I came across the Syrian novelist Salwa Al-Neimi when preparing my paper for the 2008 AUSIT Conference on Translating Sexualities. I had asked on the Arabic-language forum about translating materials pertaining to sexuality into Arabic language, and one of the collegues argued that translating such materials would be inappropriate and "get stuck in the Arab cultural throat".
I did, however, know that there was quite a bit of erotica in classical Arabic literature, so I went online searching if anyone was doing anything with it. Arabs used to have an extremely rich erotic literature - from Abu Nawas to Sheikh Nafzawi, and from Daoud Al-Antaqi to Sheikh Tifashi.
Then I came across Salwa and her book "The Proof of Honey", about a randy librarian who knows all about this stuff. Salwa wrote her book in Arabic to prove that Arabic can be used to talk about erotic motifs without having to use roundabout euphemisms, because it is all there already, written many centuries ago - when prudishness was something unknown.
So what exactly happened in that culture? When it was at the height of its power, the Arab world was very open to talking about sexuality, and when it disintegrated, got occupied, and became a Third World it took on a mantle of puritanism that is just a bit more excessive than the Victorian norm? Is Salwa correct in saying that the puritanism is not ours, but imposed by the West? The same West that has now described that Arab world as backwards for being puritan? What has happened to all the hundreds of very poetic terms describing the act and the organs that Sheikh Nafzawi mentions in his book "Al-Rawd Al-Ater"? Why do we have to use English and French as euphemisms for something G-d created (as if G-d's creation could be dysphemistic) when we have so much linguistic wealth in Arabic?
When condemned by one Arab literary critique for using shameless vocabulary (he used the word "safera" which literally means "having her face uncovered", Salwa replied "I have not known of any veiled words in Arabic". I had to smile..
I don't translate literature, but I listened to her interviews in Arabic and read the book, and I got hooked. So I decided to transcribe and translate bits of the interview and Chapter IX: The Chapter on Linguistics from her book. I know there must be an English translation coming soon, but I found it to be worth trying to translate. So here are bits from the interview, followed by an extract from chapter IX:
"Recently a French publisher signed a contract with Salwa Al Neimi, the Syrian writer and poet, for the publication rights of her novel The Proof of Honey into French and other languages, and for the film rights to the book.
The work got translated into 17 languages; it is hugely popular, with excellent sales record in Beirut and at the Dahia Book Fair. However it is banned in Syria due to the way it has tackled taboo subjects like sex. “The reason I wrote this book,” says Al Neimi, “is that all the French-writing Arab authors around me were saying it was impossible to write about intimacy and sex in Arabic, because it is a lingua sacra that could not be used to describe profanities. These were such preemptory opinions! Arabic is my specialization, fascination and addiction. I am fully aware of what is available in Arabic literature. The book was sort of a rebellion, a response against these opinions that were totally removed from reality. (…)I wanted to show that on the contrary, it is possible, and that sexuality in the Arabo-Islamic culture is clearly ever present. So I went back to the classics of Arab literature which dealt openly with sex and sexuality, such as those by Siyuti Tifashi, Nefzawi, and others, and mixed it with contemporary narrative. I refused to pass any moral judgment on the narrative itself, because when they wrote, they told stories as they happened, without passing judgment on them.” (…) The writer stressed that “Puritanism is a trend we have inherited from the West, and the notion of sin is absent from our culture, and is an accretion from Europe. In addition to its constant presence, sexuality in Arab life is joyful, open-minded and necessary for the physical and psychological well being. Also, it is more of a cultural notion than a religious dimension (…) I don’t know why the Arab censor is scared of words denoting sexual organs, but the moment one appears in print, the publication gets banned. This despite the presence of these words in Arabic literature and every day speech. It is sad that these terms have become words of insult and abuse nowadays, and this is what I want to do; to give these terms back their natural and humane meaning.” “Freedom is indivisible. So when writers are banned from writing about sex, they are also banned from writing about politics, religion and social issues. And we have internalized that, so when we write, we write with the censor inside our heads. (…)”
“My soul is my body. The division between soul and body is alien to the Arab culture. It is something we learnt from the West. My body is just my intelligence and my culture. Arabs spoil the body at all levels – through cleaning, sport, perfume. It is a source of pleasure and joy. This is what we find in all our Arabic literary heritage.” Al-Naimi also wanted to prove through her book that Islam is not a repressive and harsh religion as advertised by the Islamists and Islamophobes on both sides of the spectrum. (Anon, 2008; Al-Neimi, 2008)
“I come to realize increasingly that I am a creature of language, and that language entraps me, forcing me to touch its sounds, to scrutinize it and to ponder the details of its meanings. That’s why I love all kinds of dictionaries, returning to them with every one of the unending linguistic questions that I have. I can’t utter a word without trying to find out its roots, and understand it origins, derivatives, and synonyms. I even try to invent new words in a language that will be mine alone.
