A Physician on the Nile begins as a description of everyday life in Egypt at the turn of the seventh/thirteenth century, before becoming a harrowing account of famine and pestilence. In this interview about the book, the second of a two-part series (read the first part here), translator Tim Mackintosh-Smith sits down with A. J. Naddaff to discuss uncertainty, cannibalism, ghosts, picnic pies, and more.
AJ: I’ve been interrupted — right after we momentarily hung up, a piercing fire alarm went off sending me running down the stairs. It’s just a drill and I should be back in about 10-15 minutes max. I’m so sorry for the inconvenience. This only happens once a year. What timing!
Tim: No problem! It’s all in a day’s interviewing. (Unless it’s a real fire—God forbid.)
The way we are often taught history in the West is that there was the classical period proceeded by a fissure of nothingness and then a renaissance (rebirth) alongside a European scientific revolution. How does ʿAbd al-Laṭīf, perhaps not so dissimilar to other classical Arab polymaths, fit into the flow of history?
ʿAbd al-Laṭīf was part of a continuum that was never really cut off. Among his famous sayings is the one about knowledge passing from nation to nation, from generation to generation, and from land to land. He goes from talking about the pyramids to talking about the Torah, then looks at the Qur’an, and then turns to classical authors. And he sees himself as part of this continuum. You know, if you are going to be Eurocentric, yes, you might look back and think of there being a trough. But of course, there wasn’t as far as he was concerned. Aristotelian scholars went all the way through and had a very rich history. ʿAbd al-Laṭīf thought of himself not only as an Aristotelian but as a kind of primitive Aristotelian who wanted to strip away the Arabic accretions that had been made and get back to the original. So, you know, there’s no point in talking about the Renaissance or rebirth because it really never dies. There’s one of the most famous lines of Latin poetry by Lucretius which goes “like runners they pass on the torch of life.” And I think this is very much how ʿAbd al-Laṭīf saw himself: as a guard of ʿilm—these are the books that are revealed from God—as well as the guardian of all these different canons including the Greeks, the Romans, and the Arabs and those writing in Arabic. (more…)
A Physician on the Nile begins as a description of everyday life in Egypt at the turn of the seventh/thirteenth century, before becoming a harrowing account of famine and pestilence. In this interview, the first of a two-part series, translator Tim Mackintosh-Smith sits down with A. J. Naddaff to discuss the essence of the book, his work as a translator and author, and his experience living in Sanaa, Yemen.
You’ve translated for a long time now, including a previous text titled Two Arabic Travel Books for LAL. Every translator of course remembers the first text they worked on. What was yours?
I’m taken back to Mr. Gillette’s Latin class circa 1971-72. I remember being given a Latin prose—these little paragraphs taken from Caesar that we had to translate into English. And I can remember absolutely loving that. As for Arabic, the first solid translation that came out was “City of Divine and Earthly Joys: The Description of Sanaa” in 2001. It is literally a description of Sanaa in the eighteenth century, a beautiful crystalline description of the city. That piece is still very much alive in my mind because Sanaa is really my home, and I am not there at the moment. (more…)
A Guest Post by Aisha Subhan
A few years ago when I began searching for a topic for my master’s thesis, I explored various subjects and figures in Sufism, as Sufism is my main scholarly (and non-scholarly!) interest. During my search, I stumbled across the works of ʿĀʾishah al-Bāʿūniyyah (d. 923/1517), a female Sufi of Damascus. Thanks to Emil Homerin (1955-2020), who worked tirelessly to provide beautiful and rich translations and a biography of ʿĀʾishah al-Bāʿūniyyah, we are left with a tremendous legacy. In reading these works, I delighted in A’ishah’s poetics of love, her basking in mystical joy, and her feminine version of divine union. Filling a void in my study of Sufism both academically and spiritually, ʿĀʾishah was the female voice and guide that I had been waiting for.
My journey with ʿĀʾishah al-Bāʿūniyyah began with her Principles of Sufism. Intended as a book for spiritual seekers, The Principles of Sufism provides selected quotations from various Sufis, Quranic verses, and Prophetic sayings along with some of ʿĀʾishah’s own divinely inspired writings. As a Sufi-oriented seeker myself, I welcomed the advice and guidance of ʿĀʾishah al-Bāʿūniyyah on my own spiritual path. My spiritual wayfaring and its process mirrored ʿĀʾishah’s core principles: repentance (tawbah), sincerity (ikhlāṣ), remembrance (dhikr), and love (maḥabbah). Through her presentation of these principles, ʿĀʾishah led me on a journey that evoked new reflections, epiphanies, and mystical experiences. (more…)
“What are the animals called in their country”: Science, disenchantment, and world travel in Ḥannā Diyāb’s Book of Travels
In this guest post, Matthew Chovanec explores how The Book of Travels by Ḥannā Diyāb, translated by Elias Muhanna, relates to modern world travel and disenchantment.
