle war novel, perhaps to suggest Muslims are inherently violent. John Updike read Arabic literature in translation, surely Mahfouz as well as Munif. I don’t think he ever traveled to Saudi Arabia, but he did create his own Arab characters in Terrorist. He was, let’s say, not a good guest of the Arab lands he’d created in his mind.
As Edward Said helped us see with Orientalism, people can be quite well versed in a foreign literature and use this knowledge to support real-life brutality. Perhaps some of the architects of the Iraq War read my beloved Muhammad Khudayyir, although I hope they never had anything so beautiful in their hands. Moreover, we usually ask literature to be humanizing only when it’s from Over There. I have never heard of anyone asking French literature to humanize the French. We can be awful, loud Americans in Paris; of course, there might be consequences.
But then what? Is there no reason to read widely, across genres and languages, genders and gender expressions, time periods and experimentalisms? To read with an engaged and relaxed ear, to try to discover the book as it wants to be read, rather than the book as we assume it should be? The question I’d like to ask is: Should we be good travelers, in our heads, when we go to fictional worlds? And does that also matter?
To get existential, our dignified survival as a species probably depends on finding ways to listen to each other. If any literature has made me a better person, it is the literature that showed me better ways to read. A person can be a brilliant writer without being a decent human, but I am not convinced they can be a brilliant reader and also a fascist narcissist. In any event, if we want to be respectful of others, being a good reader is a place to start.
© 2020 by M. Lynx Qualey. All rights reserved.
In examining whether international literature can make us better travelers, Emmanuel Iduma, a writer who splits his time between Lagos and New York, takes a deep dive into the headwater of Igbo, his own estrangement from the language, and the intentions of writers and translators alike.
The introductory paragraph of Omenuko, Pita Nwana’s 1933 novel, the first to be written in Igbo, reads as follows:
N’akụkụ obodo anyị n’ime Africa, okwu a dị ka iwu e nyere enye; a na-asị na ọ buru na onye ọ bula agaa n’obodo ọzọ biri n’ebe ahụ dị ka ọbịa, ma ọ dị mma, ma ọ bụ onye ebere, ma ọ bụ onye amara, ma ọ bụ onye na-ekpe ikpe n’ụzọ ziri ezi, mbge dum ihe ụfọdụ ga na-echetara ya na ya onwe ya bụ ọbịa, n’ala ahụ, ọ ga na-ejikere onwe ya na ọ ghaghi ịla obodo ebe a mụrụ ya. Mgbe ọ bụla a tụrụ ya n’ilu, ma a gwawara ya agwawa na ọ bụ obịa, ọ ghaghi ịla.
This is how I translated it:
In the part of our land inside Africa, this saying is like a law: if anybody goes to another place to live there as a visitor, whether such a person is good, or the person is a person of mercy, whether such a person is graceful, whether such a person does what is just on a broad road, on several occasions circumstances will remind such person that he or she is a visitor in that land. Such a person will begin to prepare to return soon to the land where he or she was born. Whenever this saying is expressed, if they do not tell such a person he or she is a visitor, he or she will not leave.
This is how it was translated by Frances W. Pritchett:
Around our town in Africa, this belief is accepted as law: if anyone goes to another town and lives there as a guest, even if things are good, or he is a merciful person, or a gracious one, or a fair judge, he will always be reminded that he is a guest in that land and he will be preparing himself for his inevitable return to the town of his birth. At any time he may be told, proverbially or directly, that he is a guest and must not fail to return home.
The distinctions between both translations are less substantive than they are technical and syntactical, even if mine suffers from a lack of concision. We express the same sentiment: a person remains a stranger, regardless of how good or important they become in a place away from home. But in some of the translated sentences, particularly the last, there is an obvious contrast in our grasp and mastery of the language.
Once I consulted Pritchett’s translation, I realized that because I hadn’t understood that “a tụrụ ya n’ilu” referred to the subject of the sentence, as did “gwawara ya agwawa,” I ended up with a conditional statement instead of a declarative one.
I am under no illusion as to my skill as an Igbo-English translator. That paragraph, in fact, was the first time I’d attempted any translation. I undertook the exercise to test my comprehension of the language—and, perhaps, the degree of my alienation from it.
