Monday, May 07, 2012

Rasha al Ameer's novel 'Judgment Day' mingles love, poetry and Islam

a brief video extract of Rasha al Ameer's appearance with Jonathan Wright at the Mosaic Rooms

During an event at the Mosaic Rooms in London to celebrate publication of the English translation of her novel Judgment Day, Lebanese writer and publisher Rasha al Ameer defended the imam who is the novel’s hero and first-person narrator.

Al Ameer's compelling, risk-taking novel takes the form of a memoir addressed by the imam to the woman with whom he is deeply in love, but from whom he becomes separated after receiving death threats from a certain Islamist movement and being taken into “protective custody”.

Rasha was asked by an audience member: “When you put the sheikh as a symbol in this story, is there a problem of ignorance because of the cleric, or because of religion?” The questioner went on to ask the author, whose novel first appeared in Arabic 10 years ago, how she views the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia and the coming to power of Islamists.

“I think that my sheikh is not ignorant at all” al Ameer replied. “I have great respect for any person who reads and writes and the hero of this book, of this specific novel, is a very special sheikh. He is not ignorant; he is someone who wants to be knowledgeable, who is intelligent and who wrote a book - he fell in love, he’s courageous: I think that only courageous people can change our world.”

She added: “This is a novel, this is not a political statement. But it oversaw in a way what may happen in the Arab world. It was clear for me as a writer that Islam is a very important component of our societies and that’s why I chose a sheikh as a hero of the book. I hope that Islamists will read this book one day and try to imagine what can be an intelligent sheikh that deals intelligently with his Islam.”

Al Ameer’s novel was published in Arabic in 2002, under the title Yawm al-Din, by Beirut publishing house Dar Al-Jadeed. It has appeared in six Arabic editions – in Lebanon, Egypt and most recently Algeria. In 2009 Actes Sud published a French translation by Youssef Seddik as Le Jour Dernier: Confessions d’un Imam.

Al Ameer appeared at the Mosaic Rooms alongside Jonathan Wright, whose translation of Judgment Day is published by the American University in Cairo (AUC) Press. The well-attended event attracted an audience of Arabs and non-Arabs and was bilingual, with Wright speaking in English and Rasha in Arabic and English.


Judgment Day 'a masterpiece'

Wright said: “This is the first time we have presented the English version of Rasha’s book to the world”. He rates Judgment Day as “her masterpiece so far: maybe she has other masterpieces to come.” He found translating it “certainly the most difficult and time-consuming job I’ve ever done in this field.” It took him five or six months of solid work and was “a big job. It’s very slow work, it’s a very difficult book in many ways.” Wright has an afterword in Judgement Day on his approach to translating the novel.

Wright brings to his work as a literary translator a mixture of scholarship, journalism, and many years spent living in the Arab world. He read Arabic, Turkish, and Islamic civilisation at Oxford University and worked for Reuters news agency for 30 years from 1980, mostly in the Middle East. In his five years as a published Arabic literary translator Wright has established a high reputation. One of his translations, that of Egyptian writer Youssef Ziedan’s Azazeel, was recently published by Atlantic Books and is attracting much interest. The Arabic original won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) in 2009. 

Wright's first published Arabic literary translation was that of Egyptian writer Khalid Alkhamissi’s Taxi, issued by Aflame Books in 2008 and republished last year by Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing (BQFP). This September sees publication by AUC Press of his translation of Saudi author Fahd al-Atiq's Life on Hold. His other translations include Egyptian Alaa al-Aswany's book of essays On the State of Egypt (AUC Press, 2011) and Iraqi author Hassan Blasim's collection of short stories The Madman of Freedom Square (Comma Press, 2009).

Wright outlined Judgment Day for the audience. “This is the story of a country boy brought up in a remote mountain village in some unstable Arab country – unnamed, everything in this book is unnamed – who goes to Qur’an school, goes through the seminary system – becomes an imam – goes to university, studies Islamic sciences and Arabic literature, then gets a job in the civil service, in the Ministry of Religious Affairs. He’s reclusive, very shy, very repressed both socially and sexually – he does well and he’s bright, he advances, he makes friends with an influential cleric who patronises him. He’s invited to go abroad to the neighbouring country, which is rich and more liberal, to act as imam at a mosque which caters to the citizens of his own country in that neighbouring country, so he goes off there.

