Workshops’ blog


Posts on the workshop series 2019-2021 by Eleanor Myerson

Eleanor Myerson is a CHASE-funded PhD candidate at Birkbeck College School of Arts, researching the transmission of ideas and objects from Syria to medieval England. She previously took her MSt in Medieval Literature at Oxford University, where she held the Jeremy Griffiths Memorial Studentship, and her BA in English at Cambridge University, where she received a number of awards, including the Derek Brewer Prize for Medieval Literature and the T.R. Henn Prize for Original Composition. She is currently learning Arabic.

11th June 2021, workshop: We Wrote in Symbols; Love and Lust by Arab Women Writers

Selma Dabbagh and Emily Selove

Friday’s session was a landmark for the workshop series – we were celebrating what Marina Warner described as the project’s ‘first baby’. The recently published and already acclaimed anthology, We Wrote in Symbols: Love and Lust by Arab Women Writers is edited by British-Palestinian author Selma Dabbagh, who has been a regular participant in these workshops since their inception. A number of the other writers featured in the anthology have also spoken at or attended these workshops – and what is more, We Wrote in Symbols is a book which brilliantly foregrounds the central tenets of the series. Featuring 75 writers from Classical to contemporary eras, the anthology encourages readers to make connections across time periods. Texts translated from Arabic and French are included alongside texts originally composed in English, with several authors seeing their work translated into English for the first time.

Screenshot from the end of the workshop, with some of the participants.

Dabbagh led us through a reading exercise, comparing different translations of a couplet by the poet Umm ad-Dahak al-Muharibiyya, from the Jahiliyyah period: ‘The cure of love is kissing and embracing and dragging bellies over bellies and thrusting until the eyes are bathed in tears, and pulling hair and horn’. The debate continued among the group – should love be read as the disease, or the cure – and how should the anatomical tropes of Classical Arabic love poetry be rendered in modern English? Conversation focused around the word ‘البطن’ – should it be translated as belly, gut, stomach, body – are any of these English words sexy enough – and do any of them accurately convey the implications of the unknown, since ‘بطن’ also means to conceal, or be concealed?

We then moved onto exercises led by Emily Selove, whose collaborative translation with Geert Jan van Gelder (our speaker from last week) is included in Dabbagh’s collection. Selove introduced us to the vividly rude letters of Zād-Mihr, a 10th century courtesan, addressed to her master Ibn Jumhūr. We read an exemplary extract – transcribed from the unique manuscript of the Hikayat Abi l-Qasim in the British Library – with Selove’s translation: ‘damn your eyes, Ibn Jumhūr – you’ve become a Sodomite! […] I can compete with you, blow by blow. If you get into boys, I’ll take lovers, if you get into girls, I’ll do some tribbing’. Be warned, if you Google the Classical Arabic term ‘ساحق’ you may want to delete your browsing history. Unlike the erotic nineteenth-century diaries of Anne Lister (described by Emma Donoghue as the ‘Dead Sea scrolls’ of lesbian history), which were written in code and published long after Lister and her lovers had passed on, Zād-Mihr’s letters were wonderfully popular in Abbasid Iraq. Selove described a culture of ‘normalized hedonistic bisexuality’ – refreshingly concrete in its expression.

For anyone tired of hearing the same old stories in the same voices – We Wrote in Symbols is available from Saqi books now, and there couldn’t be a better advert for these sessions.

4th June 2021, workshop: Wordplay: The Paradoxical Freedom of Constraints

Geert Jan van Gelder and Philip Terry

At last – we’re back. Appropriately enough, our discussion for this first online workshop was the freedom of constraint. Constrained to meet virtually, we were free to welcome participants from around the world – a great advantage and pleasure, to be able to talk simultaneously across borders, and entirely fitting for the discursive, comparative aims of this series.

In fact, this workshop was the first wholly comparative session to date, with Geert Jan van Gelder bringing his expertise in Classical Arabic poetry into dialogue with poet and translator Philip Terry’s knowledge of Oulipo. Oulipo – ‘the Workshop of Potential Literature’ – was founded in France in 1960, famous for experimental texts such as George Perec’s novel La Disparition (translated by Gilbert Adair as A Void), written entirely without using the letter ‘e’.

So what does Oulipo have in common with Classical Arabic verse? It turned out – a huge amount. From the repetitive stories of al-Harīrī’s Maqamat to the densely alliterative verse of Ibn Sukkarah, we saw a variety of Oulipoetic techniques anticipated in a wholly different context. Classical Arabic poetry revelled in highly technical, deliberately self-imposed rules, such as writing using only dotted or undotted letters, creating pangrams (using all the letters of the alphabet), palindromes or lippograms (omitting certain letters, like Perec).

