Islamic fundamentalists have forgotten their own heritage of women writers and extraordinary Arab mythby Robert Chandler / November 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
Published in November 2001 issue of Prospect Magazine
While a strong, expansive culture can afford to be tolerant, a culture that feels beleaguered, like that of the Arab world today, tends to close in on itself, to narrow its own boundaries. As paranoia grows, an ever-shrinking cultural space is defended with increasing ferocity. Not only does it become difficult for artists and writers to be receptive to the work of other cultures-it becomes hard for them to acknowledge some of the most interesting elements in their own. The two most exciting books I have read this year, both published some time ago by small publishers, are by Abdullah al-Udhari. A poet and translator of Arabic verse, born in Yemen in 1941, he has long resisted these pressures. Now, as the words Islam and terrorism become almost inseparable in many people’s imagination, al-Udhari’s work seems still more important. I know of no other books that so vividly convey the richness and diversity of a culture more closely related to our own than most of us realise. Al-Udhari’s Classical Poems by Arab Women (Saqi Books, 1999) includes the original Arabic and his own English translations of poetry as witty and sensual as the surviving fragments of Sappho. Many of these poets lived in Arab Andalucia, one of the most tolerant cultures ever to have existed in Europe. Hafsa, who lived in 12th-century Granada, has lines like: Ask the lightning when it roarrips the nightcalm if it’s seen my man as it makes me think of him… If you were not a star I would be in the dark. Al-Udhari resists not only the tendency within much of contemporary Islam to deny the creativity of women, but an equally entrenched tendency to deny the worth of pre-Islamic Arab culture. One of the most powerful poems in this volume was written in the 6th century, by Jalila bint Murra. Her husband, a tribal king, has been murdered by her brother, and her husband’s sister accuses her of complicity. Jalila laments: “I am the killer and killed.” No feud, between families, nations or cultures, is ever resolved until all parties can say such words. Al-Udhari’s greatest translation, however, is probably his epic the Arab Creation Myth (Archangel Books, 1997). From a variety of sources-folk-tales (some of which he heard in his own childhood), fragments of pre-Islamic texts, the Koran itself-he has assembled a coherent narrative of the Arab creation myth. Anyone who knows Genesis will be familiar with the outline of some of the stories, but the details are delightfully different. Qaabeel’s murder of Haabeel, for example, is more clearly motivated than Cain’s murder of Abel. Both Qaabeel and Haabeel have twin sisters, but Qaabeel’s is beautiful while Haabeel’s is ugly. Understandably, Qaabeel resents Allah’s decree that he and Haabeel should each marry the other’s twin. Many scenes are comic: Al-Udhari understands that the sacred can embrace levity as well as gravity. After being expelled from paradise for corrupting Adam, Shaitaan addresses the genii on earth: “The earth is free from Allah’s angels who don’t mind their own business and are never tired of sending reports to Allah about everything and nothing.” This Shaitaan is the same “Great Satan” invoked by Iranian mullahs attacking America. He is less uniformly black than the Christian Satan, not so much the ultimate embodiment of evil as a troublesome fool. Other passages from the Arab myth, however, are as solemn as anything in the King James Bible. In one of the last chapters Allah explains to Adam the meaning of death: “When you or any of your offspring die you will be buried in a grave in the earth, and your bodies will turn into soil so the earth can recover what she had lost.” Translators complain often enough about their invisibility in our culture, but Abdullah al-Udhari seems to have become more invisible than most. The two volumes discussed above can be obtained only at the most specialist of bookshops. After Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, English publishers have shied away from books containing any reference to Allah that is not po-faced. Al-Udhari has also published excellent English editions of contemporary Arab poets. If we want to understand something of the despair now endemic in so much of the middle east, we need only go to his translations of the Palestinian Mahmoud Darwish or to lines like these from The New Noah by the Syrian-born Adonis: Lord, our fear of the sun Runs in our blood. We have lost faith in light, We have lost faith in tomorrow Where we used to begin a new life.