Words Without Borders May: New Omani Writings and Translating ‘Unsettlement’

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

Guest curators at ‘Words Without Borders’ this month offer ‘unsettlement’ as a way ‘of reconsidering what we think we know, whether about Oman, our own countries, or the uses of literature.’

Farah Al Qasimi, Butterfly Garden, inkjet print, 27 x 37 inches, 2016. Courtesy of Helena Anrather and The Third Line. By arrangement with the artist, and provided to Publishing Perspectives

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

‘Modes of Reconsidering’
As Eric Knecht is reporting for Reuters from Doha, Oman’s energy minister Mohammed bin Hamad Al Rumhy is saying he expects the 31-nation “OPEC+” group to extend its reduction of oil production agreement at a meeting in late June.

And that’s the sort of messaging we tend to hear most from the Gulf nation of Oman, something that’s remedied by Words Without Borders‘ (WWB), to some degree, in the magazine’s May edition.

Guest editors Ghayde Ghraowi and Ahd Niazy have worked with editor Eric Becker–from whom we heard last month–in this case to bring forward the work of five voices in Omani literature. As Ghraowi and Niazy write in their introduction, “Unsettled: New Writing From Oman,” the country’s authors “are barely featured in anthologies dedicated to the geopolitical space their country is often subsumed within: the Arabian Gulf. One particularly important anthology of literature from ‘Modern Arabia’ featured but one Omani author in an ensemble of 95.”

And if you give it a little thought, you’ll realize that Oman doesn’t seem to register frequently in the great Arabic awards and prize programs of the day. Ghraowi and Niazy cite Jokha Alharthi as an exception to the rule, but otherwise, “the writing of Omani authors is scarcely circulated in translation,” they say, “especially when it comes to book-length work.”

Alharthi is an exception indeed for those who follow the pace-setting Man Booker International competition as we do at Publishing Perspectives. As we’ve reported, the current shortlist for the prize–this is the international translation prize, not the Man Booker Prize for Fiction–includes Alharthi’s Celestial Bodies from Sandstone Press, in its translation from the Arabic by Marilyn Booth. Alharthi is the first author from the Arabian Gulf region–let alone from Oman–to have been longlisted and now shortlisted for the prize, which is to announce its ultimate 2019 winner on May 21.

In this month’s Words Without Borders, you can read Booth translating Alharthi in another work, an excerpt from the novel Bitter Orange. From that excerpt:

Jokha Alharthi

“Sorour said no at first, but finally she gave in, leaving the key for her sister and spending those hours at the university library or trying to study in the garden.

“In the end, though, she couldn’t abide the thought of it. She confided to me that it made her feel filthy.

“Their parents weren’t stingy with anything.

Marilyn Booth

“And here the two of them were, so far away, conspiring behind their parents’ backs.

“She couldn’t stop thinking about what the two of them were doing in her room. About that hand—that rough peasant hand—on her sister’s soft, smooth throat; his thick lips on her pampered body.

“This was torture, she said. She couldn’t stand it.”

“The task we’ve laid out for ourselves,” write these curators, Ghraowi and Niazy, “becomes fraught when we consider the presumptuous nature of delimiting a political space through which to typecast these diverse writers.

Ghayde Ghraowi

“We are certainly aware of the clunky convenience of this kind of methodological nationalism, which renders literary culture legible only within the container of the nation-state. We do not, in fact, expect that any of these authors write first as Omanis and then as novelists or poets.”

And in looking for their through-line in these translations, the pair settles on “unsettlement,” as they term it, “a lack of centeredness” they find in many forms, not just in the logical “unsettlement” of diaspora, as we talk about with International Prize for Arabic Fiction-winning author Hoda Barakat of Lebanon this week.

“We have proposed a sense of unsettledness as one way to read the work of the authors here,” write Ghraowi and Niazy.

Ahd Niazy

“Lest this unsettledness become just another unsatisfactory category, the writing here ought to remind us of our own responsibility as readers to apprehend this unstable ground not in opposition to our own groundedness but as a reminder of the shifting modes of identification that are common to all experience.

“In their striking range—of narrative strategies, neoclassical pastiche, and lyricism—these pieces offer, more than mere shifts in literary devices, modes of reconsidering what we think we know, whether about Oman, our own countries, or the uses of literature.”

We think that what Ghayde Ghraowi and Ahd Niazy are putting their fingers on here is not just the potential in reading over their collection of Omani work, but also a reflection of what so many of us find valuable in reading translations: those “modes of reconsidering” can do us all good.

In The May Edition

Accompanying that introduction are five pieces from Oman, three of them poetry:

Badriya Al Badri

  • An exerpt from The Shadow of Hermaphroditus by Badriya Al Badri, translated from Arabic by Ghraowi. Al Badri is an Omani poet and novelist who composes poetry in classical and colloquial Arabic.
  • As mentioned above, the excerpt from Bitter Orange is by Jokha Alharthi in its translation to English by Marilyn Booth. Alharthi was born and educated in Oman and the UK. She obtained her PhD in classical Arabic literature from Edinburgh University, and works as associate professor in the Arabic department at Sultan Qaboos University, Muscat. She has 10 books to her name, including two collections of short stories.
  • Aisha Al Saifi

    A poem with the arresting title “Like Any Messiah Taken Unaware by Death,” by Aisha Al Saifi, translated from Arabic by Robin Moger. Al Saifi was born in Nizwa, and studied civil engineering at Sultan Qaboos University. In 2005, she began publishing literary works in Omani and Arabic newspapers. In addition to poetry, Al Saifi publishes articles on local Omani affairs on her blog, Freedom for the Cost of Bread.

  • An excerpt from Reem Allawati’s book-length poem Electronic Thorns, translated from Arabic by Ghraowi. Omani poet and writer Reem Allawati has published three poetry collections: Premature Dementia (2006), Comedy of Confusion (2008), and Electronic Thorns (2017). Her poetry has been translated into more than five languages in addition to English.
  • Abdulaziz Al Omairi

    “Repentance,” a poem by Abdulaziz Al Omairi, translated from Arabic by Rawad Wehbe. Al Omairi is an Omani poet and journalist. He was born in Bahla, and has participated in and won several poetry competitions in the sultanate of Oman as well as in other parts of the Arab world. He was the 2015 recipient of the Burda International Prize.

And this month’s side-focus is on “microfiction from Italy,” with an introduction, “Italian Speculative Microfiction in Translation: Three Writers,” by Rachel Cordasco. Included are writings of Simonetta Olivo, Francesco Verso, and Emanuela Valentini.

More from Publishing Perspectives on ‘Words Without Borders’ is here, and more from us on translation is here

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.