The dense wordplay of Classical Arabic verse often appears untranslatable, reliant on highly technical, grammatical double entendre or other forms of wordplay embedded in the particularity of the Arabic language. The avant-garde, modern movement gave us a model through which we were able to bring fragments of these Arabic texts into English.

Geert Jan van Gelder challenged us to translate a single line from a love poem by al- al-Ḥaymī al-Kawkabānī (d. c. 1151/1738): ‘Yajurru bi-nūni ṣ-ṣudghi qalbiya li-l-ʾasā | wa-mā khiltu anna n-nūna min ʾaḥrufi l-jarrī’. Literally, the line reads: ‘He drags my heart to grief by the ‘n’ of his sidelock / I did not know that the letter ‘n’ was one of the letters of pulling’. If the literal translation falls flat, it is unsurprising – the text relies on the double meaning of jarr as both ‘to drag’ and ‘the genitive case’, as well as the curved shape of the Arabic letter nūn. Working collaboratively, different versions were offered. The Latin letters ‘c’ – opening up puns on ‘sea’ – and ‘j’ – a hook-like letter – were suggested as alternatives to ‘n’. I speculated that punctuation might help: ‘the tangled ampersand of your hair stirs my heart – I didn’t know that I could feel so joined to a strand’.

Although Terry emphasized the specific origins of Oulipo as a movement (as a reaction against Surrealism, as a means of processing the traumas of the Holocaust) there appeared to be a serendipity in the closeness of these works produced in different languages and eras. Introduced side by side, Oulipo and Classical Arabic poetry spoke to each other easily, irresistibly – and allowed us to join in their conversation.

24th January 2020, workshop: Glow of the Senses: Women Writing of Love and Loss

Huzama Habayeb and Hanan al-Shaykh

Our third workshop welcomed two acclaimed authors, Huzama Habayeb, the Palestinian novelist, journalist and poet, and Hanan al-Shaykh, the Lebanese novelist, journalist and playwright. Each writer is lauded for her ability to convey women’s experience with candour and pathos – indeed with such erotic candour that both have had their works banned in the past.

Huzama Habayeb read to us from her recent novel, ‘Velvet’. The novel focused on a single day in the life of Hawwa, our protagonist, whose memories of abusive relationships continually resurface as she goes about her business in Baqa’a Camp, Jordan. What is remarkable about Habayeb’s writing is that her unflinching descriptions of abuse and suffering are paired with equally evocative passages in which the everyday luxuries of fabric, food, colour and music are foregrounded and celebrated. We see the doors of residents’ dwellings, painted painstakingly with mustard yellow, apricot lattices, pistachio designs and amber edges. We are invited to smell velvet, its warmth, its depth, its sensuality. And perhaps most of all, we hear the voice of Fairuz, whose music is quoted throughout the text. Huzama Habayeb sang rather than read Fairuz’s lyrics – ‘My home is yours, I have no one’ – and many others in the room joined her. Participants shared their own associations and memories of Fairuz: for one, her voice conjured the smell of burnt milk.

In Hanan al-Shaykh’s short story, ‘The Land of the Sun’, a car becomes a dot of green colour in the Saudi desert. The scene described is one of horror: a burning vehicle. The attention to the visual both enhances and distracts, both renders the image fixed in the mind and offers us a lifeline of alternative associations.

It is often the nonverbal element in literature which gives rise to its affect: the illusion of touch or smell prompting the reader’s own – sometimes disparate – memories and feelings. The nonverbal can aid the process of translation: after all, if the impact of a text is not contained by language, then this impact should carry easily across from one language to another. At the same time, translating the senses brings other challenges. The memory of burnt milk immanent for one reader in a line of Fairuz is entirely absent for a reader who has never heard her songs. How would this latter reader be brought to appreciate the text as much as the former?

The answer is surely that the process of reading must become one of sensory immersion. The transnational experiences of taste and touch can lead the way into a text in translation. Habayeb and al-Shaykh invite us to see and to feel beyond language, to empathize, that is, in a fuller meaning, requiring all our senses.


6th December 2019, workshop: The Poetics of the Tale

Yasmine Seale & Robert Irwin

What does it mean for a woman to translate the Arabian Nights into English? On the 6th of December we were privileged to welcome a number of people who must be among the best placed to answer this question.

Yasmine Seale’s translation will make her the first woman to translate the complete Arabian Nights into English. In so doing, Seale fulfills an urgent need: the Nights are framed as Shahrazad’s tales: a woman’s voice ripples through them. It must be remembered that the ‘first’ always follows in others’ footsteps, as Wafa’ Tarnowska – one of the participant to the workshop – was able to remind us all in person; Tarnowkska was the first woman to translate a selection of the Nights into English, in a version aimed at children and enjoyed by all.

