The First Great Arabic Novel.

Unfortunately, Robyn Creswell’s NYRB review (from October of last year) of Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq’s Leg Over Leg is available in full only to subscribers, but I’ll quote a few salient bits here:

Published in Paris in 1855, Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq’s Leg Over Leg is often called the first novel written in Arabic. […] Born to a Christian family in an Ottoman province of modern-day Lebanon, al-Shidyaq could not have published Leg Over Leg in his homeland, mostly because of what he had to say about religion. The Arabic word bid‘, or “innovation,” which he uses many times to describe his novel, means both “literary novelty” and “heresy.” Al-Shidyaq guessed what the reaction to his work would be. The novel’s first pages imagine its author caught in a crowd of howling priests, who accuse him of blasphemy and demand that the book be burned. In response, al-Shidyaq spends several pages listing euphemisms for “vagina,” taken from a medieval Arabic dictionary: “the sprayer,” “the gripper,” “the large floppy one,” etc. This is followed by lists for “penis” (“the falcon’s stand,” “the big spider,” “the little man”), the anus (“the toothless one,” “the catapult,” “the whistler”), and intercourse (“to stick the kohl-stick in her kohl pot”). […]

The Nahda, meaning “reawakening” or “renaissance,” was a nineteenth-century movement of reform and modernization throughout the Middle East. […] It was not just the influx of foreign models that set off the Arabic renaissance, but a rediscovery of native traditions. In this way, the Nahda resembles the modernism of Pound and Eliot and Yeats, which fused metaphysical poets with the Upanishads, Noh drama, and Gaelic revivals.

One of the Nahda’s most important revivals was that of the Arabic language itself, and here al-Shidyaq’s achievement was central. His fascination with Arabic was like that of an archaeologist who unearths a sophisticated alien culture—although in this case that culture was his own. The abundance and precision of old Arabic words, which al-Shidyaq found in classical dictionaries, suggested that there was nothing in the world that did not already have its place in what he called “our noble language.” For example, khafut, “the woman who is considered comely on her own but not among other women”; buldah, “freedom from hair of the space between the eyebrows”; bahsala, “to remove one’s clothes and gamble with them”; samut, “having legs so thick that her anklets make no sound”; or dihindih, “a children’s game, in which they gather and then say this word, and any who mispronounces it has to stand on one leg and hop seven times.” None of this advances the plot of his novel, but al-Shidyaq is openly impatient with narrative conventions. At one point he boasts that Leg Over Leg is “a repository for every idea that appealed to me, relevant or irrelevant.” […]

Al-Shidyaq’s novel […] hews closely to the life of its hero, and its digressions are, if I may put it this way, philological, that is, the detours pivot on a word or a phrase that calls for explanation. When the Fariyaq falls for the daughter of an emir, we get an essay on the eight stages of love and the names for each. Everything that happens in the novel becomes a pretext for interpretation, which must be interpreted in turn. Or, as al-Shidyaq writes, “Every commentary must have a super-commentary.” […]

What most enraged al-Shidyaq was his contemporaries’ illiteracy: the real illiteracy of the poorer classes, along with almost all women, and the literate classes’ ignorance of their own tongue. Everywhere the Fariyaq goes in his travels, he finds priests whose knowledge of Arabic is a disgrace. “All church books are full of horrible mistakes,” he writes, then proves his point by looking into an Arabic version of the New Testament. (One of al-Shidyaq’s jobs in Malta was to begin a translation of the Bible into Arabic; at the same time, he wrote but did not publish a critique of the gospels’ historical credibility.) The Fariyaq meets poets who parrot foreign phrases while mangling their own tongue, monks who do not know the difference between a dictionary (qamus) and a nightmare (kabus), and literary men whose language is full of lame metaphors and the flattery of powerful men.

Al-Shidyaq’s own writing is a rebuke to all this. It is acrobatic, cutting, and baroquely self-aware. It is the style of a virtuoso in flight from the orthodoxy of his place and time.

Doesn’t that sound interesting? Unfortunately, it’s in four volumes at $40.00 each — not unreasonable for a bilingual edition, but out of my price range. Maybe I can convince a local library to get it; at any rate, I’m glad to know about it. (Thanks, Eric!)

Comments

  1. Now available in two paperback volumes for $17 each. The paperbacks omit the facing page Arabic.

    I’ve read and written a bit about the first two volumes. Creswell’s review is accurate.

  2. Any Arabic speakers say any more about these old words he found?

  3. Now available in two paperback volumes for $17 each. The paperbacks omit the facing page Arabic.

    Good to know — thanks for the tip!

  4. Say, maybe they can fit Ard Al-Sawad into their publishing schedule…

  5. Charlotte Mandell says:

    There’s a long section praising this novel in Mathias Énard’s novel Boussole (forthcoming as Compass from New Directions) — Sarah, a scholar who’s one of the main characters, claims it’s one of the best novels ever written, not just in Arabic.

