Mazen Naous (trans.), Memoirs of Juliette Elmir Sa’adeh: Syrian Social Nationalist, Reformer, Political Prisoner (Folios Limited, 2022).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you translate this book?
Mazen Naous (MN): Juliette Elmir Sa’adeh was the first woman political prisoner in post Sykes-Picot Syria. This fact alone was reason enough to translate her memoirs. Indeed, one of my colleagues exclaimed “this is the stuff of movies” when I shared some pages of the memoirs with her. Elmir Sa’adeh survived famine and disease with her family in Tripoli (her native town in Syria at the beginning of the twentieth century) during World War I before they could join her father in Argentina. There, she studied nursing and broke with the traditional values of her family. She met and fell in love with Antoun Sa’adeh, founder of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), and returned to Lebanon with him after World War II. Elmir Sa’adeh worked alongside her husband to actualize the unification of Geographic Syria (also known as Greater Syria, which comprises modern Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, Cyprus, and the Sinai Peninsula) as an active member of the SSNP, earning the rank of First Trustee. She promoted the role of women in the party, in cultural life, and in nation building.
Elmir Sa’adeh’s life was replete with adventure, intrigue, and episodes of political upheaval that resulted in her unjust imprisonment for over eight years (1955-1963). Her memoirs serve both as a blueprint for and a cautionary tale about women in politics. Few early to mid-twentieth-century works by Lebanese and Syrian women have seen publication, and Elmir Sa’adeh’s memoirs fill a historical gap and provide a detailed account of earlier periods of political turmoil from a woman’s perspective. In other words, these memoirs (and their translation) find resonance in the region’s history, and in the genres of women’s writing and prison literature.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
MN: Juliette Elmir Sa’adeh’s memoirs address the issues of Geographic Syria under Ottoman rule and, later, under the French mandate; the lives and preoccupations of the Greater Syrian immigrant communities in Argentina; the SSNP’s political goals of unifying Geographic Syria and undoing the Sykes-Picot partitioning of the region; secularism as it pertains to the region; women’s roles in politics and nation building; and the plight of political and non-political prisoners in Lebanese and Syrian prisons in the mid-twentieth century.
Elmir Sa’adeh was attracted to the SSNP for multiple reasons. The party was progressive, secular, and unifying, and it allowed women to participate in activism and politics. Importantly, its form of nationalism was made in Syria, and it did not subscribe to Nazism, fascism, or ethnonationalism. After centuries of Ottoman rule, followed by French and British mandates, Geographic Syria was in desperate need of political, social, and cultural reform, and of a way out of sectarian tribalism. Antoun Sa’adeh’s vision for Syria answered the many questions and concerns that Elmir Sa’adeh had about her country of origin. She writes in the second chapter of her memoirs: “My country was not free to have its own cause. It had been in the grips of scheming colonizers for many years. My country has been Turkish, then French or English. Where was my country? Better yet, what was it? […] I am Syrian, and Syria was a subjugated nation. This was the cause of my pain and reflections."
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
MN: While I have always been deeply interested in the politics and cultural production of the region, my research interests have had as their focus the literary cultural production of Arab Americans. My monograph, Poetics of Visibility in the Contemporary Arab American Novel, was the culmination of years of research and writing on the relationship between aesthetics and politics in the works of Arab American authors. This translational project has allowed me to chart a new path as a translator, and to widen my scope of engagement with the sociopolitical and cultural production of Lebanon and Syria.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
MN: I expect my translation of Juliette Elmir Sa’adeh’s memoirs to contribute to debates on nationalism, secularism, and gendered politics in Geographic Syria.
It is my hope that my translation of the memoirs will find its way to multiple intellectual and political spaces. I believe that it would appeal to scholars in the fields of history, politics, sociology, translation, feminist studies, and cultural studies.