“One day an educated independent woman contacts him and says that she would like to sound him out on whether he will cooperate in a project on the great 10th century Arabic poet Ahmad al-Mutanabbi. He agrees and they start to see each other and she proposes that they read his complete works together and go through carefully as part of this project which she’s preparing for some cultural institution. The relationship between them develops – he falls in love very quickly –her attitude initially is not so clear because it’s narrated by him, all that happens is his own perspective on this.

“Meanwhile there’s trouble at the mosque – there’s an Islamist insurgency afoot in both countries across the border and he gets deeply implicated in this conflict, essentially as what he calls ‘the Sultan’s cleric’ – in other words as a government stooge, as the Islamists would put it – and at the same time he gets invited to become the presenter of a TV show on Islamic affairs which is a great success. He becomes a kind of media star which draws lots of attention to him – so he’s deeply implicated in this whole conflict. Eventually he is abducted for his own safety and taken off to what would be called a ‘secure location’ where he lives for some months and starts to write this work describing his relationship with the woman he loves and how this relationship opened up a new world to him, how she helped him overcome his inhibitions and the repression that he grew up with.”

the rivalry between the Qur'an and poetry 

The book covers a whole range of interesting subjects, Wright said: for example the imam writes about “Islam, in its many guises. He talks about what he calls ‘the miracle faith’ of his childhood – the kind of superstitious childish faith – and then he talks about the way the seminary tried to drive this out of him and replace it with some kind of austere monotheistic faith. And he talks about the beliefs and the behaviour of his Salafist opponents and about other types of Islam.”

In their conversations the iman and the woman exchange "their thoughts about the relationship between Islam and other aspects of Arab culture, especially language and poetry and literature, and how the two are related: the phrase that Rasha uses in this context is the rivalry between the Qur'an and poetry, which is a constant theme in the book. And of course they talk at length about the personality of al-Mutanabbi himself which is extremely complex and much discussed over many years al-Mutanabbi supposedly purported or had ambitions to prophethood but probably abandoned those ambitions at an early stage in favour of poetry, perhaps in the belief that poetry was more likely to give him immortality than some kind of spurious prophethood which he may not have been able to sustain.”

Wright added: “But most importantly, perhaps, this is a true novel in the classic European sense in that it describes in detail the psychological evolution of a particular human being over time under the influence of the people and events around him. There’s a very clear progression from his childhood through all the stages of his relationship which accelerates as time goes on. The imam, the sheikh, the narrator, as he overcomes his inhibitions he becomes quite skilled at analysing himself and his own motives.

“I should mention in this context that this is a book narrated by a man, but written by a woman, which is not that unusual but it is generally considered to be quite difficult to do successfully. My impression is that Rasha has done this extremely well – I don’t think that there’s any false note in the narrator’s masculinity' – I put it that way – at any stage.”

During the event Rasha read a passage from Judgment Day in Arabic, which Wright read in his English translation. The passage was chosen, Wright explained, because “it brings in all the main elements of the book – it’s one of the transitional moments in their relationship when after keeping their distance for many days, maybe weeks, finally they start to talk about things that directly affect them.”

In the passage the imam and the woman focus on a poem in which al-Mutanabbi satirises the Egyptian ruler Kafour. The imam writes: "Like someone groping in the dark, warily, you read the next line. You had just reached the end of the line safely and passsed on to the next one — 'Is it the purpose of religion that you should trim  your moustache? / What a nation, at whose ignorance other nations laugh!' — when you let out a deep sigh, the essence of exasperation, and launched into a rant which you began by looking at me and saying: 'Mawlana, he's speaking for us, his complaint is our complaint, his criticism is our criticism and his diagnosis is our diagnosis...."

Wright discussed Rasha’s use of language in her novel. “Many commentaries on the book - its Arabic version – have commented on the language that Rasha uses, which is very striking and quite difficult to define. Some people have called it classical, traditional: in my afterword I initially use the word ‘pre-modern’ which is a sort of technical academic word for the type of Arabic before the industrial revolution essentially, before the Arabs were subjected to the onslaught of European intervention as a by-product of which there were very substantial influences on the Arabic language itself including many what are technically known as calques– direct translations from English and French essentially.”

