It has often been remarked, with a note of frustration, that most of the literature produced in the Arab world and translated into English is characterized by its heavily sorrowful tone. One has to admit that most of the last two centuries has witnessed the invasion of western imperialism in that part of the world and this area has been wrought with wars until our days. These devastating experiences are more likely to produce a literary corpus in which expressions of loss, destruction, disorientation, and rupture are pervasive. And it is often the case. However, as it is also the case with literatures of trauma and war, there are myriad ways to relate these experiences in literature, including the satiric and the comic. Furthermore, literature produced in the “periphery” in general and the Arab world in particular has been denied, to put it in Gayatri Spivak’s terms, “its literariness,” and the writer is considered a native informant valued along with his/her work for its ethnographic value, and literature coming from the Arab world is expected to fulfill this function, even though it is well known to everyone that literature is not confined to certain domains of life at the expense of others. Life experiences other than the traumatic ones are often dismissed and unsolicited by translators of Arabic, looking for timely literatures that converge with and reinforce the prejudice tainting the image of the Orientals as colonized and oppressed people, and whose societies discriminate against women and limit their opportunities in life. One of the results of these factors combined is that most of the literature translated from Arabic into English revolves around traumatic experiences, and is stamped with a heavy and gloomy character. Rare are the literary works dealing with non-traumatic, non-depressing themes and characters, although life experiences in their multitudes and diversity should be conveyed and transmitted to the reader through literary works.
Mainly for this reason and for my firm belief that every small contribution is significant in instituting a traffic that, as Spivak writes, “persistently and repeatedly undermines[s] and undo[es] the definitive tendency of the dominant to appropriate the emergent,”[i] I have decided to translate the short story “Everlasting Everlasting” by the late Lebanese writer Maroon Abboud (1886-1962), born in a village in Mount Lebanon named Ain Kfah. He was raised and educated as a Catholic Maronite and his father expected him to follow the steps of his grandfathers and be ordained as a Maronite priest. Maroun, however, was unwilling to comply with his father’s wishes, and to this end his mother encouraged him, sensing that he had no likings for priesthood. He eventually became a professor of Arabic literature at the Saint Joseph University in Beirut, and was expelled from it when he started publishing articles that denounce the large extent of authority enjoyed by the Maronite clergy. Abboud was called Abu Muhammad, because he named his first son Muhammad, after the prophet, earning himself sharp criticism from the Maronite community. His friend, the poet Amin al-Rihani (1876-1940), addressed Abboud’s action in a poem he wrote to the latter, declaring that Muhammad was a historical figure every Arab should be proud of.
Maron Abboud wrote about village life in Mount Lebanon, and his writings are characterized by their simple language, the one used by the villagers, distinguished by its tender humor. I call it tender, because Abboud manages to write about his villagers and expose their simple ways without depicting them as simplistic or simpleminded. In other terms, his prose is funny without being scornful of the villagers and their ways. His attitude draws the reader intimately with these people in a tender way that is not patronizing to them, and this is one of the main challenges that face the translator of Abboud’s texts.
This text, “Everlasting Everlasting” is a short story from the collection titled Faces and Stories, first published in 1945, that relates the events taking place on Epiphany night in a Maronite village in Mount Lebanon. The events of the story take place while Mount Lebanon was still under the Ottoman rule, which ended after World War I, in 1918. On Epiphany night, Western Christians commemorate principally (but not solely) the visitation of the Biblical Magi to the Baby Jesus, and thus Jesus` physical manifestation to the Gentiles. Eastern Christians for their part commemorate the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River, seen as His manifestation to the world as the Son of God.[ii] Eastern Christians believe that all the trees (except the mulberry tree) bow in worship on midnight, and Jesus goes through houses to bless the beneficent ones; they also believe that some miracles occur on that night, the first of which is that the dough rises without yeast or starter. For this reason, the first starter of the year is taken out of this dough, and it is a symbol of renovation and rejuvenation. The second miracle occurs when the girls go into the fodder storage room where there is no light to comb their hair. As electrical sparks fly from their hair, people watch in awe believing that this is a miracle. The story underscores the unquestioning and strong faith these villagers lived by, from the youngest to the oldest and most experienced.