In his 1999 lecture, “Tomorrow is Uncertain: Today is Soon Enough,” delivered at the Catholic Archdiocese of Owerri in Nigeria, Chinua Achebe tells of the missionary fervor of a minister known as T. J. Dennis. Dennis began to translate the Bible into “Union Igbo” less than six years after he arrived in Igboland. Though there were several dialects of the language, he forged ahead with a plan to translate the Bible into a centralized one, borrowing words from other dialects. If he were merely working to translate the Bible into a different language, that would be agreeable. But he ventured further, writing in the Church Missionary Review of the poverty of the Igbo language, declaring it barbarous.
Achebe says in his lecture: “The story of Dennis and the Union Bible has been a great regret to me in several ways. But the greatest one of all is how the opportunity the Igbo Bible had to be the headwater of Igbo literature was thrown away.”
Can international literature make us better travelers? Who are the supposed beneficiaries? What pitfalls await? These are complex questions. For me, Igbo literature, though written in a language I am yet to master, isn’t international, even if it is to some degree foreign. I might, then, extend my reflection to include work written in all languages I am not yet competent in, whether international or not (the indigenous languages of the Americas come to mind). In the case of Dennis, the complexities extend to the motives for translating in the first place and the translator’s dismissive attitude toward both the Igbo language and his audience. In addition, Dennis sought to retranslate what was already a work of international literature—and he was not doing so directly from the original. To what extent had previous translators responsible for the Bible’s global journey inscribed their own bias onto the text that Dennis would bring into Igbo and that had informed his worldview?
Sometime this year I will embark on a journey through nearly a dozen towns of southeastern Nigeria, to research a book I am writing. The ethnic composition of those towns, and the language spoken, is predominantly Igbo. I will arrive with a sense of alienation from Igbo, a determination to immerse myself in the language, and a mastery of English. The matter for me, as I suppose it was for Dennis, is the terms of such an Igbo-English exchange. On my trip I hope to treat Igbo with the same attention I have paid English all my life—to consider, for instance, the subtle shifts in meaning in a word as it is used in a range of Igbo dialects. For while international literature can enable nuanced, cross-cultural understanding, the reader’s openness to the unfamiliar is but one component: what is also at stake are the attitudes and competencies of those involved in making the exchange possible in the first place.
© 2020 by Emmanuel Iduma. All rights reserved.
Shahnaz Habib is the author of Airplane Mode, a forthcoming book of narrative nonfiction about the complexities of travel. Drawing on her own experiences abroad, she concludes that literature may, in fact, make us better travelers—but not necessarily in the way we think.
Traveling someplace new is not easy. One thought that terrifies me when I find myself in a foreign place is that I might be spotted looking through a Lonely Planet. I stay safe by carrying only electronic versions of guidebooks, downloaded onto my phone. And when I do have to open the Not-So-Lonely Planet or Is-It-Really-Rough Guide on my phone, first I look around and make sure no one, least of all other tourists, has caught me in the act. This is where international literature can be useful. Open a book and hide the phone among its pages while quickly noting the information. Now I can safely walk down the little bougainvillea-draped alley and saunter into the restaurant as if I had just found it. Just me and my intuition.
Obviously you want to be careful with this. Take it from me, a woman who carried a Rumi anthology around Turkey, only to find it on the rickety Free Books shelf of every backpacker hostel, tucked behind the breakfast area.
Jokes aside, I would like to believe that international literature can indeed make us better travelers. It even sounds like the kind of theory that might well be proved dead right in a few decades. Imagine a randomized clinical trial conducted over the course of ten years, in which a bevy of unsuspecting subjects is fed books from around the world, with a healthy proportion of fiber-rich translation titles, to be consumed consistently, one a week perhaps, against a control group that reads nothing. Then everyone is tracked on their travels abroad through regular interviews and online surveys.
It’s at this point that my imagination fails. Not because I have a hard time conceiving of someone funding such a study or because in thirty years, the waters will have inundated us all. But because, for a while now, I have been confused about what it means to be a better traveler.
Certainly it is possible to identify some traits that would make a good traveler: curiosity, openness to the world, sympathy for the people they meet on their travels, willingness to question their own biases and stereotypes.
But I can’t help thinking that with these traits, the “good” in “good traveler” is mostly happening to the traveler. This “goodness” is not particularly beneficial to the place said traveler is traveling to. A lot of places in the world—from Venice to Boracay—are finding out that the best travelers are those who never bother to come. The ones who do not burden precious resources with their search for local, authentic experience.
In fact, it is worth wondering if travel is actually essential to being a good traveler. Benjamin Moser writes about the great writer Machado de Assis, who lived a quiet and provincial life in nineteenth-century Brazil, “Machado is proof that cosmopolitanism comes from reading, not from travel: through books he knew the world.”
