Image: Poet Ashfraf Fayadh and translator Mona Kareem.
Palestinian poet, artist, and curator Ashraf Fayadh is currently imprisoned in Saudi Arabia on charges of renouncing Islam. Words Without Borders spoke with Mona Kareem, whose translation of Ashraf’s poetry collection Instructions Within will be published this fall as a part of The Operating System’s Glossarium: Unsilenced Texts and Modern Translations series.
Publisher Lynne DeSilva-Johnson describes the series as “an effort to recover silenced texts outside and beyond the familiar poetic canon . . . in particular those under siege by restrictive regimes and silencing practices in their home (or adopted) country.”
Words Without Borders (WWB): What ties together the poems in Instructions Within—thematically, aesthetically, or otherwise?
Mona Kareem (MK): I was able to finalize the translation Instructions Within this month. I can tell you that this is a unique work in the context of Arabic poetry. First, it is the only work of its kind to explore the experience of refugees and displacement with such poetic intimacy. It overcomes nationalist sentiments, revolutionary agitation, and linear collective narratives. Although Ashraf identifies as a “Palestinian poet,” his work is not at all familiar to the literature produced by others on displacement. He is specifically dedicated to unveiling the violence done to an individual like himself under the petro-capitalist theocracy that he was born in. This is crucial because for Ashraf, he is not dreaming of a certain homeland, and he is not losing one home, because loss and absence are persistently active in his life.
This brings me to his use of Quranic language and style. Such practice is totally familiar in Arabic poetry. Yet it becomes controversial in his work as it unveils the hypocrisy of this theocracy at subject. He consciously subverts the reference texts deployed by an authoritarian regime, so that they become words of sorrow and protest and desire. Some of the poems use a different diction, of Arabic pop culture or even ancient characters, to speak of his ontology, which he often symbolizes in the figure of a crow—dark and rejected, with wings but incapable of flying.
WWB: What was most challenging about translating the poems in the collection, and how did you resolve those challenges? What was most rewarding? How involved was Ashraf in the process?
MK: I was faced with three challenges that had to do with style and language. Many of Ashraf’s poems are long, sometimes as long as twenty pages. In these long poems, he shifts between voices, characters, and settings. He likes to break off suddenly; to leave something unfinished and start all over. So sometimes I lose my breath. I close my eyes and stretch, make coffee, take a smoke, and return ready for the marathon. But this very practice made the process enjoyable for me; he is always building and destroying. He uses punctuation chaotically, brings in songs and lines from others, and chops off his lines awkwardly, piling them over each other so they become a chain of images unfolding in your hands from right to the left.
He is always building and destroying. He uses punctuation chaotically, brings in songs and lines from others, and chops off his lines awkwardly, piling them over each other so they become a chain of images unfolding in your hands.
The other troubling challenge, of course, was the language. As I stated, he borrows from the Quran—he sometimes reproduces certain phrases of it or of other central Islamic texts. I am a contemporary poet and translator who’s only been translating modern literature between the Arabic and English. So this was a new experience for me. I had to go back to these texts and see how they were translated into the English and how I could borrow from that in the service of my translation. When I finished, I started to work on footnotes that could possibly help the monolingual English reader understand the context and power in using such “controversial” language in poetry.
I was happy to see that the overall translation does not carry the fragmentation commonly felt by the foreignness of a text. I think the fact that am familiar with Ashraf’s work, that we are both of the same generation of Arabic poets, that I myself a poet (as opposed to fiction writer or journalist) helped much in this process. When you read the book, you will find a style in the translation, some traveling aesthetics that bring all the texts together.
I told Ashraf that I curse him a lot while working on the translation. He laughed and even apologized. He has a humble soul. It is hard for him to talk about his poetry considering the wounds it caused him in the past few years. I also asked him if he could tell me a bit about a poem titled “B.I.M” and he said “I cannot explain it, it is an existentialist experiment; so experiment on!”
WWB: How did you begin working with Ashraf Fayadh?
MK: I’ve known Ashraf since 2004 when literary forums and websites were becoming the new space for publishing and exchanging for Arabic literature. I remember he used to edit the music section of one website. In 2005 I cofounded Apollo Wedd, an online magazine that brings literature and arts together. Ashraf was one of our contributors, being both a poet and visual artist who took interest in engaging with the works of his peers. In 2008, he published his first and only poetry collection. I had also published two collections by that time, so we exchanged writings while curating discussions, reviews, and podcasts. His work was well-received and appreciated in the smaller circles around him but never widely read as it deserves to be. His book was printed in Beirut but banned from entering the Saudi Kingdom.
In the few years before his arrest, I had lost contact with Ashraf, mostly because of my migration to the United States and the absences it brought to my life. I learned about his arrest through a mutual friend, and we started to reach out to writers and journalists to help out, but little was done. One of several ways to support his cause was to use translation as a form of activism. I do not wish to see a fellow writer and friend being treated as just a case of “free speech,” because that is demeaning to him and his work. There is something challenging and evocative in Ashraf’s work that it bothered authorities so much, and the least we can do is to read it, allow it to travel, and engage with it. (For English readers, you can refer to my translation of his poem “Frida Kahlo’s mustache” for an example of his poetry in the years following Instructions Within.)
I do not wish to see a fellow writer and friend being treated as just a case of “free speech” . . . There is something challenging and evocative in Ashraf’s work that it bothered authorities so much, and the least we can do is to read it, allow it to travel, and engage with it.
WWB: You’ve been a leader in the movement to secure Ashraf’s release. Can you speak a bit about your involvement/work as an organizer? Have you been active in the cases of other artists imprisoned for their work? How did you come to partner with The Operating System?
