Entirely Genuine and In No Way Conventional: Muhammad al-Tunisi’s In Darfur

Monday, July 16th, 2018 7:00 am

Humphrey Davies, editor-translator of the recently-published In Darfur: An Account of the Sultanate and Its People, by Muhammad al-Tūnisī, came to the book through another Library of Arabic Literature text: Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq’s Leg over LegDavies, an award-winning translator of some twenty works of modern and classical Arabic literature, is also editor-translator of Leg over Leg, as well as Yusuf al-Shirbini’s strange and fascinating Brains Confounded by the Ode of Abu Shaduf Expounded.

Here, in the second part of a two-part interview, Davies talks with M. Lynx Qualey about the more novelistic aspects of this text: the larger-than-life characters, the relationships between fathers and sons, and the women whose lives are both obscured and illumed by the text.

MLQ: For which audiences do you think this will be of particular interest? Certainly any scholar working on 19th-century Sudanese histories, but who else? I thought food-history scholars would be interested, those interested in the sartorial practices of the region, historians of medicine. The material also felt ripe for a Jurji Zaydan-esque historical novelist. 

HD: It’s its novelistic aspects that, in the end, appeal most to me. True, the book is a mine of information on a little-known but powerful and sophisticated country still living—though not for much longer— the “innocence” of a pre-colonial existence, but I find the account of the political wheelings and dealings, the hard-fought military campaigns, and the larger-than-life figures that dominate the historical overview given in the first half very compelling. They have the raw energy of the stories that Shakespeare took as material for many of his historical plays and tragedies. Shaykh-Father Muhammad Kurra, perhaps the most important political figure in the kingdom in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century and one whom the author met, was accused when a young man of dallying with one of the sultan’s slave girls. He went into a room, cut off his genitals, and presented them to the sultan. “Then,” the author notes, “he fainted.” What would not the Bard have done with that?!

MLQ: Well, perhaps some new bard will yet take it on…

How important is this as a historical source? What can we learn from his errors, from what he gets wrong about Darfur?

HD: Al-Tūnisī was the only Arab and Muslim to reside in and write an account of the Sultanate of Darfur. The only others to do so were W.G. Browne (several decades before al-Tūnisī), a grumpy Englishman who didn’t want to be there anyway, and the German doctor Gustav Nachtigal, an insightful and sympathetic observer, who was there on the eve of the invasion and occupation of the country by Egypt in 1874. Al-Tūnisī’s much longer stay, most of which was spent on his father’s estates outside the capital, and his position as the son of a man of learning (visiting shaykhs were honored by the sultans, who saw them as lending prestige to their rule) gave him access to areas of life, and indeed of the country, that Browne and Nachtigal didn’t have. True, he himself sometimes says (as when speaking of human sacrifice and the possible use of a boy and a girl as ingredients in a ragout served at an annual sultanic loyalty jamboree) that there were things Darfurians wouldn’t talk about even with him. But his inquiring mind and youthful enthusiasm (he was 14 when he set off, 22 when he returned) to get out there “and see” (as he puts it) took him far, even to the dreaded cave-prisons of Jabal Marrah, reserved for rebellious princes and courtiers, and to the people of that mountain, who had red teeth and eyes and thought he was a delicacy sent them by the sultan. More sober historians may find nits to pick but given that he is an almost unique witness, I can’t see that those would be many.

MLQ: One of the most emotionally interesting parts of the narrative is the relationships between fathers and sons. The narrative contrasts the cold, indifferent al-Tūnisī father and grandfather with a warm and apparently loving youngest paternal uncle. What genre traditions is he drawing on, besides rihlah literature, in deciding what parts of his life and journey to include and exclude?

HD: The nonchalance with which fathers treat sons in the book is amazing. Two months after the author finally makes it to Darfur and is reunited with his father, whom he hasn’t seen for years, the father abandons him again! Perhaps the explanation lies in the fact that they were long-distance merchants, whose business trips could take them thousands of miles and keep them away for decades, making them emotionally thick-skinned. The sadness and even bitterness this engendered in the author, however, is palpable, even though he speaks of his father with respect and with pride in his claimed scholarly achievements. I am no expert, unfortunately, in the wider field of rihlah literature, and there is a fast-growing body of literature on the expression of emotion in older Arabic works in general, on which I am also no expert. I can only say that the expression of emotion, limited though it may be to a few passages, strikes my ear as entirely genuine and in no way conventional.

