Aḥmad Fāris al-Shidyāq - Akin to Sterne and Rabelais in his satirical outlook and technical inventiveness, al-Shidyaq produced a work that is unique and unclassifiable. It was initially widely condemned for its attacks on authority, its religious skepticism, and its “obscenity”
Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq, Leg Over Leg. Ed. and trans. by Humphrey Davies, NYU Press, 2013. [1855.]
Leg over Leg recounts the life, from birth to middle age, of ‘the Fariyaq,’ alter ego of Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq, a pivotal figure in the intellectual and literary history of the modern Arab world. The always edifying and often hilarious adventures of the Fariyaq, as he moves from his native Lebanon to Egypt, Malta, Tunis, England and France, provide the author with grist for wide-ranging discussions of the intellectual and social issues of his time, including the ignorance and corruption of the Lebanese religious and secular establishments, freedom of conscience, women’s rights, sexual relationships between men and women, the manners and customs of Europeans and Middle Easterners, and the differences between contemporary European and Arabic literatures. Al-Shidyaq also celebrates the genius and beauty of the classical Arabic language.
Akin to Sterne and Rabelais in his satirical outlook and technical inventiveness, al-Shidyaq produced in Leg Over Leg a work that is unique and unclassifiable. It was initially widely condemned for its attacks on authority, its religious skepticism, and its “obscenity,” and later editions were often abridged. This is the first English translation of the work and reproduces the original Arabic text, published under the author’s supervision in 1855.
In my reviews here at the complete review my preference is to simply present and discuss the text in front of me, avoiding author-biography, publishing history, context, and similar incidentals (as I generally prefer to regard them). Obviously, that's not always possible -- discussion of a novel written in reaction to a specific historical event, for example, may demand some discussion of that context and the author's connection to it. It becomes more complicated, too, with older -- 'classical' -- literature, as well as literature from languages and cultures that are likely to be less familiar to most readers. Often, however, in these cases the books under review come with their own introductory material or translator's notes, and I can simply point the reader to that.
This first volume of the four-part Leg Over Leg does come with a Foreword by Rebecca C. Johnson that provides the relevant introductory information on author and text, but here is a case where some if it bears repeating, even in a review. This author, this work, and the series it now appears in, are (I safely assume) entirely new to most of my readers, yet each is of such importance that at least some basic information about them -- even if only cribbed from the Foreword -- deserves to be highlighted.
Johnson notes that the nineteenth-century al-Shidyāq is: "a foundational figure in Arabic literary modernity":
As belletrist, poet, travel writer, translator, lexicographer, grammarian, literary historian, essayist, publisher, and newspaper editor, he is known as a pioneer of modern Arabic literature, a reviver of classical forms, the father of Arabic journalism, and no less than a modernizer of the Arabic language itself.
She calls Leg Over Leg his masterwork -- and notes:
it is acknowledged as one of the most distinguished works of the nineteenth century and an inaugural text of Arab modernity.
That's all just from the first page of the Foreword, and it of course begs the question: why haven't we heard of this guy, and this work ? (And also leaves one wondering: really ?) The text suggests some answers -- most obviously, the difficulties inherent in translation here. Another significant root-cause is surely a general lack of English-speaking interest in and exposure to Arabic literature or any understanding of its evolution (at least for the period between the 'Arabian Nights' and Naguib Mahfouz) -- though this is not all readers' fault, as much has been hard (if not impossible) to come by in English.
Leg Over Leg is one of the first publications in a new series called the Library of Arabic Literature, published by NYU Press. Like Harvard University Press' well-known Loeb Classical Library (dedicated to classical Greek and Latin texts), the Library of Arabic Literature's volumes are bilingual editions -- in this case: "of classical and pre-modern Arabic literature". With this publishing program they are filling a vital (and huge ...) cultural, literary, and historical gap -- and in presenting the texts in bilingual editions make them useful for both scholars and general readers. [I can handle -- at least to the extent that I can look up a word's meaning in a dictionary -- writing in a decent number of languages not written in the Roman alphabet, from Greek to Russian, to the more challenging Japanese or Sanskrit, but have to admit near complete failure to master the Arabic script (so far); nevertheless, I appreciate -- and am tempted by -- having the Arabic original text facing the translation. And regardless of Arabic-illiterate readers such as myself, given how many Arabic-readers/speakers there are the bilingual approach the Library of Arabic Literature is taking is a no-brainer; like the Loebs, these might not always be the definitive scholarly editions of the (original) texts, but they surely will become the standard editions even for university-level readers.]
