N.A. Mansour on Sonia Nimr
We do not allow our characters rest. They are called upon to entertain us by darting to and fro, falling in love, living out our political agendas and often leading impossible lives we will never live. But I like that Sonia Nimr’s Qamar, the protagonist of Nimr’s Wondrous Journeys in Strange Lands, rests while she’s reading, in full view of us readers. Qamar is a bibliophile, and when exhausted by the adventurous demands of her life, be it piracy or racing across continents looking for someone lost, she turns to books for a breath of fresh air, reading for days on end. At one point, she even opens her own bookshop, something of a family legacy. After everything she’s been through, I like seeing her stop to rest with something she’s not had the time for. Something that she loves.
Wondrous Journeys is the first of Nimr’s Arabic-language novels to be translated into English, published by Interlink Books in late 2020. She’s been widely celebrated as a children’s writer in Arabic, winning regional awards and critical acclaim; an abridged version of Wondrous Journeys is even on the national curriculum for Emirati school children. Nimr is also a historian, based at Birzeit University in Palestine, writing about oral history and collective memory. Her day job is a natural tie-in to her writing, which takes inspiration from Palestinian folklore. Set some point before the 20th century, some time before steam and print, Wondrous Journeys itself is an introduction to the geographies and cultures of Qamar’s world; the title itself is set to prosody, a wink to the Arabic literary tradition.
Folklore of Palestine has been under-represented in Palestinian literature in English translation. With some exception, the focus tends to be on work representing the 20th and 21st century. Palestine’s history of colonialism and subsequent occupations has created an appetite for Palestinian political narratives in North American and European markets. Even those sympathetic to the Palestinian cause want to be exposed to material that gives them some sort of hard data on the occupation, something that justifies their support of the cause, evidence they can thrust at detractors, be they other political activists or relatives at the holiday dinner table. To that end, the late Mahmoud Darwish, the Palestinian poet laureate, is one of the great favorites of prominent translators; he’s portrayed as a romantic figure, having lived in exile and having had his fair share of political involvement, including falling out with former political allies. Then there’s Ghassan Kanafani, another veteran of Palestinian political exile, whose Men in the Sun and Returning to Haifa are surely on every Modern Middle East History college course syllabus. Arabic literature in English translation parallels this idea of the Arab in peril, but again perceived from a western gaze. Translations of Syrian novels have been on the rise for the last decade, seeking to shed light on the civil war. However, much has also changed. There’s been an interest in classical Arabic, thanks in part to the Library of Arabic Literature, including two of its latest publications: Muhammad al-Tunisi’s In Darfur: an Account of the Sultanate and its Peoples and Scents and Flavors, a medieval cook book. There’s also been greater interest in science fiction, horror, fantasy, and speculative fiction in Arabic, including Ahmed Khaled Tawfiq’s Utopia and Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad. Tawfiq’s writing has even been adapted into a new Netflix series, titled Paranormal.
Qamar, Nimr’s protagonist, would be pleased with this recent interest in all genres of Arabic literature because she herself is insatiably curious, reading across genres as a forever-student. Born in rural Palestine, in a village with a curse, sometime in Palestine’s distant–most likely, Ottoman–past, she takes pleasure in reading alongside her bibliophile parents. When her circumstances change, she pursues her dream of studying medicine in Morocco and is thrust into a very different life, whose only stabilizing factor is her love of books. Whether she is in Cairo, India, or Morocco, books find a way to Qamar and provide some sort of guiding light, even when she shifts in and out of roles, as a healer, traveler, storyteller, bookseller, or mother. It is important that her strength is never framed in spite of being a woman or even because she is a woman: Qamar, centuries in the past, eschews third and even fourth wave feminism. She is who she is because of how she spends her time, the books she reads, the people she meets, and most importantly, chance. Obstacles put in Qamar’s way because she is a woman are never over-stated as a product of gender dynamics. There is no long monologue here on the difficulties of being a woman. Nimr trusts her audience to understand the world is imbalanced towards women and to see Qamar as a product of fate; Qamar falls prey to the world’s injustices and watches others she loves, men and women alike, fall and not get up. They fall not because they are less talented than she, but because she is simply in the right place at the right time. It is this nuanced approach to the world that makes this text a children’s novel. Nimr understands how much of children’s literature is about exposing children to life’s harshness: Qamar’s own fate is shaped by slavery and piracy. But the trick to it, demonstrated deftly by Nimr, is world-building to provide context and nuance to allow the reader to process it, not to sheild them from it. It’s an elegance that will likely change more minds than laying out her politics in capital letters and exclamation points.
