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A Permanent Elegy

Robyn Creswell, interviewed by Sam Needleman

Annette Hornischer/American Academy

Robyn Creswell, 2016

Annette Hornischer/American Academy

Robyn Creswell, 2016

This article is part of a regular series of conversations with the Review’s contributors; read past ones here and sign up for our e-mail newsletter to get them delivered to your inbox each week.

In our February 22 issue, Robyn Creswell writes about one of the most fabled episodes in Arab history in his review of Eric Calderwood’s On Earth or in Poems: The Many Lives of al-Andalus. Al-Andalus and its period of convivencia (coexistence) have been cast by great Arab writers, intellectuals, and political actors in seemingly infinite ways since the eighth century, when the Umayyad ruler Abd al-Rahman conquered the Iberian Peninsula after narrowly escaping death in Damascus at the hands of the ascendant Abbasids. In constructing his new emirate, Creswell writes, Abd al-Rahman was so keen on duplicating the design of his lost home in the Levant that he built a south- rather than east-facing prayer niche in the great mosque at Córdoba, an epicenter of the Muslim world for centuries to come. “O people of al-Andalus,” the Valencian poet Ibn Khafaja wrote in the eleventh century, “How God showered you/with water, shade, rivers, and trees!/The Garden of Paradise is nowhere if not in your land.”

Creswell teaches comparative literature at Yale, with a particular interest in Arabic, French, English, and Spanish modernist poetry. He also translates Arabic poetry into English. In our pages he has written about contemporary fiction, from Patrick Modiano to Isabella Hammad, and about classical Arabic literature. “There are many good translations of Tang poetry and Sanskrit epics, to say nothing of Western classic literature,” Creswell once wrote. “But how many English readers have even heard of the Golden Odes, or al-Mutanabbi, or Abu Tammam?”

This week Creswell and I corresponded about al-Andalus, Palestine, and the gaping holes that English readers of Arabic literature—one of the world’s great canons—must skirt.


Sam Needleman: In your essay you argue that many aspects of Andalusian history have kept the region alive in the Arab world as a site of unparalleled “memory and desire.” Is any one of those aspects strongest?

Robyn Creswell: I suppose what most obviously sets al-Andalus apart, from an Arab perspective, is that it was lost. Arab-Muslim rule in the Iberian Peninsula began in 711 and ended—violently—in 1492, by which time Arabs were only in charge of the Emirate of Granada. And of course the victors belonged to a rival faith, Christianity. So there’s a sadness associated with al-Andalus, a kind of permanently elegiac but also curiously voluptuous mood. As it happens, sorrowful sensualism is congenial to Arabic poetry. In my review I mention a famous long poem by the Egyptian Ahmad Shawqi, written in 1919, when he was in exile in Spain. Shawqi went to Granada and described the marble lions in the court of the Alhambra as “dull-clawed and soft to the touch.” Like almost all of Shawqi’s writing, the poem has never been translated into English as a work of literature, though scholarly translations exist.

Which of the many “myths” about al-Andalus is most politically salient or active in the Arab world today?

Hard to say. At moments of sectarian tension, the myth of convivencia can be very appealing. But the political salience of al-Andalus depends on someone in particular—a poet, a musician, a politician—making a persuasive case for its relevance. That’s what Mahmoud Darwish did with “Eleven Planets at the End of the Andalusian Scene,” a poem I discuss at the end of my review. Darwish wrote the poem in 1992, at the beginning of what would come to be known as the Oslo peace process, which coincided with the five-hundred-year anniversary of the expulsion of Muslims and Jews from Iberia. Among other things, the poem was a veiled threat to Yasser Arafat, leader of the PLO: don’t be another Boabdil, the final ruler of Grenada, whose “last sigh” expresses a nostalgia that Darwish wanted nothing to do with.

When and how did you fall for Arabic poetry?

