Archive for the ‘Author’ Category

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Gained in Translation (and how I lost the ‘dude’)

May 7, 2012

Interesting.  I wonder what this is about?  That was my initial reaction when I opened a package from my publisher the other day and saw Przepowiednia Szeherezady.  I was thinking that another writer must be as equally obsessed with Scheherazade as I am.  Perhaps she had read The Night Counter, and had liked it so much she had written a book length analysis of it.  Perhaps that was why my name was in big letters under the beautiful Nubian princess on the cover.  We can all be delusional for a few seconds.

The Nubian princess on the cover I immediately recognized was not me.  However, it took me awhile to figure out she was indeed my Scheherazade from The Night Counter.  This was in fact the Polish translation of The Night Counter, with one of the main characters literally photographed in a way I had never imagined her.

Being as The Night Counter’s characters are fiction, I had never seen a photograph of any of the characters in the book outside of my head.  Nor did I ever contemplate how hard or easy it would be for the characters to master life in Polish.  Now sometimes in the space they forever inhabit in me, I can imagine them whipping up some witty repartee in Polish.  At least I hope it’s witty and true to themselves.  But no one ever really knows when it comes to translation.  Indeed, how Dobromila Jankowska (the translator) heard them in English might be different than how I heard them, and therefore they might be slightly different people in Polish.  Just like real humans, characters become slightly different when they move to a different language, let alone a different country.  Even my English doesn’t sound the same here in Abu Dhabi as it does in the US.  There are words I don’t use often now—“dude” mercifully high among them—because they sound foreign in English here and maybe I speak louder and slower.

Humor, which is more based on culture and language, than drama is probably the hardest thing to understand in translation.  In Germany, The Night Counter family is apparently quite funny.  I only know this from sitting at readings in Germany in which I would read in English to relatively stoic responses –I could have been reading a new political manifesto for Europe.  But when the translator read the German version, the laughter told me they were not thinking of The Night Counter as a manifesto, at least not one they took seriously.

The Night Counter became Feigen in Detroit (Figs in Detroit) via translators Nadine Psuchel and Max Stradler.  My German editor at Auf Bau called Max a replicant because he can translate in several languages faster than anyone she’s met, run marathons and raise a son on his own.  Max did the first literal translation and Nadine went in and made the characters authentic in German.  At least that’s what everyone who has read the translation tells me:  They said Nadine was able to deliver fully dimensional characters who sounded like they’d always been speaking German suitable for their phobias and demographics.

When I met Nadine, we clicked instantly, bonded by the hours we had both spent pondering every word in the book, something that creates a natural intimacy, as probably no one else has ever had to be so close to what goes on in my head.  We also had similar sensibilities, key to good translation. Here is an exchange, unedited, between us when she was doing the final pass at the translation:

Nadine:  On page 84: “Yeah, we could call it the International Dateline,” he said. “Sometimes these ideas just come to me. The entrepreneur in me, I guess” (Zade talking about a new cooperative partnership in his match-making services). The pun with date doesn’t work in German so we thought of him proposing the name “Achse der Liebe” – “axis of love”. But of course this would have a more political undertone so what would you think of that version? (We could also leave the name in English. Date in the sense of rendez-vous is known in Germany, so the pun would be lost but the name itself would make sense, maybe with a slightly different wording in his next sentences).

Me:  I love axis of love. It would have been better in English, too.

Translation is complicated, but it also made me understand my own language more–and I got to understand my characters better in talking about them as German speakers.  But perhaps on the other hand its simple.  When I met my Norwegian publisher last year, I asked her why she had bought the book for this country with one of the highest per capita reading rates in the world.  “I loved the story,” she said.  “I could see it in Norwegian.”

That’s it really:  translation at its most noble is love of sharing stories and information. Some of the best things I’ve read in my life originated in languages I only know how to say “thank you” in.  If I have any doubts about how translation makes life better, I only have to look at the woman on the cover of Przepowiednia Szeherezady :  Scheherazade understood stories and the importance of them for survival.  That’s why she’s been in translation for centuries, some translations recognizable to how I know her, and some less so–and one day soon, she’ll find herself saying “dude” in someone’s interpretation of her.

