Ghalib Halasa
Ghalib Halasa
We are a generation without teachers


In this regular feature Banipal invites a prominent Arab author to write about the books and authors that have had an influential impact on his or her life. On this occasion, we turn to the writings of the late renowned Jordanian novelist and critic Ghalib Halasa (18 December 1932 – 18 December 1989)

 

I began writing when I was very young. I do not recall the exact age; it might have been ten. I would wake up very early, before the other pupils in the boarding school, and sit down to write my dreams. They were beautiful dreams, and when I was in them I used to know I was dreaming. If I saw a beautiful girl I would rush to embrace her, telling myself, “why hesitate? It’s only a dream.”

When I wrote what happened in those dreams I would add my personal wishes, ones that had not come true when I dreamed. “Why not? Nobody will read what I wrote,” I thought. Writing was my private and secret taboo, my way of killing boredom and monotony. Later when I read Kafka, dreamlands exploded inside me. This is why I understood Camus’ statement very well – “Kafka is always in front of me”.

No one taught me writing, and no one encouraged me to pursue it. I read and formed misconceptions that no one corrected. I had prepared myself to search for Arsene Lupin to join him on his adventures. He was a friend, in a way, and I estimated that he was waiting for me to arrive. I did not find out until later that he was a fictional character, and that Maurice Leblanc had created this character seventy years before my birth. The village cobbler who used to lend me Arsene Lupin’s novels asked me one day if Arsene Lupin was a real person. The note of scepticism in his voice infuriated me. I swore to him that he was real, and that my older brother who knew both English and French was the one who told me. Of course he had not told me, but I was ready to recount all the lies I knew in order to protect my life project: joining Arsene Lupin.

“We are a generation without teachers.” This is what the deceased Egyptian storywriter Mohammad Hafiz Rajab said. We taught ourselves by ourselves. When I read One Thousand and One Nights for the first time I was twelve years old. I was filled with genuine rage about the anti-Christian racism that dotted its pages. I took up my pen and wrote a short but eloquent polemic to Mr Al-Babi al-Halabi, the publisher of the book whom I took to be its author. My letter said that in this period when the Arab nation was facing colonialism and Zionism the writer ought to strive to unite the nation’s populace, Muslims and Christians alike, not turn them against each other.

Many years later, when my long residence in Cairo began, I saw Al-Babi al-Halabi’s publishing house and library. From the outside it looked like a small, dim shop. It was only a few metres away from the main entrance of al-Azhar Mosque. In the depths of the shop I saw an old man sitting at a desk and reading through a pile of papers. That man was Mr Al-Babi al-Halabi. At the time I wished I were present when Mr Al-Halabi received my letter so I could see his reaction.

But is not there something special in this? I mean in the absence of historical context for people and events, and in the conflation of time periods and places and in taking history for a daily reality revolving around us? This is what happened to me when I read the narrative of al-Zeer Salim1.

I read it when I was nine or ten years old. I read it in the village and I do not know how, because I was supposed to be in Amman, in the boarding school. Most likely I read it during the summer vacation. The narrative events seemed spatio-temporally imminent. When someone whose opinion I trusted told me that Jassas, Kulaib’s murderer, was the forefather of all gypsies, I set about avenging Kulaib in my own way. Whenever gypsies came to our house with their tambourines and flutes, begging or selling their dances, I would whisper in a low voice, so my mother would not hear, the most obscene swearwords against Jassas. It surprised me how this did not rouse their anger, or even their attention.

The important thing was that the tragedy of Kulaib’s murder was alive inside me, alive as an event that necessitated revenge, because the wound was still fresh. Maybe that was the privilege of lacking historical context, where imagination careered unbound and history could be lived with all of its tragedies and prejudices as if it were unfolding in the “here and now”.