Leg Over Leg is a four-part work and, in its outlines, autobiographical -- but it is something rather different than just a fictionalized life-story. The first comparison that springs to mind is Tristram Shandy, and it shares a lot, in both its willingness to push the bounds of fiction and in its heavy reliance on humor, with Sterne's novel. Equally important, however, is the author's attention to and fascination with language, and in his 'Author's Notice' al-Shidyāq already makes clear that his lexical interests (and expertise) shape much of the work:
To proceed: everything I have set down in this book is determined by one of two concerns. The first of these is to give prominence to the oddities of the language, including its rare words.
This he does -- with what can seem like a vengeance, offering in his Author's Notice already a litany of examples (and immediately making clear to reader's that the translation-bar is set high here). So, for example, he notes: "among the characteristic associations of the letter ḥ, for example, are amplitude and expansiveness" -- and then gives a slew of examples of words with the letter ḥ that demonstrate this; it makes for a fascinating glimpse into the language, even if obviously much then remains closed to the monolingual reader.
The second 'concern' al-Shidyāq has in the book is with discussing: "the praiseworthy and blameworthy qualities of women", and these two come together with a bang in the opening chapter, 'Raising a Storm' -- a tour de force of a book-opening that with one fell swoop upends whatever expectations readers might have had about how rigid and puritanical writing-in-Arabic is, regarding matters of the flesh or anything else. In discussing how he and others express themselves, the author goes on an extended rant of sorts that also includes a ribald catalogue of variations on both male and female genitalia, and their conjunction. Al-Shidyāq is no suggestive, tip-of-the-iceberg-revealing kind of writer: he's lexicographically maniacal, heaping everything on his plate, to overflowing, leaving no possible alternative -- word or deed -- unmentioned.
While the sexual plays a significant role in the work -- indeed, he compares writing the work itself to the sexual act, writing in another bit of preliminary matter, his 'Proem', how: "when I ejaculated the book, I was left drained" -- but there's considerably more to this work, which is fundamentally a Bildungsroman.
The central figure is: 'the Fāriyāq'. As explained in a footnote, this is:
the name of the author's alter ego, formed by combining the first part of his first name and the last part of the last, thus Fāri(s al-Shid)yāq.
This first book focuses on the Fāriyāq's youth, among the Maronites in Lebanon, and his early efforts at writing and a few unsuccessful attempts as a trader. By the end of this installment he has fled Lebanon, settling next in Egypt. Typically, among the variations he presents describing this transition he includes 'A Memorandum from the writer of these Characters', listing his complaints (now from a safe distance), starting:
The Fāriyāq now has escaped your lands and slipped through your hands. He's blown a raspberry in all your faces, and at your threats his pulse no longer races.
Yes, rhyme plays an important role in al-Shidyāq's style -- and, yes, he's very aware of what he is doing:
Rhymed prose is to the writer as a wooden leg to the walker. I must be careful therefore not to rest all my weight on it every time I go for a stroll down the highways of literary expression lest its vagaries end up cramping my style or it toss me into a pothole from which I cannot crawl.
It almost comes as a surprise that the Fāriyāq lasted as long as he did, as Leg Over Leg is a sharply critical satirical work that takes few prisoners.
Among al-Shidyāq's main targets is a provincialism that manifests itself specifically in an unwillingness to further education. In describing his childhood he notes that he was sent to the local village school, and there:
The teacher in question, like all other teachers of children in that country, had never in his life perused any book but that of the psalms, and it was that and that alone that the children studied there (Faugh ! Faugh !) though to say they studied it doesn't imply that they understood it. God forbid. Given its antiquity, it is no longer within anyone's capacity to understand that book (Snore ! Snore !), and the inaccuracy of its Arabic translation and the lameness of its language have made it yet more obscure and mysterious, to the point that it has almost come to consist of no more than word puzzles and riddles ( Have at it ! Have at it !)
As he suggests:
It seems that our masters, lords of the next world as of this, do not want their wretched subjects either to understand or to open their eyes but instead try as hard as they can to leave them wandering in the labyrinths of ignorance and stupidity (Barf ! Barf !). If they wanted otherwise, they would bestir themselves to establish a printing press for them there to print useful books, whether written originally in Arabic or translated into it (Forward ! Forward !)
