Went to a lovely event at AUC tonight: a totally unpretentious panel discussion called “Translating Palestine,” focused on three takes on Lebanese writer Elias Khoury’s novel Bab al-Shams. Panelists were Khoury himself (in town for a brief visit), Humphrey Davies (who has translated several of his novels, and won Seif Ghobash Banipal prizes for Gate of the Sun and Yalo), and Yousry Nasrallah, who made a nearly 5-hour film version of the novel (Ahram profile here), co-written by Elias Khoury and Mohamed Soueid. Prof. Samia Mehrez, head of AUC’s Center for Translation Studies, introduced.
The event was in English, and Elias Khoury started out by saying that it felt “bizarre to be speaking in English about an Arabic novel and especially to be doing so here, in Cairo, which since the events of last winter has started again to feel like the heart of the Arab world. But if that is how it is, then that is how it will be.” In fact he and Nasrallah (and obviously Davies) were all lexically precise and utterly charming; perhaps having to think in one’s weaker language somehow focuses the mind.
Nasrallah said making the film, as an Egyptian, allowed him to “reappropriate Palestine,” after “years of the regime using Palestine to repress us.” I’ve never heard it put that way.
A thread running through the conversation was the role of metaphor and allegory. Khoury said that most great love stories are about “impossible loves,” so in Bab al-Shams he set out to write, among other things, “the love story of a man and his wife, something usually impossible, since usually we are in love with our friend’s wife, etc.” But of course the situation – Younis lives in Lebanon, Nahila in Israel, they meet in a cave only when he can sneak across the border – makes their love as obstacle-ridden as that of Romeo and Juliet. Anyway, the important thing is that the love story is a love story, the cave is a cave, the hospital is a hospital, not a symbol of something else. The literal object. And even more so, Nasrallah insisted, in the cinema. (Never mind what it “means”: what does it look like? What color and texture is it? How do we light it?) But curiously, literature has its autonomy, too: the stories within the novel refer to each other and to the Arabian Nights, not to any particular refugee’s particular experiences. Khoury: “Literature is not a representation of reality. I don’t like allegories.” Hear, hear!
AUC will eventually put up video of the event – watch for it here.