I still fear rereading al-Zeer Salim’s narrative. I fear that the legend might lose its power and merge with reality and I would lose the moment of inception. The world would amount to accidental and monotonous compellations. It would become devoid of mystery and devoid of the magical world that lurks beneath it.

Al-Zeer Salim’s biography became a reference guide to a host of literary figures and a key to understanding them. It was also a guidebook for Greek literature. That lust for revenge, which lived with the young man al-Zeer Salim until his death and, with the child growing and getting stronger in order to avenge his father Kulaib, I saw again in the murder of Agamemnon, in the revenge of Orestes, and in Medea. Most likely these Greek legends sprang from social conditions similar to the ones in which the Besous wars took place.

I recall how, when I read Euripides’ Medea, I continued to live in the world of that play for three days, during which I was completely disconnected from reality. That happened to me also when I read Naguib Mahfouz’s two novels Khan al-Khalili and Al-Sarab [The Mirage].

I am recalling now one of the greatest joys of life: reading Stevenson’s novels, Treasure Island, The Black Arrow, The Master of Ballantrae, Kidnapped, Katrina, and his collection of stories in The New Arabian Nights. Through him I recollect my childhood’s best, a childhood stifled by monotony, boredom, adults’ harshness and the dearth of their horizons. Stevenson was an oasis in the midst of that desert, its fragrance enveloping me, and so I imbibe the excitement of that delicious horror.

I recall being twelve years old, living in my brother’s house in Madaba, a small town south of Amman, in an isolated house on the outskirts of the town. The time was winter (Stevenson is associated in my mind with dreary winter nights) and everyone was sleeping. I carried the kerosene lamp – electricity had not reached the town yet – and placed it next to the mat spread on the floor, and began reading The Black Arrow. This was the second novel I read by him. The first was Treasure Island.

At that moment I was living with just the right audiovisual effects: the foyer, the long, narrow living room that sank in semi-darkness, the pitch-black corridor leading to the kitchen, the continuous, incessant hissing of the wind outside, and the silence foreboding ambush.

The scene was the courtyard of a provincial church adjacent to a thick forest. Time was twilight, the sun attenuated, neither warming nor illuminating the way. The conversation that ran between the men standing in the church courtyard I no longer remember, but the scene determined it. It was an inconsequential conversation. This was an old snapshot, like a scene entrapped in memory and fixed motionlessly there.

Into this monotonous calm an arrow shoots forth from the forest and strikes one of the men in the back. His face is paralysed by pain and he falls. The other men extract the arrow from his body, but he dies. At the same moment birds hover in consternation at the edges of the forest, and then are still. Some of the men rush to the forest to look for the person who shot the arrow, but they do not find a single trace. They return disappointed.

Then I closed the novel, put out the lantern and wrapped the blanket tightly around myself. But I could not sleep. Horror stopped me. Explaining this horror reveals one of the deep bonds that connect me with Stevenson’s world, and it may also reveal one of the features of his literature, although an objective examination of Stevenson’s literature is not my goal here.

That horror was pleasurable, that pleasure which Aristotle called cathartic, at least according to my understanding of Aristotelian catharsis. And to illustrate that, the reader who recalls the scene as I wrote it will find himself facing a scene that had repeated itself tens of times, a scene that no longer possesses the power to provoke the aesthetic sensibility I call pleasurable horror.

This is Stevenson’s special characteristic. I mean charging the place with a spirit that fills the reader and overflows from him. He makes us recollect an old sensation, as old as our childhood and that of mankind. Recollections in which places have a soul, and where appearances are an evasive cover for reality. Just as in childhood tales we discover a sorceress beneath the beautiful woman, the calm and peaceful surfaces of Stevenson’s plots erupt with horror.

I recall a village woman who was the subject of rivalry from many lovers. Romantic odes were written about her and stories revolved around her. I remember her as rough and wild, teasing me obscenely. Nothing of her legend was in her person. Once I asked my mother if this woman had been beautiful in her youth. She replied: “She was just as she is now. She has not changed much.” After that I approached the issue differently. I began recreating the woman based on her legend.