MLQ:  It’s also hard for me to reconcile how he talks about Iya Kuri Kinanah or Um Habib (as fully rendered humans) with how women appear in Vol. 2, where “women are at the root of every disaster that occurs” and they are largely stereotypes. What stylistic and tonal differences did you find between the more personal stories in Vol. 1 and the generalizations of Vol 2?

HD: The author often speaks negatively about women, it is true, and not only when generalizing—there is for example the anecdote about the sex-crazed mother of Sultan Muhammad Fadl, who forced herself on one of the author’s friends—but he was by no means alone in this. Few books of this period that I’ve read (Leg Over Leg is the massive exception) make it to the end without taking a sideswipe at the mischief caused by women (and eunuchs, and people of low origin, etc.). It’s part of the cultural landscape. Perhaps more interesting, then, is the fact that al-Tūnisī does acknowledge and seems to respect historical female figures who made a mark. More generally, I think the difference between the two volumes lies more in the purposes of each. The first volume sets the scene by describing the author’s family situation, his journey along the Forty Days’ Road to Darfur, and the political dramas (the wars of succession, the invasion of Kordofan, the attempted power grab—if such it was—by the eunuch Muhammad Kurra) that provided the backdrop to his stay. The second is a systematic description of the country covering governance, clothing, marriage, health, food, animals, flora and fauna, currency, trade, magic, and more.

Needless to say, the second part is more schematic, but it remains very much a personal account. He’s describing personal spirit guardians? He tells of the unintended and unfortunate consequences that befell a friend who acquired one. Plants? He recounts how a Fur woman cured him with a certain weed after chili pepper had blown into his eye. Etc. His personal experience informs and enriches the material.

Drawing of a bird trap from In Darfur

MLQ: Al-Tūnisī’s drawings are remarkable; even if not completely accurate, to have remembered so much thirty-some years later is stunning. He also seems to remember local languages quite well three decades on. Do we have any sense of whether he kept a journal at the time, or whether this was all drawn from his memory three decades later? Or would he have asked others who’d traveled more recently to Darfur to shore up his knowledge?

HD: I agree, it was a remarkable feat to recall after all that time how a bird-trap, for example, was set up, or where all the different tribal territories fell on the map of Darfur, or the layout of the sultan’s compound, including just where the house of Maternal Uncle Fazārah (a character who doesn’t even figure in the text) was located and where the girls who ground flour sat. Even more remarkable is his reproduction of phrases, conversations, and even whole songs in Fur. Modern informants, it is true, sometimes had difficulty in understanding these, but that could just as well be due to changes in the language as to a faulty memory. He says nothing about a diary but does mention that when in Cairo later, he met and talked with a man from Takrur (here referring to Bagirmi, a sometime state southeast of Lake Chad) and that he was visited there by the chief judge of Wadai, where al-Tūnisī also lived briefly. That visit took place around 1840, i.e., more than thirty years after he had left, so it seems he kept up contact with people from the region. Perhaps he consulted them when writing his book.

MLQ: What were the challenges of putting this together—the editing, the translating, the research into Darfur in the early nineteenth century?

HD: All of the above (as with any book). The language, as mentioned, is unusual (though unlike most Arabic dialects, Sudanese does have a serious dictionary, by Awn al-Sharif Qasim, which was helpful), the editing issue being then how much of that roughness to retain and how much to correct. I took the approach that the text should be left unchanged so long as it was comprehensible; it will read, therefore, less smoothly that the excellent edition made by Egyptian scholars Khalil Mahmud Asakir and Mustafa Muhammad Musaad in 1965.

The translating likewise required the preservation of a degree of orality that would fit with the language. And the material was, indeed, arcane and in need of research in many aspects. Fortunately, I had the support of Rex Sean O’Fahey, the doyen of historians of Darfur, both through his works on the subject, which are fundamental, and his availability for Skype conversations.

MLQ: What are you most curious about, about the composition and process of creating the book? If you could conjure up Perron and al-Tūnisī, what would you ask them about it?

HD: I’d ask al-Tūnisī how he found Perron as a student and Perron how he found al-Tūnisī as a teacher.


