(L to R): Bensalem Himmich; interpreter Mohamed-Salah Omri; Roger Allen; Paul Starkey (portraits in the background are of South Shields Yemenis in the Last of the Dictionary Men exhibition)
When Roger Allen stepped onto the stage of Kings Place in London last Monday to receive the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation for his translation of Moroccan writer Bensalem Himmich's novel A Muslim Suicide (Syracuse University Press, 2011), he spoke of the relevance today of the novel's central figure, 13th century Sufi thinker Ibn Sab'in (1217-1269).
Allen said the novel is "the story of one of Islam's most radical thinkers, Sufi philosopher, theologian and physician, and perhaps there is a contemporary aspect in that: precisely because of the radical nature of his thought he is hounded out of basically every place he tries to settle down, from Spain to North Africa to Egypt, and finishes in Mecca."
The contemporary relevance of Ibn Sab'in was also a main theme of a discussion between Allen and Himmich, held on Tuesday evening at the Mosaic Rooms and chaired by Paul Starkey, chair of the Banipal Trust for Arab Literature. Starkey retired in September 2012 from Durham University where he had been Head of the Arabic Department.
Introducing the event, Starkey said A Muslim Suicide has "some relationship to the kind of debates that go on in the Islamic world at the moment, the sort of things people see in our newspapers day by day. It's so modern."
Ibn Sab'in's career "exemplified many of the debates and the clashes of civilisation - if one can use a cliché - that were evident at the time. This was after all the century when the Mongols came from the East and sacked Baghdad .. . And it was also a period when relations between the Muslim world and the Western world were going through an interesting phase."
Allen had travelled from Philadelphia to receive the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize. The discussion at the Mosaic Rooms was one of two events organised by the Banipal Trust to celebrate his presence in London: the first event was a three-hour translation masterclass given by Allen on Tuesday morning at the Arab-British Centre.
Allen, who was born in England in 1942, recently retired from his position as Sascha Jane Patterson Harvie Professor of Social Thought and Comparative Ethics in the School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania. He had served as Professor of Arabic and Comparative Literature in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations for 43 years and has translated numerous works of modern Arabic literature.
Himmich, born in Meknes in 1949, is a novelist, poet and philosopher. He earned a doctorate from the Sorbonne in Paris for a thesis on Ibn Khaldun. He has been a Professor of Philosophy at Mohammad V University in Rabat, and served as Moroccan Culture Minister in 2009-12.
Himmich's 11 novels include several historical novels. A Muslim Suicide - which was longlisted for the 2009 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF, often dubbed the Arabic Booker) is the third of Himmich's historical novels that Allen has translated. And Allen has also translated a fourth of Himmich's novels - Mu'adhdhibati (Dar El Shorouk) - which is set in the 21st century's "War on Terror", and for which Himmich was shortlisted for IPAF 2011 (see below).
Himmich is one of the most distinguished contemporary Arab novelists, and has won numerous prizes. He received the 2002 Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature for his 1997 novel Al-Allamah, on Ibn Khaldun's later years in Cairo, translated by Allen as The Polymath (American University in Cairo Press, 2004).
His 1989 novel Majnun al-Hukm won the London-based Al-Naqid Prize, and was translated by Allen under the title The Theocrat (AUC Press 2005). The novel is an account of the controversial Fatimid Caliph Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah In 2009 Himmich received the Naguib Mahfouz Award for Literature from the Union of Egyptian Writers for the whole corpus of his work.
Roger Allen said one of the amazing things about A Muslim Suicide is the very good impression it gives about an era in relations between two cultures "which is utterly different from our conception about the relationship between the West, and what we'll call the Middle East, now." Andalus was the place where one would go to seek knowledge and enlightenment. It was gradually losing that status, "but still you had the Christian King of Sicily, the Holy Roman Emperor King Frederic, writing to a Muslim intellectual asking him profound questions about existence, reality, the spirit, and everything else."
This correspondence between Frederic and Ibn Sab'in took place when Ibn Sab'in was living in the Moroccan town Sabta (Ceuta), the first place he settled when forced to leave Andalus. "If you want some contemporary relevance, it is not irrelevant that King Frederic of Sicily was excommunicated by the Pope," Allen said. "Perhaps some of the greatest penseurs of any particular generation go through that particular process as a necessary part of maintaining their intellectual honesty when it comes to matters of theology and spirituality."
Allen raised the question of Arab novels after the watershed of the Naksa (Setback) of 1967 and the role of the past, and what novelists are to make of the past, use the past, what is the relationship with the past. The texts written in the wake of the Naksa had two prevalent trends. The first was Turath (legacy), and the second was Asala - ie the quest for authenticity. "And what we see is an enormous and pleasurable variety of ways of negotiating with the past, using the past."