This is what used to happen to me when I read Stevenson. He made me capable of writing about my village. I had to wait for a long time until I found this same technique in William Faulkner.

We, the writers of the sixties in Egypt, were on a date with Hemingway. He was literature incarnate, especially when it came to the novel and the short story. He posed challenges that neither of the two literary schools prominent at the time could rebut. By the two schools I mean Arab romanticism, that began with al-Manfaluti, and Arab social realism. They were in fact two sides of the same coin: borrowing European human archetypes from the stagnant European literary pool of the nineteenth century and dressing them in Arab garments. At the heart of this literature was the polar vision of the prostitute: the virtuous-vile woman with her noble-barbaric face, her grotesque appearance juxtaposed with her noble heart.

What estranged us most from this literature was its lack of persuasiveness. I recall how since I was a boy I would strive to make my friends laugh by mimicking Yusuf Wahbi’s2 high-blown language: “I took you for an angel that descended from the sky” or “Everyman’s woman, you heap of rubbish” or “A girl’s honour is like a matchstick” and “O Your Mightiness”. Or I would reiterate those clichÈs that recurred endlessly in Egyptian movies: “You are not human, no, not human, you are . . . you are an angel,” or “I tell you, this not for me but for what is growing in my womb”.

This false pathos is what estranged us from the romantic and social-realist schools of literature. Despite their diverging ideologies, they shared a number of fundamental features in their approaches and visions:

Firstly, both were committed – and usually to a fundamentalist conception of narration, that is, to moving from deceptive appearances to a pragmatic realism, a process through which the story or novel is transformed into an art for correcting our misconceptions about reality.

Secondly, romanticism borrowed its human archetypes from European literature, and these were not archetypes derived from reality, even though their selection contained a reference to that reality. Arab social realism followed in this respect with minor alterations that did not touch upon the essence, that is, the living realistic human being.

The other thing in Hemingway’s writing that left a lasting impression on me and on the sixties generation in Egypt was his depiction of human activities, such as hunting, fishing, warring, and bullfighting, among others. He did this with the deftness of a connoisseur who knew the technicalities of these actions down to their minutest details. Both the romantic and social-realist schools overlooked activities because they deemed them unimportant in structuring a fictional plot and because the authors themselves did not care to understand them. What Hemingway offered more than any other writer was a way of integrating these human activities into the structure of the literary work. He even transformed them into dramatic acts for their own sake.

Describing them occupies a large space in Hemingway’s literature. What would remain of The Old Man and the Sea, for example, if we removed the techniques of fishing the giant “fish”? The same can be said about bullfighting in The Sun Also Rises, and about hunting in Green Hills of Africa, etc.

Hemingway paved the way for me to take a visual look at reality, and to attain a new understanding of the novel and short story that was absent from my previous readings. Previously space for me had been a figurative element, a collection of adjectives referring to a static state. Space lacked the idiosyncrasy of art and therefore was part of a framework of generic references. Hemingway came along and divested space of its referential nature and open it out before us in all of its visual dimensions.

Hemingway also taught us how to rid ourselves of the flaccid language of romanticism, language that says nothing and is content with offering instead its contrived musicality. Hemingway’s language, whose concentration and succinctness are akin to the language of telegrams, was our means of parting from a heavy rhetorical language and from a language that lacked depth. Hemingway’s simple language derives its intensity from the absent parts to which the reader is referred, those hidden four-fifths of the floating iceberg. Perhaps the most important thing I learned from Hemingway was that his style is inseparable from the absent parts of the story.

The big mistake committed by Hemingway’s disciples was to separate writing style from the backdrop of emotional reactions. Without its background, style becomes empty chatter, or in the best of possibilities, a monotonous style of narration. When Hemingway was asked if a complete story existed in his mind behind the scenes that formed his story “The Murderers”, he answered: “Of course. I do not write a story unless there is a complete narrative upon which it is based.” When these scenes, narrated in the same style, become self-sufficient, referring us to nowhere outside the scene, they become poor, banal, in need of a synoptic alternative.