Crossing Cultures: A Nineteenth-Century Egyptian’s Story of Darfur

Monday, July 9th, 2018 7:00 am

Humphrey Davies, editor-translator of the recently-published In Darfur: An Account of the Sultanate and Its People, by Muhammad al-Tūnisī, came to the book through another Library of Arabic Literature text: Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq’s Leg over Leg. Davies, an award-winning translator of some twenty works of modern and classical Arabic literature, is also editor-translator of Leg over Leg, as well as Yusuf al-Shirbini’s strange and fascinating Brains Confounded by the Ode of Abu Shaduf Expounded.

Here, in the first part of a two-part interview, Davies talks with M. Lynx Qualey about how this text came to be—born, in 1850, of a relationship between a Frenchman and an Egyptian—the relationship between the text’s two genitors, and the difference between the Arabic edition and the French translation.

M Lynx Qualey: I assume you first heard of In Darfur from Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq. When did you first read it, and what brought you to the decision to translate it?

Humphrey Davies: Yes. Al-Shidyaq criticizes it in the addendum to his Leg Over Leg in which he goes postal against French Arabists because one of them (a Ukrainian, in fact) makes the ill-judged claim that the latter could teach the scholars of the East a thing or two about their own literatures and languages. Al-Shidyaq’s outburst is a kind of first blast of the mizmar against the monstrous regiment of orientalists, and he holds Nicolas Perron—a Frenchman who was the instigator, producer (in the most literal sense: he wrote it out in a lithographic edition) and in some sense editor of the book—responsible for the canards in its spelling and grammar, of which he cites a representative but by no means exhaustive list of twenty-seven. One can hardly blame al-Shidyaq, but he fails to recognize the special circumstances of the book’s creation (see below) and that Perron did not work in a spirit of arrogant criticism. On the contrary, he speaks of the book as though it were an act of homage to “his shaykh,” as he calls him.

My desire to translate In Darfur was probably triggered by the diversity signaled in the book’s subtitle, In the Land of the Arabs and the Blacks. Today, when many parts of the world, including the Arab countries, are undergoing a return to nativism and rejection of the other, how interesting to read of a state that was extraordinarily multicultural and that survived for 300 hundred years before falling to colonial conquest, not internal contradiction. The sultans of Darfur were Fur and Muslim, their subjects a medley of different groups with a variety of languages, religions, and self-identifications (the Fullani or Peul, for example, who don’t speak Arabic, regarded themselves as Arabs and traced their origin to an Omayyad general); the sultan held court with seven interpreters between him and the people (a bare minimum, as even today more than a hundred languages are said to be spoken in Darfur). Fur culture has a vivid presence within this Arabic text: words, phrases and song in the language of the Fur are transcribed by the author, sometimes without translation. The sheer exoticism of the state and its customs also caught my fancy: dull would s/he be of soul who could resist a country where one of the chief officers of state bore the title of the Sultan’s Buttocks (his military formation brought up the rear when the army was on the march) and where the court jester was also “the Keeper of the Sultan’s Anger,” i.e., was the executioner. Finally, this is the product of a most unusual cultural collaboration, between two savants, one Arab, one French, at a moment of convergence that preceded much of the angst that would follow with the spread of colonialism in Africa.

MLQ: How much do we know about how the work was composed (and why), about the power relationships involved, and how much is speculation?

HD: Perron describes their collaboration as follows: “I was taking Arabic lessons…from Shaykh Muḥammad al-Tūnisī]. He spoke to me of his journeys to Sudan…. I begged him to write them down…and the reading of his book served thereafter for my Arabic lessons…. I gathered everything together with my own hands and made a correct copy, which I then reread with the shaykh. I left the form and ordering of his tales, as I did his judgments, entirely to him.”

I deduce from this that the shaykh wrote down material that he then dictated to Perron as an exercise and which they probably then discussed and which the shaykh would have elaborated on, with Perron taking notes. The fact that Perron’s notes were the product of an oral process would partly explain the colloquialisms and the generally rough-hewn style; the fact that Perron was a student and not a native speaker would explain the rest. Perron then organized and perhaps rewrote his notes and had the shaykh review and sign off on them. The process would have been close in essence to that followed at teaching institutions such as al-Azhar, where a student would read a text with either its author or a qualified scholar with the aim of receiving the latter’s license to teach it himself. However, while Perron was the shaykh’s student, he was also his superior, first as a member of the teaching staff of the Medical School where they both worked and later as its director. This may well have inhibited the shaykh from being too rigorous in his corrections and thence to the perpetuation of the mistakes that al-Shidyāq would later condemn (al-Tūnisī edited for the Bulaq Press texts as difficult as al-Ḥarīrī’s Maqāmāt; al-Shidyaq was right: he wouldn’t have committed these solecisms himself). In a further divergence from tradition, the goal (from Perron’s perspective, at least) would have been to clarify and enlarge on the author’s original notes, in collaboration with the latter, rather than to reproduce them faithfully.