  6. Well, that’s pretty impressive — thanks for bringing it to our attention!

  7. the literate classes’ ignorance of their own tongue. Everywhere the Fariyaq goes in his travels, he finds priests whose knowledge of Arabic is a disgrace.

    Does “their own tongue” in this case mean Classical Arabic, or is this shaming of non-standard dialects?

  8. I would guess Classical Arabic, but that’s just a guess.

  9. I mean, I doubt there were many people who took non-standard dialects seriously in the mid-19th century, especially people who spent their leisure time reading Classical Arabic dictionaries.

  10. J.W. Brewer says:

    The process by which the various Christian groups whose laity primarily spoke some variety of Arabic in their daily lives shifted over to using Arabic (rather than variously Aramaic, Coptic, Greek, and probably something else I’m forgetting) as their liturgical language was slow and completed (well, largely completed – it probably still hasn’t been completely completed) only in comparatively recent centuries. I don’t know to what extent the resulting Arabic (and ditto for translations of the Scriptures) was in the fully Classical register or something else, and I likewise don’t know how classical/literary a register Christian clergy were expected to preach in. If one hypothesizes a lengthy intermediate period where e.g. Christians in Lebanon might attend a liturgy in Syriac w/o necessarily quite understanding it but expect the sermon to be in Arabic as the “vernacular,” a less elevated register of Arabic might well be congruent than might be the case in Islamic circles.

  11. I don’t know to what extent the resulting Arabic (and ditto for translations of the Scriptures) was in the fully Classical register or something else, and I likewise don’t know how classical/literary a register Christian clergy were expected to preach in. If one hypothesizes a lengthy intermediate period where e.g. Christians in Lebanon might attend a liturgy in Syriac w/o necessarily quite understanding it but expect the sermon to be in Arabic as the “vernacular,” a less elevated register of Arabic might well be congruent than might be the case in Islamic circles.

    Agreed. Anyone know for sure? I’ve tried a bit of googling, but haven’t managed to turn up anything definite yet, and I’m sure someone here has the answers.

  12. Yvy tyvy says:

    I posted a comment, but I think it got stuck in the spam filter.

  13. I’m afraid it’s neither in moderation nor in the spam filter.

  14. Yvy tyvy says:

    I tried submitting it again, both with and without a URL. Does it show up now?

  15. Nope. How bizarre. Send it to me (languagehat @ gmail) and I’ll post it for you. Deepest apologies for my rogue software.

  16. Yvy tyvy says:

    I doubt there were many people who took non-standard dialects seriously in the mid-19th century

    On the other hand, William Greenfield wrote a book in 1830 called A Defence of the Surinam Negro-English Version of the New Testament in which he vigorously defended the legitimacy of creoles. See e.g. pages 23-24:

    It is true, as Capt. Stedman observes, that “in this sample many corrupt English words are perceptible, but this neither constitutes it “broken English,” nor renders it intelligible to Englishmen, nor English intelligible to the Negroes. In Dutch, we find the words man, rat, vat, ram, plant, land, papa, dag, day, pad, path, daad, deed, straat, street, plagen, to plague [many more cognates follow] and hundreds of others, which are perfectly identical with the English, except occasionally in the orthography and pronunciation; as well as such phrases as the following in abundance: Dat is beter, ‘that is better;’ Wat is dat ‘what is that?’ Kom hier, ‘come here;’ Maak haast, ‘ make haste ;’ Het is goed weer, ‘ it is good weather;’ De zon schijnt, ‘the sun shines;’ Hoe vaart uwe moeder?’ how fares your mother?’ Zij is ziek, ‘she is sick;’ Mijn vader gaf mij een boek, ‘my father gave me a book ;’ Uwe zuster zend u eenen brief, your sister sends you a letter,’ &c. &c.

    These words and phrases are certainly as closely connected with English as Mi sa lobbijoe nanga alia mi hatti so langa miliebi, or any of those given above, or to be found in the Negro-English Testament. Nor is such a correspondence at ­­all unusual in philology, it being found to exist among all cognate languages. As well then might an Englishman contend that Dutch was merely broken English, or a Dutchman that English was but broken Dutch, and that Englishmen and Dutchmen could understand each other, as that any one should assert that the Negro-English is nothing but broken English, and therefore that English would be intelligible to the Negroes, or Negro-English to Englishmen. But if it be granted, as it certainly must, that Dutch is not broken English, nor English broken Dutch, and that Dutchmen and Englishmen cannot understand each other, then must it also be inferred, that Negro-English is not merely broken English or broken Dutch, but a mixed language, unintelligible to Dutchmen or Englishmen, while English and Dutch are unintelligible to the Negroes.

  17. Yvy tyvy says:

    [Quote moved to original comment — LH]

    (Finally! The quote was the problem; for some reason, the blog didn’t want to accept it, so I had to split it up.)

