Book of the month: Sonia Nimr

Full disclosure: I had quite a different title lined up as my final book of the month of 2020. I was going to write a glowing response to the startling and compelling It Would Be Night in Caracas by Venezuelan author-journalist Karina Sainz Borgo, brought into English by Elizabeth Bryer. That book, with its chilling depiction of a society in freefall from a country with relatively little literature available in the world’s most published language, would have been an extremely worthy addition to my list.

But with so much darkness and uncertainty threatening so many at the moment, I found my appetite for writing about this disturbing novel waning. Absorbing though it is, I felt I needed something more hopeful to close out the year.

A few days before Christmas, I put a call out on Twitter for uplifting novels in translation. A number of familiar recommendations rolled in – among them the The Elegance of the Hedgehog and The Good Soldier Švejk – along with several newer YA works, which reinforced my sense that the anglophone market tends to favour more lightness in titles aimed at younger readers than it might often accept in translations for adults.

Then I received a tip-off that intrigued me: a link to details of a novel that Marcia Lynx Qualey, the writer, editor and founder of ArabLit, had recently translated. A few messages later and an e-version of Wondrous Journeys in Strange Lands by Palestinian author Sonia Nimr was in my inbox.

Presented as the contents of a manuscript entrusted to a Palestinian academic at a conference, the novel follows the adventures of intrepid bibliophile Qamar. Despite being born a girl hundreds of years ago and orphaned young, this courageous and quick-witted protagonist manages to give free reign to her desire to see the world, spurred on by a book from her parents’ collection. Joining caravans and ships, and sometimes posing as a man and living as a pirate, she travels to destinations including Abyssinia, Andalusia, India and the Yemen, using her skills as a narrator and the herbal medicine she learnt from her mother to get her out of many a tight corner.

Few books beat this one for pure storytelling delight. Packed with fantastical encounters and the uncovering of secrets, this novel is deliciously absorbing. The settings are alluring – ranging from a maharaja’s sumptuous palace to a remote mountain village cut off by flood waters for most of the year – yet presented without the cloying exoticism that often accompanies such depictions in Western literature. Similarly, the balance of the magic and the human is finely struck so that, although the narrative often feels fable-like, we never lose sight of the rounded, multifaceted Qamar at its heart.

Making your protagonist a booklover is a trick employed by novelists the world over – what better way, after all, to invite your reader’s empathy than by providing instant common ground between them and the main character? Here, though, Nimr adds extra layers to the familiar device. With reading proscribed for women and all book purchases having to be approved by the elders in the village where Qamar grows up, her reading is a subversive, daring act. It marks her (and by association, the reader) out as a rebel – one unlikely to accept the limits the world places on her.

The same goes for storytelling: frequently asked to account for herself by those she encounters on her travels, Qamar is in the habit of offering false histories because, as she repeatedly explains, she doesn’t expect those she meets to believe the strange truth. This, coupled with the fact that the book that inspires her wanderlust is also called Wondrous Journeys in Strange Lands, sets up interesting questions about fact and fiction. Truth, it seems, can operate on multiple levels: like good novels, fabrications can feel real and can answer human needs. Something doesn’t necessarily have to have happened in order to contain emotional veracity.

Perhaps partly because of its positioning as a YA crossover novel, Wondrous Journeys in Strange Lands presents an unusually sunny world. Qamar’s universe is much more benign than, say, Sainz Borgo’s Caracas. Although she frequently faces danger, Nimr’s protagonist almost always lands on her feet. She is rarely without a friend or protector, and at most of the points where many writers would be tempted to twist the knife and ramp up the tension, a lucky coincidence or happy twist of fate saves her. It’s testament to the power of the storytelling and the appeal of Qamar that what might feel like missed opportunities in another novel generally feel acceptable here.

It’s also testament to the power of the central story that the lack of a return to the framing narrative at the end doesn’t jar. Had this novel been written and edited in English, it’s likely that a publisher would have insisted on a final section bringing us back to the Palestinian academic to reveal some transformation wrought by the reading of the manuscript. Instead, the academic disappears without comment, having provided a lens through which adult (and possibly male) readers can peruse Qamar’s story without feeling that it isn’t for them.