MK: I started campaigning for Ashraf right after his arrest in January 2014. At that time, he was expecting a two-year sentence in jail. They interrogated him, kept him without trial or charges or even a lawyer. He spent two years in jail hoping to get out, only to discover that they were plotting a bigger trial for him. One of his close friends and myself were the only ones in touch with him, besides his family, who did not speak out because they thought it would harm his case. The only thing we were able to do was to create a petition, which was signed by 100 Arab writers, and publish a report about his arrest in English.
After the death sentence, the whole world was talking about the poet who was about to die for his writing. Organizations that had ignored my emails previously were making statements about him. People started to translate his work across languages. Readings were held. Some great support, but clearly not enough to free him. I still meet people who express their relief that his sentence was reduced to eight years in jail and 800 lashes, as if they have a right to his life and body! Clearly, there’s still work to be done.
Ashraf is not the only person I am trying to support. My close friend Ahmed Naji was imprisoned in Cairo this past February for writing “explicit fiction.” So I found myself with two friends in jail and I was trying to support both of them so they would not be forgotten. Their cases could be easily overlooked because they’re the “expression cases” in countries that have tens of thousands of political detainees. There are now others involved in the “movement,” if we may call it that. My friend Marcia Lynx Qualey of “the Arabic literature in English” blog is one example of those who support Arab writers in jail. We do not want our friends to become only names on the lists of NGOs and in their occasional statements. We do not want less for them than to see them free again.
The publisher of the Operating System, Lynne DeSilva-Johnson (pictured left), reached out to me through a mutual friend, the poet Ariel Resnikoff. We met in Brooklyn where both of us reside and discussed how this project could be realized. Lynne is great to work with because she has this politicized mentality that creates connections between literature, arts, and daily life. She was supportive of Ashraf’s suggestion that proceeds be donated to English PEN to help support his case, and she also suggested that the book be printed as a bilingual edition that incorporates Ashraf’s artwork.
WWB: Can you tell us about Ashraf’s work beyond poetry?
MK: In all interviews and discussions about Ashraf, I try to stress the fact that Ashraf is not only a poet. He is a poet and artist of a Saudi generation most frightening to the system. By a “generation,” I am referring to a good group of writers and artists living in Saudi cities like Jeddah and Abha, making their spaces and producing their work. (Ashraf and his peers were under watch for over a year before a man complained against him and framed him through testimonies and excerpts of his banned book.) Saudi Arabia lacks the grounds for collectives to exist. Often, the creative found themselves working alone. But it was people like Ashraf and others who created bridges within the creative community and moved on to curating exhibitions and publications locally and abroad. This is why when you read Ashraf’s book among others published at the time in Saudi Arabia, you will see shared aesthetics and anxieties. I believe that Ashraf as a poet, artist, and cultural worker was the perfect target for authorities. They wanted to hurt this collective work by jailing the most vulnerable man among them (Palestinian, stateless, immigrant, individualist). Some of Ashraf’s peers have been supportive of him, yet many of them remain silent out of fear, indifference, or even personal interest (they don’t want to upset the establishments that now fund their projects!).
Saudi Arabia lacks the grounds for collectives to exist . . . But it was people like Ashraf and others who created bridges within the creative community.
WWB: Are there other writers whose work you are translating (or hoping to translate)? People whom you would like to see have a wider readership?
MK: For many years, I was mostly translating American literature into the Arabic. I worked for several Arabic newspapers as a cultural editor and took joy in literary translation to do my work. But in the past few years, I have thought it even more crucial to support contemporary Arabic literature through translation, in part because Arabic literature is so narrowly translated into the English, with “anthropological” fiction taking most of this (colonial) interest. In the past couple of years, I have translated Riyadh al-Saleh, a Syrian poet of the 70s who has only drawn interest within Arabic readership in the past decade. I’ve also translated Dara Abdalla and Mohammed Rabie, who are both young Arab writers from Syria and Egypt. One of my dreams is to translate Ra’ad Abdulqader, a poet of the 80s/90s generation who possesses a most unique voice in Iraqi poetry, with a poetics drawn from sufism and mythology. Another project that I am working on for the longer term is an anthology of contemporary Arabic poets.
Mona Kareem is a poet, translator, and journalist based in New York. She is the author of three poetry collections, some of which were translated into French, English, Spanish, Dutch, German, Farsi, Italian and Kurdish. Mona is a doctoral candidate in the Comparative Literature program at Binghamton University. Her dissertation explores issues of subalternity in the Arab feminist novel. She teaches writing classes while freelancing for a number of Arabic publications. Her translation of Palestinian poet Ashraf Fayadh’s collection Instructions Within is forthcoming from The Operating System.
The Operating System is an arts organization based in New York City that supports a small press and magazine—as well as a robust online platform—documenting a wide range of creative practitioners and projects. The press’s Glossarium: Unsilenced Texts and Modern Translations series is curated by publisher Lynne DeSilva-Johnson. The first series title, Ashraf Fayadh’s Instructions Within, will be published in a bilingual Arabic-English edition with a forward by Ahmed Kehdr. Ammiel Alcalay and a team of scholars collectively transcribed the original text, which was then translated by Mona Kareem with contributions by Mona Zaki and Jonathan Wright, and artist Ahmed Mater located images of Ashraf’s paintings, which will accompany the poems. A UK edition, in print and ebook, will be published by PEN UK. Future series titles include Gregory Randall’s memoir of Cuba To Have Been There Then and Cuban poet Israel Dominguez’s collection Return Trip, both translated by Margaret Randall.