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Thank you, Steve Jobs, for Letting Me Write

October 6, 2011

Since I was in college, the one thing that has been in my life nearly everyday—and for better or worse, nearly all day—has

Thank you, Steve Jobs

been my Apple. Along with one of those apples that grow on trees, turning on my Mac has been part of my morning ritual wherever I have been and in whatever state-of-mind I have been in, minus a couple of war zones that have made it impossible. But even in those times, I would sometimes move my hands like they were going over the keyboards writing my thoughts.

I have never been addicted to my Mac, but I’d say we’ve been pretty co-dependent—or let’s say the best of friends, a reliable friend I always cleaned up with only the finest soft cloth, a friend I could count on to help me stay bond to my other friends and family, a friend I never cheated on once, no matter how many times a PC tried to get my attention. A friend who would only abandon me when it was his time to go, like Steve Jobs today. But my Macs always left memories behind, a hard drive that recorded our history together and the history of my life for the time we were together. And I am glad none of them tried to erase me from their memory, at least until we were no longer together .

It hasn’t always been the same Mac, but it has always been the same genius bringing me my new model—as well as smaller ones, ones that were phones, ones that meant I didn’t have to endure the same 10 pop songs on the car radio, ones that are what I now use to read all the books I love, new and old. Some Macs have been better to me than others, but overall, I would be less of a person for not having had them all in my life—even the big, bulky ones that weighed me down, that refused to move with the times, that were serious baggage, but only in the best sense.

I’m old enough to remember life before the various Macs that have lived with me. I would be a different person without them, as we would have all be. The way I stay in touch with people, read, listen to music, watch films, study, figure out my bills—all the paper and machines that would be cluttering up my world if my Macs hadn’t helped me get it together. They have also been fun–playing with my Macs in all their forms is something my nephews and I have bonded over, unlike video games (their choice) or baking cookies (my choice).  Apples are our happy middle.

Most importantly, my Macs helped make me who I am today. I wouldn’t be a writer without my Macs, whether for fiction, nonfiction, for film or television or print. And if I weren’t a writer, I wouldn’t have discovered peace of mind. Whenever my Mac and I have been writing, truly hard as it is everyday, I have felt that I am doing what I’m supposed to be doing. It couldn’t have done it without my Macs: I have weak hands and it is quite painful for me to write with pen or pencil and hard for anyone to read, including myself. It was only when I met my first Mac that I felt free to write.

So if you are wondering why this is posted on this blog dedicated to Middle East culture, it is because I would have never written anything about this part of the world if I hadn’t come here with my Mac. (And of course, because Steve Jobs was part Arab American.)

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The Only Muslim I Agree With

September 10, 2011

The only Muslim I agree with 100% (well, more like 90% of the time) is me.  Sometimes I question by dusk religious thoughts that at dawn seemed prophetic. But mostly I agree with myself about God, Mohammed, Jesus, the five pillars of Islam–and yes, the Muslim cliché the hijab, and all other things attributed to Muslims but not really about Muslims, like women driving in Saudi Arabia.

I have a lot of Muslim friends that agree and disagree with me on all of the above.  Most of the Muslims I know have no idea what I think about my religion, although some have tried to tell me what I think (“You don’t drink because you’re trying to be a good Muslim” someone once told me, and I didn’t bother to explain that I wouldn’t drink no matter what my religion was and I don’t actually think Islam categorically forbids alcohol).

Just as few Christians, Jews and others know what I think about my religion, although some of them have also tried to tell me. (“You’re one of those white Muslims, so we know you’re not like the others,” was the comfort I got from a co-worker on 9/11, as apparently I didn’t appear brown enough to be bad.)

No one ever asked me, not even other Muslims, until after 9/11, what I thought about Islam.  I’d venture to say many of my American friends could barely recall I was a Muslim.  For a while after 9/11, I felt it was something that like Mona Eltahawy said in a recent op ed piece for the Guardian (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cifamerica/2011/sep/09/muslim-post-9-11-america) I had to mention early on in a conversation.  In my case, so no one would say anything bad in front of me and feel like crap later when I then I told them I was a Muslim.

