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Leg over Leg or Al-Saq ‘ala al-Saq, vols 1 and 2
by Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq
Edited and Translated by Humphrey Davies
Vol 1, 416 pp., ISBN: 9780814729373; Vol 2, 464 pp., ISBN: 9780814769843, both $40.
Linguistic exuberance and literary inventiveness
The novel Al-Saq ‘ala al-Saq, by the nineteenth-century writer, journalist, and translator Ahmed Faris al-Shidyaq, occupies a curious place in the history of Arabic letters. Much known but little studied, it is typically cited as pivotal in discussions of literary modernity in the Middle East while still remaining somewhat under-appreciated by literary scholars and largely unknown to the English-speaking world. Part of this, no doubt, is due to its rather formidable initial appearance – a long, sprawling, fantastical travelogue, filled with lists of obscure words and abstruse word-play, nominally recounting the peregrinations of its semi-autobiographical protagonist Faryaq but also taking several detours into lengthy digressions on all number of weird and wonderful topics. Yet it is a work which rewards careful attention: Shidyaq reveals himself to be an entertaining and incisive commentator on his world and times, and al-Saq turns out to be an intricate web of motifs and concerns, which questions everything and takes nothing for granted – even the nature of writing and literature itself.
Beginning with Faryaq’s ill-starred birth, “with the misfortune of having misfortune in the ascendant everywhere”, Volumes One and Two of Leg over Leg recount his education, his early career as a copyist, his first contact with Protestant missionaries, and his travels to Egypt. On the way, we encounter lecherous priests, bumbling preachers, cuckolded doctors, finicky grammarians, and pompous poets, all satirised with a dry humour and lightness of touch which nonetheless do not detract from the pertinence of Shi-dyaq’s observations on society. His far-reaching and avant-garde ideas about education, religion, the rights of the individual, women, language and the West – among other things – are discussed in depth, and even at his most playful Shidyaq remains deeply committed to an engaged critique of contemporary mores. Yet his constant ludic subversion of any form of authority – religious, political, literary, textual – mean that Leg over Leg is a decidedly more interesting and entertaining read than many other more heavily studied Arabic texts commenting on the nineteenth-century Middle East, such as ‘Ali Mubarak’s ‘Alam al-Din or Rifa’a al-Tahtawi’s Takhlis al-Ibriz fi Talkhis Bariz, which can tend towards a more weighty didacticism.
Indeed, Leg over Leg can often feel like nothing else in Arabic literature, and notably ahead of its time in its deconstruction of the very idea of a narrative and the relationship between writer and reader: one chapter, for example, is titled “Over There”, and comprises only a picture of a hand pointing to the next page. While Shidyaq’s “modernism” is fascinating, it is also worth remembering his relationship to the Arabic literary tradition, by turns respectful and mocking: while he satirises the classical Arabic literary technique of rhyming prose (saj’) as about as much use to a writer as a wooden leg to a walker, he nonetheless uses it frequently throughout the work, as well as playing off classical genres and forms such as the maqama. Although Leg over Leg is a forward-looking work, it simultaneously maintains a vital connection with the past. The lists of arcane words are, to no small degree, an ebullient display of the range and power of classical Arabic, a subject with which Shidyaq was deeply concerned – as well as his literary and journalistic activities, he spent much of his life mapping the further reaches of the language through philological study.
Humphrey Davies’ masterful translation makes accessible this unique and fascinating work, deserving of wider recognition and study. The Arabic text facing the English sets the stage for a duel between writer and translator, with Shidyaq’s convoluted wordplay and lists of recondite synonyms spurring Davies’ translation on to match him, pun for pun, in English. For those who have read Shidyaq in Arabic, there is great satisfaction to be derived from observing this process of competition and collusion – for example, Davies’ alliterative chapter headings which mirror but also play with Shidyaq’s own. For those who have not, the translation adroitly and sympathetically captures the linguistic exuberance and literary inventiveness of the original. Davies has said that the translation was undertaken in an “exploratory spirit”, and rightly so: a text as complex and challenging as al-Saq invites a multitude of approaches, and no doubt others would have found different ways around such thorny issues as the passages of rhyming prose which recur in the work, or Shidyaq’s quintessential lists of synonyms. It is interesting to note that Davies has, at different points within the translation, tried different approaches to these problems: when Shidyaq includes a list of 40-plus words for female genitalia, he has bravely tried to find an English correlate for each one, but at other points has transliterated the Arabic into English and invited the reader to read out loud in order to appreciate the rhythmic cacophony of the original. This playful approach is a major strength of the translation: you feel that Shidyaq himself would have been disappointed with an overly-literal and overly-serious effort. Davies is a translator who gets the joke, and it’s to be hoped that now a wider audience can get it too.
Published in Banipal 49 – A Cornucopia of Short Stories