MLQ: So Perron was certainly an active player in the creation of In Darfur, and not just a transcriber. How do you characterize his relationship to the text, and to what extent might he have shaped its creation?

HD: Perron describes himself in his foreword to his translation, Voyage au Darfour, as having “instigated, pursued, and brought about this production in written form” and that seems justified. He did, after all, ask al-Tūnisī to write it and then copied it out for publication; without him it would not have seen the light. On a deeper level, one might wonder how much the author’s having been embedded in a western scientific institution, and his work, with Perron and others, on its intellectual products, may have influenced his approach to its composition. Perron states (see above) that he left both the form and the “judgments” of the book as the author expressed them. This claim is bolstered by the fact, for example, that he records the author’s bald statement that “rarely…is a chaste woman to be found among the Blacks” even though he clearly felt uncomfortable with it: in his translation, we find instead at this point a paean to the purity of Arab women.

The author’s approach in the second part of the work (“the Book Proper”), in which he describes “Darfur and Its People [and] Their Customs,” has the ring, to me at least, of a European ethnographic work of the time, though humanized by the many personal anecdotes with which the author illustrates his text.

MLQ: How do you imagine the audience of the original text? Why do you think he would’ve made a point, in the preamble, of this being an easy read? 

HD: Only around a hundred copies of the original lithograph were produced, so Perron, at least, does not seem to have regarded an Arab readership as his main target. In contrast, the French translation went into 20 editions and an English translation (abridged and covering both this and Perron’s translation of the author’s work on Wadai, which has never been found in Arabic) appeared almost immediately, in 1854. The Arabic was used in Paris for teaching Arabic (again): al-Shidyāq observed it being taught (and mangled, naturally) by the leading French Arabist Armand-Pierre Caussin de Perceval, probably at the Institut national des langues et civilisations orientales. The possibility of it being adopted in such schools may have lain behind Perron’s desire to see the book in print. The intended market cannot, however, have been exclusively European: even though the number of copies was so small, it included two different versions, one, with some material in French, presumably for the European market, another, without any French, presumably for the Arab market.

Al-Tūnisī’s assertion that he has “spared no effort to make it clear, and not gone diving after arcane words” may be pre-emptive, in that he knew that the style used with a foreign student in mind might seem less elegantly literary than critics would have liked, though he does display his erudition early on with a volley of puzzle-poems.

MLQ: How would al-Shidyaq have come across it? Would he have originally come across the Arabic or discovered it through the French?

HD: Al-Shidyaq seems to have observed Caussin de Perceval teaching it in Paris, as mentioned. This may have been when he first became aware of the book, though it’s also possible that he saw it at the offices of the printer who prepared both al-Tūnisī’s work and his own Leg Over Leg. He makes no reference to the French translation, so I doubt if he knew of it.

MLQ: This book (and Voyage au Ouadây) seem to have advanced Perron’s career and repute. Did they change anything for al-Tūnisī?

HD: We know little of al-Tūnisī’s later life, beyond the fact that he prepared editions of the Arabic classics for the Bulaq Press, which implies recognition of his philological skills, and that, at the end of his life, he gave lessons at the mosque of Sayyidah Zaynab, which implies recognition of his piety and standing in the community.

MLQ: What do you think are the most significant differences between the French and the Arabic versions? The one you mention, about the chastity of women?

HD: I haven’t read the translation from beginning to end, but the greatest difference, it seems to me, are not the odd complete divergence from the original, as in his dealing with the author’s comment on “the women of the Blacks,” but Perron’s anxiousness to ensure that his French audience understood the material, manifested in his frequent use of the French translation to gloss rather than simply translate the Arabic. This is in addition to the extensive notes and appendices in which he provides additional explanations and expatiations that were often, as he underlines, taken directly from the shaykh.

Save the Date: Panel Discussion on Translation in NYC

Tuesday, July 3rd, 2018 10:03 am

On Monday, September 24th, in New York City, LAL will host “Future Humanities: Translating World Literatures,” a public conversation on the stakes, challenges, and rewards of editing and translating premodern texts from the world’s great literary traditions.

Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Vice President Mariët Westermann will moderate a panel of general editors from six groundbreaking publishing projects that specialize in facing-page translations. Topics of discussion will include the parameters and methodologies for establishing parallel-text translation series in Arabic, Chinese, Greek, Latin, Old English, and Sanskrit and other Indian languages.

“Future Humanities: Translating World Literatures” is free and open to the public, and is organized in collaboration with NYU Press and the NYU Abu Dhabi Institute. For more information and to register, click here.

War Songs Featured in The Paris Review and Seedings

Monday, June 4th, 2018 2:42 pm

It has been an exciting week for War Songs! Selected poems from the book recently appeared in the latest issues of both Seedings and The Paris Review

War Songs, translated by James E. Montgomery with Richard Sieburth, is a collection of poetry by the renowned pre-Islamic warrior-poet ‘Antarah ibn Shaddad. ‘Antarah’s voice resonates in War Songs, for the first time in vibrant, contemporary English, intoning its eternal truths: commitment to one’s beliefs, loyalty to kith and kin, and fidelity in love.

War Songs will be published in October 2018. Until then, we hope you enjoy the excerpts in The Paris Review and Seedings!



In Darfur: Muḥammad al-Tūnisī Begins His Journey [excerpt]

Tuesday, May 8th, 2018 9:55 am

In this excerpt from In Darfur, translated by Humphrey Davies, Muḥammad al-Tūnisī recounts how, at age 14, he decided to travel from Cairo to Darfur in search of his father. The uncle who had been caring for him leaves Cairo on pilgrimage, and al-Tūnisī finds himself alone and penniless:

Image credit: “Drawing of the old Egyptian capital, Fostat, aka Fustat, aka Misr.” Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

My uncle therefore went to the Hejaz, leaving me in Cairo to continue my studies at al-Azhar with enough money to last four months, but he stayed there longer than that. I ran out of money and could accomplish nothing—I was in the prime of my youth at the time—and found myself at a loss, not knowing what to do and scorning the idea of abandoning my studies and learning a craft. While thus at a loss and surviving in straitened circumstances due to my lack of wherewithal, I heard that a caravan had arrived from the Land of the Blacks, from Darfur—for which, we had heard earlier, my father had left Sinnār, accompanied by his brother. When the caravan had settled itself at the Caravanserai of the Jallābah, I went there to ask after my father, to find out if he was still alive and might yet arrive, or had been placed in the bare-walled vault on his demise. By coincidence, I came across a man—elderly, imposing, and dignified—called Sayyid Aḥmad Badawī, who was with the caravan. I kissed his hand and stood before him for a while, until he asked me gently, “What do you want?” I replied, “I’m looking for a man I know who has disappeared into your country. Perhaps one of you knows him and can guide me to him.” “Who is he?” he asked, “and what is his name?” “His name is Sayyid ʿUmar al-Tūnisī, and he is a man of learning,” I replied. “It so happens that you’ve come upon one who knows him well!” he said. “He is my friend and no one knows him better than I. I see a resemblance in you to him. I think you must be his son.” “I am,” I answered, “though my outward appearance is changed, my inner self deranged.” “Then what prevents you, dear boy,” he next asked, “from setting off to seek your father and finding, when you meet him, joy?” “Lack of means,” I replied, “and of provisions and the necessary gear.” “Your father,” said the man, “is regarded by the sultan as a very great man and is among those to whom he is most generous, more than any other at his court. Should you wish to go to him, I’ll take care of your provisions, your mount, and your comfort till you reach him and stand before him.” “Do you really mean that?” I asked him. “By the life of the Messenger, I do!” he replied. “Your father once did me a favor I could never repay were I to spend all that I own, every penny I possess.” “I am your obedient servant,” I said, “and will follow you in everything.” I therefore made a pact with him to that effect, and gave him my word then and there, and took to visiting him often until he was ready and told me, “Tomorrow we leave. Spend the night with us, if you like, so we can make an early start!” to which I replied, “That will I do, with all my heart!”