I don’t look like a Muslim not because of the color of my skin but because I don’t wear a hijab.  That’s the giveaway in the post-9/11 US and Europe, but not in much of the Middle East, where many choose not to wear the hijab.  (Actually, more correctly is that many women choose to wear it).

As a non-wearer, I’ve really come to appreciate the hijab because it gives me a chance to always be the undercover Muslim:  In crowded rooms, classrooms, and parties, I get to hear what other people really think about Islam because they don’t think I’m one one of them.  And mostly what I hear shocks me, almost as shocking as the dangerous radicalization of Islam in disenfranchised parts of the Muslim world that led to 9/11.  Horrific as the terrorism is, it comes from ignorance, from people deprived of education and hope.  That’s not something you expect in the West, and yet most of what I hear about Islam is pretty ignorant, mostly boogey man like.

Maybe one day, Muslims will be transformed like the Russians, who under communism could only produce women in our social studies class textbooks were sullen peasant wrapped in fur skin hats, to their general acceptance in all media as hot babes, for better or worse, in a variety of professions.

That’s not necessarily something to aspire to, but until then, here is some Pew polling on American Muslims that might be a little more enlightening.  Muslim seem to be more upbeat about being American than others, not that I disagree or agree with any of  them. (http://people-press.org/2011/08/30/muslim-americans-no-signs-of-growth-in-alienation-or-support-for-extremism/)

For further readings on Arab Americans 10 years later, I recommend the following:

Alia Malek in Granta:  http://www.granta.com/Online-Only/Of-Moustaches-and-Megalomaniacs

Moustafa Bayoumi in the Nation  http://www.thenation.com/blog/163284/rites-and-rights-citizenship

Carmel Alyaa Delshad  http://bustedhalo.com/features/being-the-%E2%80%9Cother%E2%80%9D-on-september-11-2001

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War and Body Image: Guernica and Arab American Literature

June 3, 2011

When my friend and author Randa Jarrar asked me for a short story for a collection she was editing for Guernica, I wrote “Girls on Ice.”  Those were the people talking in my head at the time.  Some form of them is always talking in my head because they are in part who I once was and who I see so many teenagers as today.   You can’t be Arab or Arab American and female and not have had severe body image anxiety shoved down your throat (as a teen in Beirut, my thoughts weren’t of the war but rather of wanting to be a respectable young woman, i.e. not fat–whereas as the friends I’d left back in Minnesota took fat as an annoyance, not a tragedy).  War was just an inevitable, uncontrollable part of life, and sadly still is, but beauty can be controlled, just ask any woman in the Middle East.  Perhaps we wage war on our bodies to shut out the wars we find ourselves powerless to control.  But when you come to America, you have to be concerned with achieving beyond the bathroom mirror.  Just ask the characters in these stories.

http://www.guernicamag.com/features/2692/jarrar_intro_6_1_11/

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Talking Poetry, Not Osama

May 12, 2011

Because Abu Dhabi has become such a crossroads of the world since I have lived here, I find myself having a lot of “how did I get here” moments. For example in the years since 9-11, I’ve never sat around picturing where I’d be the day after Osama bin Ladin was put to rest, relatively speaking.  However, had I done so, I probably wouldn’t have come up this: at the home of the the Counselor for Press and Cultural Affairs of the Embassy of the United States of America in Abu Dhabi, celebrating poetry with three acclaimed poets who had just gotten out of Nepal on a rickety plane that morning and were leaving for Afghanistan the next day, having begun their journey in Iowa.

Poetry is the bread and butter of Arab art and culture, and no country has nurtured the arts in modern times more than the US, so it was one of those positive cross cultural meetings, especially given the news of the day wasn’t quite settling in the same for the two peoples.  That the Osama news was so different depending on where you got your information also had its upside, as the reception was also recognizing World Press Freedom Day.

