5 Arabic Books to Read ‘Before You Die’

Taline Voskeritchian:

Two books, Season of Migration to the North and Cities of Salt reappear several times, the former a very slim, riveting tale, and the latter a corpulent novel–both unsettling, both beautifully rendered.

Originally posted on Arabic Literature (in English):

Well, perhaps this one was a bit morbid:

The “Five Before You Die” was a feature we ran back in the summer 2010; by now, there are now many more great Arabic books available in translation, but this remains a strong list from translators, authors, critics, and publishers.

Shakir Mustafa

Although he might not put it on his resume, Mustafa was perhaps the first supporter of this blog.  He teaches at Northeastern University, translates, and is the editor and translator of the excellent Contemporary Iraqi Fiction: An Anthology. His picks:

Mahmoud Saeed

Saeed is the acclaimed and award-winning author of Saddam City, among many…

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First loves: Chekhov’s “Seagull” among us…

imagesThere’s a scene half-way through Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull” where Boris Trigorin, the famous writer, implores Irina Arkadina, a famous actress and Trigorin’s  lover, “Let me go, let me go.” He claims to have fallen in love with the young and ethereal Nina, an aspiring actress, and asks his companion to release him so he can take a shot at this kind of pure love. At least, that’s what he says.  Irina plays on his vanity and his fears and ends up keeping him in his place, next to her.  It is a powerful scene, laced with pathos and sadness as Trigorin comes to admit that he is too weak to take a risk. But more than that, it is a scene of such authenticity and universal appeal as to embarrass us, moderns, with its familiarity.   In Irina and Boris, we recognize ourselves, the ways in which fear, vanity and sense of safety conspire to keep us in our place–and miserable.  In Chekhov such inaction, or avoidance of action, has huge consequences for many individuals and can lead to tragic results.  But even in our atomized, shrunken world, Chekhov manages to get close to the bone in ways which make us laugh, for sure, but also make us hold back our emotions.



Kate Burton, in the role of Irina , and Ted Koch, in the role of Trigorin, play the scene to near-perfection, infusing it with this modern sensibility, no doubt enhanced by Paul Schmitdt’s excellent translation which takes the stuffiness out of language and makes it buoyant and casual. In fact,  the premise of the Huntington Theatre’s production is that Chekhov is one of us; he is our contemporary, and every aspect of the production–the acting, the directing, the scene design–all cooperate to drive this point home.

Chekhov is, of course, our contemporary.  That’s why we return to him and find his characters and their troubles so instructive.  He is our contemporary because he refuses to pass judgment on his characters, and will not allow us to do so.  For example, as scene between Irina and Trigorin unravels, we do not know if he is sincere in his love for Nina.  We find that out later, but even then, can we condemn him for his original decision to stay with Irina?  Have we not been in similar situations where we have chosen the easy way out rather than the perilous road?  Trigorin turns out to be a cad, a man enslaved to his vanity and fickleness.  But even then, we are hesitant to condemn him, as we are hesitant to judge the overbearing Irina. We cannot uphold even Nina, whose life is soiled by Trigorin, because of the fractured equation Chekhov proposes between life and art, that the former is the sacrifice for the latter, at least in the case of established art.  The young Kostya tries to dislodge that equation, both in his larger views of art and in his relationship to Nina, but he fails.  In fact, no character in this play of half a dozen memorable characters is free of folly.


Photo: entertainmentmonthly.com

In making “The Seagull” such a lively production, director Maria Aitken does something else: With the help of a superb translation and an ensemble cast, she manages to English (as verb) Chekhov, which is no small feat!  What a treat!


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Do you know the way to Sacromonte?

~~This post originally appeared on this blog; then it migrated to the blog of the radio program “On Being;” and now it is back in its home.  This homecoming today is an occasion for celebration in an otherwise mostly dreary day.~~

Do You Know the Way to Sacromonte?

by Taline Voskeritchian, guest contributor, with photos by Tamar Salibian

Path in Andalusia

The road may be — and almost always is — made of our footsteps, as Antonio Machado said, but there are places in the world, sacred sites, where arrival is at least equal to the effort of getting there, where our beginnings and our ends do actually know each other. The Camino du Sacromonte, which we recently climbed all the way to the Abbaye du Sacromonte at the very top of the trail is such a place.

We had begun rather unambitiously, meandering up and down through the alleyways of Albaicin, until we suddenly found ourselves on the Sacromonte trail. On one side was the lush landscape atop which sat the Alhambra; on the other side, and at a sharp elevation, we could make out the Abbey. It was a grey afternoon. We walked slowly and quietly, for there was not much sound around us save for a few tourists and locals, and the dogs of which there are an unusually large number in Albaicin. We stopped here and there, the landscape taking our breath away — literally. And then on a little bit more, and then another stop.

Vista Alegre

To Sacromonte

View of the Alhambra from the Road to SacromonteView of the Alhambra from the road to the Abbey of Sacromonte.