Yet we travel. We cannot resist the lure of the world. We hope that travel will make us better human beings—more rounded, more sophisticated. There’s always the hope that by going somewhere else, we will find ourselves. Travel is a self-improvement project that has been sold to us as a world-improvement project.
In his memoir of his time in Verona, Italy, Italian Neighbors, Tim Parks recounts visiting two brothers, Giuliano and Girolamo, who run the farm where he gets his eggs. So far, so good. We are in the territory of the typical Italy travelogue: the enamored foreigner seeking wholesome food in the Italian countryside. Giuliano reminisces to Parks about being a prisoner of war in Scotland, where he lived with local farmers who put him to work he enjoyed in their fields. He loved Scotland! But when the war was over, he had twenty-four hours to decide whether to stay or not. Giuliano would have happily stayed—but pasta! He tells Parks that the thought of a plate of pasta put him on the boat back to Italy. Parks adds: “I wonder if his toothless grin is meant to indicate that he appreciates what a caricature he is offering.”
Something shifts in that moment when Parks suspects that Giuliano might be performing a national stereotype to please the foreigner. We are no longer in a tourist moment; instead, we are in a literary moment involving a character with complex motivations that we cannot fully understand.
Parks has an unfair advantage here as a translator of Italian literature. This gives him a sharp skepticism that other readers may not always have access to. Translators are accustomed to this shape-shifting, the way a text can hide a subtext, the way chasing a literal and obvious meaning can take one further away from the deeper meaning. Unfortunately, when we think of travel as a self-improvement exercise, we are primed to miss this subtext. We are fulfilling our own fantasies of becoming, rather than exploring the being of the place we are traveling to.
A couple of years ago, I spent two lovely long weeks in Montevideo, doing pretty much nothing. I walked aimlessly around flea markets, looked up Eduardo Galeano in the catalog of the public library even though I cannot read Spanish, watched the sunset on the promenade every day. And yet it was only later, after I read a Juan Carlos Onetti story in the recently translated A Dream Come True, that something clicked. Two aging theater impresarios are recruited to stage a reenactment of a woman’s dream. It’s a brief and banal moment on a street, but the woman felt such joy during the dream that she wants to recapture it. The futility of the woman’s quest and the resigned gentleness with which everyone involved makes her dream come true reminded me of the particular languor that I had enjoyed so much in Montevideo. Now I knew I was wrong. It was not languor, it was a tenderness borne out of surviving together.
Perhaps this is why I have found that literature is better at explaining the places I have been to than teaching me about a place I am going to. After you have been somewhere, after you have spent a boring half an hour waiting for a bus in that place, after you have eaten a few subpar meals in that city, it is easier to think clearly about that place, to translate it for yourself. And if you are lucky, back home, a book will fall into your hands, and far away from all the melodrama of travel and its epiphanies and souvenirs and fly-by-night friendships and trains to catch and the pressure to have a bon voyage, the book will tell you what you missed, how wrong you were.
© 2020 by Shahnaz Habib. All rights reserved.
Tomaso Biancardi is coeditor of The Passenger, a new series of travel magazines in Italian and English that publish long-form essays, investigative journalism, literary reportage, and visual narratives in order to tell the story of a country or city and to portray its shifting culture and identity, its public debates, the sensibilities of its people, its burning issues, conflicts, and open wounds. Through the lens of his own move to Istanbul, Biancardi explores the ways—conventional and surprising—in which international literature might make us better travelers.
Six years ago I moved to Istanbul. I had a very vague idea of the place I was to call home. Somehow, Turkey had never previously been in my thoughts, and in no conscious way whatsoever, I had always steered clear of it. My mind was a blank slate, so to speak, and so I was an ideal subject for a natural experiment to investigate the power of literature to shape one’s understanding of a country. Like many first-time visitors to Istanbul, I was spellbound. When I first arrived, I would find a rooftop café and spend all day watching the traffic of ferries, cargo ships, private dinghies, and tourist boats going up and down the Bosporus—the “original History Channel,” as a poster I’d seen in a bar proclaimed—against the skyline of the Old City’s minarets. And then there were the sights, the long queues to get into Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, the Basilica Cistern, the Grand Bazaar, all testifying to a rich, fascinating history. At the Archaeological Museum, I learned about the long list of civilizations that have made Turkey their home: Hittites, Phrygians, Urartians, Lycians, Ionians, Lydians, Persians, Macedonians, Romans, Byzantines, Seljuks, and Ottomans.
