Celebrating Neil Hewison: An Excerpt from His Translation of ‘City of Love and Ashes’

Didn’t he show up?”
“No, he didn’t.”
“Nothing strange but the Devil!”
Then the young man looked at him, smiled, and added, “I don’t believe’it.” “What don’t you believe, Hasan?”
“That we’re going to make a training camp.”
“It just doesn’t look like it.”
“Tomorrow it will, know what I mean?”
The burner flared up and filled the tent with flame and smoke that almost   caught the roof. Give me it.”
“Just give it to me.”
The young man got up and went to another box. Their day will come, the bastards… Every Thursday in October, ArabLit is celebrating and reflecting on Neil Hewison’s thirty-one years at American University in Cairo Press, during which he helped shape what we know as Arabic literature in English translation. Hamza rubbed his hands together to warm them and blew into them fruitlessly. I have not attempted to reproduce ‘equivalent’ English regional and social varieties in this translation: the result would be highly artificial. He opened the padlock and   pulled out a pistol with a shining barrel. And—on this particular January day—you see Hamza standing as usual waiting for the tram to leave the long tail of cars crammed at the beginning of the line and make its way to Ataba Square. While he was lighting the burner, Hamza asked him, “Nobody been?”
“Not a soul.”

“Somebody was supposed to come at two o’clock, and it’s two-fifteen now. Three halts from the beginning of the line, halfway between Shubra al-Balad and Cairo, Hamza got down. Battalions, commandos, Kafr Abduh, tanks… In these and other stories, and in his novels and hard-hitting, satirical plays, his inspired use of Egypt’s rich colloquial Arabic in his dialogue achieved a real-life directness that is absent from the work of writers past and present who rely solely on the classical language. Give me some kerosene and a rag. As he waits he breathes in deeply, with pleas- ure, for the terminal was also a pivot of constant interplay between the constricting life he lived in the morning among the white coats, vats of dye, and test tubes and the free and open life that began once he stepped onto the station platform. The English… A tram pulled away from the line of cars to start its long journey. The English took it from the Italians. By God, we’ll turn them out of Egypt dancing and singing all the way… There were no buildings here, just broad stretches of cultivated land, telephone poles, huts made from tin sheets, and mounds of piled garbage. This use of two contrasting forms of Arabic cannot, unfortunately, be reflected in an English translation. He stood and narrowed his eves slightly behind his glasses to be able to see the scene more clearly. Hamza pricked up his ears to listen to their conversations. He walked for a time across deserted land until he came to the leveled patch with the tent erected on it. Chapter 1
The tram terminal in Shubra al-Balad is more than just the beginning of a tram-line. “Tea. Not the usual altercations, apologies, jokes—just the English… You see village folk here coming to the capital, awestruck by the city, breathless at the drone of the great bustle and the new world. In spite of the cold, and the gray clouds that hid the sun, there was a smell in the air, a peculiar smell that made the body tremble, like the smell from the barrel of a rifle just fired. Hamza sat on a box with handles on the sides, while the young man sat next to him on the ground. If only they’d come out and fight us man to man! The young man had seen him coming, and had left his seat at the firing post and come to meet him. In City of Love and Ashes (his first novel, published as Qissat hubb, A Love Story, in 1956), Idris switches effortlessly between a graceful and expressive classical Arabic in the author’s voice and a vital and imme- diate colloquial when the characters speak for themselves. A sign on the tent read “The General Committee for Armed Struggle” in small letters, and beneath it in larger letters “Shubra Training Camp.” He found the sign hanging crooked, so he straightened it. Hamza, those few miserable weapons we have aren’t worth an onion.”
“Don’t worry. His teeth chattered as he spoke. Hamza practically sprang onto it to claim a place among the many people standing. Not too strong.”
“But Mr. You see sullen workers in the bustle too, resentful of the city but unable to escape it. A firing post had been set up at one end of the patch of land; at the other end there were wooden barricades, and in front of them a ditch. Hamza greeted him and they went inside the tent out of the bitter cold. By the time the conductor had finished issuing the tickets the passengers had quite relaxed, and any barriers of reserve and alienation among them had lifted. It is a pivot of constant interplay between Cairo and its suburbs, between the city and the many factories scattered around it. And we took it from the English.”
This excerpt is reproduced with permission. There are ways… Idris goes further, and evinces regional and class differences in the speech of his characters (Hasan, for instance has a north coast accent, while Abu Duma’s speech reveals his lack of education). Advertisements

Share this:TwitterFacebookEmailPrintLinkedInRedditGoogleTumblrWhatsAppPinterestTelegramPocketSkypeLike this:Like Loading…‹ ‘Under the Bridge’: The Hierarchy of Translational Labor and Two Poetry CollectionsCategories: Egypt, translationTags: Neil Hewison, translation, Yusuf Idris He revolutionized the Arabic short story with his   very first collection, Arkhas layali (The Cheapest Nights, 1954), in which he depicted the lives of lower-middle-class and working-class Egyptians in vividly realistic terms. Erskine and the Egyptian troops… After the storm had set- tled, he asked Hamza, “You like it strong?”
“No. The faces that attracted his attention were serious and harsh; he imagined their luster was the spark of hidden desires being set free, the outbreak of revolt, and when their voices reached him he always took them as the rustle of demonstrations or the roar of strikes. The waterworks blown up… He observed the people as he fidgeted nervously. “It’s cold.”
“A cup of tea‘d go down nicely, Hasan!”
“You want some tea?”
“Go down nicely, Abu Ali.” Hamza called Hasan by his familiar nickname. We’ll make you some tea.”
The young man went off to a two-legged gas burner, a tin can, a large earthen-ware pitcher full of water, and a jar of sugar, and pulled a half-ounce packet of tea from his trouser pocket. You have the pistol? Four English soldiers killed… He saluted, and his salute was returned by a large, dark, voting man wearing long, yellow trousers and a long- sleeved, turtleneck jersey. If we had weapons … We need weapons … Where can we get them? Hamza took it and examined it. This is an excerpt from Hewison’s translation of Yusuf Idris’s   City of Love and Ashes,   co-winner of the second Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature:
From the translator’s prefatory note:

Yusuf Idris was one of the true giants of modern Egyptian literature, his contribution far greater than is revealed by the few selected short stories that have so far been available in translation. … Where? He closed one eye and looked down the barrel with the other, muttering, “It’s full of dirt. It’s Italian. The young man cursed it and all its kind.