Then, it began to rain — first softly for a while, the droplets of whispers. The rain stayed with us all the way to the top, sometimes a mere hint, at other times a downpour. We continued walking for a long, long time, and then the rain became more ferocious as we made our way up the arch of the abbey. The path became more treacherous, but we persisted, stopping to catch our breath and then start again. For more than ten minutes, we ascended, our feet muddied, our hearts beating fast, our ears alert to the tiniest movement. But most of all, we were sustained by the smell of the absorbent landscape — the earth saturated with that moist fragrance, the vegetation holding the water in its roots but also on its surface.

Abadia del SacromonteEntrance to the Abbey of Sacromonte

It was not fear that seized me for that instant, though I may have expressed it in those terms. We’re alone, there’s no one around, just these two little women from Boston, speaking a foreign language, huddling against each other. It was awe, and awe is always mixed with an undercurrent of terror as though at any moment invisible figures — the ghosts of the gypsies for whose “education” the abbey was originally constructed in the seventeenth century — would suddenly jump out in an ambush. But it passed, that terror, leaving in its trail an unfamiliar but sweet sense of being gathered together, of being held, by the invisible hands and secret thread of the gods and their shadows, propelled by something transcendent.

We made it to the top and into the abbey, which was completely devoid of sound and sight. We sat in the foyer, looking out at the landscape ahead of us through the small iron gate. In the distance the Alhambra of the Muslims extended across the entire top of the mountains, and here, in this spot, the Christian abbey built on the grottos of the gypsies: a quintessential moment of faiths in violent embrace.

The Foyer of the Abbey of Sacromonte

We sat for quite a while, looking ahead and inward, waiting for the rain to subside, which it did not. No sense of triumph, no sense of victory, but something else, pure and of this place, at this moment. Perhaps this is what faith feels like, we said. This sense of being on top of the world, held — contained is a better description — by something invisible, something beyond this religious edifice. But ask the question and you’ve subverted the sentiment, you’ve sullied the faith. But if not faith, then what?

Sacromonte in the rain

There are places in the world where you can go down on your knees — even if you are a card-carrying secularist — and rail and curse and bless and thank your gods. Such places are removed from the push and pull of everyday life, from the noise and verbiage of human chatter. You can go down on your knees and when you come up again, you are less vulnerable, more resilient, at least for a little while — and a bit less wet. Camino du Sacromonte is such a place.


After some time, we decided to go down to the main road and find a way to get home. We did not have the foggiest idea, except that we had heard that bus #35 passed from the main trail.

Leaving the Abbey of Sacromonte

We made it back to the main trail, and within five minutes, bus #35 came speeding through the narrow street. It was going in the opposite direction, up to the Abbey, but the driver motioned to us to jump in. Inside the bus was a rowdy, laughing bunch of passengers whose noise turned wilder with each jolt and turn of the bus. They all seemed to know each other, or acted that way, which is more likely. Before we made it to the top, the self-appointed “leader” of the gang asked if anyone was going to the abbey. No one was, and so with a rather wild turn of the steering wheel our driver took a right downhill turn, which I thought would land the little bus at the base of the ravine on its side and throw us into an accident from which we would be delivered to the community of ghosts that inhabit these mountains. But nothing of the sort happened though the swerve was pretty precipitous.

We made it back to the main trail and to the Albaicin. No doubt the gods and the ghosts were on our side, all of them that roam these lands — Christians, Muslims, Jews, the gypsies, the heathens, the believers, the kings, the commoners. Those who were burned at the stake, those who were occupied, those who were expelled, and those who built their monuments on top of the destruction, the mayhem.

The ashes. All in the name of faith. But if not faith, then what?

Posted in Cities and towns, Meditations, Ordinary places, Passages and Homes, Rx for Maladies, Small joys, Those we Love | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Re-reading Darwish on March 13

~~Mahmoud Darwish was born on this day–March 13–1941.  For all that he has given to us, his readers, for the monumental body of his work and its staying power, and for his enduring images and ideas, these lines.  The first is an excerpt from “Under Siege” and the second is “I Remember al-Sayyab.”  The later was published in the London Review of Books. Translations by Taline Voskeritchian and Christopher Millis.~~

If you were not the rain, my love, then be the tree
Saturated and bountiful, be the tree.
And if you were not the tree, my love, then be the stone
Saturated and moist,  be the stone.
And if you were not the stone, my love, then be the moon
In the dream of the loved one, be the moon.
This is what a woman said to her son at his funeral.


I Remember al-Sayyab*

I remember al-Sayyab, his futile cries across the Gulf:
‘Iraq, Iraq, nothing but Iraq,’
And nothing answers but an echo.
I remember al-Sayyab under these same Sumerian skies
Where a woman surmounted the void
To make us heirs to earth and exile.
I remember al-Sayyab . . .  Poetry is born in Iraq,
So belong to Iraq—become a poet, my friend!

I remember al-Sayyab did not find the life
He’d imagined between the Tigris and Euphrates,
And did not think like Gilgamesh of the leaves of immortality,
And did not think of resurrection and beyond . . .

