Truth or Dare? Reinterpreting Al-Harīrī’s Arab Rogue

14 March, 2021

The Baghdad-born Los Angeles artist  Hayv Kahraman 's
The Bagh­dad-born Los Ange­les artist Hayv Kahra­man’s “Kachakchi” (2015) became the cov­er art for Michael Coop­er­son­’s Impos­tures.


by Al-Hariri, trans­lat­ed by Michael Cooperson
Fore­word by Abdelfat­tah Kilito 
NYU Press (2020)
ISBN 9781479800841


Farah Abdessamad

A new Eng­lish trans­la­tion of Impos­tures from Bas­ra-born Al-Harīrī (aka the Arab poet known as Abū Muham­mad al-Qāsim ibn Alī ibn Muham­mad ibn Uth­mān al-Harīrī) revives the “elo­quent rogue” genre of clas­si­cal Ara­bic lit­er­a­ture and fol­lows the medieval adven­tures of a cheeky imper­son­ator-in-chief, Abu Zayd. Through his elab­o­rate trick­eries, Abu Zayd super­im­pos­es real­i­ty with con­found­ing pre­tence. Ebul­lient, extrav­a­gant and picaresque, his char­ac­ter meta­mor­phoses and uses dif­fer­ent decoys to fool his audi­ence. Is the world around him all that gullible? Maybe not.

We encounter the histri­on­ic Abu Zayd in the text from the point of view of Al Harith, an Arab trav­el­er whose path inter­twines with the for­mer in each chap­ter. In the first “Impos­ture”, trans­lat­ed in the infor­mal vein of Mark Twain’s Huck­le­ber­ry Finn, Al Harith runs into Abu Zayd act­ing under the sem­blance of a preach­er in Sana’a, Yemen. “Was we pre­pared to die?” Abu Zayd is report­ed to ask an assem­bled crowd in an impas­sion­ate speech (“maqa­mat” in Ara­bic, loose­ly trans­lat­ed as “impos­tures”, refers to a stand­ing gath­er­ing). Al Harith describes a cap­ti­vat­ing and exu­ber­ant man in Abu Zayd who press­es for close­ness with God. He declaims vers­es and instant­ly charms his audi­ence. As Abu Zayd is about to part ways with the Sana’ani assem­bly, the crowd hur­ries to tip and thank him. Abu Zayd leaves, osten­si­bly refus­ing the com­pa­ny of spon­ta­neous fol­low­ers while walk­ing away. Curi­ous about the char­ac­ter’s desire to be left alone, Al Harith hides and decides to sneak after him.

Impos­tures is avail­able from NYU Press.

He finds Abu Zayd in a cave and sees him at once as a fake pseu­do-mod­est preach­er. Al Harith sur­veys the room and dis­cov­ers an abun­dance of lux­u­ry foods, includ­ing date wine which keeps Abu Zayd com­pa­ny. Al Harith under­stands at once that the tal­ent­ed man who had ani­mat­ed the crowd so fer­vent­ly is noth­ing more than a hyp­ocrite, a scammer.

We fol­low the pair—traveler Al Harith who encoun­ters impos­tor Abu Zayd in var­i­ous set­tings of the medieval Islam­ic world—in fifty tale-like vignettes. The pat­tern is one of stage set­ting, and a recog­ni­tion moment where­by Al Harith iden­ti­fies the famil­iar Abu Zayd, and unweaves his lies. There is no appar­ent nar­ra­tive pro­gres­sion or con­nec­tion from one “Impos­ture” to the next.

“It is untrans­lat­able,” one of my fam­i­ly mem­bers imme­di­ate­ly told me when I men­tioned this review. “Even in Ara­bic one needs insights.” I became a lit­tle intim­i­dat­ed and right­ly so.

Orig­i­nal­ly writ­ten in the 12th cen­tu­ry, Impos­tures belongs to the canon of Ara­bic lit­er­a­ture. The genre of “impos­tures” is as much a per­me­at­ing theme as a ded­i­cat­ed and unique form. “Stud­ded with the gems of ora­to­ry, salt­ed with the table-talk of cul­ti­vat­ed men, and embla­zoned with vers­es of the Koran,
they are replete with fig­ures and alle­gories, proverbs and max­ims, lit­er­ary sub­tleties and gram­mat­i­cal enig­mas, and judg­ments on dis­put­ed points of speech,” Al-Harīrī intro­duces. Is Impos­tures then a check­mate, a par­o­dy, a sub­ver­sion, dilet­tante artistry or a prag­mat­ic ped­a­gog­i­cal device?

Depend­ing on whom one asks, either one, sev­er­al or all of the above—it remains ambigu­ous. The book’s fore­word, writ­ten by Abdelfat­tah Kil­i­to, is sweep­ing­ly elo­quent. It con­tex­tu­al­izes Al-Harīrī’s text, itself pre­sum­ably a pas­tiche of an ear­li­er work by writer Al Hamadani whom he wound up surpassing.