The anglophone publishing world is full of labels that can often exclude as much as they invite. I’m not sure that YA crossover is helpful here. This is, first and foremost, a great story – one that has the power to draw in readers of any age. It is one of those that reaches across time, space and cultural barriers to take us to the heart of the human experience. By enabling us to escape, it brings us to the source of what we are. Pure magic.

Wondrous Journeys in Strange Lands by Sonia Nimr, translated from the Arabic by Marcia Lynx Qualey (Interlink Books, 2020).

Picture:  al-Idrisi world map in Arabic from ‘Alî ibn Hasan al-Hûfî al-Qâsimî’s 1456 copy, made at Cairo and now preserved at Oxford’s Bodleian Library (Public Domain).

Egypt: breaking boundaries

This was another recommendation from Roger Allen, Professor Emeritus of Arabic & Comparative Literature at the University of Pennsylvania. His number-one tip for Egypt was Nobel Prize-winner Naguib Mahfouz – and he should know as he met the great man several times and translated several of his books. However if I were looking for something other than work by the nation’s leading literary giant, he had several more suggestions up his sleeve from among the thousands of excellent Egyptian writers on the market today. Ain Shams University professor Radwa Ashour was one of these.

I thought about it for a while. On one hand, I was very tempted by Mahfouz: several visitors to this blog had written highly of his work and I was sure I’d be in for a treat with practically any of his books. On the other hand, though, I couldn’t help feeling that Mahfouz was a safe choice. This journey was about discovery, after all, and I was eager to see what else was out there by writers I hadn’t heard of before – so I went for Ashour and chose her book Spectres.

Interlacing the lives of two Cairo academics, history lecturer Shagar and literature expert Radwa Ashour, this part-novel, part-autobiography and part-documentary explores the frontiers of storytelling. The two women are born on the same day and grow up during the mid-20th century, witnessing the Suez Crisis and the protests that shook the capital in the decades after it. As each runs up against the limitations of her gender, political sphere and the medium within which the author allows her to exist, the women seek to shape their own narratives out of the shards and fragments that litter their lives.

This is a courageous and often angry book. Whether it deals with the prejudice against women that causes Shagar’s great-grandmother to be viewed with suspicion because she refuses to marry again and Radwa’s children to be held up at passport control, or the political manoeuvres at the university that see one of Shagar’s colleagues hounded out, Ashour’s writing is indignant and powerful.

This is particularly the case when it comes to the central issue that runs through the book and, to a certain extent, shapes the women’s lives: Palestine. Marshalling sources ranging from Mahatma Gandhi’s 1938 claim that ‘Palestine belongs to the Arabs’ through to testimonials from villagers and Israeli officers about the Deir Yassin massacre, Ashour compiles a compelling  array of evidence to support her character’s forthright attacks on Zionist writers such as Elie Wiesel, ‘who wrote volumes against silence and described in detail the ordeal of the Jews in the Holocaust, of which he himself was a survivor, [but] did not see the contradiction in his own total silence in the face of what was happening to the Palestinians’.

However, as Shagar discovers when she attempts to present a paper at a conference organised on the 25th anniversary of Zionist Martin Buber’s death, the Palestinian perspective is one that struggles to find a platform. Vulnerable to accusations of bias and partiality – and the indifference of a West so far removed from Arab concerns that in 1991 an announcer on CNN is able to compare Baghdad under fire to ‘a huge Christmas tree […] “It’s a magical, thrilling sight!”‘ – the issue remains caught in the perennial paradox that in order for Palestinians to debate on equal terms with their opponents they must already have won the argument and proved their sovereignty to those who refuse to accept it.

Faced with the difficulty of constructing a narrative in the face of such powerful counter-narratives, the novel challenges and interrogates itself, oscillating between fact and fiction in search of a middle path that can carry the truth of both. Ashwour’s voice breaks into the text repeatedly, questioning the decisions she has made about characters, discussing her work in relation to her other books, and revealing the dizzying possibilities open to her as a weaver of stories – a sentiment she finds echoed in a translation of Aristotle cited in the text:

‘The work of the poet is not to narrate that which has happened, but rather that which might happen or is possible in accordance with probability or necessity’.