Reading old travelogues would be more enjoyable if it wasn’t also a reminder of how thoroughly unenchanted travel has become in the modern world. What Ḥannā Diyāb describes as an epic, year-long journey across an entire continent in his account The Book of Travels can these days be done in four hours on a cheap flight from Paris to Beirut. Rather than hear the source material for some of the most famous tales in the Thousand and One Nights from a native informant as Antoine Galland did from Diyāb, now you can stream the new live-action Aladdin while sitting in economy class. And rather than risk the shipwrecks and lice and deadly winter storms that Diyāb endured on his trip to France, the most bodily harm you are likely to risk nowadays is a crick in the neck from trying to sleep on the plane.
One particular moment in Diyāb’s travelogue shows not only that the world has become unenchanted but also how he himself contributed to this change. Once he arrives in France, Diyāb is granted an audience with King Louis XIV. At the palace in Versailles, he and his travel companion Paul Lucas present a number of curios to the court, including a strange looking rodent with large ears never before seen in Europe. (more…)
We’re looking for writers who are enthusiastic about Arabic literature to contribute to the Library of Arabic Literature blog. We welcome ideas for posts on a variety of topics. Previous blog posts have included reflections on how LAL books fit with a broader theme, such as the Global Middle Ages or disability studies, as well as surprising comparisons (e.g. ‘Antarah and Cardi B). Blog posts should be 800-1200 words long, written in English, and must feature at least one LAL book, preferably (but not necessarily) one published within the last two years. We offer an honorarium of $400 for each post.
Please email your pitch and a short bio to email@example.com, and include the phrase “LAL Blog Pitch” in the subject line of your email. Pitches will be considered on a rolling basis.
The Essence of Reality was written over the course of just three days in 514/1120, by a scholar who was just twenty-four. The text, like its author ʿAyn al-Quḍāt, is remarkable for many reasons, not least of which that it is in all likelihood the earliest philosophical exposition of mysticism in the Islamic intellectual tradition. This important work would go on to exert significant influence on both classical Islamic philosophy and philosophical mysticism and is now available in a new edition and translation by Mohammed Rustom. In this excerpt, the author describes his journey toward mystical knowledge.
Chapter 82: The Annihilation of My Metaphorical Identity
When I got to writing this chapter, the splendor of majestic beginninglessness shone forth: knowledge and intellect became naught, and there remained only the writer, but without himself. Rather, the real identity enveloped me and drowned my metaphorical identity. When the beginningless beauty returned my intellect, knowledge, and self, my tongue began to ring with the words of the poet:
What happened, I will not mention.
Think well, and ask no more! (more…)
Like Aesop’s Fables, Kalīlah and Dimnah: Fables of Virtue and Vice is a collection of stories that offers both moral instruction and entertainment. The stories, which originated in the Sanskrit Panchatantra and Mahabharata, were adapted, augmented, and translated into Arabic by the scholar Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ in the second/eighth century, and here have been translated into English by Michael Fishbein and James E. Montgomery. In this excerpt, we meet the titular characters, who are jackals, and learn of Dimnah’s plan to become an advisor to the king.
…Nearby there lived a lion. As king of that region, he had an entourage of many wild animals: wolves, bears, jackals, foxes, and so forth. He was proud and given to relying only on his own judgment, which was far from perfect. When he heard the ox bellowing—he had never seen an ox or heard one bellow—he grew frightened, but not wanting his soldiers to notice, did not leave his place.
Among the animals in his entourage were two jackals, one named Kalīlah, the other Dimnah. Each was clever and intelligent, but of the two Dimnah was greedier, more ambitious, and less contented. The lion had not yet made their acquaintance. Dimnah asked Kalīlah, “Brother, what do you think is wrong with the lion? Why is he staying put, not stirring or showing his usual liveliness?”
“Why are you asking?” replied Kalīlah. “It’s none of your business. Our situation here is good; here at the king’s gate we find enough to eat. We’re not the sort of people who converse with kings, discuss their affairs, and inquire into unknown matters. Enough of this! Anyone who interferes in things that are none of his business will suffer the same fate as the monkey.”