“Everlasting Everlasting” uses the language of the villagers. This language is replete with idiomatic expressions which are in fact cultural elements serving to convey meanings,[iii] and it is crucial for me to convey the idioms’ meaning without losing the cultural component. In translating this text, I am not seeking to present to the Anglophone reader a piece that would read as easily as a text produced in any Anglophone society. On the contrary, my goal is to provide what Jacques Derrida calls “a relevant translation;” in other terms, a translation whose polysemy or polyvocality is certainly a constitutive and enhancing element that would have been unnoticed in the original but highlighted by the translation. Furthermore, my aim in this translation is to transport the reader into the culture in question rather than bring the text into the context of a local culture, i.e. domesticate it. This way, I am hoping that, through bending and expanding the English language to accommodate the imaginary of those villagers, I contribute my share in bridging two remote and divergent cultures and languages. [iv]
[i] Spivak, Gayatri. Death of a Discipline. New York: Columbia UP, 2003: 1.
[ii] “The Origins and Spirituality of Epiphany”. www.catholicireland.net.
[iii] Nida, Eugene. “Principles of Correspondence.” The Translation Studies Reader. Lawrence Venuti, ed. New York: Routledge, 2009. 153-167. Print.
[iv] For the translator’s task “to allow his language to be powerfully affected by the foreign tongue,” see Walter Benjamin’s “the Task of the Translator” in Illuminations. New York: Schocken Books, 1968: 69-82.
Everlasting Everlasting by Maroun Abboud
The Epiphany[i] night is a fertile night, during which minds become pregnant with dreams and desires, so they give birth to miracles and wonders, and be blessed, O benevolent.
That night, Priest Nasrallah, the Khoury,[ii] sat down crossing his legs on the right side of the fireplace, and in front of him his wife, the Khouriyyeh, squatted as though she were a basket of clothing.
Frowning and mystified, the Khoury at times combs his long beard with his fingers, and at other times stirs the fire and blows it, so that ashes scatter in the attic, and most of them settle on his jubbah, his qawooq[iii] and on the rug, then the Khouriyyeh tightly closes her wrinkled mouth until it becomes as small as a ring. She remembers how much she scrubbed the Khoury’s clothes in order that he looks clean on the Epiphany day; she sighs, a word dances on her lips, then it disappears. She shakes her clothes and kerchief in a grumble meant to be a scolding befitting the untidy reverend. Yet he doesn’t care.
What was the Khoury thinking about at that hour? Was it about his nonexistent offspring? For he, and God knows, has a faith that he is the son of the Church and one of her children who are one progeny to one father, Jesus Christ. It doesn’t matter then whether or not he had children. And, after all, what does a man in his eighties expect from a woman crawling towards her seventies?
Were he secular,[iv] he would have awaited death, the conflict resolver, but the Khouriyyeh is like a pine tree,[v] if cut down doesn’t sprout… what is confusing the Khoury then? And what is disquieting him, he who is the absolute ruler, and the parish has only to obey him? Do we say that he, like ordinary people, believes in the passing of ‘the Redeemer’ on Christian houses, and if, at the time of His passing, one is doing any habitual work, if it’s a good deed then good for him, and if it’s a bad deed then too bad for him?
All this is speculation. As for the invariable, fact is the Khouriyyeh had never seen her husband the way she saw him that night. She tried to awaken him, so she went to her spindle shouting: “Oh Jesus!” And she brought it from the right side of her pillow, sat down and said: “Oh Mary!” But to no avail. The Khoury is in another world. She finally turned to tease and spin the wool, without ceasing to contemplate her Khoury standing in front of her face like a pole.
After a long silence the Khoury opened his mouth and said: How many rotls[vi] have you kneaded?
The Khouriyyeh sighed and replied, “Four rotls.”Then he said, “Too little. The whole village will be at your house tonight.”
She answered while counting on her fingers, “wheat, chick pea, figs, walnut, almond, and raisins.”
He responded in a joyful calm, “as usual, you whiten my face;[vii] take into account the whole village. Feed and don’t waste.”
Moved by his praise, she replied to him, “Don’t worry, we have a lot of goods, and your blessing has been enough for us.”
The Khoury bent his head in humility and said: “Khouriyyeh, I am a sinner.”
She thought that her man’s sins were appearing to him in this blessed night; she was filled with sadness and lapsed into silence.
The Khoury’s silence resumed, he started fixing and blowing into the fire, and sparks from the stumps of mulberry trees, burned especially on Epiphany night, flew around. A period without blowing passed, as though it was a preparation for a storm the Khoury provoked in the fireplace throwing ashes everywhere.
The Khouriyyeh could not stand it, and said in a shout mixed with a bitter smile, “Khoury, you soiled everything; Spare your clothes.”
His face softened in apology, and he asked for the lamp. She got up on four, and he told her, “you’re lame, Khouriyyeh.” She managed to laugh, and walked declaring, “Thank God, the Khoury showed his tooth this evening.”