More than anything else, Leg Over Leg feels like an effort at revitalization -- of bringing language to life, and through it showing how stories are brought to life, and showing the potential of words -- the near-infinite possibilities of expression, and what that brings with it. Al-Shidyāq's purpose is, in part didactic -- so especially in leaving his readers almost at sea in his vocabulary -- but he's well aware that simple preaching or criticism won't fully get his point across, and the beauty of the work is in how he fashions an entertainment out of all he wants to convey. Oddly, a chapter entitled 'Various Amusing Anecdotes' is among the least amusing, the anecdotes entirely too succinct, and there are certainly sections where al-Shidyāq can get carried away in his listings (such as in listing the words used to describe the sounds an organ produces, right down to: "slurp-slurp and baa-baa and tee-hee and keek-keek and buzz-buzz and schlup-flup"), but Leg Over Leg also offers actual stories, as well as, of course, the continuing adventures of the Fāriyāq himself.
Al-Shidyāq nicely catches the Fāriyāq's childish ambition and imagination:
While the Fāriyāq's head and feet stayed put in his house, his mind was climbing mountains and hills, scaling walls, conquering castles, descending into valleys and caves, plunging into mire, roaming deserts and launching itself upon the waves, for his dearest desire was to see a land other than his own and people other than his family, which is everyone's first concern while growing up.
Al-Shidyāq suggests the escapist possibilities offered by literature. Not surprisingly, the young the Fāriyāq turns to versifying. His poetic ambitions and cleverness also get him in trouble on occasion, but he can't leave the wordplay be -- but his writing is only a small part of the story. He tries his hand at trading, too, but that doesn't go well, and various other small adventures expose him to a variety of characters; among the chapters are two that recount, for example, 'The Priest's Tale' (which includes a vocabulary-list of "rare words mentioned above", as al-Shidyāq continues to try to invigorate language at every turn, too ...).
These are just the beginning of the Fāriyāq's adventures, the first quarter of his journey, but it's already an impressive, slightly dizzying trip.
It is difficult to fully assess Davies' translation without being able to compare it to the original (even as that tantalizingly stares back at the reader on every other page ...), but it appears to be a remarkable accomplishment. This is a text that is very word-centric. Al-Shidyāq is enamored by the richness of language and of what it can do, and Davies' renderings (and some endnote-help) both convey that and, it seems to me, at least some of the Arabic-specific wordplay. Complicating matters further is al-Shidyāq's use of rhyme, repetition, and alliteration; Davies' italicized emphasis on the rhymes seems like a good solution, and his word-choices for the most part seem good. (One instance where the quest for alliteration perhaps went too far is in the chapter-heading, 'Bodega, Brethren, and Board'.)
Yes, this is only the first of the four volumes of Leg Over Leg (with the final two not even available yet, and only due out in 2014), but it is not too early to state that the publication of this work, in this edition, is a game-changer. This is a foundational work of modern Arabic literature and its publication in English is long overdue -- but given how it is presented here, it was perhaps worth the wait. This edition, with helpful endnotes, the original Arabic text, and in a translation that both reads well and appears to closely mirror the original, seems, in almost every way, ideal.
This is a work -- as presented here -- which should help bring about a fundamental reassessment of Arabic literature as we know it. By we I mean us ignorant-of-Arabic readers: deprived of this work, we have heretofore only been able to read modern Arabic literature as if we had read English literature without awareness of the existence of Tristram Shandy and its techniques -- or even, arguably, all of western literature without Don Quixote. I believe I have been fairly well exposed to both contemporary and classical Arabic fiction in translation, but Leg Over Leg upends many of what I thought were reasonable preconceptions about Arabic writing and its evolution that I had.
Summing up: I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say that this is the most important literary publication of a translation into English, in terms of literary history and our understanding of it, in years. (And, yes, it's an entertaining (and very unusual, in every respect) read, too.) - M.A.Orthofer
Thanks to a Three Percent fan who sends me periodic updates on titles I’ve left out of the translation database, I just found out about Humphrey Davies’s first-ever English translation on of Leg over Leg by Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq.
Originally published in 1855, this sounds like the sort of crazy, language-centric, unconventional type of book that I would love:
Leg over Leg is the semi-autobiographical account of Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq, a pivotal figure in the intellectual and literary history of the modern Arab world. His adventures and misadventures provided him with opportunities for wide-ranging digressions on the intellectual and social issues of his time, including the ignorance and corruption of the Lebanese religious and secular establishments, women’s rights, the manners and customs of Europeans and Middle Easterners, and the differences between European and Arabic literature. In Leg over Leg, al-Shidyaq also celebrates the beauty of the Arabic language.
