The Literary Tourist Interviews Sanna Dhahir

The Literary Tourist is a column of conversations between literary translators about newly released books in translation. This month Andrea Gregovich interviews Sanna Dhahir, Dean of the College of Science and Humanities at Effat University in Saudi Arabia and translator of Hend and the Soldiers by Badriah Albeshr. Hend and the Soldiers, a book that explores women’s sexuality and experience in Saudi culture, was banned by the government of Saudi Arabia.

Andrea Gregovich: I’m excited to talk to you about this book, because it’s a perfect example of how literary translation can be urgent and necessary, bringing hidden and oppressed voices to a global audience. How rare is an authentic female voice in the literature of Saudi Arabia, and just how groundbreaking is this book?

Sanna Dhahir: Thank you for giving me the chance to talk about my translation of Albeshr’s novel, a work I truly wanted to render in English for its literary merits and timely subjects.

As you put it in your question, literary translations are necessary and urgent, bridging gaps between cultures and laying bare certain truths one may never otherwise know. Female voices were quite rare in Saudi Arabia in the past century. The first literary book to be published by a Saudi woman came out in 1956. It was a volume of poetry published under a pseudonym because it dealt with love—love not being a sentiment to be freely expressed by a woman in a society that considered a woman’s voice a source of shame. This dearth of publication was not helped by the fact that Saudi women did not have formal schooling until the 1960s; unless they were privately educated or resided outside the country, Saudi women largely lacked the literary expression needed for serious writing. One had to wait for the 1980s and 1990s to see more women publish poems, fictional works, and journalistic pieces. These works surely voiced the pressing issues women encountered in a patriarchal society. Yet these attempts were often guarded, unwilling to divulge what might offend the sensibilities of a rather conventional audience.

Zainab Hefni’s collection of short stories Nisa’ ‘ind khat al’istiwa’ (Women at the Equator, 1996) raised a storm of hostile criticism for its sexual themes. But it was not until the first decade of this century that more women started to be outspoken about female sexuality. They were considerably aided by their ability to use the Internet as a platform for publication. First released as a series of emails in 2005, Rajaa Asanea’s Banat al-Riyadh (translated as Girls of Riyadh) set an example for other women to publish similarly “daring” literary efforts online. These works continued to be condemned and censored in Saudi Arabia and other parts of the Arab world mainly for being open about female sexuality or for voicing anti-mainstream religious ideas. Hend and the Soldiers was viewed as one of these works, and so were Raja Alem’s and Zainab Hifni’s novels.

To go back to your question, Albeshr’s work is groundbreaking in that it candidly expresses women’s need to have higher ceilings of freedom at home, at work, and in love; and it denounces religious extremism and the practices of the Saudi religious police.

AG: You’re the first translator I’ve interviewed who is translating from their native language into English (translating from another language into one’s native tongue being more the norm). How difficult was this? But also, how necessary was it for another Saudi woman to translate this book?

SD: I know very well the hurdles facing a native Arab like me translating into English, her second language. Needless to say, Arabic is very different from English: in grammar, syntactic structure, and cultural background, among other important aspects. What is called “translation loss” is inevitable at some points and has to be treated with sensitivity and discretion. Translation obstacles were compounded in my case. To deal with these, I went through several versions; I asked around and consulted native English eyes and ears whenever I felt unsure about the target text. I never knew how deeply influenced I had been by my language and background until others spotted the “foreignness” in my text. The hardest part to transfer naturally and effectively into English was the humor, especially when it rested on puns or culturally understood hints. Generally, Arabic had such a mind of its own and, as such, it continued to claim a space in the English manuscript until the last proofreading stage. Having said that, however, I believe, as an Arab, I knew firsthand the human context, the social mores, the history, and the traditions introduced in the source text; I could discern the writer’s covert intentions, detect her ironic hints, and sense her sympathies and distances. These, I think, are credentials that a non-native speaker of Arabic may not so easily possess. Having them is very important to the translation.

AG: Albeshr’s narrative is clear and straightforward, and yet there are beautiful poetic passages throughout the text, like this one: “On one side of the asphalt road, small flowers dotted the ground, and water drops shimmered like silver beads over the wild land. The earth had imbibed so much rain the previous night that it emitted a moist glow.” Was it difficult to translate such artful passages? Words like shimmered, wild, imbibed, moist, and glow have so many potential synonyms and evoke such precise images, I think I’d struggle to translate these passages so skillfully from English into another language.

SD: Poetic passages are generally hard to translate, but perhaps out of their sheer beauty, they incite the translator to rise up to the challenge of producing a comparable text. The words above reflect a specific state of mind, of a young woman going to meet the man she loves in a place far away from society and its crippling conventions. This is a long-wished-for passionate encounter, which finds here an apt parallel in the sumptuous desert scene after the rain

AG: I’d like to pause on this passage a little longer. Coincidentally, in two books in a row I have noticed the word moist, both times used in poetic passages where I suspect it wasn’t the only possible word choice for the translator. The other instance is a Spanish novel about a girl who just arrives in an orphanage, and the tone of the words she uses to talk about her parents dying is changing: “They were like an accusation, a shameful secret, something that flowered just below the skin’s surface, like a swamp plant; now the words were moist, now they grew.” I asked the other translator about moist, and would love to compare answers: how did you decide on moist here instead of, say, damp or humid?