But to what does the writer refer us? What is the fundamental position from which his writings evolve and around which they revolve?

 

That was before I read Faulkner and learned from him how the writer could write about his village without ever stopping.

What do I want to say with all of this? I want to say that with the novel having acquired new form and architecture and consequently a definite structure, everything that happened to us as Jordanians fell outside the realms of the novel and the short story. In order to write we had to lie, and expressed what was a nonexistent reality. We had to write about pale beloveds dying of tuberculosis notwithstanding the discovery of streptomycin, about suicidal romantics, about proletarians who spontaneously voiced Marx’s and Lenin’s thoughts, about a mayor whose character we conflated with the ‘Umda of rural Egypt, and breathtakingly beautiful prostitutes who knew a great deal about the progress of history and were always at the beck and call of a beloved for whom they would readily sacrifice – in sum, about everything that did not exist in Jordan.

Nonetheless, I vaguely knew that genuine writing was writing about what was taking place around me. But how? I learned that slowly, and mainly from Stevenson, Hemingway and Faulkner, and later from Dos Passos.

My beginning with Dos Passos was through his colossal trilogy U.S.A.with its volumes The 42nd Parallel, 1919 and The Big Money. I did not know anything about Don Passos other than what Hemingway had mentioned in Green Hills of Africa. Hemingway’s words were ambiguous and I still do not know whether he was ridiculing his friend or glorifying him.

I remember the feeling that occupied me as I read it, and when I had finished it, was one of absolute freedom. It was a freedom that looked toward reality and toward the novel as a form. Before that for me the novel was all restrictions and prohibitions. I felt that if I tried to write one, I would be walking in a world of fragile glass that would collapse with a frightful roar (and a scandal too) should I take one hasty step. Writing a novel was for me an invitation to be prudent and comply with strict guidelines. Consequently, writing meant taking a risk with the potential of scandal. The paramount feeling that dominated me was timidity.

But timidity about what?

Timidity about the novel genre and its strict masters compelling me to carry out orders whose particular conditions for obedience I could not locate. In other words, at the very moment of putting pen to paper I was incompetent – that very moment was when I could not control the protagonists, the situations and the events – and unable to comply with instructions.

There was also an apprehension that came from the written novel itself. It seemed to me, in its solemn, supercilious stillness, that the novel fulfilled all stipulations effortlessly and without confusion. It seemed as if it were written in perfect confidence, and with control over every one of its minutiae. I know now that the opposite is true, but at the time I did not know and therefore was overwhelmed with insecurity.

Later on I learned that the rules of writing a novel were not superior to the novel, but rather stemmed from it, and that the bad critic was the one who discussed the novel according to presupposed rules. True criticism is an act of reading the literary text creatively.

Dos Passos was there to break my fear of the novel form and to remove the boundary between it and my everyday experiences. He ushered into the novel the world surrounding me and allowed it to permeate the work from every direction. Everything became worthy of being written about: passing conversations, faces, daily relations with colleagues, daydreams, sexual intercourse, etc. I began reading newspapers attentively to discover all the trivia disguised beneath catchy phrases, hyperbole, sentimental chatter, and the laughable gusto that takes the form of serious articles by writers who place their smiling photographs on the upper left corner of the article, and then the advertisements.

What did these writers, foreign and Arab, teach me?

I can safely say that I have not plagiarised their themes, novels, ideologies or philosophies. Everything I wrote stemmed from myself and my experiences, and from knowledge that was the product of witnessing events. Using techniques employed by other writers does not come about through plagiarism. I benefited from Passos’s way of judging reality through collective language – journalism for example – but I was using this method before reading Passos; he served to legitimise it. As for Hemingway, he did not provide the style through which I reacted against the flaccid language of melodrama – even as a boy I could sense the disingenuousness of melodrama.