Occasionally, when leaving a restaurant after dinner, I would feel the pungent sting of tear gas, a sensory reminder that history had not stopped. The layers kept piling up, one on top of the other. So I started to read. Turkey was (and is) very much in the news—the Gezi Park protests, the repression that followed, and later a string of elections, terrorist attacks, an attempted coup, more repression, more terrorist attacks . . . no, history had definitely not stopped here. It was easy to find long articles trying to explain what was going on: plenty of Turkish writers and journalists had had to move abroad, and the Western media was hungry for their stories. And I was, too. Each new piece I read revealed a new aspect of the country I was living in. First, they helped me understand what I was seeing. Then, almost magically, long-form narratives started showing me what I was not seeing: what was hidden from view, left unsaid, whether intentionally or not, what was not advertised. They filled in the gaps. They made me go out and look for what I’d missed.
Meanwhile, time and work allowing, I was reading novels. Their contribution to my knowledge of Turkey was more nebulous, more indirect, hard to define. They may have been set in the heart of Anatolia, or in the east, near Armenia, or in the mountains along the southern coast. They were stories of love, or banditry, peripheral lives from a forgotten past, utterly different from a modern metropolis like Istanbul. What these novels did, what they are still doing, subtly, slowly, is to break down unconscious barriers erected by language, culture, religion, preconception. They direct my gaze toward commonalities instead of underlining differences. Science tells us that, thanks to so-called mirror neurons, our brains work similarly whether we perform an action ourselves or see that action performed by someone else. We use the same networks when we are reading stories as when we are trying to guess at another person’s feelings. Reading novels shrinks the distance between me and what is around me.
It is one thing, however, to live in a foreign country, with all the time in the world to let mirror neurons do their work, to allow all the knowledge gathered to sink in and then use it to explore and understand; it is another to be on a short holiday, when it is arguable whether these processes are applicable at all. A constant habit of reading international literature—be it in the form of journalism, literary nonfiction, or fiction—can give us a better appreciation of foreign cultures, and the tools to combat stereotypes and clichés. But I would argue that the main beneficiaries of this appreciation are the reader-travelers themselves rather than the cultures at the other end. More practical issues must be considered. In a world of increasing mass tourism, responsible travel means an awareness of the problems of being a tourist in the first place: the environmental stress on major destinations, the rising rents for locals in city centers due to short-term holiday homes, overcrowding at historical and natural monuments. Tourism is of course beneficial to many economies, and many livelihoods depend on it, but overtourism complicates the rosy, romantic picture of responsible international travel as a win-win proposition facilitated by books that brings people and cultures closer together. When we are tourists, constraints of time and money—and the thought that we may never return to this country—play a big role in our decisions and behaviors. No amount of Turkish novels will replace the excitement of entering Hagia Sophia, and yet Hagia Sophia is a fifteen-hundred-year-old building not designed for an influx of over three million people a year. Are we willing to give up visiting the Blue Mosque knowing that it is still very much a place of prayer?
The desire to travel responsibly must come before the desire to learn through literature. First we must decide that we’ll do everything in our power to make sure our trip has a positive net contribution to the place we are visiting. Reading is an indispensable tool for that: not only can reading help us identify the problems and behaviors we should avoid, it can also tell us an infinite number of alternative stories, leading us to that El Dorado of international travel, the place often summed up as “off the beaten path.” After all, if you don’t know where to look or what to look for, chances are you won’t find it.
Incidentally, there is a surer way for international literature to make us better tourists, and I would say that this specific task falls to fiction: imagine picking up a novel in the peace and quiet of your living room, opening the first pages, and, with no air travel or environmental impact whatsoever, being transported to a faraway land . . . Zero-emissions tourism, delivered straight to your home.
© 2020 by Tomaso Biancardi. All rights reserved.
This month, Words Without Borders brings readers a selection of poetry translated from Kurmanji, a Kurdish dialect spoken in Rojava. The autonomous Kurdish region of Syria has been in the news in recent months after the removal of US military units stationed there and Turkey’s subsequent invasion.
Throughout its history, Words Without Borders has advocated for increased access to writing from around the world in English translation. We exist for writers and translators, to provide a venue and a platform for their work and to foster cultural exchange. We strongly believe in the rights of literary artists to work and publish freely, and our decision to publish this selection of writers from Rojava reflects our commitment to ensuring their important art reaches international readers. When one of the poets featured here, Ciwan Qado, released his first book in 2003, it was officially against Syrian law to publish in Kurdish.
