Sunday, November 15, 2009

Translations: and a side note about Mikha'il Nu`aymah

Translations of Arabic literature into Western languages is a big problem in my opinion. The reason why some works are translated and others are not is not due to some literary evaluations but often due to PR efforts by some Middle East writers supported by some big publishing houses or by some embassies or ministries of culture and information. I would clearly say that the translation of Arabic literature does not reflect often Arabic literature. There are Lebanese writers that are so less than mediocre whose works have appeared in many Western languages while the works of `Abbas Mahmud Al-`Aqqad or Taha Husayn or Tawfiq Al-Hakim are not available in English. Look how much Mahfuz is translated and celebrated, and he does not represent--for me at least--the best of Arabic literature of the 20th century. I also believe that the ease of the language is another factor: it is much easier to translate Mahfuz than `Abdur-Rahman Munif, who is a much more sophisticated and adept writer and novelist. Sab`un, the memoirs of Mikha'il Nu`aymah, is in my opinion one of the best works of Arabic literature in the 20th century and is still untranslated into English. (I have written before in this blog about my excitement when I met Na`ymah twice and interviewed him when I was 12, after writing him a fan letter). I encountered that big volume when I was around 9 or 10. My sister won the book as an award for some prize in Arabic literature at her school, College Protestant Francais in Beirut. I could not put it down. I read it at least 5 times since. It was particularly pleasurable to read after I came to the US because Nu`aymah lived in the US early in the 20th century, and I found what he has to say most interesting: especially the fights and conflict between Lebanese Maronites and Lebanese Greek Orthodox. Mu`aymah explained that Lebanese, Syrians, and Palestinians referred to themselves as Syrian, but he makes it clear that the Lebanese felt Lebanese and the Palestinians felt Palestinians, for those who question the origins and history of the Palestinian national identity. I was re-reading some parts of Sab`un at the library yesterday: in volume 3, he introduces the reader to members of his family, including his nephew, Nadim Nu`aymah, who studied Arabic at Cambridge and later became a professor of Arabic at AUB. He showered praise on him and described him as nice, gifted, calm, brilliant, etc. Well, I had Nu`ymah for a course on Arab/Islamic thought as an undergraduate at AUB. It was my last semester. I could not stand him, and could not stand his teaching style. I remember thinking: this is what is to be considered bad teaching. He would have us read aloud a passage from one of the thinkers: Afghani or Abduah, or whatever, and then he would ask: what did the author mean by this. And no matter what you say, it was wrong: you have to guess what Nu`aymah had on his mind. I managed to do well in class, but never spoke. I just wanted that boring semester to be over. One day, he did that: he had one student read a passage aloud, and then asked students what was meant. People raised their hands, and they all were wrong because they did not match the idea that Nadim Nu`ayman had on his mind. Suddenly, he turned to me and said: AbuKhalil. What do you think? I said: Look. I watched you all semester long playing this game. You basically want the students to read your mind, and I refuse to be a mind reader. I don't want to play your game. You want me to guess what you have on your mind, and I refuse. Select another contestant. That was all what I said, almost verbatim. The man lost his mind so bad: he started yelling and screaming at me. I remember that among the things he yelled were: "I can't see you again. I can't stand looking at you in class anymore." He was sweating and spitting as he talked. I had to leave the room, per his request. But I had to graduate. So I saw him afterward and he clearly felt like a schmuck and I noticed that he adjusted his style of teaching a bit, momentarily. What is about me that I had the ability to make some of my teachers go crazy on me: I remember in high school, I once argued with my philosphy teacher, Qaysar `Afif (now, a well-known Arab poet who lives in Mexcioc) about something he said about Karl Marx. Again: he started yelling and screaming, and students from other classes had to come down to see what was going on. It was that loud. But I know what it is: I had an acute case of obnoxious intellectual arrogance (on matters of Arabic literature and politics), which I displayed not only toward other students, but sometimes toward my teachers.