Outside of academia, I hope that my translation would serve as an important addition to works addressing twentieth-century political turmoil in the region, and as a resource for social and cultural practitioners who are interested in the sociopolitical and cultural production of Lebanese and Syrian women. Furthermore, I would like the memoirs to find their way to anyone who is invested in secularism and democratic citizenship as tangible alternatives to sectarianism, antiquated patriarchal systems, and political corruption. Here as well, I hope that the memoirs underscore the value of women’s contributions to the pursuit of justice and reform.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
MN: My next monograph, provisionally titled The Musiqa of Arab American Fiction, focuses on musical-lingual interplay in Arab American fiction. My new project’s aim is to investigate the presence and approximations of musical themes, forms, and sounds in contemporary Arab American novels. The Musiqa of Arab American Fiction takes up the following questions: Why does music play such an important role in recent Arab American literary production? Why do some authors counterpoint music and Islam? How do Arabic and Western musical forms (individually and in combination) complicate, energize, and critique the sociocultural and political contexts represented in the novels? How does music create audibility on Arab American terms?
J: What were some of the main strategies that you employed in translating the memoirs?
MN: In my translation, I have treated the memoirs as a historical document; I remained as close to the text as possible and did not edit out any repetitions (with variations) of episodes or subject matter.
One of the primary tasks of the translator is to listen to the narrative voice, to recreate its cadences and style in the translation. Juliette Elmir Sa’adeh wrote in formal Arabic, but from the position of an immigrant who had returned to the Arabic language later in life. I sought to transfer both the formal tone and the idiosyncrasies of her style into English in this translation. I did not do so without allowing the conviction and pain behind her words to be felt, however, even when I was compelled to translate her long, haunting sentences into shorter ones to preserve the clarity of meaning—long, flowing sentences do not constitute run-on sentences in Arabic.
I have attempted to preserve Elmir Sa’adeh’s rhetoricity and agency as a woman activist and writer. I have taken into careful consideration the gendered and anti-colonial positionality of Elmir Sa’adeh in my translation of her memoirs. I often replaced the Arabic singular form with the English plural form to bypass the male gendering of words.
Furthermore, I resisted the domestication of Arabic in this translation even while I strove to give non-Arabic speaking readers nuanced access to Arabic expressions and turns of phrases. I took extra care to include cognates and Syrian sayings without offering much qualification. I did so to retain an echo of the Arabic original in the English translation. This was no easy task, and translators—including myself—often fail to strike such a delicate balance. Nonetheless, this effort was necessary to create a productive sense of unhomeliness, in which the English language was made to counterpoint itself both as English and as an echo of Arabic.
The act of translation ever complicates our perceptions of language and culture, precisely because it compels us both to inhabit and confront difference and failure. The translational motion, however, allows us to interpret and imagine anew. As such, translation is a transformative art, even if we fail to actualize its promise of correspondence. It is better to imagine and fail in translation than to fail to imagine. In this light, I offer this translation of Memoirs of Juliette Elmir Sa’adeh: Syrian Social Nationalist, Reformer, Political Prisoner.
Excerpt from the book (from Chapter 17, p. 195 and Chapter 19, pp. 224-225)
The prisoner stood between the whip and the wall. ’Abd al-Majeed asked him questions in a low voice, as if he were sharing a secret. After each question, he violently lashed the innocent detainee on the face. The detainee could not defend himself except by attempting to cover his face with his hands. He did so while crying out in pain. But the whip came down on his hands in successive lashes, and he no longer knew whether he should protect his hands, his face, or his body.
How strange was that low voice, which emanated from the torturer during those ear-piercing torture sessions. It was as if the voice did not wish to advertise the crime to which it was committed!
I stood at night, all night, behind that chip in the paint, which overlooked the torture courtyard. During the day, the prison operated as if nothing had taken place under the cover of night. The guards were at their posts, and the prison offices functioned normally. The municipality (this was the nickname of the prisoners tasked with cleaning) was busy washing the floor and scrubbing it with straw brooms. The prisoners cleaned the pond and attended to the garden and its flowers. Everything outside, under the light of day, seemed like a vast theatrical curtain, which had dropped down quietly over the internal workings of the prison. Nothing disturbed this scene except for one occurrence, which departed from the routine as I perceived it. One of the comrades, a civilian or a serviceman, crossed the yard. He walked and breathed in the fresh air for a few minutes (perhaps after being tortured for many nights).