Publishing work from a disputed region or language comes with high stakes. Headline-grabbing conflicts in far-flung territories are often framed in US media as either-or propositions; news coverage frequently fails to address the fact that for many writers, acts as simple as publishing in one’s own country, in one’s own language, often present great dangers away from the battlefield. We must at times find appropriate literary responses to current events. We believe in literature’s unique ability to provide us with a diversity of perspectives, and we also believe in challenging our own paradigms through engagement with these writers.
To this end, we have worked with writer, publisher, and translator David Shook to present emerging poets in Rojava who represent a new generation; their ability to publish their work is possible thanks to the recent development of the autonomous Rojava territory. Shook—who currently lives in Iraq—has collaborated on this project with Zêdan Xelef, a Kurdish writer and translator whose own family has been caught up in the territorial disputes involving the Islamic State, the Kurds, and regional nation-states. Important to our decision to feature this writing was the presence of a guest editor in the region who had access to information on the conflict largely unavailable via Western media. Shook’s collaboration with Xelef was likewise crucial, ensuring that someone intimately familiar with the complexity of the Kurdish context was involved in and advising on the project.
WWB has consistently shown a commitment to supporting the right to cultural expression of artists working in disputed territories. In 2014, WWB published its first Kurdish-language feature; in 2015, we published a selection of writing by Palestinian authors; in 2017, WWB published an issue of work from countries riven by internal disputes; and in response to the Easter Day bombings in Sri Lanka in 2019, we published poetry that grappled with the complexity of that event. These are but a few examples.
In deciding to bring this important work to readers of English, we consulted with colleagues engaged in the daily work of protecting writers in similar situations in order to grasp the full magnitude of this decision, particularly as it related to the safety of the featured poets, all of whom were eager to see their work published in English.
As Rojava confronts the uncertainty provoked by Turkey’s recent attacks and Syria’s unwillingness to recognize the autonomy of the region, we are grateful for the opportunity to provide this look at the verse of its poets. Shook’s illuminating introductory essay provides context on Kurdish-language literature and a brief assessment of the oeuvre of each of the three poets presented here.
By the time I moved to South Kurdistan in the late summer of 2018, I had been watching the development of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (NES), commonly known internationally by its Kurdish name, Rojava, for several years. Like many others, I was excited to see how its libertarian socialist government would take shape, and inspired by its publicly declared values of gender equality, environmental sustainability, and pluralism. As a poet and translator, I was eager to learn more about the region’s literature, and soon I met the collaborator who would make that possible.
When Zêdan Xelef and I began translating these poems from Rojava in late spring of this year, we could not have imagined the severity of what would begin unfolding little more than a month ago, when a phone call between President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan resulted in the launch of the euphemistic Operation Peace Spring, a military invasion of the territory of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria. In recent years, organizations from the BBC and the New York Times to the Syrian Observatory on Human Rights have monitored Rojava’s evolution and the unique circumstances of the conflict within Syria that have permitted its creation.
In the midst of this rapidly changing situation, we are presenting three poets from Rojava. Cihan Hesen, Ciwan Nebî, and Ciwan Qado offer a humanizing glimpse into a region so quickly reduced in public forums to political analysis and partisan assertions. It is our hope that these translations showcase the vibrant literary culture that doesn’t reach Western headlines. Because of current events, there does exist a more bellicose and patriotic strain of contemporary poetry from Rojava. While these poems have their place in society, we generally found them to require onerous explanation, to be less grounded in imagery, and, from a literary perspective, to seem less compelling. The poems in this selection do not directly address the politics of Rojava today. They do, however, reflect the passions and preoccupations of its residents, whose history of persecution over the past decades makes the very act of writing in Kurdish a defiance of repression.