I spent the night at his lodgings in the most luxurious and comfortable of circumstances and best and happiest of states till morning came and the air was suffused with light. We rose for the prescribed prayer and performed it, and uncovered the camel litters and brought them out. Then the camels were brought and the loads put on them so that before the sun’s disk could peep above the horizon, the loading was done and the golden-white camels had set off at an easy stride, which they kept up until they were kneeled at al-Fusṭāṭ, on the banks of the Nile, and the men set about loading them onto the boat, till all were on board. Then we waited till we’d performed our Friday prayers behind the imam, and went on board, having bade Cairo salaam.

LAL on Tour: Catch Us in Beirut or at the ADIBF

Tuesday, April 17th, 2018 10:48 am

We’re excited to be attending the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair (April 25-May 1, 2018) again this year! If you’re in Abu Dhabi, please come visit our stand (#11C48) and take a look at our growing list of books, which we’ll be selling throughout the Fair. We’d love to see you!

Also of note, LAL Editorial Director Chip Rossetti will be in Beirut on April 19th to give a talk at the American University of Beirut–more details about the event can be found here.


“Arabic Translation Comes of Age”: An Interview with Al-Ahram Weekly

Wednesday, April 11th, 2018 1:32 pm

Al-Ahram Weekly recently published an in-depth interview with LAL editors Philip Kennedy, James Montgomery, Shawkat Toorawa, and Chip Rossetti. In conversation with David Tresilian, the editors discuss their vision for the Library of Arabic Literature, how they choose which books to publish, and plans for the future of the series.

Read the full interview here.



New Documentary on Hmedan al-Shwe’ir

Monday, March 19th, 2018 11:05 am

A new Al-Arabiya documentary on the poetry of Hmedan al-Shwe’ir features LAL’s own Marcel Kurpershoek as presenter. Marcel Kurpershoek is the editor and translator of Arabian Satire, which is a collection of the poetry of Hmedan al-Shwe’ir, as well as the forthcoming Arabian Romantic (November 2018).

The documentary features lively recitations of Hmedan’s poems, as well as interviews with local experts and poetry enthusiasts. Filmed in Saudi Arabia, the 24-minute documentary is well worth watching: click here to view the program on YouTube.

“On the Move”: Humphrey Davies on Arabic Travel Writing in The National

Thursday, March 1st, 2018 11:22 am

In DarfurSenior LAL Fellow Humphrey Davies was featured in The National on February 28th discussing his favorite Arab travel writers. Davies is the translator of the four-volume Leg Over Leg, by Ahmed Faris al-Shidyaq, which describes the protagonist’s travels through Lebanon, Egypt, Malta, Tunis, England, and France. He has also translated In Darfur by Muhammad al-Tunisi, which combines travel adventure with literature, history, ethnography, and linguistics, and which will be published by the Library of Arabic Literature in May 2018.

Read more about Davies’s choices and what makes these travel writers so remarkable in the full article here!


Coaxing the Lizard Out of His Burrow: Marcel Kurpershoek on Hmedan al-Shwe’ir and Najdi Poetry Before Wahhabism

Wednesday, December 13th, 2017 7:30 am

Marcel Kurpershoek, editor-translator of Hmedan al-Shweʿir’s Arabian Satire: Poetry from 18th Century Najd, first became acquainted with Nabati poetry in the 1980s, while working as a diplomat in Saudi Arabia, and soon was drawn to the diwan of Hmedan, “maybe the No. 1 poet” in the Nabati tradition. Kurpershoek, currently a senior research fellow at New York University Abu Dhabi, is a specialist in the oral traditions and poetry of Arabia and has written the five-volume Oral Poetry and Narratives from Central Arabia (1994-2005).

In a talk over Skype, Kurpershoek and M. Lynx Qualey discussed the critical importance of this little-translated poetry. In this second part of their discussion, Kurpoershoek talks about the available manuscripts, the ways in which the print editions of Hmedan’s work were censored, the Golden Age of Nabati poetry, and more.

In the introduction to Arabian Satire, you note that you used 10 manuscripts. Does that represent what is currently available? Do we have any idea of how might have been purposefully destroyed by the Ikhwan of the Wahhabi movement?

MK: As far as I know, ten is what’s currently available. If I had known about more, I would also have used them.

There could be more. A lot of these kinds of manuscripts are held in private collection, even by princes of the Saud dynasty, but you don’t know if they’re there. They’re not publicly accessible.

On the other hand, some of these manuscripts are accessible on the internet. You have the website, for instance, of Saad Sowayan: www.saadsowayan.com.

Are there stories behind any of these manuscripts?

MK: The oldest manuscript—I discovered it.

