Introduction to English Translation of Bawazir’s Five Short Stories [Archives:2001/35/Culture]

August 27 2001

Mohammed Bawazir
During my first visit to Yemen in 1999 after 10 years of absence, I was pleased to meet some of the finest and most innovative Yemeni writers. I was much impressed by their creative thinking but saddened by the miserable conditions under which they were being forced to write. Surprisingly under these very conditions, they were able to create their literary gems. Only by listening to them was I able to realize the true dimension of their suffering as writers. I could not but admire their vowed determination to fight on, and keep on writing against all the odds.
I could see that the main suffering of these writers stemmed mainly from indifference in Yemen and lack of recognition in the rest of the Arab world. This seemed to me to be exercised systematically and indiscriminately. For no evident reason the leading publishing houses choose to shut out these writers while the media tend to ignore them. That sad and sorry attitude has created a degree of ignorance among book-lovers outside Yemen about the Yemeni literature and thus depriving many of enjoying some of the best works in prose or in poetry. Sadly, this literature – nearly in all of its genres – is invariably unknown in the Arab world, let alone internationally.
This ignorance about Yemeni literature is much more evident in the non-Arabic speaking countries. In Australia, for instance, such ignorance is total. It is not limited to the ordinary book-lovers, as readers or bibliophiles, but is even shared by academics including those with specialized knowledge on the Orient and its affairs.
Professor Campbell, for instance, an Orientalist, and a fluent speaker of Arabic, hardly knows anything about Yemeni literature, the modern or the ancient. Surely something must be done. These thick layers of ignorance and mystery in which this literature is shrouded, barring so many from reading and appreciating some of the finest and most sublime literary works, have to be done away with.
Achieving that goal is a task fraught with difficulties requiring resources and a dedicated team of experts working in their own separate sphere. Such a task is without doubt beyond the ability and the resources of individuals. Nevertheless, an individual can still contribute towards achieving that objective.
My own contribution took the form of an academic thesis combining a brief study of a Yemeni writer and a translation of some of his works which I plan to have published in a book. My principal objective is to show to the English speakers, that Yemen does not lack gifted men and women of a high literary calibre. They are indeed capable of writing sublime and soul-stirring literature.
Despite of the limitation of any literary translation, generally inferior to the original work, I hope that readers of these English renditions would appreciate, indirectly, the aesthetic value of the Arabic originals as well as the literary skills of their author.
Abdullah Salim Bawazir: The Fiction- writer and the Social Reformer
One of these skilled authors is Abdullah Salim Bawazir (Bawazir/Bawazeer is a common family name in Yemen and there is no connection between the author and the translator). He is particularly known as a short-story writer but has written several plays and, to my knowledge, a single novel, or long story as some critics prefer to describe it.
Among other features, the main distinctive one of Bawazir’s style is that his writing is strongly spiced with that special flavor of Yemen and its people. I am amazed at Bawazir’ ability of capturing the exotic lifestyle, ancient traditions, and unique character of the ordinary people of his country.
The selection of stories for studying and translation was not an easy process. But after reading nearly all his short stories, old and recent, as well as numerous critiques published in the leading local newspapers and journals, I was eventually able to select five short stories from five different anthologies.
The mean reason for selecting these particular stories is that they, it seems to me, reflect the evolving process in the writer’s style, mode and pattern of thinking. They are, in chronological order:
The Way of Sin (fi tariq al-khatiah) from The Golden Sands (al-rimal al-dhahabiyah), an anthology first published in 1965;
Three Days in Prison (thalathah ay-yam fi al-sijin) from The Volcanic Eruption (thawarat al-burkan) 1967;
The Boots (al-hidha) from a collection by the same title 1987;
Oblivion (ghaibubah) from The Fall of the Wooden Bird (suqut taier al-khashab) 1991; and The Sealed Door (al-bab al-masdud) from Attempted Assassination of A Dream (muhawalat iqhtiyal hilm) bearing no date, but the story was written in 1996.
Despite the fact that there are many other contemporary Yemeni writers having invariably same literary standing in the Yemeni literature as that claimed by Bawazir, I have chosen Bawazir to study and his stories to translate for three reasons.
First, I loved the stories. I admired the way they had been written. What impressed most was the author’s sense of humour, sarcastic and ironical wit. Secondly, I was lucky enough to gain an insight into the writer and deeper understanding of his work, when I met him personally during my short visit to Aden. Bawazir was very helpful and made available to me most of the collections of his short stories, some of which are now out of print. Thirdly, Bawazir is widely considered to be one of the pioneers in short story-writing in Yemen in general, and in Hadramout in particular. His writings are known to be a faithful artistic reflection of the ordinary Yemeni people and the society in which they live.
Bawazir is distinguished, from other Yemeni short story writers, for his technique of the constant employment of humour, irony, sarcasm, and symbolism. It is the congruous combination of these characteristics that has lent his writings, specially his short stories and plays, that unique flavor he is recognized by and is loved for. Through a balanced dual use of irony and symbolism, Bawazir is able, safely and effectively, to present his formative views and express his criticism of social ills, deep-seated corruption, and epidemic bureaucracy.
Like symbolism, irony can easily be detected in the author’s work. One example is the story Three Days in Prison, published in 1965 during the British occupation of Aden.
In the story, the protagonist, surely a personal characterization, is running along when he feels someone is running behind him. The irony is powerfully expressed when the protagonist cannot tell who is running – a dog or a British soldier? But he doesn’t bother to find out as both are the same to him.
Irony is also utilized skillfully in The Sealed Door where the protagonist’s spit is blown back to his face instead of hitting the luxurious car of his boss. That would not have happened if he is not too “weak and coward” t o spit on the face of its owner sitting in his office where there is no wind to blow it away. Irony is cleverly applied here to express a passive rejection of the far-fletched bureaucracy.
Bawazir always writes for and about the ordinary people and the grass roots of society. Because he is obsessed with their everyday affairs, he reacts to any event, major or minor, affecting their lives, and eroding their human dignity.
Despite the romantic pages of a day-dreamer, evident in the first anthropology titled al-rimal al-thahabiyah (The Golden Sands) published in 1965, the author soon leaves his ivory tower forever and starts writing about the daily affairs of his people, focusing on their day to day suffering, and communicating their hopes, inspirations and ambitions.
Such turning point in the writer’s style and thought can be detected with no much effort in his second anthology thawrat al-burkan (The Volcanic Eruption) published three years later. His vowed commitment to alleviate his people’s suffering coupled with his passion and promise to bring about a brighter future are deeply rooted in the themes of almost every single story published since then.
As I believe that these five anthologies truly represent milestones in the author’s literary evolution, I equally believe that the five stories selected from them are turning points in the creative development of the author and his political and social philosophy as a committed fiction-writer and an entertaining social reformer.