I imagined such scenarios [in which I would be disposed of], despite realizing that there were reasons that would render them unlikely. Even so, no one could guarantee the commitment of these individuals to ethical conduct. One of the policemen could volunteer to dispense with me, after being primed with hate and a desire for revenge. Perhaps he would not be asked to kill me directly. Instead, someone could instruct him to use another method, such as “an act of God.” In addition, the practices and ploys of the soldiers were now clear to us. This is why I repeatedly asked Jassim Weiss, the prison’s director, to prohibit the carrying of rifles during the day, because they were putting me in danger. He, however, refused to do so, claiming that my room was located at the front of the prison, and some group might plot to abduct me…despite the fact that five armored cars and a squadron of armored vehicles were stationed in front of the prison. But to guard what?
This situation continued until one day, when I was sitting on the balcony doing some handiwork. While I was thus occupied, the guard suddenly left his post to an associate, who was a stranger; I had not seen him before, and he looked like he belonged to the clans. He sat on the chair, which was placed near the door of my room. Every time I exited or entered, he pointed the rifle at me with his finger on the trigger. I looked at him and saw his eyes affixed to me, the sparks of hate piercing through them. All I could do was to rush into my room and slam the door. I began to shout as loudly as I could that the military held ill-will toward me, and that they were plotting to kill me by way of “a stray bullet.” My voice carried to the ground floor, where visitors to the prison were waiting to be checked in. They all gathered under the balcony and looked up toward the floor from which the shouting emanated. The assistant to the prison’s director, Sergeant Suleiman ’Isa, ran up to investigate. He was surprised to see the door to my room shut. I refused to open it to anyone, because my nerves were on edge as a result of their many maneuvers. Sergeant Suleiman pleaded with me to allow him to enter, and I relented after the passing of some time. The moment he stepped in, I lost consciousness. He quickly called for the nurse to aid me. He then asked me about what ailed me. I replied that I knew their true intentions; they carried loaded rifles internally, and this was not allowed. There was no other place in al-Mazzeh under armed guard during the day. So, why did they carry arms to guard me when I was usually alone? Someone was likely to shoot me and then claim it was an act of God! He denied all of this, saying: never, we are all brothers to you. He was very kind to me, and he said that he would send the director to me. I answered: I don’t wish to see him, because he is the one who wants to kill me (this was after he had directed the policeman, in my presence, to shoot me if he saw me attempt to throw myself from the balcony).
Jassim Weiss arrived and asked me: am I the one who wants to kill you? I answered: yes. The carrying of a loaded rifle for the duration of the day is proof of that. I am alone in the entire apartment. At the same time, there are no wooden barriers or even armed guards for the apartment in which ten officers reside! He said: all right, we will remove the armed guards…and so it was. It was only after this scandal that a conclusion was achieved. From that day on, I felt that a heavy burden had been lifted from my chest.
I mentioned earlier that Comrade Adma Nassif was under arrest in al-Mazzeh at the time. A year after this incident, she heard a policeman telling the gatekeeper that they had planned to kill me with stray bullets at some point. Because I was a “brazen woman,” however, I was able to perceive their plan. I pretended to go mad, and I shouted to alert the amassed visitors outside the prison that a plot was afoot…This was how their mission failed.
During the period of high alert that accompanied the tripartite hostilities against Egypt, there were only two guards, each on a twenty-four hour rotation. When I requested that the hostile guard be substituted and that the well-mannered and respectful one remain, Jassim Weiss relocated the good policeman. He retained the other guard for the entire five months; the guard ate, drank, and slept in the apartment with the gatekeeper. I feared him after this change, and I no longer felt at ease around him. He felt this, and he confronted me about it.
In this challenging atmosphere and in the face of multiple pressures— the feeling of being surrounded by danger from all sides, from behind the bars and outside of them—I lived alone in my room (designated for women) at al-Mazzeh prison. I saw no one and I ministered to nothing. This condition of psychological torture accompanied me for the entire time of my imprisonment at al-Mazzeh. I was never tortured physically, and I was never humiliated verbally, not even with one word. On the contrary, I experienced the condition of “a mirror in the face, a shoe in the back,” as the Damascene aphorism for double-faced goes. The aphorism can be applied to every conspirator, who hid behind a noble demeanor in order to plot in secret. Those who were the kindest to my face, were the ones who plotted to destroy me.