Boyd Tonkin: A Week in Books

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The Independent Culture

Most people return from a short trip to the Gulf laden with sparkling goodies from the bling-filled malls; I came back with two books that I can't begin to read (although I can just about follow the page numbers). All the same, I think that I picked up a far more enduring treasure: the first Arabic-language editions, handsomely bound, of works by Jrgen Habermas (The Future of Human Nature) and Stephen Hawking (A Briefer History of Time). They were among the inaugural tasters for an initiative that, in its scope and reach, makes the logistics of speed-of-light travel look like a stroll in the park.

When I reported on the launch in Abu Dhabi of the Kalima programme to translate a vast corpus of landmark works into Arabic for the first time, the potential value of this project was as crystal-clear as the surrounding waters of the Gulf. From Montaigne to Middlemarch, Camus to Einstein, Spinoza to Keynes, the first 100-volume tranche of Kalima titles alone will offer a banquet of literature, science, history and philosophy to a 300 million-strong region with a young and increasingly literate population. The Independent published the Kalima launch list, also posted at www.kalima.ae.

Now, after a fortnight of fuss about "blasphemous" teddy bears and the perils of cultural cross-purposes, this resoundingly upbeat story from the Arab world feels even more heartening. Inspired by its Egyptian director, Karim Nagy, and supported by Abu Dhabi's heritage authority, Kalima is in for the long haul. No one pretends that the mere distribution of classic or contemporary books from around the world can suddenly dispel aeons of suspicion. Still, this bid to revive the ancient, yet dormant, role of Arabic as a global crossroads of ideas shows a rare far-sightedness.

Such cultural interchange ought to be a two-way street. Kalima's priority is to reverse a centuries-long tendency to intellectual introspection but Arabs hardly have a monopoly on that. Even compared to other languages, Anglophone publishing has a dismal record of bringing (or failing to bring) modern Arabic writing to domestic readers. So we should celebrate it when it does occur.

Apart from Syria's "Adonis", Ali Ahmad Said, no living Arabic writer commands a voice that carries further and deeper than Mahmoud Darwish. The former role of the exiled Palestinian poet within the PLO like Edward Said, he sat on its council obscured, for a while, his towering stature. But his strengths shine through the three recent volumes now collected in The Butterfly's Burden (Bloodaxe, 12). Translator Fady Joudah delivers captivating versions of Darwish's rapturous love poetry in The Stranger's Bed, of his bitter witness to the 2002 intifada in State of Siege, and of the eerily transcendent fusion of private and public passions in Don't Apologize for What You've Done.

Joudah's translations never try to smooth away the strangeness that will linger in any English rendering of Darwish's densely wrought, allusive verse. (This is a bilingual edition, so we can even see how the original looks.) Yet this poetry of exile and desire, prophecy and tenderness, can still ring out with spine-tingling force. Any lover of in the broadest sense a metaphysical poetry that marries the sensuous and the spiritual will find marvels here. Shelve it not too far from Rilke, Donne and Yeats. And notice, too, how many of Darwish's poems dwell on the frail and fugitive nature of the poet's creation, as much of a dispossessed wanderer as his body. As one of the call-and-response couplets in "What Will Remain?" puts it: "What will remain of the Arabic poet's speech?/ A chasm... and a thread of smoke". For once, English readers have a golden chance to catch that thread.

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