Where did you find it?

MK: It was in France, in Strasbourg. One of the Arabian travelers, he brought it from a trip to Arabia in 1880.

It created a sensation in Saudi Arabia when they found out about it, so I got a copy from France for Leiden University in Holland, and they allowed me to take a microfilm copy to Saad Sowayan.

I also gave a copy to the owner of the bookstore, Qays Library, a learned man, Muhammad Hamdan, who helped me a lot with getting the books and copies I needed, and who also published a diwan of Hmedan’s poetry. In the introduction, he mentions how he got a copy of the French manuscript from me and used it. It is called the Huber manuscript, after the French traveler Charles Huber who bought in in the 1880’s. Huber was murdered in the desert by his guide, and people still mention it with shame. Hamdan was from a town that bordered the one Hmedan insulted, and he did not like that and said the poem was not authentic. But he took me to Hmedan’s town and the town of his asylum. He didn’t blame Hmedan for the poem, but instead the people who smuggled in these nasty verses – it always goes like that.

Among the printed copies, you note in your introduction, some of the sections of Hmedan’s poetry have been redacted. Yet this is not true of the manuscripts. Was it something about the shift to print, rather than a shift in time, that made compilers and editors remove parts of Hmedan’s work and replace them with ellipses?

MK: That shows you how current these poems are. If you publish something in America which is 300 years old, people wouldn’t care. But here they care, because all these towns are still there, and with many of the same families.

In the published edition, there are many ellipses in the poem which is, in the LAL book, on page 47.

This is when he returned from Iraq, and he talks about all these towns. Most of the families he mentions in the poem are still there, because these are old families, and you have this tremendous continuity. So even if you were to publish this poem today—which says that half of the people in this town are sissies, and the others of them are pansies—they would feel terribly insulted. Even though everyone knows that these words are in the manuscripts, and everyone knows these verses.

If you publish it, it’s different. It’s like it’s being said about them with the permission of the government. Because nothing is published there without the permission of the government. So, if it’s published, it kind of means that the government agrees this is true.

What about the poem that’s No. 19 in your collection, that begins: “Our plowmen labored in the fields / while he was distracted by little Sarah”? The one that describes sex between his son and daughter-in-law?

MK: The sexual scenes are considered less sensitive than what they say about families and tribes and towns, because he’s basically just talking about himself and his family.

The sexual as such is not as sensitive. There, it’s more what it means for people’s honor and status in society. If someone likes to make a fool of himself, they don’t care.

There are some ellipses in that poem, but much less than in the poem about the characterization of various towns and families.

I’d like to talk about his wide, varied, and vivid focus on anthropomorphized animal lives. Was it common to Najdi poetry or was it something of Hmedan’s own innovation? What does it tell us about the people and animals of the time?

MK: These poems are all emblematic, and they symbolize certain traits in men. Animals are taken as images of men, and we have a range from despicable birds that peck in the gutter compared to falcons. Or from a cow, which was a despised animal, to a camel, a symbol of all the important things in life.

What I like best is the poem about the spiny-tailed lizard, called a dabb. He tells it as an animal parable, because this is an animal that’s admired for its toughness. It’s very hard to kill it. Even if you put it in a cooking pot, it keeps on swimming in the boiling water. It’s very hard to stop its heart beating. And it lives in a burrow, which is a metaphor for the Najdi towns, where people can ensconce themselves against the enemy.

This poem-parable was about how to coax the dabb out of his burrow. As long as he’s in the burrow, you can’t get him. And it’s done by telling him: There is so much to eat, in this case swarms of locusts on the ground, as that’s what the dabb considers a delicacy.

This is all a moral tale. It points to how people are defeated by their greed.

So animals are used as a moral tale. But the poems also tell you something, nevertheless, about the animals, and how they are seen, and their lives. They play quite a role there.

In the history of Nabati poetry, from thirteenth c. to now, what sort of period did Hmedan compose in? Was it a golden age of Nabati poetry? Did Nabati have a “golden age”?

MK: We can speak about classical Nabati poetry, because I’m not talking about what you have today, the Millions Poets competition.

My research into this poetry still includes the first age of cars and airplanes. In the classical tradition, they would just replace the camel rider and messenger with someone driving a car or in an airplane. But there must be still something of the desert environment in it. My research stops somewhere around the year 2000 or so.

