Lyrical Translation Sets "Angels" Apart

By Rebecca Joubin

The World Through the Eyes of Angels
By Mahmoud Saeed
Translated by Samuel Salter, Zahra Jishi, and Rafah Abuinnab
Syracuse University Press, 2011

The 2010 winner of the King Fahd Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies translation of Arabic Literature Award, "The World Through the Eyes of Angels" by prominent Iraqi novelist Mahmoud Saeed, tells the story of a young boy in Mosul in the 1940s and 50s. In the preface to his novel, Saeed writes that despite the poverty of his childhood years, he recalls an extraordinary harmony between Muslims, Jews, and Christians. He recollects with nostalgia how in the summer months there was constant interaction between Jewish, Kurdish, Aramaic, Yezidi, Shabak, and Armenian peasants. However, with the invasion of Iraq and the subsequent battles, divisions, and bloodbath, he faced writer's block and wasn’t able to put his memories on paper. It was only after a summer in Mexico, where he observed a poor, barefoot boy happily nibbling on the small apple that was his payment for a day's labor of delivering fruits and vegetables, that Saeed remembered his own childhood of working barefoot and free from harassment and harm as an errand-runner in his father's shop. Saaed noted the pitiful disparity between his childhood sense of security and the total absense of this feeling in contemporary Iraq, where no child or adult can safely leave the house or travel even a quarter of a kilometer down the street alone. This contrast was the inspiration behind his new novel.

Narrated in the first person, "The World Through the Eyes of Angels" is the story of a poor boy who works in his father's shop running errands throughout the day. The youth is powerless against his oppressive older brother — whom he calls the “mad dog” — who constantly curses, starves, and strikes him for no reason. And yet, not withstanding the fraternal oppression, the boy lives in a society that is more diverse and harmonious than present-day Iraq. His entry into adolescence is sensitively portrayed through his friendships with three girls, one Muslim, one Christian, and one Jewish. Selam is an impoverished Muslim who lives with her emaciated mother. Starved and dressed in rags, both mother and daughter disappear from his life one day, leaving the boy feeling guilty that he never asked his father to help them. Then there is his friendship with the ravishing Madeleine, a young Christian who gives herself to her fiancé only to be abandoned by him. Knowing that no man will ever accept her, she starves herself beyond recovery and dies surrounded by priest, family, and friends. Finally, there is Jewish Sumaya (tragically fated to die of bone cancer), who flirts and shares intimate moments with him, introducing him to the world of manhood. 

Beautifully translated, the story brings to life the city of Mosul in the 1940s and contains a rich assortment of background characters, such as the tea seller, the butcher, the kebab maker, the cobbler, and the seamstress. The enchanting stories of Sheikh Ahmad Al-Shahdi enrich the boy's childhood and decorate the novel. Small details of the child’s life are depicted with tremendous sensitivity. For example, the description of the way he put his first pair of shoes, with their "strange and repulsive smell," close to his pillow at night so he could see them first thing in the morning is simply magical. The superb translation so naturally renders this important novel that it is easy to forget that we are not reading it in its original Arabic. "The World Through the Eyes of Angels" is a must read in any college class on contemporary Arabic literature in translation. 

This review appears in Al Jadid, Vol. 17, no. 64.

© Copyright 2012  AL JADID MAGAZINE

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