A dose of wisdom from a great civilization

BEIRUT: Historical documents provide valuable insights into the character of past cultures, as much for the opinions, style and approach of the authors as the facts they purport to relate.

In “The Literary Heritage of the Arabs: An Anthology,” editors Suheil Bushrui and James M. Malarkey attempt to capture the essence of Arab culture through a representative sample of the entire corpus of Arabic literature – from the pre-Islamic period through to the 20th century.

As Bushrui and Malarkey point out in the introduction, the book is the first of its kind to be attempted in English translation. Unsurprisingly, this ambitious project is not a comprehensive guide to Arabic literature as a whole. A skim of the Wikipedia page on the subject will provide a more detailed overview of the various types of Arabic literature, their historical significance and their key proponents.

“Literary Heritage” seems to deliberately steer clear of augmenting selected texts with context, focusing instead on providing a range of translation from various sources.

These have been selected not because they are the best, the editors explain, but in order to show as wide a spectrum of styles as possible.

Consequently the anthology becomes more of a study of techniques in Arabic-English translation than Arabic literature, including one memorable translation in 16-th century English, complete with Germanic-style capitalization of key words.

Although endnotes provide the source of each text translated, confusingly they do not explain why it was chosen. Readers are left to guess whether a particular version was selected because it succeeds in “conveying the meaning of Arabic texts by neglecting the aspects of form, rhyme and meter,” or because it is “academically worthy at the expense of literary style” – the two camps into which the editors divide most existing English translations of Arabic writing.

The work intends to acquaint the public – accustomed to seeing the Arab world as little more than a perpetual battleground – with the region’s rich culture and heritage.

For a book aimed at a public innocent of Arab culture, however, “Literary Heritage” might prove a bit hard thing to penetrate.

The introduction’s brief historical overview of Arabic literature provides a basic background to each of the seven periods from which the works have been abstracted, referencing key figures in each era in passing. Perplexingly, the book’s organization does not always reflect this schematic.

The editors suggest, for instance, that the “one poem of any importance” from the first three centuries of Islam is to be Ka’b bin Zuhair’s ode to Mohammad, which contains crucial early references to the advent of Islam. Yet for some reason this poem has been placed in the section of the book devoted to Pre-Islamic poetry, making its reference to Mohammad (before the man himself has appeared on the scene) a tad anachronistic.

Similarly the introductory section on Andalusia refers to two of the most-famous writers from Al-Andalus – the Sufi mystic and philosopher Ibn al-Arabi and the polymath Ibn Rushd – but their texts appear not in “Al-Andalus – Arab Spain,” but in “The Abbasid Dynasty.”

It is almost impossible to divide the literary history of a region spanning several thousand miles neatly into periods without having any overlap, and the confusion in this anthology stems not so much from order in which the texts are arranged but the lack of introduction to each.

The original Arabic texts are left undated. While some of the older entries are hard to date with any accuracy, the texts don’t provide the authors’ lifetimes either. Anemic alphabetized biographies of each writer (with dates of birth and death) appear at the back of the book, demanding that uninitiated readers wanting to contextualize the work before reading must undertake a frustrating search through the appendix.

For some pieces this is not a problem. “The Art of Secretaryship,” by the secretary to the last Umayyad caliph, Abd al-Hamid al-Katib, is fairly self-explanatory. Providing a guide to etiquette for others in his trade, it includes such useful advice as, “Should any praise come [to one of you] in the course of his work, he should ascribe the merit to his colleague; any blame he should bear all by himself.”

Likewise 11th-century Andalusian polymath Ibn Hazm’s philosophical reflections on fidelity, betrayal and anxiety are timeless and universally accessible. Many of the poems are also engaging and without need of a historical context.

Abbasid poet Ibn al-Rumi’s comic reflection on vanity, “The Compromise,” for example, consists of just 17 words, “He dyes/ his white hair black/ in part,/ believing some/ will think him wise/ and others/ young.”

Andalusian poet Ibn Quzman’s “The Radish” also needs no introduction. This medieval Arabic precursor to the English “Beans, beans, good for your heart” laments the tendency of radishes to cause excessive passing of gas.

The want of introduction makes other texts hard to penetrate and flenses them of their historical importance. Rabia al-Adawiya – not only one of the earliest-known Sufi poets but also one of the few female authors to make the cut – is represented by a single poem, without establishing her important contributions both to Arabic poetry and to Sufism.

An extract from sixth-century historian Ibn Ishaq’s biography of Mohammad is included but, again, the lack of context means uninitiated readers will have no idea of the text’s importance. The isnads – chains of authority tracing the oral transmission of incidents from person to person, which are meant to ensure that facts are traced back to a reliable source – are included, but no explanation is given of their purpose.

Several translations also include unexplained transliterations, referring to concepts such as dar al-harb and dar al-Islam, which are not elucidated for non-Arabic-speaking readers.

“Literary Heritage” is a considerable undertaking, in spite of its drawbacks. It does succeed in providing a fairly extensive selection of work by many of the key figures in Arabic literary history, with a few notable exceptions. It is the structure, rather than the content of the book which serves it badly. Were the authors’ biographies more readily linked to their texts, much of the confusion might be avoided.

The editors might have learned a thing or two from ninth-century essayist Ibn Qutayba.

“I have classified it into chapters and connected one chapter with one that is like it,” Ibn Qutayba writes of his “Uyun al-Akhbar,” “so that he who is studies it may find it easy to learn, and he who reads may remember it, and he who is in search of something may turn to it.”

“The Literary Heritage of the Arabs: An Anthology,” edited by Suheil Bushrui and James M. Malarkey, is published by Saqi Books. It is available from Librairie Antoine and other discriminating bookstores.





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