Seen in this light, this novel, first published in 1998, is in the extraordinary position of being able to enter into dialogue not only with the past but also with the future. With its telescoping of time, that sees, for example, Shagar simultaneously engaged with the events of 1946 and 1972 in Tahrir Square – and its swoops into and out of the future tense – the book seems to extend a line forward to the momentous events that shook the country only last year and takes on an eerily prophetic quality.

Entwining these themes, Ashwour delivers a challenging and complex read that tests the boundaries of communication. Bursting with references and the sheer volume of the ideas it explores and conveys, the novel strains at its seams, spilling out into the world beyond its pages and compelling the reader to engage with what it has to say. The result is passionate, rigorous and shaming.

Spectres by Radwa Ashour, translated from the Arabic by Barbara Romaine (Arabia Books, 2010)

Palestine: shifting boundaries

When I started this project, I wasn’t expecting to read a book from Palestine. The list of 196 sovereign states I was working from did not include the Middle Eastern nation, which has received only partial international recognition since the declaration of the state of Israel in 1948.

However, in June I decided to change from my original Western-influenced list to a list of countries that have received some degree of acknowledgement from the United Nations as a more global measure of statehood. In practice, this simply meant swapping Kosovo for Palestine – although it is not a UN member, Palestine is recognised as a non-member entity by the UN and has permanent observer status at all UN meetings.

To this end, I got in touch with Naela Khalil, a leading Palestinian journalist and winner of the prestigious Samir Kassir Award for Freedom of the Press whom I was lucky enough to interview earlier this year. She very kindly contacted many writers on my behalf to find out who had work in translation. A lot of the people she wrote to did not have books available in English, but in July she emailed to tell me that she had had a reply from Mahmoud Shukair, whom she describes as ‘one of the best writers living in Jerusalem’, with information about his first major publication in English: a collection of short fiction entitled Mordechai’s Moustache and his Wife’s Cats.

Bustling with eccentrics, Shukair’s short stories – and the ‘Vignettes’, ‘And Vignettes’, ‘And More Vignettes’ that make up most of the second half of the book – reveal a world where joy and tragedy hinge on tiny details and casual remarks. There is the chancer who tries to exploit a distant family connection with the pop star Shakira to win special treatment at the Israeli Ministry of the Interior, the football-fanatic taxi driver whose tall stories about his friendship with Ronaldo get him beaten up for harbouring spies, and the Israeli border guard of the title who makes a line of people wait for hours because he is paranoid they are laughing at his moustache.

Politics and partition are everywhere, even in the words and images people use in conversation, yet Shukair puts the individuality and humanity of his characters first. He does this by filling his narratives with quirks, tics and details that bring home the personality of those he describes. Often the effect of this is very funny and even surreal, but it can be devastating too, as in ‘The Room’, where the mention of a child’s toys makes the actions of the killer brutally real:

‘He could have been a well-mannered murderer so that we could have found some excuse for him. He could have been a murderer with a good argument, so that we could have had a little admiration for him. But he was pathetic and ugly. Testimony to this was the child’s bedroom, which was ripped apart, his bed, which was burnt, the rabbit, the elephant, the giraffe, the duck and spatters everywhere of his blood. They posed a risk to that ugly murderer who did not have a good argument so that we could have had a little admiration for him.’

There is so much to say about the content of the stories and the window they provide on a world where everything, from getting an education to getting to work, is fraught with difficulty and danger that it is easy to forget the quality of the writing itself. Ranging from bald and stark statements, as in the extract above, to the absurdist and occasionally cryptic tropes of some of the vignettes, many of which read more as extended metaphors than as literal descriptions, Shukair’s prose is urgent and engrossing. He writes interestingly about the influence of Hemingway on his work in the final section, ‘Talking About Writing’, and it is possible to recognise something of that stripped-back style in this translation, although Shukair has many other techniques up his sleeve, not least a masterful sense of the role of humour in heightening poignancy.

He certainly had me enthralled. I hope it isn’t long before we see more of works coming out in English – I want to read on.

Mordechai’s Moustache and his Wife’s Cats by Mahmoud Shukair, translated from the Arabic by Issa J Boullata, Elizabeth Whitehouse, Elizabeth Winslow and Christina Phillips (Banipal Books, 2007)