Anthropologist and book-lover Amira Abd El-Khalek went to hear Lebanese author Rasha al-Ameer and her Cairo-based translator Jonathan Wright talk about the novel Yawm al-Din, or Judgement Day, last week at the Mosaic Rooms in London.
The room turns silent as Rasha al-Ameer reads excerpts from her novel Yawm al-Din, recently translated by Jonathan Wright. Her powerful poetic voice rings through the hall, speaking in impeccable Arabic, pausing every now and then, repeating a word here and another there. Her intonation flows with the poetic rhythm of the verses she reads:
أغاية الدين أن تحفوا شواربكم يا أمة ضحكت من جهلها الأمم
Is it the purpose of religion that you should trim your moustache?
What a nation at whose ignorance other nations laugh.*
Yawm al-Din was first published in 2002 and has gone through six Arabic editions, a French edition entitled Le Jour Dernier (2009) and now Judgment Day in English. Jonathan Wright chose this specific book despite its difficulty because it stood out. It was like nothing he had ever read before in Arabic, and it took him five to six months of continuous work to complete. Azazeel, which Wright has also translated from Arabic, was much easier, he says. The difficulty of Azazeel lay in tracing the history and verifying the sources. This was a much more complex job.
Judgement Day is a true novel in the classic European sense, according to Wright. “It describes in detail the psychological evolution of a human being over time under the influence of the people and events around him. As he overcomes his inhibitions he becomes very skilled at analyzing himself and his own motives.”
The narrator, an imam, changes throughout the course of the novel as he writes his memoir, a tribute to the one he loves. He reflects upon religion: Islam in its many guises, and upon the relationship – or rivalry, as Rasha al-Ameer puts it – between the Quran and poetry. He opens up to a new world that he discovers through poetry and through love when a woman approaches him to discuss the works of Ahmed al-Mutanabbi, the great 10th century Arab poet. Through their meetings, as depicted in his memoirs, the imam finds the courage to read and write, to question and acknowledge.
“It is intelligent people like him who can change our world,” al-Ameer says; and though the novel is not a political statement, it oversaw in a way what may happen in the Arab world, and it deals with Islam as an inevitable component of Arab society. That is why she wrote this book and why she chose the imam, a sheikh, as her hero.
That is also why she writes in the voice of a man. As Wright puts it, “This is a book narrated by a man written by a woman” and as far as he can see, there is “no false note in the narrator’s masculinity.”
To al-Ameer, given the nature and reality of Arab society, it is a man who should speak and not a woman, for they have the power, or the ‘sulta’ to decide. She didn’t find it too difficult to enter the man’s psyche. She says she observes well, she tries to put herself in men’s positions, to sense their feelings, to be within their hearts. She says, “It is the dream of the novelist to decipher the other that is in front of him, even if the other is very different.”
The language that Rasha al-Ameer uses is complex; ‘pre-modern,’ according to Wright. It is a language that precedes the influences of the West on Arab culture. She uses words which Arabs consider to be antiquated or obscure, yet it comes naturally to the sheikh who is immersed in the classical tradition of his religious and scholarly upbringing.
Rasha questions the very language we write in. it is not a matter of simplicity or obscurity for her. Her eternal question is, “In which language do we really write? Do we tell stories? Do we love? Do we exercise politics?” She is against there being one hegemonic language, the modern language of technology, when we have a heritage.
the Reader as Author
I say Rasha because I feel that a connection has emerged between her and her audience. Formalities have been dropped and inhibitions suspended. The talk was a call to discuss a work of art, to work on our own heritage, where we are all heroes and heroines, and where we’re all on a mission to read and to speak and to appreciate the beauty and the wealth of our culture and its language.
This is precisely what Rasha al-Ameer is trying to depict through her novel, through her choice of words, through her analysis of and passion for the poetry of Ahmed al-Mutanabbi.