As in much of his work, Ciwan Qado’s poems in this selection, especially “[I need to wake up at 3:00 in the morning and go to work],” express a longing to return to the less complicated days of childhood. The setting of Ciwan Nebî’s poem appears to be a war-torn Syria, shots ringing through an abandoned city. It is worth noting that, like the madman of his poem, Nebî himself has remained in Qamishlo. Like Qado's, Cihan Hesen’s poetry is a poetry of longing, whether for a lover or her homeland. In fact, she often links the concept of a homeland to the idea of a lover—a substitutive image that recurs in the work of Kurdish poets Abdulla Pashew and Sherko Bekas, among others. In this sense, these poets’ work belongs to the contemporary Kurdish tradition, which spans several variants that are not mutually intelligible. Pashew and Bekas, for example, write in the Sorani variant used throughout much of the autonomous Kurdish territory of present-day Iraq. Translation into Kurmanji has made their work popular in Rojava and Bakur, as the Kurdish region of present-day Turkey is traditionally known, where shared cultural history and values resonate across linguistic differences. At the same time, these poets’ work engages with the poetry of the wider region, and of greater Syria especially, where two of these three poets pursued their tertiary education. Multilingualism is widespread in Rojava, where many speak Arabic, as well as Turkish, Persian, and other variants of Kurdish, and literary translators, including Zêdan, labor nobly to bring more books into Kurmanji from the languages of the world.
When Qado’s first book, The Blind Snake, came out in 2003, publishing a Kurdish-language book was officially against the law in Syria, where minority populations have long endured intense legal discrimination, including arbitrary revocation of citizenship, prohibitions on property ownership, and even a ban on speaking Kurdish in their own homes. Since official publication was impossible, the popular book circulated in samizdat, passed from reader to reader. By the time Hesen and Nebî had written their first books, Rojava had achieved its de facto autonomy, and they were able to publish their work after an end to the ban on Kurdish-language publications.
The Kurmanji variant of Kurdish—a dialect continuum comprised of at least three major families—is spoken in northern Syria as well as several neighboring and nearby countries, and has fifteen million speakers. Its written literary tradition dates to the seventeenth century, and it has long been a vehicle for the transmission of oral literatures, including the songs and prayers of the Êzîdî. In Rojava, the language uses the Latin script; historically, much early literature was written using the Arabic script, and, among the relatively tiny population of speakers in Armenia, even Cyrillic. Our translation process for these poems was intensive. Following Zêdan’s work to create initial cribs, we labored together over every line, often at a Sulaimani café named for the classical Kurdish poet Nali. Zêdan would often read the original Kurmanji aloud, as I would the English translation, and bringing the poems to life in speech proved an important method for editing our translations and doing our best to replicate the rhythm and pacing of the originals.
It’s important to note that Rojava is not entirely or exclusively Kurdish; we have chosen to use its Kurdish name because of its ubiquity in the international community. The region’s diverse population is about 40 percent Arab, and includes smaller communities of Armenians, Assyrians, Chechens, Dom, and Turkmens, among others, as well as a small but notable population of immigrants from the West. Our initial selection of poems has focused on the emerging poets writing in Kurmanji because it is their work that most engages with the idea of a cohesive cultural identity forged from a combination of Rojava's recent political autonomy and the unique culture its residents aspire to create. While these poets may claim multiple identities, they consider themselves poets from Rojava. It is our hope that in the future we can expand this portfolio to include work written in Arabic, Syriac, and the territory’s other languages.
In Kurdish, rojava means both “sunset” and “west,” and among Kurds in the other three contemporary nation-states with significant populations, the region has often been referred to as West Kurdistan. The word is comprised of two parts—roj, the word for “sun,” and ava, meaning “dwelling.” As Zêdan recently explained, in both a “literal and spiritual sense it means that the sun goes home.” Today, the ambitious, idealistic Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria faces an existential crisis. These poems, meanwhile, display the health and vitality of a literature that has already proved to be a potent medium for self-expression, a grounds for linguistic experimentation, and an important declaration of autonomy itself.
© 2019 by David Shook. All rights reserved.
An abandoned city’s lone inhabitant rages against his surroundings and those who left in this poem by Ciwan Nebî.
Only the madman has stayed behind in the city,
On cold nights
Shots can be heard!
What does he have to fear?
He has no kin,
No kingdom but the city.
He’ll resort to anything!
He calls out to those who have abandoned the city
As if they took what’s left of his mind with them, and all his cigarettes!
He calls out in the rain,
Staring at the void around him,
At the sidewalks,
At the city.
He grabs the nearest umbrella
And falls asleep as if nothing has happened!
© Ciwan Nebî. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by David Shook and Zêdan Xelef. All rights reserved.
[Bitenê dînê bajar li bajar dimîne,]
Bitenê dînê bajar li bajar dimîne,
xwas, di şevên sar, xurxura gulleyan…
Wê li ser çi bitirse?!