She placed the lamp stand on his right, sat down and folded her knees to spin.
The Khoury turned his head to the east, and knelt down to pray. Then he looked sideways and saw her spinning; he cleared his throat and coughed his usual cough. A rosary as long as a rope replaced the spinning mill.
People started flocking to the Khoury’s house; they sat silently.
Not a single word was coming out, except from children’s mouths, and mothers repressed them in those sleeves, from which only little escaped. If they were slow to hush a child, the Khoury would stare angrily and grumble. The child’s voice would be then sealed hermetically.
The Khoury closed his prayer book and started to sit down. Everyone greeted him in one voice, and piled around him to kiss his hand—as if crowding a spring of fresh water-heads collided into each other like billiard balls. They didn’t withdraw until they kissed it, all of them, and then sat down, silently, waiting for his speech. He said to them, “This is a celebrated night for which people wait every year. It is a commemoration of the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Savior in the Jordan River. Blessed are the pure at heart for they shall see God, as said our Savior and our God glory to Him, are you ready O blessed of my children?
Those who are not thinking about the Khouriyyeh’s zalabia[viii] answered him, “Yes, my master.”
The Khoury said humbly, “this is what I hope for you and me, my brethren.”
His friendly speech emboldened them, so they mentioned to him a man he expelled from church because he was whispering to his neighbor. He forgave him, and they brought him in.
The Khoury returned to his absent-mindedness, and the parishioners’ tongues burst into talks about their village affairs, not forgetting any of them. As for their eyes, they were mostly directed towards the kneading trough and the kettle.[ix] When time came the Khouriyyeh stirred from her place to put the kneading trough on the outdoor stone bench; twenty hands extended to lift it, and young girls rolled up their sleeves to knead the dough.
The zalabia screamed in the frying pan, and the kids started snatching away what was in their mothers’ and fathers’ hands. The fact that they were waiting for their turn distracted them from continuing their conversations—when it comes to bellies, brains are lost—which remained interrupted until one young girl said, stretching a cone of zalabia dough over the frying pan: “Your dough has fermented, auntie.”
A young man who likes this girl answered, “If the Khouriyyeh’s dough doesn’t ferment, then whose dough will rise?”
The audience was impressed by this remark; there was faith in the first miracle;[x] and the house filled with joy and the smell of oil.
They enjoyed the Khouriyyeh’s zalabia perfumed with cinnamon and dipped in molasses, and they remembered ‘the Everlasting’[xi] for whose memory they were eating it, and one of them said, “Lucky are those who kneel on the roof for Christ who blesses them in His passage.”
A young man replied to him, “May we miss not this blessing, God willing.”
A trembling old man shouted from the corner, “Women! On this night the flour cellars should be left open so that God can bless them.”
A woman remembered that her flour cellar was closed. She clapped her hands and rushed to her house, and then came back panting, anxious about missing anything of the feast’s zalabia.
At the mention of the sourdough starter one woman said that she had hung her dough from the apricot tree. The trembling old man, the narrator of ‘the Everlasting’ stories, told her, “No, Em Youssef.[xii] This is wrong. Apricot trees kneel. Hang it from the fig or the mulberry trees. Mulberry is too proud. It doesn’t kneel. And the fig tree is full of hatred toward Jesus…because He cursed it.”
One young man said, “Grandpa, you forgot the carob tree.”
He answered, “Yes, yes. The carob tree says to God, ‘Pregnant and breastfeeding, and holding four on each shoulder.’”
They were impressed by his eloquence. A woman, who the year before had hung her dough from an apricot tree and got the dough soiled with dirt, confirmed his words…Em Youssef then rushed to move her dough to the fig tree.
Oil was singing, dough was dancing, people eating and chatting, and the Khoury was drowned in his trance as though he didn’t see or hear, and the Khouriyyeh was surprised that he didn’t eat a single cone of zalabia despite the fact that he would die for it.
After frying the zalabia, there was hair combing in the fodder storage room. Sparks flew from the girls’ heads, and the guests raced to watch. The Khoury turned in an incomplete movement, and didn’t speak.
And then came the turn of boiled wheat and chickpea, which the Khouriyyeh poured in yellow pottery dishes, and gave one to each group, who embarked on scooping it. A young man with a stuffed mouth said, “‘The Everlasting’, clothed as a poor man, passed by a woman who was boiling wheat. She told him she was cooking stones, meaning pebbles, so He cursed her. And when she took the cover off the pot, her house filled with stones; and had the Khoury not performed a prayer at her door, the stones would have flooded the village.”