Allen described Ibn Sab'in as a brilliant intellectual scholar, a wonderful human being, a superb doctor and psychologist. Allen said he is constantly struck by the qualities of the scholars of the Andalusian period - for example Ibn Hassan, one of the great controversialists of Islam who was determined to negotiate meaning with adherents of other religions communities in Spain, and was also a great poet. Or Ibn Quzman, a wazir who wrote some of the dirtiest zajals in the whole history of Arabic poetry.
Allen spoke of "this enormous variety of intellects and talents represented by this particular culture, this particular moment in the cultural history of Europe which still needs to be rediscovered. And here is Ibn Sab'in writing about the demise of this culture."
One of the most telling things in the novel for Allen is Ibn Sab'in sitting in Sabta, from where one can see Spain, and talking to his students about the demise of Spain, which had led to his expulsion, and the fact that Granada is the only place left, "and we all know of course that Granada is eventually going to fall as well. And a great period in European cultures had come to an end".
'at every turn Salafi belief and politics interfered'
This description of the period of demise is "not only a historical event, it is something which has profound implications and Ibn Sab'in, this radical thinker in Islam - and yes we are thinking about Mali today - who wishes to communicate with a variety of different religious communities, but who wishes to think of Islam as a dynamic force which adapts and changes, and which takes the best of other cultures into itself.
"And yet at every turn Salafi belief and politics interfere to expel him from wherever he is until he lands up in the centre of Islam itself where he confronts the great hero of the defence of the Middle East, Sultan Baybars - who turns out himself to be extremely Salafian in his beliefs and demands the head of Ibn Sab'in."
The novel perhaps suggests that the version of history in which the great battle of Ain Jalut - at which the army of Egypt led by Baybars in 1260 defeated the Mongols - is seen as a tremendous turning point in the Middle East, and that "everything suddenly got happy", is not quite the right way to look at things. Ibn Sab'in eventually emerges and decides that the only thing he can do is to end his own life.
Allen said there is a great deal written about historical novels and what they are and what they might be – there is a great deal of theoretical literature – and now also about the parlous relationship between history and fiction – even the fact that history is very often fiction itself, in other words fiction being something which is written by somebody in which somebody puts something in and leaves other things out.
"Any work of this kind which makes use of history in this way seems to me to have things to say to contemporary readers even though it may not be about family life in some Arab capital and problems of women in society or whatever it may be – valuable though those contributions to modern Arab fiction may be.
"This type of work is representative of a strand of novel fiction writing which asks more profound questions, that are concerned about – yes, as Paul said, in Huntington’s dreadful phrase, the clash of civilisations..."
'I am a prisoner of this category, the historical novel'
Despite the acclaim for his novels set in the past, Himmich said he disagreed with the categorisation "historical novel". He said: "I am a prisoner of this category historical novels" when he actually has "a diversity in my production". He has written novels on present-day issues, for example clandestine immigration, and he is currently writing "a new novel about a very new subject - a businesswoman. But after one decade it will be a historical novel! Indeed history is all, we cannot escape.
"I think the best manner is to consider the past like the present, and this present maybe after all will be a past, this is history, but this label 'historical novel' I don't agree with. I can't put barriers between the past and the present and the future, because at the moment, tomorrow, after tomorow is a past - which is very interesting for a novelist."
He described himself as being "a little iconoclastic" and distinguished between "easy" and "difficult" historical novels. In the "easy" category he put Jurji Zaidan's historical novels. Himmich claimed that Zaidan (1861-1914) had "a deficit of imagination and invention" and that "the historian for me has more credibility than I can find in the novels of Jurji Zaidan."
Himmich also maintained that Nobel prizewinning Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz's trilogy on Pharaonic Egypt, which were published at the beginning of Mahfouz's writing career, was of only "middling" quality, and that Mahfouz's writing only really started to take off with his 1945 novel Al-Qahira al-Jadida (Cairo Modern). (Mahfouz's Pharaonic trilogy consists of Khufu's Wisdom (1939), Rhadopis of Nubia (1943) and Thebes at War (1944).) Himmich also made fleeting criticisms of works by two contemporary Arab writers of historical novels.
Himmich said he respected Zaidan and Mahfouz, but he contrasted their "easy" type of historical novels with "difficult" historical fiction such as The Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar, The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco and Salammbo by Gustave Flaubert. He said historical fiction needs to have a clash - such as is seen in Albert Camus's play Caligula. He gave further examples of the importance of history to great writers: Balzac's novels are like historical novels. And central to all Shakespeare's theatre was a historical dimension.
Himmich described the many difficulties facing the writer of his kind of novel. The author must thoroughly research the information from historians and historiography, and after that the work of creation, of invention, begins. But with some novelists there is not this depth of research and "it’s very superficial".