Akin to Sterne and Rabelais in his satirical outlook and technical inventiveness, al-Shidyaq produced in Leg Over Leg an unprecedented sui generis work. It was initially widely condemned for its attacks on authority, its skepticism, and its “obscenity,” and later editions were often abridged. This is the very first English transaltion of the work and reproduces the original edition, published under the author’s supervision in 1855.It’s quite possible that this jacket copy is pure exaggeration and that the book totally sucks, but my god does this sound like the sort of thing a bunch of my readerly friends (Scott Esposito, Stephen Sparks, M.A. Orthofer, etc., etc.) would know about and have reviewed. Unfortunately, all a quick Google turned up was this listing for an event that took place in 2011.
That’s a pretty sad commentary on something.
One big stumbling block is that the publisher, the Library of Arabic Literature, which I just found out about approximately 3 minutes before starting to write this post, is selling Leg over Leg in two volumes for $40 EACH. I’m no scholar, but $80 for an obscure Arabic work of literature from the nineteeth century is probably pricing yourself out of the market. (That said, the sales rank on Amazon is #624,733, which is better than some books I’ve seen.)
Also, this cover:
Why such a shitty marketing/pricing job? Well, all it takes is a click on the “About” tab to get all the answers:
Supported by a grant from the New York University Abu Dhabi Institute, and established in partnership with NYU Press, the Library of Arabic Literature aims to publish key works of classical and premodern Arabic literature in parallel-text format with the original Arabic and English translation on facing pages, edited and translated by distinguished scholars of Arabic and Islamic studies. The Library of Arabic Literature includes texts from the pre-Islamic era to the cusp of the modern period, and will encompass a wide range of genres, including poetry, poetics, fiction, religion, philosophy, law, science, history and historiography.
In other words, no one who cares about reaching a general reading public. Awesome.
Maybe this book is as unique and interesting as it sounds. Maybe one day a reader-oriented press will publish a classy trade paperback version. Or maybe years will go by and English readers will still never have heard about this and will assume all Arabic literature is 1001 Nights and Aladdin. - Chad W. Post
“And here she interrupts him, saying, ‘I take your meaning, which is self-evident and calls for no explanation, and is just what I was going to say myself. So give me your hand and take mine’—and so it continues until their hands have roamed all over, groping and grasping, swiping and wiping, searching and seeking, poking and stroking, squeezing and teasing, clasping and parting, slapping and tickling, rooting and rummaging, delving and digging, rubbing and pinching.” This passage, translated from the hundred-fifty-year-old Arabic book Leg Over Leg shows the book at its best: playful; linguistically limber; language, sex, and love balled into one jumble. With the publication of Humphrey Davies’ translation of Volume III and IV of Aḥmad Fāris al-Shidyāq’s novel, the introduction of this Lebanese classic of Arabic literature into English comes to a close, and opens the doors of discussion, interpretation, and a chance for more Arabic literature in translation to find the attention this work has received. Written in 1855, in a language that is severely under-translated, and largely autobiographical, there’s the temptation to turn to the historical record to contextualize the book, to focus on it as a piece of history. That this translation is a chance for English-language readers to have a greater understanding of al-Shidyāq’s place in the history of Arabic literature is undeniable. He’s an author who blended Western traditions and culture into Arabic while practicing traditional Arabic forms and mining the depths of obscure and unimaginably specific Arabic words. However, to focus too much on the historical, the timeline of literature, risks reducing Leg Over Leg to mere artifact, dead facts instead of living literature. It can deny the life, the entertainment, of the book, and cut off interpretations and reactions that come from reading it now, responding to the text as a contemporary reader. Reading Leg Over Leg somewhere between historical blindness and overt attachment to autobiographical and historical readings deepens its well of interpretation, as understood by the author himself, who writes, “A book . . . grows more valuable with each passing year, and its benefits multiply.”
The benefits of Leg Over Leg have multiplied, and its contemporaneity is astonishing. It is a bawdy celebration of sexuality, satirical of religion, narrated by an author aware of and commenting on the act of writing and reading, proto-feminist, and more. This shock, that a book from its time, from its area of the world, could be so involved with the complications of a protagonist who both is and isn’t the author, that the narrator is self-aware, that the equal rights and intelligence of women is promoted, also risks overwhelming the book: when trying to convince friends it’s worth reading, I found the easiest arguments tempting, that it’s progressive in many of its values, especially for 1850s Lebanon, and it’s wildly transgressive in spending six full pages listing words for different types of vaginas, penises, and sex. This reduces, and undersells. In ways, in the arguments between husband and wife that make up much of Volume IV, Leg Over Leg is progressive and transgressive for 2010s America through their honest, open expression, reaching for solid ground to stand on together, even if the perspectives themselves are familiar:
“Is there a single man who can maintain an affection and not deviate from it every day. I swear, were women to desire men as much as men desire women, you wouldn’t find a single man unbewitched.”