What did they teach me, then?

They taught me what is more valuable than all of this. I do not owe them nickels and dimes but millions of rare coins impervious to inflation. They taught me how to see the world around me in a new way, and how to place it into the context of a literary work. In other words, without them I would not have become a writer.

I seek to reveal the epistemological side of literature, to reveal our transition from living in a meaningless world to a world where every minute is gaining infinite meaning and significance. We, offspring of the Third World, can say what is new and distinct about Faulkner. Many have written about him: Frederick Hoffman, Wyndham Lewis, F. R. Leavis, Sean O’Faolain and countless others, among them also Graham Greene, Jean-Paul Sartre and Roger Garaudy.

All these thinkers came from major industrial cities: New York, Washington, San Francisco, London, Paris, etc. Their analyses of Faulkner may have raised important issues but they were grounded in social and cultural contexts. Garaudy, for example, called Faulkner’s literature “cemetery literature’, meaning that it focused on manifestations of death, physical and spiritual decay, and violence that was destructive of others and of the self. That is, he criticised Faulkner for not seeing the bright future and hope that lurked in reality according to a social realist vision. But Garaudy overlooked the societal dilemmas of the American South, which had transformed from a half-nomadic, half-rural society into an advanced industrial one. The assimilation of the South with that spiritually dead American lifestyle was not a source of optimism. It was the encounter, in the novel Sanctuary, between the dissipating spirit of the South and the impotent North, the encounter of Temple Drake, the fast-living girl who had relinquished her moral values, with Popeye, the impotent Northerner who raped her with a corn cob.

Others saw in the family trees that Faulkner constructed for his protagonists a kind of laughable weird genius. They did not comprehend the importance and depth of blood relations in a society like that of the South. It is not possible to penetrate to the depth of human relations or to the emotional constitution of Southerners without comprehending the importance of blood ties between them and what follows in terms of values and practices from these ties.

Most of the United States’ Southern writers who attained exaggerated fame, conceded Faulkner’s decisive impact upon them. Even those who did not directly admit it revealed his impact in their writings.

And Faulkner’s impact was decisive upon me. Why?

I was born and raised in a society that was moving from a nomadic lifestyle to a rural one, and from a rural lifestyle to one that revolved around commerce. I recall a Jordanian student who confided that his crisis was his inability to write anything about Jordan, a place where nothing worthy of being depicted took place. This was my opinion too until I read Fontamara by Ignazio Silone, and then the grand discovery came when I read Faulkner. A life like ours and a society like ours, especially those events and emotional bonds to which I had hitherto attributed no significance, were more or less magnificently expressed there.

Al-Zeer Salim’s biography had its impact on me. It endowed reality with drama, but what reality? It was the tense reality that seemed like a replica of a refined drama. As for everyday reality, the given which needs no affirmation, Faulkner came along to place it in the category of the possible. This is how it gained astonishing liveliness and infinite variegations. Suddenly humans around me were filled with endless possibilities. How?

Sanctuary: the beginning was with this novel. I recall setting out to read it while bearing in mind the rumour that Faulkner was difficult to read. The novel bedazzled me. I remember finishing it at two a.m., and then starting to reread it until daybreak.

This is the important epistemological value of Faulkner’s literature: he returns us to the roots of our experiences, those extremely sensitive roots connected to the reservoir of memories, sensibilities and events, those that had been repressed, neglected or continued to exist generically without being assigned to a particular context. We do not live Faulkner’s world like neutral witnesses, nor do we live that neutral and pleasant side of our world through him. Rather, we live these worlds with the freshness and intensity of our first passions and experiences.

Hemingway engages our intelligence in a dialogue, guides us to the worlds of others as they confront danger. Dos Passos reveals to us the contexts of trite discourse disguised in formal language, valorised and dead, while Faulkner speaks to our most profound and conflated experiences.