Ne zarokek li pey wî,
ne kişwerek ji pêvî bajar,
kêferata ku dike!!
Qîr dike kesên ku bajar bi tenê dihêlin,
weke ku aqilê wî
yê mayî bi xwe re biribin, bêçixare mabe!!
Qîr dike li bin baranan,
li valahiya derdora xwe dinihêre,
sîwana herî nêzîk dibijêre,
û radize weke ku tiştek nebûyî!!
In two poems, Ciwan Qado reflects on relentless poverty and longs for relief from the worries of adult life.
I needed to wake up at 3:00 in the morning to make it to work
I said to myself, you can't go to work—you haven’t slept
Either sleep and don’t go to work
Or don't sleep but still don’t go to work.
I proceeded with caution
Like a marble inching toward the line
I opened my eyes.
The rain drizzled down.
Inside my head, a sound like banging the bowels of a cauldron
A chorus chanting the latest work anthem
My father's callused hands were my quilt.
I received a letter telling me, "You are a child!”
Is this accolade or insult?
I wish I were a child!
And could listen to the crickets chirp
From the foreskin Mohammed severed
And could wet my bed
And raise the soiled sheet as my homeland’s flag!
[My head was near the door.]
My head was near the door.
It was likely nearer to the door than the door itself.
It was as empty as the jerry can.
I owed 2,000 liras in rent for the house
And I had nothing but 12 fennel seeds, the remainder of my breakfast.
The landlord was washing dishes.
The windows of the door were broken.
The feet walking toward the door were broken.
And the mouths that should have given thanks and apologized were broken.
I had nothing but 12 fennel seeds, the remainder of my breakfast.
© Ciwan Qado. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by David Shook and Zêdan Xelef. All rights reserved.
[Divê saet 3.00 yê ber destê sibê şiyar bibim û biçim kar jî.]
Divê saet 3.00 yê ber destê sibê şiyar bibim û biçim kar jî.
min ji xwe re got ma çê nabe tu ranezê û here kar
an razê û yekcar nere kar
an jî ne razê û ne jî here kar
ev a dawî kete serê min
wek xarekê berû xêzê de bigindire.
min çavên xwe vekirin.
çip çipa baranê bû.
hinekan bi çakûçan di hundirê disteke mezin de di orta serê min de lêdixistin.
sirûda kar a nûjen şayik dikirin.
destên bavê min î zivrî henûn lihêfa min bû.
nameyek ji min re hatibû tê de danînî bû ku ez zarok im .
nizanim ev pesin e an serhavde ye?
xweska zarok bama
û li ber dengê çirçirkan
di çermê ku mihemed bi destê xwe carekê jê kiribû
bi ser livînê xwe de min bimîztana, û bela çerçefa ku min bi ser de bimîztana
ala welatê min bana.
[Serê min nêzîkî derî bû.]
Serê min nêzîkî derî bû.
dibe ji derî jî nêzîktir bû.
ew û depoya mazotê wek hev vala bûn.
200 hezar kirêya malê ji min dihate xwestin, û ji pêvî 12 libên reşreşkên ku ji ber penêrê taştê
ma bûn tiştek li ba min tune bû.
xwedîyê malê sênîk dişuştin.
camên derî şikestî bûn.
nigên ku berû derî ve biçin şikestî bûn .
û devên ku diva bû spasdarî û lêborînê jî bixwazin şikestî bûn.
ji pêvî 12 libên reşreşkên ku ji ber penêrê taştê ma bûn tiştek li ba min tune bû.
Loneliness proves insurmountable in this haunting poem by Cihan Hesen.
I speak to
The corpse of a dead poem
I speak to
The skin of the night
I speak to
The bare fingernails of my weak hands
I speak to
The broken mirror in my dark and empty room
I speak to
Your orderly books
I speak to
I speak to
The loneliness of my long shadow
But the hush feeling, silence sullen-faced fate reaches my ears
I too fall silent in the fire of silence
© Cihan Hesen. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by David Shook and Zêdan Xelef. All rights reserved.
[Bi termê helbesteke mirî re]
Bi termê helbesteke mirî re
Bi çermê laşê şevê re
Bi neynokên zuha yên destên xwe yên sist re diaxivim
Bi neyinka şikestî ya odeya xwe ya tarî û vala re dixavim
Bi pirtûkên te yên danehevkirî re
Bi tenêtiyê re diaxivim
Bi tenêtiya bejna siya xwe û te re
Lê huşbûna hîsa bêdengiya narvîna rûtirş tê guhê min
Ez jî di agirê bêdengiyê de bêdeng dibim
In a way, every literary work is a travel story. Readers seek to be transported; authors oblige, serving as guides through unfamiliar territory, charting characters’ journeys through setting and plot. Reading in translation offers enhanced vicarious travel, in that the translator has navigated not only a text but a language, reporting back in the form of a new rendition.