Yesterday, the Roamer told me that his motto was “I fuck, therefore I am”. He said it in French, the language of de Sade, not Molliere. I repeated it after him laughingly, and considered it a play with words.
The Roamer always used the verb in its passive form, “fucked”, which would amaze me every time he said it. The form implied a negativity odd in this devastating ravisher, if one went by his tales. It crossed my mind that I liked using the three forms of the verb freely, without any derivatives that would ruin the freshness of its meaning.
“I fuck, therefore I am.” Why can’t I say it and write in Arabic?
Nowadays, the term and act of fucking is banned in public Arabic. Nowadays, fucking is a sin even when it is legal. Even the term “coitus” in the title of one of Sheik Al-Suyuti’s books has been purified and translated into from Arabic into Arabic: “An Exposition on the Science of Coitus” thus became “An Exposition on the Science of Congress”, and bugger the rhyming that got lost.
When the Thinker used a word in French the other day, I asked him about its Arabic translation:
“The use of buggered and buggers is common even in colloquial speech. Why do you ask?”'
“I don’t know. I find the word appropriate in male context, but I want to invent a new word when it has to do with women. How about I inflect a verb ‘sodomed’ from the noun Sodom, as in French? This way we can differentiate between the two cases..”
“The differentiation is clear, as you know, and does not require your linguistic inventiveness.”
“No, seriously! Listen: as we say ‘Omar hit Zaid’, we will say ‘Zaid sodomed Hind’. What do you think? We will avenge him with this pleasure after he has been bashed up in all books on language.”
“I think you should seek the opinion of your sheikhs at the Arabic language Department, if you are so obsessed with linguistics.”
So what if I sought the opinion of the intellectuals around me? I am sure they’ll have something to say about it. But no, I won’t. If I did, the discussion of a new word will lead them by association to the same old stories about the gay minister, and whoever followed the path among the union members, as they are sarcastically called; to the latest of their news and scandals which I know by heart. I won’t hear anything new. So I’ll let them be tickled by the talk of the blue pill which breathes life into decomposing bones. They are new to this subject, at least.
Should I ask them how they translate XVth century Arabic to today’s in such titles as “The Blooming Copse of Fucking Anecdotes” or “The Copse of Knowledge of Fucking”?
All this hypocrisy reminds me of what Al-Jahiz wrote: “Some of those who display their asceticism and austerity become disgusted and depressed if cunts, dicks or fucking is mentioned. And the most prominent among them is one who lacks knowledge and generosity, nobility and dignity, except for what he pretends then. These terms were produced for the use of linguists, and if the prevalent opinion was not to utter them then their existence would have been meaningless, and it would have been better for the banning and the preservation of the Arabic language that these names and terms be totally excised from it.”
So I am now translating the Roamer’s French statement and writing it in Arabic: “I fuck, therefore I am.”
He fucked, he fucks. I type the word and the computer underlines it in red. I play with conjugating and deflecting the verb, and deriving words from it, and the red lines pop under every single word. I type all the sensitive words and the computer does not recognize any of them, placing a red line under every one of them, as if it too was programmed with piety.
A virgin computer! Or rather, a castrated one.
Who has castrated language?
Who has castrated the computer?
Who has castrated me? (Al-Neimi, 2007)