It happened in Vermont, of all places, when I was about twenty. I began studying Arabic in college, after a summer in Morocco, where I had made a lot of friends and smoked a fair amount of hashish. I spent the next summer at Middlebury’s Arabic immersion program, where you promise to speak nothing but classical Arabic for nine weeks (even if you don’t know any), including in the cafeteria and dorms. At the end of the summer there was a poetry recitation, and my teachers encouraged me to memorize a short poem by Darwish, “Another Damascus in Damascus,” which I still know by heart. Mostly I was trying to please my teachers, who impressed me with the centrality of poetry to Arabic culture—the novel is, by comparison, a recent interloper. But I was also impressed with the strangeness, to me, of what I was reciting. Darwish’s lines made only a tantalizing sort of sense. I felt there was much more to learn, so I stuck with it. 

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In “The First Great Arabic Novel,” your essay on Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq’s Leg Over Leg, you wrote that classical Arabic literature “is virtually unknown to readers of English. In the present circumstances, this is a remarkable and dismaying fact…. Eliot famously called Pound ‘the inventor of Chinese poetry for our time,’ and our time could use an inventor of Arabic.” That was almost ten years ago now. Do we still lack an “inventor of Arabic” in English, or “inventors”?

On second thought, Pound might not be the best comparison. He suggests an individual heroism that isn’t entirely helpful. There doesn’t need to be just one way of doing classical Arabic in English, and I do think we’re moving toward a collective of inventors. Many of the translators I admire most are working with the imprint that published Leg Over Leg, NYU’s Library of Arabic Literature (a kind of Loeb Library for Arabic). Michael Cooperson’s Impostures, a rendering of al-Hariri’s eleventh-century maqamat (short virtuoso texts in rhyming prose) into fifty different species of English vernacular, is jaw-dropping. James E. Montgomery’s versions of the poetry of ‘Antara, al-Khansa, and al-Mutanabbi are very different (at times they are positively Glaswegian), but equally inventive. Yasmine Seale’s Arabian Nights were a revelation to me, and she’s now working on a translation of the Andalusian love treatise Tawq al-Hamamah (The Ring of the Dove). I would be remiss not to mention Ange Mlinko’s versions of pre-Islamic poetry, which really are Poundian in the best way: old Arabic translated into old English.

Are there any distinct challenges that an Arabist literary critic working in the United States faces today?

There are many more joys than challenges. It’s true Arabic literature isn’t well known here, to put it mildly. Beyond Naguib Mahfouz, a Nobel winner, few Arab authors have landed with American readers. But as a critic, you then have the opportunity to introduce astonishing writers—old ones, new ones—to your audience. I happen to like writing that kind of review. In 1994 Edward Said wrote an essay called “Embargoed Literature,” in which he lamented American publishers’ lack of interest in Arabic, which one editor called “a controversial language.” Arabic might still be controversial in certain ways, but the embargo is off.

Your awareness—and analysis—of the entwinement of politics and culture is a consistent, pronounced feature of your criticism. To what extent is that a reflection of your main subject?

I’m a kind of recovering deconstructionist. At school I read a lot of Derrida (this was twenty-five years ago): I identified binaries, made camp in aporias. But deconstructionism, which can be a magical method of close reading, prevents one from thinking seriously about history, politics, or even biography. It was my encounter with Arabic literature that freed me from that way of reading. Darwish was the first Arab poet I studied extensively—that was lucky—and I came to appreciate the pressure of politics on his writing.

It was impossible, for me, to understand Darwish’s poems without also knowing something—preferably a lot—about Palestinian history: the Nakba, the occupation, the conflict in Lebanon, the first intifada, the tragedy of Oslo, the civil war between Fatah and Hamas. . . . But enjoying Darwish’s poems wasn’t a matter of reducing them to their political occasions. The more history I knew, the more the poems came alive, and the more the poems illuminated their surroundings. I’ve never missed Darwish’s presence more than in the past five months. Seamus Heaney has a wonderful line about his own resolve, after the onset of the Troubles, to seek “images and symbols adequate to our predicament.” I wonder what images Darwish would have for us now, confronted by the unimaginable suffering in Gaza.

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