Reading Faulkner’s Sanctuary was a major experience in my life, not only in relation to writing, nor because it was a first step into Faulkner’s peculiar and unique world, but because in addition it compelled me to reclaim my personal life, my childhood memories, the village and the school and to rearticulate them.

I recall the boarding school. My misfortune dictated that I would be the youngest of my classmates: younger than the youngest by two or three years, and than the eldest by five or six years. These age differences are significant during childhood and adolescence, and added to that was my poor physical constitution. at that age youngster cannot overcome his youth, and cannot become an adversary to those older than him.

I remember that the closeness of the older students was impossible to penetrate. I remember it as a form of unshakeable satisfaction and self-confidence. They insisted on their mistakes, and their justice was subjective, imposed through their density. On the other hand, my assiduous attempts to prove there was objective justice were futile.

These archetypes came to the fore and were illuminated for me when I encountered the protagonist Popeye. I recalled my struggle in front of that silenced perseverance. They had the privileges of prince-warriors, with power and force as their weapons, while education and knowledge were the weapons of the weak. The character of Popeye put an end to my naive belief that an absolute objective justice existed, a justice that surpassed the logic of power and coercion. Popeye extracted me out of my daydreams and placed me in reality.

From my personal experience of reading Sanctuary, I saw how the corruption I witnessed did not apply to Popeye because he did not possess the traits of contemporary industrial society. Even his upbringing did not belong to the type of conformist upbringing directed by others and aimed at satisfying others. His bellicosity did not materialise before those who did not deserve to be targets of his anger.

I was acquainted with murderers and criminals in the prisons I entered. They were sympathetic and gentle with the weak and the height of their aggressiveness appeared before those who tried to become their adversaries. I recall also the impact of visits by my relatives from Amman to the village where I was born and lived my early childhood years. Amman then was a small town, with a population of no more than thirty thousand. It was an embryonic city, but its inhabitants had a lifestyle radically different from that in the village.

I remember the nausea those visiting relatives generated in me. As city dwellers, they had different conceptions from mine as a villager. They looked at the village as a static place with no historical depth and conceptions, and with values opposed to those of the city. So, the village women and girls were seen as ugly, its men pathetic, its water impure and its cuisine lacking in cleanliness and style. A whole world of beauty, chivalry and poetry was collapsing before me. That reverence I carried for the dream-city incited me to adopt that positivist vision of my village. Amman, along with the other major cities such as Cairo and Damascus, for me was a mere reproduction of my village, a reproduction that endows the village with the capacity to fulfil my dreams.

My short story “Wadi’ and Saint Miladah and Others”, which I wrote before my twentieth year and before reading Faulkner, carried my positivist vision of the village: the villagers, swept by a dream of panacea, rush to a girl who has had a vision of the Mother of Jesus, but return to their village disappointed after discovering the merchants had mixed the holy oil with regular olive oil in order to increase their profit. At the same time I dealt my revenge, revenge for my own disappointment with Amman. Its people seemed narrow-minded, fixated on unachievable dreams.

A year later I wrote my novel Slaves and Bedouin and Peasants. I had read some of Faulkner’s works by then. I had realised, ambiguously, that in order to write about the village I had to regain my original sense of it and to abandon that positivist vision the city had inculcated in me. The world of slaves and Bedouin and peasants could not be seen as an accidental episode severed from its past and internal logic. That positivist conception of an accidental episode is a moment situated in a historical context, in the history that does not reveal all of its dimensions except to those who live inside it.

This is what I learned from Faulkner, whom I started knowing better when I read more of his works Sanctuary, Absalom, Absalom!, Light in August, The Bear, and The Sound and The Fury, among other novels, novellas and short stories.