The writing of novels with real significance, raises existential questions. When he was working on A Muslim Suicide or The Polymath he thought endlessly about the character of Ibn Sab’in or Ibn Khaldun, and "it is for me an obsession, all the time I think about him. The first thing is to know all about this person – it’s necessary – and after that I think what this person was confronted with." In the case of Ibn Sab'in, why did he constantly need to move from place to place? Himmich feels a sense of responsibility in writing about characters who are outsiders, or marginal, and to "recuperate persons out of history."
how 'this man from Spain' metamorphosed into 'a muslim sucide'
Starkey asked Allen why the title of the Arabic novel Hadha al-Andalusi (literally 'this Andalusian') became in the English translation A Muslim Suicide. Allen said that while he was translating The Polymath he had met Himmich at a conference - ("one of the many conferences held in what now appears to be a different era in the cultural life of Egypt, when Gaber Asfour organised a conference on the Arabic novel and indeed there was a Cairo prize for the Arabic novel" - the Arabic Novel Award given by the Egyptian Ministry of Culture.)
Himmich had told him he was writing a new novel on the very controversial Andalusian figure, Ibn Sab'in, and had decided its title would be Al-Intihar bi jiwar al-Ka'ba (Suicide inside the Ka'ba).Allen had said he wasn't sure this was a good idea; "certain people might perhaps not be too happy" about that title.
When Allen received his copy of the new novel he found the title was Hadha al-Andalusi. "And I thought to myself well, that's slightly tilting in the opposite direction from the title which I had originally discouraged."
When Allen translated the novel he gave it the title This Man from Spain, but then received an email from Himmich saying that with the English translation "we're going back to my original intentions." Himmich suggested a number of titles, one of which was A Muslim Suicide.
Thus, the English title is "not a massive reinterpretation of everything the text is about but it is a reflection of the original intentions of the author." Allen said it was interesting that certain people who have read the Arabic now regard the Arabic title as supremely good - and various people who read the English translation also regard that title as extremely good.
"In a sense it involves two quite different readings of the text itself. In my role as a teacher of literary theory the whole notion of Beginnings and of Titles - and the way that impacts on the reception of text - is a very interesting topic."
Himmich said Ibn Sab'in's committing suicide in the sacred space around the Kabba by slitting his wrists was "an act of sacrilege if ever there was one, which in all probability was not motivated by personal considerations but more likely sprang out of an ineradicable desire ... to hasten his union with God which ... was too slow to happen."
who will have the courage to publish 'my torturess'?
In addition to his translations of The Theocrat, The Polymath and A Muslim Suicide Allen has produced an as-yet unpublished translation of Himmich's post-9/11 novel Mu'adhdhibati (Dar El Shorouk) for which Himmich was shortlisted for IPAF 2011. The title means my female torturer, or tormenter. Allen said "I coined the non-existent British term My Torturess" for the title.
My Torturess is about extraordinary rendition. It tells of a Moroccan who is extraordinarily rendered, and of his sufferings inside a dreadful anonymous camp. "I’m hoping that it will be published," Allen said. "But there seems to be a rather cagey element amongst the publishing industry about publishing a work about this extraordinary terrible criminal activity which took place during the George W Bush administration in America.
"Insha'Allah eventually someone is going to have the courage to publish this: the translation’s complete and ready." He added "Stand by for the title: I'm calling it My Torturess but we'll see what comes out, who decides what." Laughter erupted when Himmich said: "If he is afraid about this title, I have another."
IPAF said of the novel at the time it was shortlisted for IPAF 2011: "In a gripping novel, whose narrative style is a blend of Kafka and One Thousand and One Nights, Himmich imagines an innocent man’s experience of extraordinary rendition in an American prison. During his captivity, the protagonist is subjected to interrogation and torture by both Arabs and foreigners and yet, against all odds, the author manages to find some hope in an otherwise desperate situation."
Allen said the historical novel itself has a history. "Many people believe that Sir Walter Scott is the origin of the historical novel, certainly Tolstoy – there are some major figures – but the historical novel is not a static entity – nor is it a unified entity - there is a large variety of novels called historical.
"Now the relationship between the writing of fiction and history is an incredibly varied subject – particularly in our current times when we live in a world of spin. I’ve just been through an American election where people have been paying out millions of dollars to lie.
"And so the question I often ask my students is what do we do in a world where fiction has no opposite? And in this particular environment the works of Hayden White and most recently David Shields and his wonderful manifesto Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, talking about the dilemmas of writing different kinds of texts.
"The word ‘historical novel’ covers a multitude of sins and perhaps the best way of going about it might be simply to talk in terms of narrative. And Arabic in fact is using terms such as sarid to try and avoid these problems of generic definition. Genre invites definition but as soon as you define a genre, it makes a habit of breaking those definitions."