Of course, the question of what the ‘complete’ Nights might comprise is itself a complex issue. At the workshop, Robert Irwin was on hand to offer his expert insights into the history of the manuscripts and editions of the Nights, providing the essential grounding for our discussions. The Nights were formed through unfolding processes of written, oral and scribal interventions in tradition: ‘completion’ is not to mean ‘closure’.

As appropriate for the subject, then, the workshop was highly performative. Wafa’ Tarnowska read to us from the original Arabic, replete with dramatic voices and rapping on the table. Yasmin Seale next read her new translation of ‘The Story of the Porter and the Three Women’: the first public reading, a rare treat for all who were present.

Indeed, in this story the question of women’s relationship to language is given a playful prominence. The porter is welcomed into the women’s home, where they tease him in turn, naked, each asking him to guess the correct name for – well, to quote from Seale’s version: “Your womb”, guesses the porter, incorrectly. “Your mound”, “Your cunt”, “Your sting”, “Your dip”, “your dingle, your disclosure” are all roundly dismissed. So what is the correct answer?

For the woman known as “the keeper”, it is her “Basil of bridges”. For “the buyer”, it is her “sesame seed” (“Hallelujah!” cries the porter). For the third woman, it is “Hotel happiness”. The women gesture gleefully to the variety in their embodied experience, the unknowability of another’s sexuality, the ridiculous imprecision of language with respect to the body, the twofold games of speech and gender.

Seale’s translation has an immediacy and a fluency which will make it a must read text. The never-finishing fluidity of the tales is reflected in her rippling sentence-less writing: Seale avoids full stops throughout the whole text, from beginning to end (if there is indeed an end…). The result is a voice which demands continued performance; which invites us to listen, read and participate: to feel the Nights are ours.

Shahrazad’s voice is thus given another lease of life in English, undoubtedly benefitting from translation by an author who knows what it means to perform womanhood, to speak a woman’s voice into being. But as Seale reminds us, one woman’s “sesame seed” is another’s “hotel happiness”.


8th November 2019, workshop: Pilgrimage and Beyond

Haifa Zangana & Wen-chin Ouyang

The first workshop of this series saw Haifa Zangana in conversation with Wen-chin Ouyang, before opening out into a collaborative group translation exercise. Fluent Arabic speakers and those without any Arabic at all were able to contribute alike to a discussion which gravitated around ideas of place and the act of translation.

Haifa Zangana, Wen-chin Ouyang and Marina Warner in the Keynes Library with the other participants to the first workshop of the 2019-2020 series

These themes are captured in Haifa Zengana’s short story, “There is such Other” (1999), translated by Wen-chin Ouyang, which sees Ghada on a “literary journey” to Dylan Thomas’ house in Swansea. “This neighbourhood reminds me of High Gate in London,” she remarks as the group walks along. The casual remark is taken seriously: “The German asked her with great concern: ‘Are you homesick?’ ‘No, not at all!’” Ghada responds. “It’s my way of getting to know a place.” Her companion is not satisfied: “‘You’ll miss something important if you do this,’ the German responded. ‘you won’t feel the excitement of discovery because you’ll be transforming new places into familiar ones.’”

Zengana’s scene clings in the mind, an ostensibly brief moment which leads into many of the pressing questions which occupied us during the workshop. What does it mean to ‘transform’ a ‘new place’ into a ‘familiar one’? Should an English translation retain local, Arabic idioms? or should the translator substitute English phrases, foreign to the text but familiar to the reader?

We continued our investigation through reading an excerpt of Ibn Battuta, the fourteenth-century Moroccan traveller: his journey from al-Majar to Bish-Dagh, describing the Sultan’s moving camp. The extract is crammed with different words for place: ‘mu’askar’, a camp; ‘mahalla’, a site; ‘jāwarahā’, neighbourhood; ‘manzil’, a settlement (rather than, as in its contemporary usage, a house). The group split to discuss and analyse the text, and regathered to read out the translations we had produced. Variously interpreted around the room, we found ourselves ending with the same issues with which we had begun. Ibn Battuta’s places are necessarily transformed as they move from Arabic into English, from the fourteenth century to the twenty-first. So how ‘new’, or how ‘familiar’, should Ibn Battuta feel to the reader accessing his words in translation? And what will the reader ‘miss’, if Bish-Dagh begins to feel too much like home? The questions, of course, remain unanswered – to be continued, next month.

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