“Is there a single woman who can maintain affection and not deviate from it each day a thousand times?” I asked her. “All books bear witness to the trustworthiness of men and the treachery of women.” “Weren’t the ones who wrote those books men?” she countered. “They’re the ones who made up those stories.” “But only after investigation and experience.”
It beats out most contemporary novels in the formal risks it takes, as when the narrator interrupts to challenge the reader to keep up, or ends a chapter by admitting that both author and reader need to take a break, relax a while. In a three-sentence chapter titled “Nothing,” the narrator declares that he must “sit myself down a while in the shade of this short chapter to brush off the dust of my labors.” The shock of a novel such as this coming from when and where it does also, oddly, denies the historical, forgets that the basic, confined structure of the novel is actually, as shown at length in Steven Moore’s The Novel: An Alternative History, a modern development. “The novel has always been a workshop, not a museum,” Moore writes. A reader’s surprise at the “newness” of Leg Over Leg is an immediate, surface-level gut reaction, and to go no further is a denial of the historical, much as the historical is itself a denial of what is new.
At its core, Leg Over Leg is a travelogue. The protagonist is the Fariyāq—the name a portmanteau of Fāris al-Shidyāq—who moves from Lebanon, to Malta, to England, to Paris, and makes various stops along points in between. Along the way he makes friends and enemies, joins and leaves a monastery or two, works varied jobs as translator, dream interpreter, general scholar, marries, and has a family. And the book itself travels, has its own sense of motion. Though there is a sexual innuendo in the title Leg Over Leg—legs entwined, either in action or in the post-coital jumble of comfort—it also calls to mind a sashaying one foot in front of the other, traveling confidently, with style, across themes, obsessions, affections. Arguments over religion take hold in the first two volumes, then, like traveling from one land to another, crossing border regions, in volumes III and IV, family matters take over. Like an intelligent, careful traveler, the progress is gradual, never rushed, and lands far in the distance must be remembered or anticipated in order to be understood: the Fariyāq’s love of women is present in all four volumes, but begins to shift when he meets his wife, and then changes further when she turns out to be able to go toe-to-toe with him intellectually and conversationally.
The traveling pace is such that I became habituated to the physical act of reading. Published with the Arabic on the verso page, I turned pages quickly, glancing to my left only occasionally, journeying through the facing page of English. Later, reading some other book, when excited, or alternatively, when bored, I caught myself skipping that verso page, my hands wanting to be back in Leg Over Leg. Even if it changed the pace of the journey, it would be wonderful to see a single, English-only paperback containing all four volumes with minimized footnotes, opening Leg Over Leg to readers who aren't able to spend $40 on each individual hardbound volume.
The translation too wanders and weaves the best path through difficult landscapes and cities made of a mesh of crisscrossing streets. In Davies’ afterword, he explains the ways that his approach shifted as he went, finding new ways to handle the exhaustive lists that fuel al-Shidyāq’s delves into Arabic linguistic resources. The differing approaches are apparent in the English, which in other works could be off-putting, and read as an error, but fitting to the exploration of language, culture, and life that is Leg Over Leg. In a book filled with puns, rhyming, obscure wordplay, words with the same Arabic root being slipped in one for the other, for a translation to capture the suggestion of a pun even if the full pun itself is impossible is a new creative act.
Based on the complications of the language alone, one could excuse a translator for being too intimidated to take on the task. Added to that is the posturing of al-Shidyāq himself. Not only does he set up his fictional counterpart for competitive rivalries with translators, slagging them as harshly as he can, Volume IV contains a detailed, lengthy, and irritated collection of errors by translators from Arabic. We’re fortunate that Davies took al-Shidyāq’s insults as a challenge and rose to it. His perpetually inventive work made Leg Over Leg a worthy finalist for the Best Translated Book Award. As an overall award, honoring some combination of the author’s efforts and the translator’s efforts, Seiobo There Below was deserving to the upmost, but were it solely a translation award, this massive and successful undertaking, pushing to the boundaries of translation, Leg Over Leg would have, if you’ll forgive the pun, the leg up.