SD: Neither “damp” nor “humid” would have a place in the poetic passage above. Dreary and cheerless, both words lack the life-assuring connotations of “moist.” They would also fail to evoke the sense of sensuality and liveliness associated with “moist.” The three words may denote the same thing, but only “moist” has the gleaming, healthy hue one needs to have in order make the passage above more energetic.

AG: My understanding of Arabic as a language is quite limited—how well does it lend itself to poetic, literary writing? What sorts of problems arise (with things like grammar, syntax, etc.) when bringing Arabic writing into English?

SD: Arabic is rich in vocabulary, grammar, and syntactic structures. It is also highly poetic. The novel itself is written in a clear but evocative literary style, which I had to transfer carefully to English. A practiced translator, however, must know how to deal with the different translation issues that often arise especially between two diametrically different languages, such as Arabic and English. At the outset, these include long Arabic sentences with several coordinated parts, which need to be broken down into smaller syntactic structures to avoid excessive coordination or subordination in English. Other issues may occur when one deals with idioms, proverbs, terms to be transliterated, highly rhetorical religious language, colloquial expressions, and swearing words. Allusions and other intertextual issues can pose problems that require extra care and that may be solved only by the use of footnotes or other annotative tools. In my experience, footnotes are indispensible, chiefly when one is aware of translation loss, which often attends culturally rich passages.

AG: Is this book’s smooth, crisp style characteristic of Arabic literature? Are there Arabic writers who strike a contrast with Albeshr’s style?

SD: Albeshr writes in a fresh, contemporary style, clear and correct, and free of many stylistic complexities usually embraced by earlier writers or those who opt for a distinctly experimental style, such as the well-known woman writer Raja Alem. It is also different from the predominantly lyrical style adopted by Laila Aljuhani and used to convey her tragic love themes. Albeshr is a journalist with a PhD in sociology, and her writings combine the clarity and terseness of journalism on the one hand and the craft of a lifelong literary heritage deeply grounded in her readings of Arabic and world texts in translation on the other—all infused with a distinct awareness of social discourse, whether in standard or colloquial Arabic. Generally speaking, women writers nowadays have left behind the typically formal language used by writers, mainly men, in the past, and have opted for a freer, less formally constrained style that reflects their experiences as women. This can be seen in Albeshr’s works, and equally, or even more so, in the fast-paced, unencumbered, often graphic expressions of Zainab Hifni.

AG: This book has an introduction, footnotes, and an interview with the author at the end. How exactly did you decide what needed to be included in all this material to give this book enough cultural context?

SD: The decision to include different types of cultural context did not come all at once. The footnotes were a part of the translation process. They were used to aid the target reader’s comprehension of certain aspects of the source text, including historical events, myths, traditional beliefs, religious sayings, and daily rituals. Transliterations, often intended to mirror or preserve the local color (as in clothes, prayers, and short religious invocations), generally warrant explanatory footnotes or in-text explanations.

The introduction, on the other hand, sets out to acquaint the target reader with the source writer, basically her life and output, and the Saudi literary scene; it also includes a short commentary on Hend and the Soldiers. At first, my intention was to make the introduction much longer by incorporating parts of my interview with Albeshr in 2013. But the editor suggested that I shorten the introduction and include the interview on its own at the end of the book. This worked well. As a person in academia, I looked at it as an independent piece of writing that might interest students and scholars of Arabic and world literature.

AG: Can you talk about how the politics of the burka and hijab, and women’s attire in general, present themselves in Hend and the Soldiers? I feel like it’s an implicit issue in just about every moment of the book, and yet it’s so different from my own female experience. I suspect I don’t always catch the significance of the extent to which a woman’s face, hair, and skin are covered.

SD: Writing a novel in Arabic, Albeshr perhaps did not feel the need to be any more explicit about the burka or hijab. But these have their significance in the novel. The novel deals with three generations of women, and the rules about women’s outer garments come across as relatively strict or lax depending on the religious/political situation in the country. One can tell that these rules have a somewhat weaker grip on people’s mind during the times of Hend’s grandmother, Selma. It is Selma’s green dress (emphasizing the roundness of her breasts), her kohl-lined eyes, and her braid “writhing” along her back that are said to infatuate Abdulmuhsin and drive him to ask, impulsively, for her hand in marriage. This is a time when Saudis, especially in the villages, were not so dominated by the politicized religious systems that became distinctly active in the 1970s and reached their peak in the 1980s and 1990s. Hend’s mother, for instance, is far more rigid in her religious practices than her mother, Selma.

