The “Ummiyyat” is not just dirty verse. It gets at the inhumanity of life in a police state: torture, mass surveillance, disinformation. Surour had been spied on by Egyptian colleagues who pretended to be his friends in Moscow. When he accused his second wife of infidelity, he was convinced that she, too, was reporting on him to the mukhabarat.
Having chosen to spend my life in a different country — Germany — as an essentially permanent foreigner while my children grow up completely integrated and fluent in the local language from the get-go, I’m drawn to these themes, particularly in novels written decades prior.
Although French thinker Jacques Derrida gets credit for “deconstruction,” namely the idea that language is slippery and breaks down under scrutiny, the 1960s American TV sitcom “Green Acres” had already done something similar: explore the absurdity of life and how we talk about it.
British translator Humphrey Davies, who passed away on Nov. 12, gifted dozens of English literary translations from Arabic but also a legacy of mentorship and warmth.
For the Zionists, Yiddish represented the weak, emasculated Jew of the shtetl. They saw it as feminine, backward and hybrid, a mixture of many languages. This stood in stark contrast with Hebrew, which they associated with the new, muscular Jewish identity they sought to engender in Palestine.