Friday, May 26, 2017

Ahmad Faris Shidyaq, Leg Over Leg or The Turtle in the Tree concerning The Fariyaq What Manner of Creature Might He Be otherwise entitled Days, Months, and Years spent in Critical Examination of The Arabs and Their Non-Arab Peers by The Humble Dependent on His Lord the Provider, Faris ibn Yusuf al-Shidyaq (1855)

That title SHOULD include a number of macrons (straight lines over vowels), but I cannot for the life of me figure out how to type them, so just DEAL with it.  This also applies to the bits of the novel I quote.

Shidyaq (1805-1887) was to all appearances an extremely interesting guy; Lebanese-born, he travelled widely throughout the Muslim and Christian worlds working as an editor, publisher, translator, teacher, and writer. Leg Over Leg, I am told, is considered a landmark text in modern Arabic literature, about which I think most Anglophones know little. It's been compared to Sterne and Rabelais, but it had never been translated into English until 2014. Which...well, we'll get to that. But for starters: whoa! You GOTTA be interested in that shit!

So the first question is, what is this book about? And the second question is, is it even a novel? Both of these are a bit difficult to answer. I suppose you'd say it's a long, loosely-autobiographical philosophical and linguistic treatise full of puns and other japery. One of its main features is long lists of obscure Arabic words and their definitions. As for whether you'd call it a novel...well, if so, I think it's really just for lack of anything else to call it. I mean, it's definitely less novelistic than Tristram Shandy, which features characters and action in a way that this really doesn't.

As for what I thought about it: well, it's divided into four volumes. Originally, the English translation was likewise published in four facing bilingual books. Subsequently, it was published in two cheaper, monolingual books of two volumes each (which is interesting, because the Library of Arabic Literature does not generally do such things; one can only assume that there was some hope that this would reach a somewhat wider audience--good luck with that). I found the first two fairly engaging. Really, not much of a plot; a series of anecdotes about how people are and about what's going on with the Fariyaq (Shidyaq's barely-veiled alter-ego). The third and fourth...well, they were a bit heavier going, for whatever reason. Here the Shidyaq's wife is introduced, and there is a LOT of debate about gender roles and whatnot, along with his travels in Europe, where he moans a lot about English and French customs. To be honest, I was kinda glad to be done. Fariyaq also has a rather unloveable pet peeve about people who are SPEAKING ARABIC WRONG; whether it be native speakers or foreign scholars studying the language, he has nothing but contempt for anyone who doesn't speak it up to his standards, which is most people. The LAST THING IN THE BOOK is a little postscript about the horribleness of foreigners trying to use it. I mean, I appreciate that you love the intricacies of your native language; I strongly relate to that and find it endearing. But bitching about people not using it up to your standards is just a dickish thing to do. God forbid I should ever be like that to anyone studying English (and I'll bloody well bet that if I had heard Shidyaq's English, I could've found things to object to).

STILL. The real point here is this: there's a reason this hadn't been translated into English before. Well...more than one. But most to the point is this: it is flatly untranslatable. Sorry, but that's the way it is. This is more true than it is for anything else I've ever read. The text is just SO based on Arabic linguistics that trying to put it into English inevitably takes away a lot of the point of the thing. There are copious footnotes explaining puns that don't translate (pretty much all of them), but what do you GET from that? The knowledge that what you just read was wordplay. Certainly nothing in any way edifying.

But we have to look at the lists to get to the real problem. These are fundamental to the book, and they cannot be adequately translated. There are two kinds: ones that list obscure Arabic words on the left and definitions on the right, and plain ol' lists in the regular text with commas. Let's take these in turn.

The translator, Humphrey Davies (and all credit to him for doing the best anyone could've with an impossible task), says that these are obscure words, and that they would look very strange to Arabic readers. That's all very well for them, but an Anglophone reader unschooled in Arabic is not going to be able to tell which words look strange and which ones not; plus, there are LOTS AND LOTS of them that are just synonyms with similar English translations. So you have things like:

the mihaffah, "a conveyance for women"
or the farfar, "a conveyance fore women
or the haml or himl, "a camel litter"
or the hilal, "a conveyance for women"
or the kadn,"a conveyance for women"
or the qa'sh, "a conveyance like a camel litter"
or the maharah, "something like a camel litter"
or the qa'adah,"a conveyance for women"
or the katr, "a small camel litter"

...and it's just not especially compelling.

As for the second kind of list, Humphries actually changes his approach to translating these from the first and second volumes to the third and fourth. In the first two, we get things like this (a list of different ways women have of walking):

her skelping and her stepping quick, her tripping quickly along with short steps and three other ways of walking, each with a difference of one letter, and her walking nicely, her limping, and a fourth way of walking with yet another letter changed . . . and a fifth way of walking, with further letters changed

Obviously, this whole bit about "letters changed" is an attempt to put the Arabic into English, but it's obviously not satisfactory. Perhaps sensing this, in the latter half of the book Humphries abandons this approach; instead, each list comes with the following footnoted disclaimer: "the following list of words related to [X] is shorter than in the original and is intended as a representation, not a one-to-one translation, of the latter, using words from the same semantic areas drawn from thesauri, dictionaries, and other lexical resources." So we lost the unnatural approach of the earlier sections, but in return, we get something even further from the original text. I don't know which of these approaches is less-bad, but it is emphatically the case that neither of them are giving us a clear idea of Shidyaq's text; at best, we're seeing it through a glass extremely darkly. This may have value in itself, but I think it's fair to say that without a working knowledge of Arabic, you are never ever going to really appreciate it.

However, to end on a positive note, there's one particular section I really liked, where it felt like the lists were really effective and amusing. It's about how badly men want women: "...he'd be shrieking, 'A woman! A woman! Who will get me a woman!,' and if you set him down in a [ten-page list of places] he wouldn't stop yelling, 'A woman! A Woman! Who will get me a woman?' and 'No life without a woman!' In fact, even if he ascended to [two-page list of words for Heaven] he would set about yelling with all the force his throat could muster, 'A woman! A woman! So long as I am human I must have a woman!' and if you were to show him such wonders as [six-list of wonders]...and so on.

It's pretty entertaining. And actually, let me share some entries from this list of wonders. Let it be known that these really aren't representative of the novel; most of the lists are much more banal. But these are pretty cool and funny and strange and evocative.

the Asafir, "a kind of tree called 'Who Has Seen My Like?' which has the shape of birds plentiful in Persia"

Abu Urwah, "a man who shouted 'Lions!' and then died, and when his belly was cut open, his heart was found to have moved from one place in his body to another"

Sukaynah, "the name of the bedbug that got up Numrudh's nose"

the jassasah, "a beast to be found on islands that seeks out news and passes it on to the Antichrist"

the zaba'ra, "a beast that can carry an elephant on its horn"

the aqam, "a fish, or a snake that lives in the sea--the lion comes from the land and whistles on the shore, the aqam comes out to it, and they intertwine; then they part and each returns to its dwelling"

bint tabaq, "the tortoise, which lays ninety-nine eggs, all of which are tortoises, and one more, which hatches to reveal a snake"

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