I was fourteen when I began my first translation, twenty dull pages from a science textbook. It was the year I fell in love with Arabic – not the oral dialect, mind you, but the classical language. I’d studied it since I was a child, of course, as early as I’d studied English or French. Yet only in Arabic class were we constantly told that we could not master this most difficult of languages, no matter how much we studied and practiced, we could not possibly hope to write as well as al-Mutanabbi or, heaven forbid, the apex of the language, the Quran itself. Teacher indoctrinated students, just as they had been indoctrinated when younger. None of us can rise above being a failure as an Arab, our original sin.
I’d reads the Quran and memorized large hunks of it, but all that studying didn’t introduce me to the language’s magic – forced learning and magic are congenital adversaries.
I was seven when I took my first Quranic class. The teacher – a wide, bespectacled stutterer – would lose her stutter when she recited the Quran; a true miracle, the other teachers claimed. She had it all committed to memory, and when she recited, her eyes glowed, her scarf-covered head swayed on a shaky neck, and he pointed stick twirled before her. In the first row we covered our eyes whenever the pointer came too close – to this day, when I sit in the front seat of a care during a rainstorm, I’m afraid the windshield’s wipers might poke my eye. The teacher’s stick may have appeared dangerous, but it was not what she beat us with. If we made a mistake in reciting, if a girl forgot a word or had trouble recalling a line, the teacher’s cheeks contracted and glowed, her lips pursed and shrank; she’d ask the child to come to the front and extend her hand, and would mete out punishment using the most innocuous of implements, the blackboard eraser. It hurt as much as any inquisitor’s tool.
As if forced memorization of the Quran – forced memorization of anything – wasn’t punishment enough.
“Listen to the words,” she exhorted, “listen to the wizardry. Hear the rhythm, hear the poetry.”
How could I hear anything when I was either in excruciating pain or fearing I might soon be?
“The language of the Quran is its miracle,” she used to say.
Consider this: In order to elevate the Prophet Moses above all men, God granted him the miracle that would dazzle the people of his era. In those days, magicians were ubiquitous in Egypt, so all of Moses miracles involved the most imaginative magic: rod into serpent, river into red blood, Red Sea into parting. During the Prophet Jesus’s time, medicine was king. Jesus healed lepers and raised the dead. During our Prophet’s time, poetry was admired, and God gifted Muhammad, an illiterate man, with the miracle of a matchless tongue.
“This is our heritage, our inheritance – this is our magic.”
I didn’t listen then. The teacher frightened faith out of my soul. I didn’t care that the Quran had dozens of of words for various bodies of water, that it used rhythms and rhymes that hadn’t been heard before.
Compared to the Quran’s language and its style, those of the other holy books seemed childish. It is said that after one glance at the Bible, the Marechale de Luxembourg* exclaimed, “The tone is absolutely frightful! What a pity the Holy Spirit had such poor taste!”
No. I might be able to poke fun at the Quran for its childishly imperious content, but not for its style.
It was finally poetry that opened my eyes; poetry, and not the Quran, that seared itself into the back of my brain – poetry, the lapidary. I’m not sure that the discovery of love is necessarily more exquisite than the discovery of poetry, or more sensuous for that matter.
I recall the [poet who ignited the flame, Antaras, the jet-black warrior poet. I remember the shock of a doomed language being resuscitated.
And I remembered you as spears quenched their thirst
In me and white swords dripped with mu blood
So I longed to kiss the blades that recalled
The gleam of your smiling mouth to my mind.
The again, maybe it was Imru’ al-Qays. He and Antara are my preferred of the seven included in the legendary Suspended Odes*.
But come, my friends, as we stand here mourning, do you see
See its glittering, like the flash of two moving hands, amid
The thick gathering clouds.
Its glory shines like the lamps of a monk when he has dipped
Their wicks in oil.
I sat down with my companions and watched the lightning
And the coming storm.
The language – we hear it all the time. News anchors speak classical Arabic, as do some politicians, definitely Arabic teachers, but what sputters out of their mouths sounds odd and displaced compared to our organic Lebanese tongue, our homemade, homegrown dialect. Television and radio announcers sound foreign to my ears. Those early poems, though, they are alchemy, something miraculous. They opened my ears, opened my mind, like flowers in water.
Yet my first translation was not a poem but twenty dull pages. In the school I attended, the sciences were taught in French. Rarely was Arabic used for physics, chemistry, or mathematics in any of the schools of Beirut, whose main curriculum has always been community conformity. It seems that Arabic is not considered a language for logic. A joke that used to make the rounds when I was a child, probably still going strong: the definition of parallel lines in geometry textbooks in Saudi Arabia is two straight lines that never meet unless God in all His glory wills it.
The twenty pages were a curiosity; I wished to see for myself. My first translation sounded odd and displaced as well.
The translations that followed improved, I hope.
By improved I mean that I no longer felt as awkward about writing my name on what I translated as I did in the beginning.
* Suspended Odes: classic, pre-Islamic poetry.
* Suspended Odes: classic, pre-Islamic poetry.