Another rejoined him, “and the opposite happened to a poor woman, who was honest, so her children ate from year to year.”
And they remembered countless miracles. As for the Khouriyyeh, she was winking at Habqooq to talk to the Khoury; his long silence occupied her mind.
Habqooq, who was the Khoury’s age, obeyed and asked him, “What do you say, my master, does the sea sweeten tonight, as we were told?”
The Khoury did not answer, and his gaze remained fixed on the door, which is kept open so that ‘the Everlasting’ comes through it, and does not curse it to be closed forever.
Rouhana, who is over sixty, said, “It is confirmed precisely at midnight. I know a lot who tried and drank from it, and it was sweeter than molasses.”
The Khouriyyeh nudged Habqooq to ask the Khoury another question, because she believed that God silenced him as he had silenced Zakariyya in the temple. Habqooq said in a loud voice, “Khoury Nasrallah, where are your pleasant news? We didn’t hear any of them tonight.”
Khoury Nasrallah threw at him a flattened look, and didn’t talk. The sight of him frightened the Khouriyyeh; she became certain that she will beget a child in her sixties, and there might be for God another John. Why not? The Testament says, “For God nothing is too difficult.” This Khoury is silent; he is a priest like Zakariyya; and the Khouriyyeh is sterile like Elizabeth, and just as pure and immaculate.
The group had no idea of what was going on, and talked at great length about ‘the Everlasting’ because the hour of his passing was approaching, and one said, “A crippled girl asked our Lord Jesus Christ to make a scythe out of one of her hands, and a wood-splitting maul out of the other. He consented, and she got rid of those who were torturing her.”
Another said, “There was someone who had an aunt named Christine, rich and stingy, nothing can be gotten from her. She said to him, “Ask ‘the Everlasting’ for a favor for me.” He said, “O forever glorious, forever pure, change my aunt into a kara pillow.[xiii] A young man asked him, “Did she become a kara?” He answered faithfully, “and what a kara!” The other leaned over to his neighbor and told him, “Easy for you. Tonight ask ‘the Everlasting’ to change your aunt into whatever you want her to be, and get rid of her.”
While young men were cracking walnuts and almonds and old men gumming raisins and dried figs, the Khoury suddenly fled to the door. The audience, surprised by his strange flight, swayed. Some of them followed him and then returned with him asking him what he saw, but he did not speak, and the fetus moved in the Khouriyyeh’s womb…
After a not-so-short silence the head of the crowd said, “People, let’s go. The Pleiades have tilted,[xiv] so say Good-bye the way they greeted.”
The Khouriyyeh’s stare was attached to the Khoury’s lips; as he didn’t speak she felt that her belly swelled as though she was in her seventh month. She spread her mattress and went to sleep while avoiding a miscarriage…But the Khoury dispelled her pleasant dream when he shouted at the people from the door, “the Mass is at midnight!”
The Khouriyyeh started grumbling and hissing in her bed. The Khoury asked her about her problem but she did not reply; he imagined that she regretted what she spent because the Khoury’s pocket is thin. He left her alone and sat down to pray “The Veil and The Night” prayer.[xv] Then he leaned next to the fireplace and fell asleep. And to him appeared the spectrum that passed through his mind an hour ago. He heard knocking on the door, and woke up frightened, crossing himself and mumbling. He started to his lantern to light it, wrapped himself up with his jubbah, and before going to the altar he nudged the Khouriyyeh with his stick, and she began to stretch.
He had walked only a few steps away from the house when strange ideas took hold of him, he saw terrifying visions, he almost died of fright…and was on the point of returning home but he refrained, multiplied prayers and the signs of the cross, then his determination strengthened and everything vanished…He reached the church incredulous of being inside it, hung on to the bell rope, rang it with difficulty a few strokes and ascended to the choir, singing hymns to be encouraged.
He lit the lamps and the candles with a shivering hand and goose skin. Whenever he encouraged himself his fear and terror increased.
Finally he moved to the northern corner of the church, and began turning the church books looking for the Epiphany Mass and religious ceremony, hoping to forget his fears. In front of him stood a peculiar man in whom he saw features of Jesus. The Khoury shouted in Syriac, “Bar hayo dakas bet miteh,”[xvi] and then the young man extended his open arms toward the Khoury. He increasingly believed that it is Christ, prostrated himself in front of him, and fainted.
The deacons who answer the call of the bell came before the parish, and they found Khoury Nasrallah lying on the floor tiles as dead. One of them rushed to the water to sprinkle him, another burned a piece of cloth and brought it near his nostrils, and a third rang the bell violently, and then he hit the strokes known to be distress calls among the followers. They poured into the church like a torrent, and the Khouriyyeh came last.