This month we’ve traveled back in time and through our archives to bring you compelling tales of international journeys. Some of the writers here document their own trips, while others invent characters and send them on the road. The destinations here range from Corsican graveyards to Indian train terminals, and the methods of transit from the mundane to the monstrous; but all nine writers map the response to dislocation and the changes it brings.
We open with W. G. Sebald’s “Campo Santo,” a characteristically hybrid work blending memoir, history, and travelogue. In this excerpt from what was planned as a book-length collection on Corsica, the German master clambers through a ruined cemetery and finds his thoughts turning to death and remembrance. Sebald’s untimely death in a car crash lends another mournful layer to his meditation.
Sebald’s lyricism stands in stark contrast to Witold Gombrowicz’s dyspeptic account of his travels in Argentina. Arriving in Argentina for a planned brief visit on the eve of World War II, the great Polish writer was stranded there when Germany invaded Poland; he remained in exile in Argentina for over twenty years. In an excerpt from his Peregrinations in Argentina, the grouchy author swings from annoyance to ennui as he finds fault with the pampas (“nauseatingly boring”), the Andes (“terrifying”), and even Borges (“not very original”); but the biliousness is leavened with wit and Gombrowicz’s singular takes on everything from national character to travel itself.
Peruvian journalist Gabriela Wiener describes quite different South American trips in her account of seeking a true experience with the visionary ayahuasca. Fending off nausea, competitive shamans, and her own skepticism, she treks to the Amazonian jungle in search of enlightenment, tunneling deeper and deeper into both the terrain and her own psyche. Wiener published her first English-language collection, Sexologies, last year.
The trope of the road trip is represented here by the Argentine comic artist Liniers. Liniers, who draws himself as a man-size rabbit, records a car trip through eastern Canada. Unlike Gombrowicz, Liniers and his partner are generally charmed by all they see, and his cheerful account captures both the beauty and kitsch awaiting travelers. Liniers’s daily strip Macanudo made him a star in his native Argentina; it’s now syndicated in the US as well.
Norway’s Laila Stien portrays a group of Sami herders driving their reindeer from Norway’s mountainous northern tundra region to an island located off the country’s northern coast. As they and their animals fight their way through the annual spring migration, the memory of the previous year’s journey hangs over them. At the last leg of the trek, the treacherous terrain behind them and the reindeer needing only to cross the sea to the island, tragedy strikes again. Stien herself made the trip described while preparing to study Sami, contributing to her harrowing story’s documentary feel.
In a tale we can assume is not drawn from experience, Hungary’s György Dragomán introduces a new form of transit. In an unnamed country, a desperate couple put themselves in the hands of an unscrupulous smuggler. He drives them to the border, then announces that they will cross not with him but with other escorts. “Getting across will be a cinch,” he assures them, but this guaranteed passage would appear to be anything but certain.
Subodh Ghosh and Peter Weber both set their stories in the liminal spaces of train travel. In Ghosh’s “The House of Wax,” a divorced couple run into each other in a West Bengal waiting room. “Unprepared and embarrassed, annoyed and irritated; perhaps even a little scared,” they confront the end of their marriage and its aftermath. Like a number of Ghosh’s stories, this portrait of divergent journeys was made into a Bollywood film, and the startling emotions of the former spouses play out in cinematic form. By contrast, Weber’s “Fish Television,” from a collection of tales set in and around train stations, employs surrealistic wordplay and shape-shifting images. Weber has often taken train travel as a subject, drawing on the expectations and conventions of this form of travel while at the same time dismantling its romantic allure.
Finally, Gabriella Ghermandi’s narrator returns to her homeland of Ethiopia seventeen years after emigrating to Italy. She finds her urban rhythm and pace gradually replaced by the languor she left behind, her surrender marked by a symbolic gesture. Ghermandi, an Ethiopian Italian living in Bologna, is also a noted vocalist and musical director.
We hope you’ll enjoy traveling with the writers collected here. And we hope that your new year will include much fruitful exploration of worlds and ways unknown, both on and off the page.