If you look at that period, I would say the time of Hmedan was part of a Golden Age. But when the Wahhabi movement started, it became less so, because they were against this kind of secular poetry, and against smoking, and against singing.

At first, the Wahhabis were not that strong, and then they were destroyed by the Egyptian army of Muhammad Ali. Then they continued, but much weaker. They only came back in 1902, when the father of the present king re-conquered Riyadh, and then he started to rebuild the Saudi-Wahhabi state.

At that time, you had the Ikhwan, and I heard so many stories of families whose manuscripts they burned, or- the families burned the manuscripts themselves because in many families at least some joined the movement. I even met people who had seen it. At the time I was ther

e, thirty years ago, I met people who were 90 years old, and they had seen it happen.

That was a clear sign that the tradition was in danger, and had to go underground. The man I’m translating now, Ibn Subayyil, he died in 1933. I think the last decades of his life, he practically did not compose any poetry. At least none we know of.

I think all of the nineteenth century, but especially the time of the Ibn Rashid’s court in Ha’il, was a lively time for poetry. Ibn Rashid was very much like the kings of old, who surrounded themselves with these poets for a purpose. You can see from the travelers’ accounts that Ibn Rashid was Wahhabi in theory, and to some extent in practice, but he definitely used tribes and poets as part of his politics and image-building.

So the 19th century is really the Golden Age for me.

What were some of the main translation challenges as you brought Hmedan’s diwan into English? Did you consider, at any point, end rhyme?

MK: My English is not good enough for that, I think, and I never considered doing rhyme. Also, I’m afraid I would’ve had to sacrifice too much of the content and precision. A lot of these things are not well-known in our culture, so you need a few more words to explain what it’s about.

In Nabati poetry, rhyme is an intrinsic feature, but I don’t think that means we have to emulate that. I think the idea is more to find ways to get the man and his poetry across.

Were there particular difficulties or challenges in translating these 34 poems?

MK: There are always obscurities in this old poetry. You do the reading you can, and still things remain obscure. So then you ask people who still live in the environment for informatio

n. Then you narrow it down to a few issues. After all this, a few points have remained obscure.

In the longer poems, and the more political poems, most of the problems arise through the 

process of transmission. At some point, these poems were written down, but we don’t know when. The manuscripts we have were copied from earlier manuscripts. Maybe with some oral input, we don’t know.

But we don’t know anything about the transmission process—up to the time when we got the first manuscript.

And if they are long and complicated poems about events that are obscure even 100 years later, then things can get mixed up. Poems with the same meter and rhyme can be easily confused. Parts of one poem migrate to another poem. Another thing is the order of verses, especially in the case of long poems.

I had to compare the 10 manuscripts. And then you just have to make your choices.

For instance, there is one poem that mentions two people who could not have possibly lived in the same time. He couldn’t have possibly meant Abdallah in this poem. There is one manuscript that gives the name Muhammad. I chose this manuscript, because that made more sense in the chronology. If nine manuscripts have it one way, that doesn’t mean the tenth is wrong. You have to compare it to the chronicles.

Abdallah might have been added because he was more well-known than Muhammad.

This also happened to poets. If one poet is more famous than the others, sometimes poems from the less-famous poet are ascribed to a more-famous poet. We can never forget that the classical poetry we have now is the same, and it originated in the same way. Some of these poems were written down for the first time 200 years after they were composed.

These are the sorts of things we can learn by working on more recent poems.

My favorite character is Sarah, who he also calls Sweera. She takes on such a key part in this diwan. Are there other such vivid female characters in Nabati poetry?

MK: I don’t know if you could call her a character, it’s more of a caricature. Through this diwan, he gives all kinds of messages about how to behave. I call his diwan a survival manual. Because he says, about Sarah or Sweera, that the way she behaves doesn’t contribute to the life of the community. She’s a drag on others, she’s egoistical, she’s not baking bread at night. She’s a luxury doll.

His poetry represents something we can hardly imagine now with Saudi’s oil wells and billions, and that’s a very austere, a very frugal society. Early Wahhabism doesn’t come from there for nothing. At any moment, you can have a drought that kills eighty percent of the population.

It’s very poor. And the life is very hard. So they have this kind of tough, sarcastic, no-nonsense mentality, where they’re suspicious of other people’s motives, and there’s constant war. It was a Hobbesian environment, and he tells people how to survive in that environment.

And yet it’s not black or white—it reflects life in a way people still recognize today.