Poets Nathalie Handal, Bob Holman and Christopher Merrill were in Abu Dhabi as part of the International Writers Program at the University of Iowa.  Here’s the official explanation:  “The International Writing Program is the flagship cultural partner of the U.S. Department of State.  For more than 30 years, the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program has brought together more than 1,000 rising and established literary stars from 120 countries to spend a semester exploring the creative writing process. Authors, screenwriters, journalists, and other participants benefit from the rich literary heritage and resources of Iowa City, a UNESCO City of Literature. On the road, IWP writers carry out programming, often in collaboration with U.S. embassies and cultural centers, that helps audiences around the world think about the role the arts, and especially literature, can playing in building bridges of international communication.”  Take that anyone who thinks Iowa is just cornfields and pig farms.

Christopher Merrill, who directs the International Writing Program, read a poem in which a semi-hidden rattlesnake is an easily recognized metaphor.  Bob Holman, who studies dying languages for fun and has appeared on shows like HBO’s Def Poetry Jam, improvised in free verse on the possibility of writing from the other person’s side at the rapid, off tangent rate most of us find thoughts running through our head when we try to write.  Nathalie Handal, Palestinian American poet and one of the editors of the acclaimed anthology Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia & Beyond (W.W. Norton) read her poem, “Peace.”

I leave you with her latest poem, Freedom, about the current Arab revolutions.

http://www.guernicamag.com/poetry/2612/handal_poem_5_1_11/

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The First Female Superhero

May 5, 2011

I spoke at TEDx Abu Dhabi last week.  TED is hard, writing is hard–being a superhero is even harder.  But that’s what I talked about at TEDx:  My favorite female superhero, Scherhazade.  I also consider her the first female superheroine.  I’ll post the video in which I explain why when I’m feeling more heroic and therefore not afraid of looking at videos that have me in them.  In the meantime, here’s an article that is  the result of a nice chat I had with National report Manal Ismail after the talk.

http://www.thenational.ae/news/uae-news/arabian-nights-character-scheherazade-a-role-model-for-women 

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On Being Just Plain American

January 9, 2011

It seems like most of my life, I’ve been asked what it’s like to be Arab or Palestinian or Lebanese or Muslim. I’ve even been asked questions about being Latino and Jewish,  based on my appearance I assume.   However, I can’t remember anyone ever asking me what it is like to be an American, although I’ve spent all my life being one.  I think there is an assumption that just by being born American I am privileged, privileged by the international power my country has.  While I’ve recognized the relative truth of that, I’m well aware that the US is not paradise on Earth for so many of its people.  Watch any Michael Moore documentary or just go hang out an urban hospital emergency room eavesdropping on conversations—what doesn’t kill you, will make you question the meaning of life and death.  And never mind that so much US Middle East policy pains me.

But on a more personal level, “what’s it like to be an American” is not even a question I would ask myself about myself, although I would ask it of others:  I think I’ve always felt quasi American because of my childhood.  In the Midwest, where I spent my early years, I didn’t have a Little House on the Prairie homesteading heritage—and not just one but both my parents had accents, didn’t know a twice baked potato from a Tater Tot, weren’t rugged and outdoorsy like the Marlboro Man or Robert Redford and thought camping was something people had to do if they couldn’t afford roadside motels. That childhood reasoning as to why we were not ‘real’ Americans, no matter how much my parents would tell us differently, has somehow always stayed with me, compounded by grown up examples that involve words like terrorism, Muslims, 9/11.

However, this fall at the Frankfurt Central Library, when US Consulate Public Affairs Officer Jeanine Collins introduced me as an American author—just plain American, not a hyphenated American—for the first time I felt that I was indeed an American.  I was not just an American because a representative of the US government was introducing me (although that was the first time I’d ever been introduced by an American as an American), but because in that instant I realized that the US was the country that can claim and that I can claim, the country that has educated me, given me my voice to speak for all my other identities, let me question what it is to be American, and let me praise its ingenuity, innocence and hope and criticize its darker sides without punishment.  There in Frankfurt, I felt that I had come home, that I had been validated as a real American, not just by the US Consulate but finally by myself.

Here’s a clip of that talk:  www.youtube.com/watch?v=7o7s6QssY10