Monday, October 02, 2017

MIHYAR OF DAMASCUS

“Oh broken homeland, glued together,walking beside me with your faltering steps.”

SUSHMA JOSHI
Browsing the Internet for online literary journals, I got tired of coming up against prestigious “international”  literary journals based in the suburban mid-west of America. The more international they claimed to be, the more they seemed to print stories about lawns and Graham crackers and squirrels on trees. I had a feeling that a nationality check would show all the writers came not just from one country, but probably within the same 100mile county lines. Its not as if Americans don’t travel, or write about other places. They do, but for some reason these cosmopolitan writers always seem to end up getting published in publications who don’t self-style themselves “international.” Hmm, I thought. Maybe the term “international” has another meaning when it emanates from these mastheads.  A little disgruntled, a little restless, I looked again, and imagine my delight when I stumbled upon Arabesques, a literary journal that comes out of Algeria. Not only is it in two languages (English and French), but they seem actually to follow through with their international vision by publishing writers from different countries.   

Arabesques publishes Arabic literature in translation, amongst others. Reading Arabic literature reminds one about the rich civilization, culture and arts of the Middle East—everything from poetry, literature and drama which continues to flourish even as it remains untranslated and unknown outside Arabic speaking  countries. One such writer which we may not have heard about is Adonis. Adonis, poet from Syria, who now lives in Paris, may not be well-known in Nepal, but his name comes up each time the Nobel Prize committee sits down to deliberate whom to give the Literature  prize. So imagine my delight when I got a book of Adonis from my friends a few months ago. Titled Mihyar of Damascus: His Songs, the book of poems by Adonis has been translated by Adnan Haydar and Michael Beard, and published by the Lannan Foundation’s poetry series. Full disclosure—I met Adnan and Michael at the Bellagio Center in Italy, during which they were working on the translations.

Hearing Adnan, who himself is from Lebanon, read out the poetry was a moving and unforgettable experience. Perhaps some of the emotional resonance came from knowing that our own subcontinental culture of Hindi and Urdu (and via that, Nepali) has been touched and transformed by the poetic lyricism of Arabic.  This poetry wasn’t so foreign, after all. I, a cosmopolitan Westernized Nepali whose first encounter is always with English, came to know that the strangeness associated with Arab culture was more a filter set up by other cultures.

Michael Beard, at first glance, appears an unlikely collaborator. Teaching at the University of North Dakota, Michael is not one of those super-driven people who populate comparative literature departments. The first thing one notices about him is his courtsey, along with his playful and curious nature. Then, within a day of two of knowing Michael, one knows that he is, in fact, the perfect translator.  His genuine interest in people, cultures and everything in between is palpable. The heart of a translator determines how the translation turns out, and a writer (but especially a poet) is lucky when they find that indefinable mixture of heart, language and style. A translator of poetry must be open to every nuance, every possibility, every double meaning. A poem often plays with many disconnected images, metaphors, analogies, and allusions. Translation requires an open mind, and more than that, an intense interest in wordplay and an engagement to sit and rework the poem.

What I noticed from translations of Nepali poetry into other language is that a literal translation of poetry may not capture the soul of the poet’s intentions. Whereas somebody else who has the heart and mind of a poet, even though he doesn’t speak the language fluently, may capture the poetic intent with much more depth. Wayne Amtzis, whose translations of Nepali poets have now been anthologized by Norton, comes to mind—Wayne’s translations appear to me to not just grab the elusive nature of poetic language, but also to take it one step further by adding rhythm, aurality and flow. Literal translators often lack this intuitive sense of layered meanings, leaving the reader with a hollow feeling of disappointment and a slight feeling of protest and outrage (I’ll spare you my thoughts about which translation of a Nepali epic I think about as I write this.)

“Oh broken homeland, glued together,walking beside me with your faltering steps.”
So writes Adonis. Everybody who reads that line in Nepal no doubt shares my flash of recognition. Mihyar of the title refers back to the eleventh century figure Mihyar of Daylam (in Iran), a convert from Zorastrianism to Shia Islam. Mihyar was considered a major poet as well as an accomplished elegist, write the translators in their introduction. Mihyar of Daylam launched a “rebellious voice” inside the political and religious culture, making him an outsider figure who revitalized the poetry canon from the margins.

“He is a language glistening between the maststhe knight of strange words.”

These lines by themselves describe Adonis  more than any other description. Biographical searches on the Internet brings up lots of information about Adonis, but none quite captures his entirety.  Born in Syria, educated in Beirut, then an eventual immigrant in Paris, Adonis exemplifies the modern man torn between different perceptions and desires. So let his poetry speak for himself:

“I stir up the hyenas in you. I stir up the gods. I plant discord in you and feed up to the fever. Later, I’ll teach you to walk without a guide. I am the pole to your equator, a springtime let loose. I am the shudder in your throats. In your words, there is a bloodletting of my own. You approach me like leprosy. I’m the one tied to your soil. But there is nothing that brings us together, whereas everything that separates us—so let me burn alone. Let me pass through you like a spear of light. I cannot live with you. I cannot live without you either. You are the undulations in my senses. There is no escape from you.”

Adonis shakes up my perception of “international.” Lets hope suburban American literary journals catch on to his magic.


(This article appeared in The Kathmandu Post in 2009)

You can buy Minhyar of Damascus, translated by Adnan Haydar and Michael Beard on Amazon:
https://www.amazon.com/Mihyar-Damascus-Lannan-Translations-Selection/dp/1934414085



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