Wright said he has been "trying to pin down what exactly it is about Rasha’s language that is distinctive and it’s a really difficult thing. I think it’s fair to say that she does use a fair number of words which even Arabs consider to be antiquated or obscure – or certainly erudite shall we say – which for some people has been an obstacle. To some extent she’s avoided too many modernisms, and when she uses expressions like ‘social function’ or ‘objective criteria’ or ‘environmental activist’ then those kind of phrases stand out as being exceptions rather than the rule. The narrator, the sheikh, feels slightly uncomfortable about using that kind of language. I don’t think she made a deliberate effort to exclude such things. I think her vision was that this was a man who was steeped in traditional works of literature – Qur’an, Hadith, theology and early poetry –  and this was the way he chose to express himself. Therefore it should not appear artificial to readers and if they care about their heritage they should make the effort to read it."

Wright added: “When you read this book in Arabic it has a certain timelessness, the language has a certain kind of abstract timeless quality and that impression is encouraged by the fact that there are no names or places in the book at all apart from al-Mutanabbi and a few other ancient characters. So the language is kind of terribly abstracted, shall we say, which creates a slightly strange impression. Obviously in English we have no real equivalent – there is no kind of timeless version of English as far as I am aware, it is pretty difficult to imitate that quality in English – so the best I could do in translating it was to try and portray the formal, slightly pedantic nature of the imam’s diction. I hope I’ve done that to a certain extent, but not to the extent that it deters the casual reader from enjoying the book.


The power of love

“I think the most important, distinctive, thing about Rasha’s language in this book is that she’s chosen her words very carefully and she’s chosen from a very wide vocabulary – the vocabulary is not showing off, it’s because she thinks this word is the right word for the purpose and it’s a book that examines in great detail the motivations of the narrator and the reactions of the woman he loves and the way the two of them together explore each other . So it’s very much a love story on top of all these other elements – the poetry, and the Islam, and so on. The love shines through in the end, and the power of love to improve human beings.”

In the question and answer session the poet, critic and physician Norbert Hirschhorn, who has written a glowing review of Judgment Day on Amazon, said that “from the novelist’s point of view he [the imam] develops as a human being as he is writing his memoir, and I think it’s extraordinary. We want the novel to show us the change in a human being.”

Wright agreed that one of the sheikh’s inhibitions is his inability to express himself. “He recognises that inability at a very early stage, and the process of writing this tribute to the woman he loves is part of his overcoming of that particular inhibition. He's aware of it as he progresses and it's a painful process in many stages. Along the way sometimes there are periods in the writing when he breaks down and can’t continue, and then he picks up later. So the writing process itself is an intense emotional process.”

Wright asked Rasha whether she had found it difficult to write as a man. She said writing as a man was “a strategic point of view I needed. I was sure a man should speak, not a woman. Men speak a lot in the Arab world, and the world in general, men have power. The power – the sulta – is not yet in the hands of women. I hope that women will one day be deciders much more in the Arab world, not only men."

A woman in the audience probed Rasha further on how she had managed to get so close to, and express so well, the feelings of love from a man’s point of view. Rasha said: “I am close to a lot of my men friends – I watch well, I try to be in their minds, and hearts. I want to have the feeling of the Other when I write a novel, I want to be in all the hearts all together. That maybe the dream of the writer, the novelist: to try to decipher the Other that is in front of him even though the Other is very different from him."

Another audience member said she had started reading Judgment Day in Arabic but had found it difficult and had not finished it. She is now reading the English translation, and has found that it makes her want to go back to the Arabic original. She thought the translation made the book more accessible.

 In Wright’s view the English translation may be more accessible “because of the nature of the language – you don’t have the same range of choices in English and there’s a limit to how you can express yourself. This is less so in Arabic, because of historical and cultural reasons. Arabic is a big, wide, open field covering hundreds of years and thousands of miles. This is less true of English: it’s a new language and we don’t have the same respect for old forms of diction.”

One member of the audience said she found the tone of the translated narrative reminiscent of the first-person narrator of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day. Wright said he was very glad to hear the comparison because “the language he uses in that book is an extraordinary example of discipline.”
Susannah Tarbush

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