Nejm in Translation

As`ad Abu-Khalil, the curmudgeonly political science professor behind the Angry Arab blog, is currently in the Middle East, and he reports a sighting of poet Ahmad Fouad Negm (or Nejm), on Al-Arabiyya last week. Says Abu-Khalil:

We need somebody to write a PhD dissertation on Shaykh Imam and Ahmad Fu’ad Najm. What a phenomenon. My favorite Najm poem was the one he wrote when Richard Nixon visited Cairo to escape the press scrutiny during Watergate. It goes: “You have honored us, o Nixon, with the visit, o the one of Watergate; the Sultans of ful and [olive] oil have made you a quite a fanfare [try to translate “‘imah w-sima” into English].”

The difficulty of translating these lines reminded me of a scene from Ahdaf Soueif’s first novel, In The Eye of the Sun, in which Asya, who is studying for a doctorate in linguistics in northern England, attempts to explain to some of her guests exactly what these lines, written by Nejm and sung by Shaykh Imam, mean:

Hisham presses the pause button.
‘Let’s hear the song through, and then I’ll rewind it and pause after every couplet. I’d really like to hear Asya’s translation.’

‘Sharraft ya Nixon Baba,
Ya bta` el-Watergate -‘

Hisham presses pause.
‘Well,’ says Asya, ‘as I said, he says, “You’ve honored us, Nixon Baba – “Baba” means “father” but it’s also used, as it is used here, as a title of mock respect – as in “Ali Baba”, for example – that’s probably derived from Muslim Indian use of Arabic – but the thing is you could also address a child as “Baba” as an endearment – a sort of inversion: like calling him Big Chief because he’s so little – and so when it’s used aggressively – say in an argument between two men – it carries a diminutivising, belittling signification. So here it holds all these meanings. Anyway, “you’ve honoured us, Nixon Baba,” – “You’ve honoured us” is, by the way, the traditional greeting with which you meet someone coming into your home – it’s almost like “come on in” in this country. So it functions merely as a greeting and he uses it in that way but of course he activates – ironically – the meaning of having actually “honoured” us. “You’ve honoured us, Nixon Baba / O you of Watergate” I suppose would be the closest translation – but the structure of “bita` el-whatever” (el – is just the definite article coming before any noun) posits a close but not necessarily defined relationship between the first noun (the person being described) and the second noun. So “bita` el-vegetables”, for example, would be someone who sold vegetables, while “bita` el-women” would be someone who pursued women. So Nixon is “bita` el-Watergate”, which suggests him selling the idea of Watergate to someone – selling his version of Watergate to the public – and pursuing a Watergate type of policy, but all in a very non-pompous, street vernacular, jokingly abusive kind of way. The use of “el-” to further specify Watergate – a noun which needs no further defining – is necessary for the rhythm and to add comic effect. I’m sure you won’t want me to go on like this, so let’s stop -‘
‘Nonsense!’ says Gerald.
‘It’s fascinating,’ says Lisa.
‘Asya,’ says Hisham, ‘I swear I’m enjoying this. Come on, I’ll play the next couplet.’

‘Amaloulak eema w seema
Salateen el-fool wez-zeit.’

‘OK, well,’ Asya takes a deep breath. ‘ “Eema” is “worth” or “value”. So he says, “They made an eema for you”: to make an “eema” for someone is to behave towards them as though they have value when they in fact have none. So, “They’ve put on a show that gives you value” – “seema” is always used as an idiom with “eema” because of the rhyme. It means appearance. So: “the appearance of a thing of value” – the awful thing, though, is that this is taking all these sentences to translate, and it makes it seem ponderous and convoluted while in fact it’s totally direct; it’s language that a completely illiterate, uneducated woman would use to her child -‘
Who made him appear of value, his press office?’ asks Lisa.
‘This was on the occasion of Nixon’s visit to the Arab world – so he’s talking about Arabs – the Arab leaders,’ says Deena.
‘It comes in the next line,’ says Hisham. ‘Asya?’
‘Yes. The Sultans of “fool” and “zeit”. “Fool” – this is one thing that everybody knows about Egypt – that “fool” is the basic diet of the Egyptians. Particularly those from the more traditional or poorer sectors of society – I suppose they tend to be the same. It’s brown beans stewed for a long time over a very low fire. It’s the cheapest food you can get, and to be the “sultan” of “fool” argues massive poverty and backwardness. This “fool” can be dressed in various ways. The simplest and cheapest is with oil – “zeit” – and lemon. So “fool” and “zeit” come together – but “zeit” also, like “oil” in English, means petrol oil. So if you take that then there are two categories of “Sultan” being referred to: the sultans of “fool” and poverty etc. and the sultans of wealth and oil. There is obviously a great disparity between the two categories – but there is also a similarity – underscored by the reading of “fool and zeit” as a unit having only one sultan – a similarity in their attitude to Nixon and the USA.’

There is more to this scene, but I just wanted to give a taste of how Asya’s character in In the Eye of the Sun interprets.