 

* * *

 

Ibn al-Muqaffa is a writer who accompanied me since childhood. Throughout my life and for various reasons I would return to him and a new face would be fashioned before me, as if I were reading him for the first time. Now I can, as I return to him yet again, discover that what is concealed within him is far more than what is visible, and that his project – and this was the first time an Arab writer has possessed a comprehensive project for sociopolitical change – was one of such gravity and danger that he had to conceal it behind many masks. He did not succeed completely in the masking game – success was not possible. He was made from the stuff of revolutionary martyrs. The judge of Basra invited him for a visit, and ordered him to be carried and placed in a burning furnace. Thus ended the life of one of the most original and philanthropic Arab thinkers when he was thirty-six years old.

As for his translation of Kalila wa Dimna, I do not know if schools still teach that story in the elementary classes as they used to do in our time, but what I still remember today is that joy and sense of freshness which captured me when I entered that botanical world, the world of forests, rivers, lakes and talking animals. The world of childhood is a botanical world: flowers, fairies, forests – and beautiful girls. Children’s stories still revolve around a botanical world even today.

Until this moment I still detect the aroma of that magic whenever I walk into a garden or when I have access to an expanse of vegetation and water. A naÔve, idyllic life takes me back to the daydreams that preceded my experiences as a member of society. There is an additional factor that used to marshal my attentiveness to the world of greenery, and still does to this moment. It is having grown up in a mountainous village, half Bedouin half pastoral. It was a barren area, sparse of trees and water. This is why I lived the botanical world like a dream I agonised over fulfilling.

I wrote about one of the shocks of my life in my novel Laughter when I described seeing in the distance, on the horizon, transparent blue mountains, which seemed like condensed colour, soft to the touch like the sea as I had always pictured it without ever seeing it, and the forest together. Then it occurred to me one day to reach the mountains and see what no other kid in the village had seen. I began my journey at six in the morning, running most of the way. My shock was great when I arrived and discovered that they were barren mountains, exactly like the ones upon which my village was perched and like the ones that surrounded it.

In addition Ibn al-Muqaffa was proficient in numerous languages. He mastered some, such as Arabic and Persian, the way a writer excels in his mother tongue, and excelled in others, such as the Greek from which he translated Aristotle’s Logic. From my personal experience, knowing more than one language gives some ideas expression in a language other than the one in which it is being written. Thus writing becomes a redoubled anguish: communicating the idea and reconciling two linguistic contexts.

The aspect of Ibn al-Muqaffa’s writing that left on me the most lasting impression was his accurate but uncommon use of terminology, and the terse sentence structure that endeavoured to control the torrent of new ideas and was simultaneously anxious to not lose them. That used to, and still does, charge me with wakefulness and radiance when I see language used in unconventional ways. Ibn al-Muqaffa’s writing also fascinated me with that unexpected leap from the narrative and the idea it proposes – the allegory he introduced. I found myself in need of a considerable measure of concentration and brainwork in order to draw the connections between the two.

Finally, the most dangerous aspect of Ibn al-Muqaffa that had seeped into me as I read him was his personality, that fusion of the revolutionary who had prepared himself for martyrdom and the glowing mind; and that rare union of Spartan values and actions that correspond with it. Knowing a wrwiter thoroughly amounts, in most cases, to disappointment. This is so because of the discrepancy between the image that he invokes in the mind of the reader and his actual persona. As for Ibn al-Muqaffa, I felt that he is one of the writers closest to their writings and to the ideas they expounded.

Al-Jahiz described him, saying: "He was open-handed, knightly, handsome . . . and people admired his manners, so they would ask him: 'Who educated you?' aAnd he would reply: 'I did.' "

 

Translated by Yasmeen Hannoush from Uda'a 'Alamoni, Udabaa Ariftuhum (Writers who taught me, Writers I Knew), published by Al-Muassassa al-Arabiyya lil-Dirassat wal-Nashr, Beirut, 1996.

Published in Banipal 26, Summer 2006

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