More than that, al-Shidyāq is out to challenge his readers as well, early on starting a chapter with a purposeful warning and challenge: “I must go on at some length in this chapter, just to test the reader’s endurance. If he gets to the end of it without his teeth smoking with rage, his knees knocking together from frustration and fury, the place between his eyes knitting together in disgust and shame, or his jugulars swelling in wrath and ire . . .” So with that warning, that combining of the intellectual into the physical, one can be put off, why read an author who is so intent on being difficult that he feels it necessary to tell you so? Because the play is in the warning itself. The little underlying giddiness is itself intriguing, sly in a way that puts al-Shidyāq on your side, and he finishes off that “if” clause with “I shall devote a separate chapter to his praise and count him among those readers who are ‘steadfast.’” Regardless of where we find the reward, we’re promised one, and it’s there even in the moment of warning. If the warning itself is a pleasure, then Leg Over Leg won’t really be that difficult—and that’s the exact game that al-Shidyāq is playing.
From the earliest pages, al-Shidyāq is out to celebrate the Arabic language, to demonstrate its breadth of expression, his knowledge, and his skills in deploying that knowledge. The most direct way this is expressed is through lists, which come in two basic forms. There are lists in the running text that are a sign of the narrator getting carried away with his passion and prowess, as when he turns his attention to the beauty of Englishwomen and their movements, “You see them turning disdainfully to one side, shying, flying, starting, bolting, flinching, fleeing, proudly turning, racing, baulking, jibbing, bounding, leaping . . .” These lists give the prose its sense of being carried on a river of language, flowing momentum, each jump from one to the other a virtuoso performance. Some of these lists come in only a few words; others run for a page or more. It is in these that Davies notes he relied on the dictionaries and thesauri for the translation, which would seem to diminish his own input, but for each passage to maintain that propulsion, and for the associations between words to be wide but clear, for sounds of one word to play off the sounds of those ahead and behind, demands creativity and care.
The other lists are quotations from the Arabic dictionary the Qāmūs. These can last for up to a dozen pages and are presented in two columns, with the transliteration of the Arabic on the left side of the page, and the direct translation of the definition on the right. This is when al-Shidyāq puts aside his literary skills and wants to overpower the reader with the possibilities of language, listing near synonym after near synonym, or absurdly specific words, such as one for “a white stone like marble” and one for “a white stone softer than marble.” When a potential reader hears that at one point, back-to-back groupings of such lists surpasses twenty pages, it’s reasonable to fear a dry text, to think again of a historical relic, or to look forward to skipping such pages, but to do either would be a mistake.
For within each list, there are nuggets of joy for the lover of language, the satisfaction of knowing that a such specific words exist, or existed, in the world, or the pleasure of finding words to conjure up ideas not previously imagined, such as “a beast that can carry an elephant on its horn.” The moments of discovery will vary from reader to reader, and for the truly ambitious, from reading to reading. More than these little uncoverings, the lists are an essential part of the pacing the novel, and al-Shidyāq is conscious of this. Setting up one of the longest series of lists, he creates a scenario of a man not fully listening to his wife, instead thinking of “buying a donkey to ride,” then moves through lists of gems and metals, jewelry and ornaments, perfumes, and various household objects. When he concludes the lists, he jumps on our own drifting thoughts, telling us all that has been accomplished by amassing these objects, while “you’re still worrying about the ass.” In earlier references, the animal was always a donkey. It’s not hard to think that the change, the suggestion of the insult to us for still thinking about it, is intentional.
Leg Over Leg enacts, too, the occasional monotony of travel, but even such monotony serves a clear purpose. Only in such bouts of boredom could you suddenly stumble over something new, something that, if it were placed close to jokes and arguments would be totally missed. But there, in the boredom, you are able to see it freshly, see it at an angle of thought you’d never come from otherwise. It’s like walking aimlessly in a place you know well, and suddenly seeing a building or a wood from a direction you’ve never approached, and it’s seen anew.
The thin border, repeatedly transgressed, between the author al-Shidyāq and his mirror protagonist the Fariyāq is another way that Leg Over Leg opens up, creates space for the reader to roam and romp. Al-Shidyāq moves back and forth between the world that the Fariyāq lives in, and the world that al-Shidyāq controls. The line between the two is thin, and it’s up to us to fully remove it, creating a break between the Fariyāq and al-Shidyāq, or to leave it in place. When al-Shidyāq writes tells us after an interruption that the Fariyāq continues speaking, but yet he, the narrator, not the Fariyāq was the one interrupted, do we see that as a mistake, or purposeful confusion? Though he never lets us forget their overlaps, the narrator always happy to separate the two, as when the Fariyāq composes a less than stellar poem, and al-Shidyāq ends the chapter by admitting this and noting, “It is not my way, however, to pull the wool over the eyes of the reader, with whom I share an old friendship going back to the beginning of this work. Let him, therefore, take note of that fact.” But this separation is immediately followed by the most heartbreaking chapter, where the two fall together completely. After the death of the Fariyāq’s son, there’s a chapter-long poem elegy for him, and in there, the speaking “I” is an inseparable Fariyāq and al-Shidyāq.
