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Another Birth, Other Words: Queering the Poetry of Forough Farrokhzad in Translation

Recently, the Swedish Academy responsible for the dictionary of Swedish language added the new gender neutral pronoun hen to the newest edition of their work. The news reached international media and reaffirmed the idea of Scandinavian countries as being the ‘frontrunners of gender equality.’

The application of the gender neutral pronoun isn’t all that new, though. It has been a subject of debate among feminist-leftist circles since the 1970s. Swedish kindergarten Egalia even applied the use of hen back in 2011. Egalia’s mission to undo gender stereotypes entailed among other things the substitution of the gendered pronouns han and hon (he and she) with the gender-neutral neologism hen.

The Scandinavian narrative of progressiveness and gender equality isn’t without its challenges and controversies, however. Internal disputes within leftist-feminist circles suggest that some see the gender neutral pronoun as a liberating panacea, bound to revolutionize binary gender roles, while others view it as an unrealistic utopian project that will only serve to blur actually-existing inequalities. Semantics won’t fix the lived experiences of sexism, they argue.

What those opposed to linguistic gender neutrality forget, however, is that this trend is often not nearly as ‘exotic’ or foreign a phenomenon as is often cast. You don’t have to travel farther than Finland — Sweden’s neighbor — before you encounter a gender-neutral language, where the neutral (and only) 3rd person pronoun is hän. This word has served as an inspiration for the Swedish equivalent: hen and the Danish: høn.

Even further afield, another language remotely related to Danish with shared Indo-European roots is Persian, in which some of the oldest and most influential literature in history has been written. Throughout history, Persian’s lack of gendered pronouns has allowed for the production of subversive texts that have confounded and enchanted readers and leaders alike.

The world-renowned Sufi poet Jalal ad-Din Mohammad Molana Rumi, who lived in the 13th century and wrote in Persian, is often brought forth as an example of this subversive poetic tradition, where the Persian neutral pronoun ou (او) allows for a wide array of interpretative possibilities. His object of desire could be a monotheistic God, a deity of the earth, a woman, or his friend and mentor Shams-e-Tabrizi.

Although some read his poems as homoerotic, there is no known proof that Rumi was homosexual or had a physical relationship with his mentor, Shams. What is beyond dispute, though, is their intense love and admiration for each other.

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Five Essential Works of Arabic Literature

There’s a lot of news coming out of the Arab world these days, mainly grim stuff in the press or online, painting a depressing and very much one-sided picture of this vast geographical and culturally diverse area. If you want to delve a little deeper into the Arab world and see another side of its rich heritage and culture, it’s well worth taking the time to sample some of the delights of Arabic literature.

Here are five suggestions to give you an idea of what’s on offer. They are all available in English translation, so you don’t have to learn Arabic to read them, though you may be tempted to once you have.

The Epistle of Forgiveness by Abu Al Alaa Al Maarri

This celebrated freethinker, ascetic, humanist and committed vegetarian lived in Syria during the 11th century. The head of his statue in his home town of Ma’arrat al Numan was recently chopped off, possibly because he challenged accepted doctrine with a passion. He was the Voltaire of his time.

‘All religions err’, he says. In fact, there are only two sects in the whole world: ‘One, man intelligent without religion, the second, religious without intellect’. In the epistle, al Maarri considers the works and thoughts of some of the great poets and thinkers who preceded him. With his great erudition and mastery of language, coupled with a biting sense of irony, he challenges and refutes their views and is critical of many aspects of accepted orthodox belief. At one point, in what is a clear precursor of Dante’s Divine Comedy, he makes a journey to paradise where he meets the wine-drinking, womanising pagan poets of the pre-Islamic period, and then to hell where he encounters the religious scholars.

Once banned in Algeria and decapitated almost a thousand years after his birth in his home town, Abu Al Alaa Al Maarri is widely read in the Arab world, and many Arabs acknowledge him as one of their greatest literary figures. His influence has been enormous, but so little known in the modern West that we have little idea how far ahead of his time he really was.

The latest English version of The Epistle of Forgiveness has just won the Sheikh Hamad Translation Prize.

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