The burka and black abaya are also closely connected in the text with Ammousha, the ex-slave and companion of Hend’s mother. Ammousha’s early experience as a slave engenders what is later to become a fixation on the niqab, a face cover that reveals just the eyes. As a slave, Ammousha’s chastity is not always taken seriously by male villagers (although they are supposed to be protecting her). Raped at a young age, she dreads men, seeing them as wild dogs that salivate at the mere sight of a woman. However, covering her face is not just a barricade against the advances of men; it is also a statement of respectability taken too far due to her vulnerable social position. And it may be a sign of self-effacement. Ammousha’s niqab, which she wears at all times, even during her siesta, surely sends a political message. It is a part of the narrative’s theme of slavery and Albeshr’s characteristic probing of socio-political issues in her country, where slavery was not abolished until the1960s.

Hend’s generation is one in which women had already started to receive formal education and many of them went to work if the family allowed it. Yet they lived at a time (the 1990s) when the Saudi religious police had begun to actively impose rigid, puritanical rules on the public, whether it was in the street or the mall or the bookstore. Most Saudi women, therefore, had to observe the complete hijab, showing their faces only during Hajj and Omra (both outlawing the face cover for women). When Hend decides to go to work, her mother objects, claiming that Hend would be exposing her family to the idle talk of relatives and neighbors; but Hend’s promise to wear the niqab at work, like all women from “good” families, placates her mother for the time being. Albeshr, however, gives us a glimpse of the workplace as an environment where women tend to carve a freer space for themselves away from family eyes. Not all follow rigorous rules about the niqab, and some would have hair strands sticking out of loosely wrapped headscarves. Still, social conventions continue to play a major role in people’s decisions regarding the face cover. For instance, early into their marriage, Hend’s husband, Mansur, allows her to show her face in public; but other men’s tendency to ogle his wife makes him impose the niqab on her. In most instances, Albeshr’s intention is clear: she wants to show the insincerity of practices that claim to uphold decency and propriety for the woman and her clan by defending the face cover.

AG: Sexual longings and encounters are written so delicately in this book, demurely even. A comparable American novel of a woman’s “coming of age”, as we often describe it, would usually be far more explicit in its detail. And yet the depictions of sex in this book are daring enough for it to be banned in Saudi Arabia. Tell me, how do the sexual descriptions (which are often just allusions) strike readers in the Arabic-speaking world? Are they really that shocking?

SD: Depiction of sexual themes remains a barrier to publication in Saudi Arabia, but this novel was condemned when it came out not so much for sexual content as for the so-called blasphemous scenes found in it—mainly passages describing God through the eyes of the protagonist as a young girl. In one passage, for example, the young Hend likens God to her harsh and cruel mother, always angry, always threatening her children with hellfire. The Saudi religious police, whom Albeshr has derided in this and other works, capitalized on passages like this, quoted them out of context, and launched a defamation campaign against the book and its writer. Their claims were supported by all those who upheld conventional expression in literature and who found Albeshr’s depiction of female sexuality rather offensive.

However, open-minded, liberal readers wouldn’t find the novel shocking, having been exposed since the beginning of this century to more daring, taboo-busting fictional works published online or in print by Saudi and other Arab writers—works such as Warda Abdulmalik’s Al-Awba (The Return), Siba Alhirz’ Al-Akharoun (The Others), and Abdu Khal’s Tarmi bisharar (Throwing Sparks). One should also remember that the Internet, satellite TV, and foreign travels have brought the outside world to Saudi Arabia. To read Zainab Hifni’s novel Wisada li-hubbic (A Pillow for Your Love) is to see the extent to which Saudi women have been emboldened in their depiction of female sexuality. It’s true none of these works is published in Saudi Arabia, but the public continues to buy them online or abroad.

AG: What are the implications of publishing the English translation of a book banned by the Saudi government? How do readers in Saudi Arabia get ahold of the book?

SD: In Saudi Arabia, works in translation often fare better than they do in Arabic simply because they don’t target the Arab reader; generally, they are meant for a different audience: a “foreign” readership, or the English classroom. As such, they are better tolerated than if they were to target the general readership. For example, Rajaa Alsanea’s Girls of Riyadh circulated in English translation long before the Arabic version was allowed to sit on the shelves of Saudi bookstores. I do hope that Hend and the Soldiers will make its way to all the libraries and bookstores of Saudi Arabia. After all, the Arabic version is now being sold in many of the Kingdom’s bookstores.

AG: How does translating this book fit into the bigger picture of your own work?

SD: This work is one of a series of translations I have been planning to do. I have already started on one of Zainab Hifni’s novels, which also has many timely issues related to women and minorities. I feel that the outside world needs to know about Arabic works of literature, and I would like to make them available in English. Translating literary works is a cultural as well as an intellectual activity; I sincerely hope that my translations will help cement with a few more blocks the bridge between world cultures, and at the same time occupy my thoughts in a most pleasant way.

Andrea Gregovich is a writer and translator of Russian literature. Her first translated novel USSR: Diary of a Perestroika Kid was published by Fiction Advocate in 2014, and her translation of Nadezhda Belenkaya’s Wake In Winter was released in 2015 by Amazon Crossing.

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