“We have a heritage”, she says, “a gold mine.. it is our duty to roll up our sleeves and to start working on it… I am embarrassed that I have a translator for my works, and al-Mutanabbi, the Poet of the Arabs, has no-one”; no-one who has taken up the challenge to decipher his works and transform them from their traditional explanation to make them more enjoyable and more accessible.
Our problem is that we do not work on our language as much as we should. It is up to each and every one of us to do their job and to save our dying language and heritage. If we do not do that, nations will laugh at our ignorance as they did in the 10th century and as they are doing now.
Wright’s translation indeed makes her novel more accessible. His challenge was to “portray the formal pedantic nature of the imam’s diction without deterring the casual reader from enjoying the book.” The English version is more accessible but that is inevitable because of the nature of the two languages. English as a language is much more suppressed emotionally – in its expressions and descriptions – than Arabic, as a member of the audience mentioned. The writing of the memoir manages to open up an emotional palace within the imam, giving him a sense of liberation where he develops as a human being.
In that sense, the story is a universal one — even though the audience seemed curious to know who the protagonist was, or whether the story had any traces of reality in it. In the discussion, Wright mentioned – as Rasha often asserted – that it was a story that transcends time, that there are hardly any names of people or places mentioned for a reason, so that one could let one’s imagination flow and not focus too much on details.
A Call to Action
There are many heroes in this novel. Be it the imam or sheikh or narrator who goes through this development in character, who discovers a life beyond the strict teachings of the seminary and interpretations of a religion he has been brought up with, teachings that have suppressed the intuitive superstitious faith of his childhood, who struggles with the rivalry between Quran and poetry, or the woman to whom he addresses his memoir, the woman who is present yet not present, the woman who introduced him to the poetry of al-Mutanabbi, who helped him overcome his inhibitions and showed him the beauty of love and life, or al-Mutanabbi himself, the great and controversial “Poet of the Arabs.”
The hero, adds Rasha al-Ameer, could be the language of the book, her attempt to write it in that manner preserving her heritage, it could be Jonathan Wright for having attempted to translate such a difficult text, it could even be the readers for reading it. The heroes are many. She is against the notion of a single protagonist, or hero or saviour. We are all heroes and we all have a role to fulfill to preserve our heritage and to make it more accessible to our people and to the world.
I went to the talk intimidated by the nature of the book, the poetry of al-Mutanabbi whom I had always believed to be controversial and obscure. After the discussion, listening to the passages in Arabic and in English, and hearing Rasha speak in perfect Arabic in a day and time where one takes pride in the many languages one learns and where shifting between languages in the same sentence has become the norm, where the influence of modern terminology devoid of feeling slowly seeps into our native language rendering it dissolute.
Younger generations are becoming less and less attached to Arabic. They aspire to international jobs where they know that strength lies in learning a multitude of languages thereby disregarding their own. One admires the efforts of the Académie française, that acts as an authority on the French language, constantly preserving its language and heritage, insisting on modernizing it and reducing outside influences, whereas the Arabic language that spans a vast stretch of the world is ignored and ridiculed and rendered boring and difficult.
How do we modernize our language and preserve our heritage and save it from inevitable decadence? Where is it going and what are we doing with it? These are some of the questions raised during the inspiring conversation between Rasha al-Ameer and Jonathan Wright last Wednesday. I left the talk determined to read Yawm al-Din in Arabic. That is perhaps the little part I can play since I am a native speaker of Arabic, to read in Arabic to appreciate the original, and then to read the translation to appreciate the work of art and the feat that Jonathan Wright has accomplished. The ultimate goal of Rasha al-Ameer is to preserve our heritage and to bring it to the forefront. Wright’s challenge has been an answer to that call and an attempt to make this story and the poetry of al-Mutanabbi more accessible.
Six Arabic editions and two international ones are only the beginning, though. We look forward to another masterpiece from Rasha al-Ameer and another striking translation from Jonathan Wright.
Amira Abd El-Khalek studied English literature and anthropology in Egypt and the UK. She has held academic positions at Ain Shams University and the American University in Cairo and has worked in national and international NGOs. She is an avid reader in English and Arabic, enjoys writing and is passionate about films.