When she saw her husband thrown down, she bent over his head wailing and babbling, “The Khoury is gone, woe is me! He died, Khoury Nasrallah died. May your house be destroyed, O Azrael.” She prolonged the e and l in Azrael in a very long expansion, ended by pulling out her hair, and sat moaning and groaning. To finish, she sent out a voice that terrified the listeners: “My house is destroyed, O people. What a pity, O Khoury Nasrallah!”
The Khoury opened his eyes, but did not speak. The Khouriyyeh then calmed down and immediately faith in her pregnancy recurred to her, and she believed more than ever before, because the same thing that happened to the Khoury had all happened to Zakariyya, in the altar, to his right too…
The Khoury gestured to the people with the entirety of his hand, and the Khouriyyeh rejoiced and almost danced…and after a while the Khoury mumbled a few words, his tongue loosened and he told the people how he saw ‘the Everlasting’ the first time in his house when he ran to the door. And after that how He appeared to him at the altar and saw him face to face. They knelt down thanking God, except the Khouriyyeh. She did not like the vision because she was dreaming of another one. Yet, she surrendered and was content, saying to herself, “To hell with children, safety is booty.”
A little later, the Khoury became active and felt that he was rejuvenating like an eagle. He celebrated a blaring and resounding mass with a face dripping with faith. He celebrated the ceremony of Epiphany for an hour or more, for he was drawing out hymns and exultations, and if he saw a lukewarm or slack deacon, he would wink to him and show enthusiasm. He then concluded the service with a humor resembling David’s dance before the Ark.[xvii]
In the forenoon he toured the village sprinkling Epiphany water over the houses, and the parishioners welcomed him with great reverence and joy. If he sat, they sat around him; if he walked, they walked behind him. He returned home in the afternoon with a bucket empty of water, but full of bashlaks, half-bashlaks, zahrawiyehs, and quarter medjidiehs.[xviii] Everyone, even widows, gave him generously. The son of the altar from the altar lives.
The news of the great miracle was the talk of the town. Visitors came from distant places seeking blessing and prayer. Those who did not find the Khoury were content to meet the Khouriyyeh and hear the story of ‘the Everlasting’ from her mouth. She often was on the point of recounting the story of her pregnancy, but she would smile a little, and then say nothing.
The blessings of ‘the Everlasting’ descended upon our father, the Khoury, and he became influential with God. People would wait for him in funerals to win a kissing of his pure hand, so that his blessing descends upon them. He began blessing the water to expel mice, rats, and snakes. Then his religious power increased, and he started blessing the infertile land so that it dispenses with fertilizer, and its plants race upward.
A month later Saint Maroun’s Day came. The Khoury asked for the golden chalice, but did not find it. He lost his mind, but he took heart and said Mass briefly, which perplexed the parishioners, who thought that the Khoury was unwell. And he earnestly strove to look secretly for the perpetrator of the great crime, but did not succeed.
People in the village learned about the theft of the chalice reserved exclusively to celebrate the father of the sect,[xix] Christmas, and Easter. They elongated their tongues considerably, to the point that they disparaged the village’s saint and accused him of disability and senility, because he did not strangle the thief before his hand extended to the church tabernacle.
The news reached the Holy Patriarch. He threw the order to excommunicate the thief, a decision that goes through the bones as oil penetrates wool. The priests of several churches followed him within one day, and the faithful got on awaiting the return of the chalice, but it did not come back…
On the 19th of March—Saint Joseph’s Day—a stranger on a mule entered the village. They looked out of their doors at the sound of the hoofbeats, and a bunch of them, as usual, followed him. They learned from his account that he is the messenger of the patriarchal representative, the Khoury Boutros Daou, and that the chalice has been found. They spread the news in the village.
The Khoury had hardly changed his clothes and put on his blue jubbah when all of them were gathering around his mount in front of the door, waiting for his happy travel to wish him success. They counted the finding of the chalice as one of his miracles, because he expressed his wrath at the thief twice: after the recitation of the excommunication, and in the conclusion of the Eucharist procession.
The reverend reached Jbeil, where the patriarchal representative received him with much respect fit for his beatitude the Patriarch, informed him that the chalice is kept at Khalil’s, the Jeweler, and that its thief is jailed in the citadel. They went together to see the chalice and the thief.
As the Khoury Nasrallah’s eye fell on the thief, he shivered and paled: he recognized in him ‘the Everlasting,’ and he immediately felt that a force left him…
[Translated from the Arabic by Gaelle Raphael]