As expe­ri­enced schol­ar and trans­la­tor Michael Coop­er­son also real­ized, trans­lat­ing Al-Harīrī (after edit­ing an Ara­bic-only ver­sion of Impos­tures in 2020) would be about del­i­cate choic­es. Coop­er­son, Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor of Ara­bic at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, Los Ange­les, notably trans­lat­ed The Life of Ibn Ḥan­bal by Ibn al-Jawzī (2016) for which he won a Sheikh Hamad Award for Trans­la­tion and Inter­na­tion­al Under­stand­ing. He also pub­lished a study on pre-mod­ern Ara­bic biogra­phies and their role in trans­mis­sion and heir­ship (Clas­si­cal Ara­bic Biog­ra­phy: The Heirs of the Prophet in the Age of al-Ma’mūn, 2000) and a ded­i­cat­ed, mul­ti­fac­eted biog­ra­phy of Abbasid Caliph Al Ma’­mun (2005). For Impos­tures, he decid­ed on a re-inter­pre­ta­tion approach rather than lit­er­al trans­la­tion. It’s an inno­v­a­tive and bold take, and it helps to keep this in mind when div­ing into the book. To emu­late the diver­si­ty and rich­ness of Al-Harīrī’s prose and vers­es, Coop­er­son mobi­lizes an extra­or­di­nary range of Eng­lish lan­guages, dialects and pid­gins. He pro­vides a unique plat­form for Al-Harīrī to con­verse in trans­la­tion with Vir­ginia Woolf, a 19th-cen­tu­ry operetta, Singlish, Cock­ney, Jamaican Eng­lish, L.A. slang and more.

The fact that Coop­er­son mobi­lized oth­er schol­ars to col­lab­o­rate on Impos­tures and trans­port Al Harīrī’s voice to the 21st cen­tu­ry is a touch­ing homage to respect and tol­er­ance at a time when it remains tempt­ing for some to main­tain fences and walls between peo­ple and civ­i­liza­tions. The trans­la­tion emu­lates lin­guis­tic prowess but leaves the read­er under a dizzy­ing spell, as we learn more about the vari­ety (and lim­its) of over a dozen forms of Eng­lish and the Eng­lish-speak­ing world through dif­fer­ent his­tor­i­cal peri­ods, rather than only clas­si­cal Ara­bic, medieval Bagh­dad, Alep­po, or Bas­ra. The choice of trans­la­tion over­lays anoth­er cul­tur­al dimen­sion to the orig­i­nal text which over­all, more rig­orist read­ers may find dis­tract­ing. It gen­er­at­ed lin­ger­ing ques­tions for me, which is easy of course from the stand­point of a read­er than as a trans­la­tor immersed in a Her­culean task. Does one need such a pro­fu­sion of com­men­taries, glos­saries and anno­ta­tions to con­vey mean­ing and con­tem­po­rary res­o­nance? Was there no alter­na­tive to let the work speak for itself, rather than give the feel­ing of speak­ing over it?
 It’s a tricky bal­ance, and a sub­jec­tive judge­ment call.

Language—whether orig­i­nal or translated—isn’t just about syn­tax, gram­mar and style. It relates to a web of mean­ing and our rela­tion to truth. Texts that may appear for­eign, owing to their themes, prove­nance, or the time in which they were writ­ten for instance, can be mal­leable beyond seman­tics. First applied to reli­gious scripts, Hermeneu­tics, a dis­ci­pline defined as the inter­pre­ta­tion of mean­ing, has expand­ed to a range of inquiries. Jonathan L Best, in A Post­mod­ern The­ol­o­gy of Rit­u­al Action (2019), pro­pos­es that “inter­pre­ta­tion can help us over­come the remote­ness between us and the object of inter­pre­ta­tion,” adding that the goal of inter­pre­ta­tion is “to make the remote familiar.”

“Trans­la­tor” by Hayv Kahra­man (oil on linen, 98“x76″, 2015).

French philoso­pher Paul Ricœur explained inter­pre­ta­tion as a con­quest, of “a dis­tance between the past cul­tur­al epoch to which the text belongs and the inter­preter him­self [or her­self]. By over­com­ing this dis­tance, by mak­ing him­self [or her­self] con­tem­po­rary with the text, the exegete can appro­pri­ate its mean­ing” (“Exis­tence and Hermeneu­tics”, in The Con­flict of Inter­pre­ta­tions, 1974).

Inter­pre­ta­tion then, is an appro­pri­a­tion process which involves the self—e.g. trans­la­tor, read­er, edi­tor, publisher—beyond the auto­mat­ic appli­ca­tion of lit­er­ary, philo­log­i­cal or lin­guis­tic tech­niques and devices. Texts are liv­ing doc­u­ments and lan­guage influ­ences over how we per­ceive and inter­act with the world. Lan­guage shapes a real­i­ty which can evolve over time. In Impos­tures, Ara­bic, the lan­guage of truth and divine rev­e­la­tion of God’s law, is used by its pro­tag­o­nist to dupe oth­ers. (Also in the Bible, “In the begin­ning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”) This appar­ent con­tra­dic­tion reveals a dual­i­ty; a lan­guage can be both sacred and pro­fane, with sym­bol­ic cues hid­den from more main­stream or demot­ic usages. One can adopt a tex­tu­al, lit­er­al approach to inter­pre­ta­tion, or embrace a more alle­gor­i­cal one.

At the end of Impos­tures, Abu Zayd renounces his arti­fices and finds God. His jour­ney could be per­ceived as one towards truth, bliss and reli­gion, or it could illus­trate what Ibn Khal­dun lacon­i­cal­ly once opined: “Time wears us out.” Did Abu Zayd real­ize his wrong path, or did he momen­tar­i­ly pause to recoup for yet-anoth­er game? Giv­en the Islam­ic schol­ar­ly tra­di­tion of causal­i­ty and pre­des­ti­na­tion, one leans to the for­mer with­out exclud­ing the latter.

Longlist­ed for the 2020 Sheikh Zayed Book Award (trans­la­tion cat­e­go­ry) and a final­ist for the 2021 PROSE Award (lit­er­a­ture cat­e­go­ry), Impos­tures stands out as a sin­gu­lar and unclas­si­fi­able work. Though not every­one will agree with Coop­er­son­’s nov­el stance to trans­la­tion, he mas­ter­ful­ly (and resource­ful­ly) demon­strates that Al-Harīrī can be translated—just not how one would expect.


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