“And what was that?” asked Dimnah. (more…)
We note with sadness that Humphrey Davies passed away this weekend. He was a gifted translator who had translated more than twenty-five works of Arabic literature. He contributed ten volumes of translations to the Library of Arabic Literature series, of works spanning the thirteenth to nineteenth centuries:
- Leg over Leg by Aḥmad Fāris al-Shidyāq (four volumes)
- Brains Confounded by the Ode of Abū Shādūf Expounded by Yūsuf al-Shirbīnī (two volumes)
- Risible Rhymes by Muḥammad ibn Maḥfūẓ al-Sanhūrī
- In Darfur: An Account of the Sultanate and Its People by Muḥammad al-Tūnisī (two volumes)
- The Book of Charlatans by Jamāl al-Dīn ʿAbd al-Raḥīm al-Jawbarī
Leg over Leg was the first translation that garnered widespread attention for the Library of Arabic Literature series: it received reviews in the New York Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Times Literary Supplement, among other outlets, and was longlisted for the 2014 Best Translated Book Award. Many interviews with him about his work for LAL appear on this blog, including, most recently, “Humphrey Davies and the ‘Tabloid Touch’ Demanded by Translating a 13th-century Charlatan.” The ArabLit article “Celebrating Humphrey: 10 Translations, 11 Interviews” features several more. This week, ArabLit will be opening up a digital memorial space for people to share remembrances, so keep an eye on the ArabLit website for more.
We are forever grateful to Humphrey Davies for his immeasurable contributions to the Library of Arabic Literature. He will be sorely missed.
“Like a séance with the dead”: An excerpt from the translator’s introduction to A Physician on the Nile
In this excerpt from the introduction to A Physician on the Nile, editor-translator Tim Mackintosh-Smith describes an earlier translation of the book (titled The Eastern Key), completed in the 1960s by means of séances with the author ʿAbd al-Laṭīf al-Baghdādī, who died in 1231.
…There is, however, one extraordinary aspect to The Eastern Key, unparalleled in the history of translation and confirming Robert Irwinʼs view that “translation is like a séance with the dead.” For Zand and the Videans, it was literally a séance with the dead.
The West in the early twentieth century had seen a growth in the popularity of spiritualism, the idea that it is possible to communicate with departed souls. The trend accelerated with the Great War, and the resulting massive loss of human life—and of traditional faith. It was around this time that ʿAbd al-Laṭīf became known in spiritualist as well as Orientalist circles; he was even the subject of a book entitled Healing Through the Spirit Agency: by the great Persian [sic] physician Abduhl Latif, “the man of Baghdad”, and information concerning the life hereafter of the deepest interest to all inquirers and students of psychic phenomena. He was—perhaps still is—regarded as “a Universal Master who leads and directs a band of workers on and around the earth.” Here is Ivy E. Videan, in cold print, in her introduction to The Eastern Key:
“Our first meeting with ʿAbd al-Laṫīf was in August, 1957, when he spoke to my husband and to me during a conversation with a sensitive, Mrs. Ray Welch, in London. Since then we have had very many long talks with him, through Mrs. Welch and also through Mr. Jim Hutchings. (more…)
Jamal al-Din ʿAbd al-Raḥim al-Jawbari’s thirteenth-century Book of Charlatans is not only a comprehensive guide to trickery and scams as practiced in that period in Syria and Egypt—with tricks all the way from India and Morocco—but also a delight to read. It’s full of the wiles of false prophets, quacks, prestidigitators, cat burglars, money changers, pedophiles, horse copers, false alchemists, and—worst of all—women:
The author, al-Jawbarī, was well versed in the practices he describes and may well have been a reformed (or unreformed) charlatan himself. Divided into thirty chapters, his book reveals the secrets of everyone from “Those Who Claim to be Prophets” to “Those Who Claim to Have Leprosy” and “Those Who Dye Horses.” Some read like elaborate short stories, raunchier and more sexually daring versions of Arsene Lupin or Sherlock Holmes. Others read like short puzzle mysteries, of the sort that might have appeared in the detective magazines popular in 1940s Cairo.
Translator Humphrey Davies talked with ArabLit editor M Lynx Qualey about trickery and translation.
You really get some of the best projects. How did this one come to you, or how did you come to it? Was there—I hope—trickery involved? (more…)