The slippage of the narration occurs with other characters as well. Both al-Shidyāq and the Fariyāq take up rhyming, speaking or writing with rhymed pairs throughout a passage, sometimes the words just rhyming, other times paired as antonyms, or two words that now interact with each other, in a way that specific words sentences apart wouldn’t normally interplay. The Fariyāq and al-Shidyāq both do this when they become passionate about a subject, whether with affection or anger, and al-Shidyāq sometimes finds himself doing so without meaning to (so he says), so that when other characters take it up, it’s as if he, and not them, is worked up, and forgotten that he’s meant to be writing in their voice, not his. It’s another trick in his arsenal that lets him play as if he’s not in masterful control, as if language is such a powerful force that even a master like him is barely able to rein it in.
One of the most meaningful movements of characters and narrators opens Chapter 7 of Volume IV. By this point, the Fariyāq and his wife, the Fariyāqiyyah, have been arguing on and off for most of the volume—the arguments of a couple fiercely in love, both intelligent, both capable of honesty and defensiveness that borders on self-deception. Earlier on, the Fariyāqiyyah was introduced as essentially a pretty woman in a window who the Fariyāq falls for and marries, impressing her other admirers for “winning” such a woman. Instead, she reveals herself to be independent, opinionated, intelligent, and vocal, and increasingly so as the book moves on. By Chapter 7, she’s shown her ability to challenge the Fariyāq; consequently, the chapter's departure from his perspective—instead agreeing completely with the Fariyāqiyyah— means that their voices are given such equal weight that the reader must decide who to agree with, if picking sides is even necessary.
This work begins with a respect for women unexpected for its time, and so Volume IV is in ways more progressive and honest than anything we see today. Much of the time, expressions of feminism are necessarily monologues, and all too often when they are dialogues, they are between people who so vehemently disagree that few new thoughts are birthed, or are so moderated that both sides hold back from emotions, from the self with irrational beliefs, from personal experience, from mistakes. But here we have a man and a woman vehemently arguing with each other about the flaws and values of men and women, how they should act, why they act the way they do, and each one makes clear, thoughtful points, each loses track of themselves, defending or excusing, and becomes emotional and defensive, even insulting. Then, later, outside of the argument in thought or action, each of them proves wrong many of stereotypical flaws. Throughout, in argument and in narration, the harshest judgments of moral failure stereotyped to each gender are spread equally. Holding together all their agreements and mistakes is their underlying passion for each other: “‘My, my!’ she said, what’s this? Could it be that you’ve brought me to this country to recast me and fashion me into another woman?’ ‘I’d rather die!’ I said.”
Their arguments are also the culmination of the connection between expression through language and sexuality. Early on, pens are erupting with excitement, spilling ink, and among other things we learn that there is an Arabic word that means both food and sex, bringing two different pleasures into language play, and al-Shidyāq creates more overlap, as at a dinner party “how many a flank is pressed against flank, how many a milk skin gushes.” Neither husband nor wife forget their sexuality and mutual attraction during the arguments, in fact the Fariyāqiyyah repeatedly “misinterprets” something the Fariyāq says into a sexual pun, both expressing her own sexuality, and throwing him off the point of his argument. In one of the most enjoyable passages, their argument becomes a rapid fire exchange of rhymes and innuendo that ends with “‘In joking’ — ‘And poking’ and that concluded their merrymaking.” In a climax in more ways than one, the masturbatory becomes copulation.