Allen expressed a markedly more sympathetic view of Jurji Zaidan than Himmich had. "I would stick up for Jurji Zaidan – Jurji Zaidan is writing in the 1890s and he’s absolutely trying to educate, that’s what he’s doing – he’s educating a people and he’s developing a sense of Arab nationalism in a group who are in a society where people are facing foreign occupation from European colonial powers.
"But I would certainly be in favour of not trying to nail down anything called historical novels, that’s not what current literary theory’s all about."
(Jurji Zaidan - 1861-1914 - wrote 22 novels on Arab history. In the more than 100 years since they were published more than 100 translations into over nine languages have been published - but unitl recently none in English. The Zaidan Foundation has now sponsored the English translation and publication of five of the novels. Roger Allen translated The Conquest of Andalusia, and Paul Starkey Saladin and the Assassin.)
In the introduction to his book The Arabic Literary Heritage: The Development of its Genres and Criticism (Cambridge University Press, 1998) Allen says he is not going to use the word history, because I am trying to write a version of what Arabs wrote about that is not based on historical and dynastic criteria. Instead his emphasis is on genres. "You know, I often think when Abu Nawas woke up in the morning, he didn’t say to himself 'I’m an Abbasid poet!'".
Allen was asked, as someone who has translated many Arab fiction writers, about his experience of translating Bensalem Himmich. How did he deal with his intertextuality and how did he convey in English the different registers in Himmich's Arabic text?
Allen began his answer by recalling how he first started to translate Himmich. Someone at a conference complained to him that the Modern Arabic Literature volume of the Cambridge History of Arabic Literature - to which he contributed two chapters - contained very little on the Maghreb.
Allen went back to the volume and found the complaint was well-founded, and he decided to spend his next sabbatical in the Maghreb. This he did, and that was when he met Bensalem Himmich. It was a conscious choice on his part to introduce to the Anglophone world novels written by Maghrebi writers, and he has mostly concentrated on Morocco - and especially on Himmich and on Ahmed Toufiq (Allen's translation of Moon and Henna Tree by Toufiq is to be published in May by University of Texas Press - following his translation of Toufiq's Abu Musa's Women Neighbors: A Historical Novel from Morocco - Post Appollo Pr, 2005 ).
Allen told the questioner "you’re absolutely right that these particular texts immediately present you as a translator with a number of issues, the first of which is the extraordinary level of erudition which is implicit in the text itself.
"The publication of The Theocrat raised a very fascinating issue of translation, and this is partially reflected in all the texts, which is that Bensalem regularly puts somewhere in the text what his sources are. I point out of course that Jurji Zaidan does exactly the same thing.
"But I put into the text of The Theocrat the footnotes which Himmich had kindly provided to the various historical sources which he was using, or the accounts of the peculiar behaviour of Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah - and believe me, his behaviour was frequently very peculiar indeed – such as banning the hajj, and banning molokhia in Egypt – can you imagine that? And everybody had to work at night and sleep during the day – I mean this is interesting stuff, but the point is it was all footnoted to actual historical accounts, and the AUC Press wrote to me and said 'we don’t do footnotes' so I had to point out, Iwe are talking about TS Eliot’s The Wasteland and the footnotes and the fact that TS Eliot put notes to the complexities of language.
"Anyway, that aside, I had to explain that the footnotes are part of the novel, they are an intrinsic part of the process of writing this text and its use of source material.
"But this is just part and parcel – particularly trying to convey here the difference between the description of travel and as it were the more habitual things which go on in the life of Ibn Sab’in. And than discussing Ibn Sab’in arguing about the accuracy of Ibn Rushd’s version of Aristotle and then meeting Shushtari and listening to Shushtari’s poetry and of course including some of Shushtari’s poetry. This was extremely complicated as a translation exercise, one of the more complicated ones I’ve done.
"But I just point out that there’s a recently-published collection from Columbia University Press [ed Salma Khadra Jayyusi] called Classical Arabic Stories : An Anthology which you may have seen in which I translated six of the Al-Maqamat (The Assemblies). So I have a sort of yardstick about complexity of text.
"But this (A Muslim Suicide) is a modern text, and all of these three texts are, and because Bensalem is such an enormously erudite scholar of pre-modern Arabic texts of a particular kind, the novels that he writes, which include references, are very challenging to translate."
When a member of the audience asked Himmich how his books are received in Morocco he said: "I can't speak about me: I detest autobiography because autobiography is impossible. Freud was right, is it possible to write about when I was a child, my problems with my mother, my sexual problems? No no it is not possible. All autobiography is impossible because there are secret gardens - for example if someone has an accident in his life - a sexual relation with his sister - he can't write this.
"For this reason I am against all autobiography except when we have a foolish person, an outsider, a person who has problems with everybody, like Jean Genet for example. But when I am very very old perhaps I will write like an au revoir to my life, the life in the world. Basit".
report and photos by Susannah Tarbush