Monday, 2 March 2015

Contemporary Iraqi Fiction - Shakir Mustafa - Musing on learning French and Arabic (long)

Contemporary Iraqi Fiction - translated and edited by Shakir Mustafa

I had my eye on this for ages. Every time I put it in my Amazon basket the price would rise after a few hours, so I'd put it back again. Eventually I realised I'd have to buy it immediately at the lower price.

It came from the public library in Blue Ridge Boulevard in Kansas City. Now it is in Oxfordshire in my private library. One day I will be lending it out to the Didcot circle of Arabic in Translation readers. I live in hope.

The editor and translator is Shakir Mustafa. How keen, to translate and put it all together? Syracuse University Press published it. Their book list.

I have picked out some stories, but really they need the other stories around them, so I can't single any out. It isn't fair. I could list their names and authors, and just give hints.

Mahmoud Saeed - 'A Figure in Repose' - knock at the door in the night
Salima Salih - 'Those Boys' - growing up in Germany
Mayselun Hadi - 'Her Realm of the Real' - a love story
Muhammad Khodayyir - 'The House of Names' - a birth story
Samira Al-Mana - 'That Thing We Call Age' - observing intimacy

Short stories are far more visual than poems or blogs, my usual reading. Each one could be turned into a screen play, such as the clear one I read recently on the Hall Writers' Forum. Then turned into films. A huge series of experimental mini-films.

They are strangely uniform and universal, no details, just the essentials, the father, the mother, the door, the soldier. Rather like the parables. Timeless. Demonstrating a circularity, opposite to our conviction that progress and change occurs and is unstoppable.

When does our writing become timeless? When it deals with birth, death? Mainly it is set in a time with a political flavour and particular transient ethos and set of explorations of thought. Yes, so different. The whole point is to include elements of Thatcher's Britain and the Poll Tax Riots or London in 2003. Beckett steps outside time though. Now I have lost myself!


I like the biographical page for each author. It gives a counterbalance to the stories. Since they are all alive, I think, and so am I, there is an interesting potential for seeing them in London or Oxford at some reading in the future.

The bios pretty much all include the move away from Iraq, I'd wait for the phrase 'left Iraq' in each one, or a smoother version of the same fact, 'went to xyz to study'.

They remind me of the calls I received at Standard Life. Always a problem, always interestingly different from the one before, always composed of the same sequence of errors and growing irritation. I'd say soothingly "Hmm, that shouldn't have happened."

Mainly people would calm down and I'd sort the problems out. Apart from one person I hung up on. I shouldn't even have answered the call, it was well after 5pm, but I decided to be generous. The man bawled and shouted, to my shock, so that went very badly!

There it is: stories lead to other stories and life trundles on. I think I could read Middle Eastern stories until I am 80 and find myself treading the same ground, just with ever increasing perceptions of the tiny variations being presented to me.

At some level the evened-out English might be the problem. Once I get to a certain point I will have to shift into Arabic entirely and leave the translators' life work behind.

Unfair on the translators, but it's like leaving a teacher behind, it has to be done. They can be a friend, but no longer the person you show your ignorance to every week. That's rubbish, I'd love to keep all my teachers, but on a 50/50 basis, I teach you x and you teach me y.

When did I ever read French in translation? Extremely rarely, only when I couldn't buy the 2nd hand original. For O level I didn't read texts, but then for A level that is all we did, so I just read and read and read. Easier ones at first, no Montaigne essays or Villon!

I just can't remember being unable to read French text in the way I am with Arabic now. What we did then was perfectly paced, while I haven't had any Arabic literature teaching yet and am muddling along by myself. No wonder it's all a bit home educational.

I have a plan to make my own reader of parallel texts. The first paragraphs of several short stories in E and A. A selection of short poems in E and A. I have several of these to hand, including a book with many small pieces of prose poetry strewn about in the text. Things are looking up, yet again.

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