Transitions and Translations

As I transition into a phase of my life that brings with it many changes — professional, intellectual, spatial, geographical, social — within this indeed will come some emotional, creative, and personal changes. As I make this transition, I want to really spend time working on things that nourish me personally. These are the things that keep me up late at night regardless of looming awakenings at the treacherous hour of 5 AM; things that bring me light; things that, when I experience them or see them or create them, I feel whole. These are the things I think about during late night drives home, thoughts accompanied only with the silent hiss of a Malboro Ultra Light cigarette. These are the things that give us light, that give us sustenance, that direct us to ourselves.

It is my hope that, as a teacher, I have helped lead my students towards their path of discovering these things or provided them maps or trails or compasses to assist them with the discovery of their respective paths. This is also my hope for my friends, my family, and those who have found their way into and sometimes out of my life. Finding this “thing” has provided me a purpose, if not merely a healthy indulgence in gratification, in my life.

I found these things long ago, in living rooms of ex-boyfriends, where I first found rapture in the mystical realism of Mahmoud Darwish’s “Speech of the Red Indian,” where I lodged myself in the extant anachronism of two peoples’ colonization, extermination, immortalization. I found these things when I would awaken in my frigid dorm room hours before my awakening was due, with a visceral urge to listen to my CD recording of Suheir Hammad’s “Bint El Neel” (@ 6:18) just to hear her repeat that line until it sounded like a note. I found these things when I sat on worn couches in rented apartments on Egyptian streets that were named for swords and nationalists, where, from patient, dark-eyed teachers, I learned to hear the whimsical cadence of Ahmad Fouad Nigm and imbibe the simple imagery of Nizar Qabbani. I felt these things in one language but I understood them in another.

It was in these moments that I diagnosed an unrelenting itch to translate: to translate an orthodox Arabic into a derivative English; to translate the pidgined Arabeezi into unfamiliar letters and numbers; or to even translate the concrete into rapture, the idiosyncratic into universal. It is in that chasm between the original text and the translated text, the feeling and the words, the signifier and signified, in the crevice between life and word, in that fated dissonance of mind and body that I truly found humanity. I’ve never been a religious person but I have always sought meaning – I either looked for it or created it. I have not enough faith to rely upon one book or word to show me the purpose, the function, or the breadth of humanity. Our humanity lies in the impossibility of definition for if we have successfully found a singular way to define ourselves, we have confined our entire existence. In our essence, we are ambiguous; we are undefined; we are merely stardust — what I mean is that we are water and flesh and blood and, well, those really are just made of carbon and carbon comes from… actually, we ultimately are that stardust. And that stardust, whose origins and makers have been at the caprices of words, words across cultures and continents, ages and prophecies, metaphorical colloquialisms and scrupulous denotations. With words, we have defined the divine – even though the word and experience of the word has changed over time.

Our humanity lies in the infinite capacity of language and its asymptotical attempts to define, create, and transform the self. It is often said that things are not only expressed but experienced differently in each language –being “inside” of a home is different than being “fi qalbuhu” (in its heart). My hope for humanity and my belief in the divine lies in how much we can create and discover, experience and translate in those chasms, crevices, and dissonances.

While my recanting of the fleeting moments in which my “itch” has found me is romanticized, I needed to find ways to experience these “things” more often and more robustly. I did this last summer in July of 2012. Having spent the previous year living back in my childhood home, I found no translations, no ambiguity. The things, scenes, people that moved me the last time I had been there, when I was seventeen, had remained static, or, admittedly, my experience of these things, scenes, and people may have stagnated. I desperately needed a change so, thanks to the homesickness and requisite familial hospitality of my sister, I “borrowed” her Ann Arbor apartment for a month to recuperate, rediscover, and re-experience – all of this was free of charge, of course.  During this month, I was finally able to experience Ann Arbor, tree city, as an independent, self-sufficient adult and not the sleepless, chaos-prone, scatterbrained student I once was. The first thing I did was buy a dictionary-thick notebook and I began to translate. I first transcribed Arabic poetry into the notebook, recording words and phrases that were unfamiliar, and then I ventured so far as to translate the Arabic poetry that had so moved and swayed me in its original tongue that I wanted to understand it in the razor-sharp precision of English. That summer, I committed myself to transcribing or translating at least one substantial Arabic poem a day, no matter how long it took. This is probably the routine I have been the most loyal to – throughout my entire life. That loyalty brings me here, to my “publishing” my first translations.

From Detroit Red’s dictionary to the pre-Islamic Arabian god, Leila, who was considered to be a woman because the only word for night was in the feminine form, a word has defined or at least narrowed the experience of the self – be it self in relation to identity or self in relation to god. By translating across literatures and languages, here is my attempt to widen the breadth of human experience.

Nizar Qabbani described English as “a comfortable chair,” “the language of economy and legislation.” He said that it “conveys what it intends to without elaboration, nor with any undesired additions or embellishments.” Precise, exact, concrete. What I assume to be a refreshing but also alienating exercise was that he actually tried to apply the “economical” principles of English to his poetry. While, childishly, it breaks my heart to imagine that Nizar Qabbani, the prolific translator of feelings into lush Arabic words, abbreviated his expression with English, it’s also a humbling testament to the idiosyncrasies of the varying experiences we can have with mere shifts in language. Nizar, whom I instinctively refer to by his first name for some fantastical ruse of closeness, often provides many metaphors for one thing while sometimes he takes one metaphor, expanding it into a conceit and immersing the reader into his own vision of a woman, a nation, a rainshower. Naturally, the first poem I translated from Arabic to English had to be one of Nizar’s. This poem “لا تحسبين جميلة,” like many other self-dubbed Nizariyyat, struck me as one that bore the intimate exactness of English along with the flourishes and elaborations that Arabic endows.  I could not find an English translation of it online so I took it upon myself to try. Translation is a presumptuous yet ambitious task and here is my humble (yet inherently arrogant) attempt.

You are not considered beautiful

You are not considered very beautiful.

If I were to take the measurements of beauty, you would not be considered a fit.

If the conversation were pregnant with seduction and temptation, you would not be considered dangerous.

If desire were defined as a woman controlling the fate of men, then this, in you, is hidden secretly…

Mystically… sexually… poetically…

Inciting me, disquieting me, carrying me to thousands of possibilities upon possibilities.

You are not considered very beautiful,

But there is something within you that penetrates masculinity,

Like the scent of wine and like the essence of tangerine…

Something that surprises me,

And burns me,

And drowns me,

And abandons me between fact and fiction.

You are not considered beautiful,

But something in you, in the water of you, the childhood of you, the beginning of you, the civility of you, the Iraq of you, the Damascus of you,

speaks to me and refuses to answer my question.

You are not considered beautiful.

But something in you has convinced me,

And has taught me reading, and writing, and the alphabet.

Therefore, in the comb she uses to brush her hair in its comfort…

Therefore, in the tiny sparrow who has come to drink from her innermost streams,

God, in all his majesty, has rendered a woman a cause.

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