As in so many reviews, this is an attempt to capture bits of what makes a bold, expansive, creative, and exploratory work of mastery all of those things, and with that, focused on what seems important, serious, but it would be doing Leg Over Leg a massive disservice to not make it clear how funny it is. This is a book that for all its challenges, all its insight into humanity, all its place in history, had me regularly laughing out loud. No sex joke is beneath al-Shidyāq, no fart joke, nothing that encourages you to explode with laughter is beneath him, neither are subtle jokes out of his reach. Deep into the book, the Fariyāq takes to task those people who, when they start learning a foreign language, immediately want to know the dirtiest words. He mocks them for their pettiness . . . yet this is a book that again, in the earliest pages, listed, seemingly endlessly, detailed descriptions of different types of vaginas and penises. When contradictions occur, it’s up to you figure out what you believe, what you hold to. This too is a sign of the importance of vast linguistic expression to al-Shidyāq: “She said ‘That in seriousness is humor and in humor seriousness.’” Humor and seriousness overlap, expression and morality overlap, and it all reaches out, demanding participation from the reader. Leg Over Leg is a sprawling work that asks the reader to be able to see the sprawl as well as the master who created it all. - P. T. Smith
Have you talked about being stuck in a circle of hell, got a Proustian rush from a certain spell, analysed Oedipal urges or been in a Kafkaesque nightmare?
The English-speaking world would be a different place without access to the world's great literature, but - One Thousand and One Nights aside - Arabic classics have been harder to find in translation.
Take Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq. Experts call him the first Arab novelist and a modernist before modernism existed.
Born in Lebanon in 1804, he went on to advise sultans, run newspapers and a printing press, globe-hop his way across Europe, north Africa and the Middle East and invent a new type of literature.
While it's not hard to track down a Chekhov play or philosophy book by Plato, there has never been an English translation of any of al-Shidyaq's work - until now.
The award-winning translator Humphrey T Davies, who is responsible for the English-language version of Alaa Al Aswany's hit novel The Yacoubian Building, among many other works, is currently hard at work on a translation of al-Shidyaq's masterpiece, the 720-page tome Al-Saq 'ala al-Saq, or Leg Over Leg.
The book (whose original, much longer title is practically an essay in itself) is scheduled to be released late next year in two volumes, as part of NYU Press's new Library of Arabic Literature series.
Bookworms in the Emirates will have a chance to hear Davies speak about his experience grappling with Leg Over Leg tonight, when he gives a talk at the InterContinental Hotel to launch NYU Abu Dhabi's three-day World Literature and Translation Conference. (A talk called "Celebrating Emirati Literature" with Banipal magazine is taking place the following day.)
To give us a taste of what will be on the agenda, Davies spoke from his home in Cairo about how translating al-Shidyaq is both important and a little daunting.
Leg Over Leg doesn't just have a rhyme scheme and archaic lexicon; it also includes quotations from French novelists, allusions to classical Arabic science and layers of meaning. It makes Davies' job a tough one, but also, he says, makes it fun.
Al-Shidyaq was "one of those geniuses who pop up from time to time", he says. "He read voraciously. He knew numerous languages. Everything about him was unique."
Davies describes the book's protagonist as the author's alter ego and says that everything that happens is a starting point for a digression about the nature of society.
"It contains some of the first statements on freedom of expression and human rights," Davies says. "It's a very irreverent debunking of authority."
It also has a style that's sometimes downright eccentric. One chapter is entirely taken up with al-Shidyaq expressing relief that the previous chapter has ended, and announcing that he's going to have a rest before starting the next.
At the moment, Leg Over Leg is a book that many Arabic speakers will have heard of, but few have actually read outside of academia, but Davies is hoping that his translation will help change that, and that more translations of al-Shidyaq's work will follow.
Like all of the Library of Arabic Literature Series, Leg Over Leg will be printed with the Arabic and English texts on facing pages, so that it can be used by language students as well as scholars and people reading for fun.
Davies isn't new to introducing books to entire continents of readers. The first novel he translated, in 2003, was Thebes at War by the Egyptian Nobel Prize-winner Naguib Mahfouz, but his most popular translation is undoubtedly The Yacoubian Building. When it was received rapturously in the UK and US, Davies says he realised that what he was doing was "not just some private obsession, but something that would really have an impact on the reading world".
Since then, translations of books by writers as diverse as the inaugural "Arabic Booker"-winner Bahaa Taher, the Lebanese intellectual Elias Khoury and the Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti have followed.
Along with the growing stacks of new Arab fiction available in English, NYU Press's translation of the classics is a heartening sign for anyone interested in soaking up the wisdom of other cultures.
Davies, who has been working in translation for the best part of a decade, describes the present moment as "the best of times", pointing out that there are probably more Arabic books in translation in any bookstore than there have been at any time before.
He is also optimistic that this will persist.
"Arabic literature itself is strong," he contends, "and will continue to be strong. More excellent writers will come to the fore."
And that, he says, is what will keep us reading it. - Jessica Holland