  18. Whew! (I salted it with italics for flavor.)

  19. Yvy tyvy says:

    The italic tags I originally included may have been part of the reason why the quote didn’t go through. Who knows? Our robot overlords are capricious beings.

  20. Stu Clayton says:

    Oh come on, no overlords, just some dumb cluck of a programmer.

    This is how it all goes wrong.

  21. I read the first sentence of the second part of the quote with understanding that now Yvy tyvy gives us their opinion on the matter, but was brought short by observing a modern person using the word Negro and switched to the correct path.

  22. I’ll put the quotes in blockquote format to avoid that misunderstanding.

  23. Yvy tyvy says:

    Thank you. Sorry for all the trouble.

  24. It’s Akismet that should be apologizing, not you.

  25. John Cowan says:

    Let’s face it: software is crap. Feature-laden and bloated, written under tremendous time-pressure, often by incapable coders, using dangerous languages and inadequate tools, trying to connect to heaps of broken or obsolete protocols, implemented equally insufficiently, running on unpredictable hardware — we are all more than used to brokenness.
    —Felix Winkelmann

  26. Stu Clayton says:

    Sure. So adding fantasies about overlords won’t change that. What about *their* software, anyway ?

    Similarly – if the world is being run by capitalist Jews, they’re doing a damn poor job of it.

  27. John Cowan says:

    Or to put it another way: “If there were an international Jewish conspiracy, my rabbi would certainly have let me in on it. God knows I pay his synagogue enough!”

  28. if the world is being run by capitalist Jews, they’re doing a damn poor job of it.

    I see nothing to contradict the idea the world is being run by capitalist Jews. And before you go clutching your pearls, I can explain …

    Messrs Goldman, Sachs, Greenspan, Mnuchin, Bernanke, Volcker, Zuckerberg, Brin & Page of Google, etc are not running the world for anybody’s benefit except their own; and in that case they’ve done so well they’ve even got us poor schmucks to bail them out of the disaster of their own making. (Mnuchin specifically made a killing out of the Global Failure of Capitalism.)

    Now they have a dumbass gentile/failed businessman fronting for them who’s blowing so much smoke they don’t even have to cloak their conspiracy: they can in plain sight get Congress to dole out the tax breaks.

    Clearly they’re not running the world for the benefit of the unwashed in the shtetl, nor for @JC’s rabbi — which is why he needs you to keep the synagogue in funds.

  29. PlasticPaddy says:

    As there is a high probability that either AntC or a future interlocutor will reference A. Hitler or National Socialism (Oops, I have just done it myself) in defence of an obscure (to other readers) argument, could the moderator consider preemptive closure of this thread?

  30. Yeah, seriously.

  31. I see nothing to contradict the idea the world is being run by capitalist Jews.

    I know you’re being funny, but I have to say I don’t find mock-sexism/racism/anti-Semitism funny any more; there’s too much of the real thing running around. Verbum sap.

  32. Stu Clayton says:

    Ok. It was the overlords-running-the-world idea I was mocking, in any form. You immediately run into unde malum or unde bonum objections. Some clutch their pearls, others clutch their guns.

  33. Oh, I know, and I wouldn’t have said anything about your comment by itself. I just don’t want it to turn into a round of can-you-top-this mocky-jokey comments.

  34. Stu Clayton says:

    Heav’n forfend. I need to remember that you’re running a big operation here. I have only a Mom & Pop store.

  35. John Cowan says:

    PlasticPaddy: The corollary to Godwin’s law is that if you mention Nazis or Hitler in order to close a thread, it will be ineffectual.

    Hat: AntC’s observations do not seem humorous or ironic to me, but strictly factual. The difference between those observations and actual antisemitism is that AntC does not claim that the modern world-dominators in question dominate the world because they are Jews. To take the first two counterexamples that come to mind: Bernie Sanders is Jewish, Warren Buffett is not.

    Not actually my rabbi, I hasten to add. For anyone here who doesn’t know it, I am not Jewish despite having lived on the edge of the Jewish world my whole life. It is actually true to say (albeit embarrassing, and I normally don’t say) that all but a few of my closest friends are Jewish or of Jewish descent.

  36. Hat: AntC’s observations do not seem humorous or ironic to me, but strictly factual.

    The idea that “the world is being run by capitalist Jews” is absurd, and I’m surprised at you for considering it “strictly factual.” It is a standard trope of anti-Semites, as is the equally absurd corollary that revolutions are made by Communist Jews. But I suppose we’d better not get into it.

  37. Please do not bother listing a bunch of Jewish capitalists and revolutionaries. We’ve all seen the lists.

  38. I’ve done my best not to reprise the following joke, but my best is not good enough.

    “Hi! Is this a [well-known antisemitic rag]?”
    “Yes”
    “Is it true that Jews sold out Russia?”
    “Yes, it is, you kike”
    “Where can I get my part?”

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