Hisham Bustani’s The Perception of Meaning is an eclectic collection of texts, ranging from one sentence flash fiction to poetic passages to retellings of fairytales and longer works, including “History will not be made on this couch” the only one of the texts I had previously read. Throughout, the original Arabic is mirrored on the opposing page by the translation into English by Thoraya El-Rayyes.
As with any bilingual text, to read the Arabic and the English is to experience two different texts. The original text forces fusha into shapes that “feel right” grammatically and syntactically, but are often innovative, such as “tajlud nafsuha baraqan” translated as “she lightning whips herself.” As this example indicates, unfortunately, and through no fault of the translator, this kind of wordplay does not always render well into English.
Some of the problems with translating are simple and unavoidable, for example in “Birds of a feather fall together,” the translator substitutes “fall” for “flock,” where in Arabic the equivalent saying itself contains the word “fall.” Other cases, such as the literal translation of the expression “filled his jowls with laughter” would require a highly formal, if not archaic language (which would only sound contrived) to achieve the same effect in translation as in the Arabic. In other cases, there are connotations that will inevitably be missing in the translation, such as the line “The murderer walking down the street was followed by his victims” which brought to my mind at least the Egyptian proverb, “he kills the victim and walks in his funeral.”
Despite the evident difficulties of translating work that is so self-consciously experimental, many of the short texts contain images arresting in simplicity, like “naïve” flowers that “do not know the concrete is coming” or a dictatorial figure with “the rows of empty chairs nodding in agreement at his words.”
The satire in some of these texts reminded me of the works of the poet Ahmad Matar, which offer a blend of humor and despair, ironic in their tone, lacerating in their self-criticism. For example, here is Bustani disparaging the state of the intellectual in the Arab world:
“the intellectual who became a theorist after reading an article /
about Marxism in a newspaper /
the intellectual who wrote the Marxist article in the newspaper /
(he last read a book thirty years ago).”
Matar often uses brief comparisons of animal and human (or animal and Arab) in the self-deprecating comedy of his lines – most infamously perhaps in the two line poem “Insult Match”: The boy said to the donkey, “You’re stupid!”/The donkey said to the boy, “You’re Arab!” Bustani does something similar, though more “universal” in the rhetorical question: “Humans are descended from apes?/Who says the apes would approve?” and in his look “beyond the anthropocene”: “In billions of years, other beings—smarter than we are— will not find their fossils.”
Nature and environmental issues are a thread that runs through the book. Many of the texts call for ecocritical readings – perhaps alongside feminist readings, since the nature appears, traditionally, as woman. Even where the subject is winter (a male noun in Arabic) there is a transition back to the female noun nature, and to the woman. The use of personalisation is nonetheless often startling, as when a tree becomes the “dismembered/pulverized/bleached” body parts of a woman being put through a photocopy machine: “Let’s try again. The tree’s foot this time. Her head. Her hips.”
In parallel to the red thread of environmental devastation, there is the world of the digital zombie, “engaged in a furious battle with enemies of the wall” (that is the Facebook wall), taking advantage of the restricted space for self-expression on social media by spreading “barbed poetry in the space allocated for his daily/sentiments.” Then there is the “breaking news” of the newscaster having a breakdown:
Breaking news: “Tens killed and injured in an explosion . . .” then the newscaster threw away his papers, threw away his sometimes smiling, sometimes scowling face….Whenever he fell ill with optimism, He swallowed the news broadcast twice a day, and wrapped himself up in newspapers before going to sleep. He dreams of the end, and is cured.
These words reminded me both of Tamim Barghouti’s poem In the Arab world You Live, where the watchers of the news “live/to watch people die,” and of Tamer Abu Ghazaleh’s song, Breaking News, where again, the news presenter has a breakdown, going from mimicking the infamous Jamal Azar of Al Jazeera pose to word-tripping panic while the audience, at home, eats dinner before the tv.
Though not actual poems, I felt many of the texts in The Perception of Meaning would be effective as videopoems, or “moving poems”: there is that kind of visual energy to the lines. These are works that try to forge a language that self-reflexively expresses the end of lyrical beautiful poetry, asserting
“But times have changed,/
the poets have died, taking with them the similes and metaphors,/
when I passed beneath her, I heard her say:/
I will stay this way, suspended in the air,/
a witness to your severed wings.”