I remember al-Sayyab lifted from Hamurabi
A legal code to hold against his shame.
I remember al-Sayyab when I’m feverish
Or worse: My brothers are making dinner
For General Hulagu’s army—no other servants but my brothers!

I remember al-Sayyab, how either of us ever imagined
Nectar the bees might not merit,
Or that it would take more than two small hands
To reach our absence.

I remember al-Sayyab. Dead ironsmiths rise up
From the ground to fashion us shackles.
I remember al-Sayyab. Poetry is desire and exile,
Twins.  We wanted no more
Than a life and death to call our own.

‘Iraq, Iraq,
Nothing but Iraq . . .

*The Iraqi poet Bad Shaker al-Sayyab, who died in Kuweit in 1964, was a pioneer of the free verse movement in modern Arabic literature.

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Hagop Oshagan: Teacher for the generations

Oshagan in Jerusalem (Oshagan Family Archives)

Oshagan in Jerusalem (Oshagan Family Archives)

~~This photograph is of the Western Armenian novelist Hagop Oshagan with his students, in Jerusalem. The year is unknown. It is one of the very few pictures of Oshagan with his students although it is said that  with them, Oshagan was very generous with his time and knowledge of literature. To his left is Boghos Snabian, the tireless editor of his books, and perhaps one of the few remaining persons who knew Oshagan directly.

Oshagan belongs to the post-Genocide generation of Armenian men (and some women) of letters who thought of teaching as a national duty, and learning as the new “home” of the refugees and survivors. Numerous essays and testimonies by former students paint a picture of Oshagan as an memorable teacher and a remarkable presence in the classroom–charismatic, engaging, erudite, but also acerbic and unabashed in his comments to his students about the quality of their work.

Oshagan began teaching in 1902 at the age of 19, in the elementary school of his native village. His last teaching post was in Jerusalem at the Armenian Theological Seminary (Jarankavorats) where he had moved in 1934 with his family. In the intervening three decades, he also taught at Armenian educational institutions in Constantinople, Cairo, and Cyprus.

He was, by all accounts, a legend in the classroom–fiercely demanding, insistent on passion and intelligence in equal parts, and brutally honest. It seems that no one who entered his classroom came out unscathed, changed, and marked for life. The same is true of the impact his novels have had on their readers. As Vahé Oshagan has said in conversation, “You enter Hagop Oshagan’s world at your own peril. When you finally come out of his world, you are a different person.”~~

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Sossi Madzounian’s weave…

~~Occasionally, I post photographs from friends who are traveling in distant lands or who have evocative images close to home. I first saw these images from Sossi Madzounian, photographer and friend, on Facebook, and was instantly seized by the the weave of line and light, as it reveals itself to the discerning eye in urban and natural settings.  Sossi says that her aim is to capture the “sheer simplicity of the subject,” which is often “ordinary” and “unheeded.”  Here are five images from Sossi’s portfolio.  Thanks, Sossi!~~

Fort Collins

Fort Collins,CO

Fort Collins, CO

Fort Collins

Carpinteria, CA

Carpinteria, CA

Los Angeles

Los Angeles

Los Angeles, CA

Los Angeles

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February 13 is World Radio Day

Image credit: UNESCO

Image credit: UNESCO

~~I found out from France Culture that today is World Radio Day, designated so by theUnited Nations (http://www.worldradioday.org/).  You wouldn’t know it here in Boston–at least so far in the progress of the day. We’re busy with the latest snowstorm. My local station, WBUR (a great station, I should add) is pushing with one of its interminable fundraising campaigns:dozen red roses for Valentine’s Day, blah, blah, blah.  But for me the day is cause for celebration, reflection, and gratitude.

Image credit: France Culture

Image credit: France Culture

My love for radio, good radio, is deep and enduring, spanning continents and languages and cities: from Amman and Beirut in the 1960s, to Iowa City in the 1970s, to Los Angeles in the 1980s where I stumbled one day on Pacifica’s KPFK, to Boston in the 1990s and until now, radio has educated, consoled, angered, and sustained me.  But above all, it has been a portal of passage, a source of delight and enlightenment in equal parts.  Nothing compares to it, nothing–and television is a very poor competitor at best, especially nowadays when there is so much innovative radio around us, so much good, accessible material from around the world.

Boston, where I live, is one of the great cities for radio, as was Los Angeles in the 1980s.  But nowadays, it makes no difference where one lives–and that is one of life’s great pleasures for me: to listen to the radio programs of the world, in languages I understand and some that I don’t, mesmerized again as I was then, in the 1960s, when radio offered us life after the school day–from news of political upheavals, to Cliff Richard and Elvis Presley and Oum Koulthoum, to readings of Anna Karenina (in Arabic translation) and Naguib Mahfouz, and more.  Radio was a second education for us all, a shadow school, in sound, a school of life, of being citizens of the world, of being eloquent, and more.

Nowadays, radio–at least in Boston–is in its full glory, extracting the same attention as it did then, when I was a young girl, transporting me to other worlds and other lives, to ideas and imagined possibilities through the seamless web of sound and meaning and imagined possibilities. All this.~~

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