Nimr also wrote Wondrous Journeys for the Palestinian audience she knew existed. However, Wondrous Journeys in translation is not marketed as a children’s book, both because the book will surely appeal to adults as well as children and because world kid-lit is only now –in the last few decades–becoming a bigger scene in itself. Marketing power in kid-lit is focused on fantasy and science fiction originally written in English. Historical fiction lags behind. However, the movement in world kid-lit is being spearheaded by Wondrous Journeys’ own translator, who is perhaps the most influential voice in Arabic literature in translation, Marcia Lynx Qualey. Qualey edits WorldKidLit, a blog which goes into hyperdrive every September: World Kid Lit Month. Qualey is perhaps better known for being the founder and, to this day, the creative drive behind the Arablit franchise, which began as a website in 2009, documenting Arabic literature in translation when Qualey was living and working in Cairo as a journalist. In 2017, it expanded loosely to include the Bulaq podcast. In 2019, Qualey launched the crown jewel in the ArabLit franchise, with ArabLit Quarterly, a whimsical literary magazine that is dedicated to shedding light on what is neglected in Arabic literature.
Nimr has not been neglected in Arabophone circles, but none of her Arabic-language literary work has been translated to English until now. As much as it is because of the lack of attention towards Arab kid-lit – a genre in itself that’s only gained traction in Arabophone circles during the last 20 years– it is, I hazard, due in part to the very lack of Palestinian-ness about this novel, by a Palestinian writer. It doesn’t share much in common with other Palestinian literature in translation, nor is it really set in Palestine, save the beginning: how could you sell such a novel as a Palestinian novel? If I squint hard, I could draw lines of metaphor with how this Palestinian protagonist never returns home and assume it is synonymous with Palestine’s ongoing displacement tragedy, but I don’t think Nimr is writing an occupation parable told in the past. Nor is she writing a parable about escape and what Palestinians could do if they travel freely. I don’t think those are interesting or even honest readings of Nimr. This is a Palestinian novel not for the anglophone audience for which the translation exists, but because it is written by a Palestinian for a primarily Palestinian audience, a children’s audience that has not had much attention by Palestinian authors. Nimr also reminds us that other Palestinian pasts exist; Palestinian readers can step out of their Palestinian realities and into the past, broadening their notion of what Palestine is and can be.
I grew up in one of those small Palestinian villages where some of Nimr’s readership likely stems from, quite close to where Nimr teaches. I read plenty of kid-lit on my way to school (and at school when I was supposed to be paying attention); I went on adventures with dragons and later, I traveled into deep space. I could have used a heroine like Qamar when I was younger to encourage me to step outside of my own reality. Not only does she look like me, Qamar feels written for me. I see much of my upbringing in Qamar, in how I approach rest, play, work, and curiosity, even perhaps how I approach being a woman. Qamar moves at her own pace, and while she is concerned with survival, she also understands how to adapt, when to let something bizarre and even unjust become normalized, and when that is no longer acceptable.
Nimr is not concerned with coherent ideologies when writing Qamar. Ideologies are flat, idealistic things and Nimr is more interested in the reality of what it is to exist amongst multiple forces, including different thought-worlds, and what happens to a personality like Qamar’s when placed in the midst of them. Often times, in representational politics, the impulse is to mainstream our aspirations and who we want to be: we want to be rich, successful, and respected in the eyes of the white man. Qamar is not this, either; Nimr (and Qualey) sidestep this trap in portraying the modern Arab, the modern Palestinian. To that effect, I could have used, not simply a heroine like Qamar, but a book like this one; when your everyday life inevitably brings you into contact with the violence of occupation, when everything you read in school was revolutionary poetry speaking of the nation and resistance, you needed to come home and balance you diet of fiction and culture in order to remain sane. Although all art is political, politics do not need to be imbibed constantly, lest they drown you. Having a Palestinian alternative, instead of simply crashing through the fantastical worlds of Tolkien and Asimov, would have been a directive from my own culture, instead of uneasily looking to the problematic canon of the anglophone sphere, a canon I still admittedly recommend to the next generation of Palestinian children. With Qamar, I can rest and not think abjectly about being Palestinian and how it dictates my political life. I can rest and return rejuvenated. It’s not escapism if rest is a political imperative in itself, especially for a child, who, as much as they are called upon to serve the nation, is also drawn to play.
Qualey’s translation helps a new audience see why it’s so easy to take a moment to rest with Qamar: she mimics Nimr’s clean and evocative writing, creating that same sense of movement Nimr’s text has in Arabic. But Qualey is also a force to be reckoned with, one with impeccable taste. She’s got the expertise of 10 PhDs (which she will never admit to) and taste unshaped by market forces: her choice of Wondrous Journeys proves she pitched the text for translation because she liked it and recognized it was an example of literary greatness. But I also suspect Qualey pitched the text for translation because she understood how having such a text in the cultural ether would be important. Palestinian narratives need to be diverse in order to be powerful. The portrayal of the contemporary Arab world as in peril doesn’t cut it anymore. Having translated children’s literature before (with Sawad Hussain, producing Ghady and Rawan in 2019), Qualey can see where lines of empathy can be drawn across children’s audiences; we’re lucky she is shaping the field of Arabic literature in translation and will be for years to come. Wondrous Journeys has layers of politics to it, namely in that it helps us understand Nimr’s audience: what they need out of literature and a healthy literary world.
N.A. Mansour is a historian and a PhD candidate at Princeton University’s Department of Near Eastern Studies, where she is writing a dissertation on the transition between manuscript and print in Arabic-language contexts. She produces podcasts for different venues, co-edits Hazine.info, and works for different museums and archives.