What 'Isa ibn Hisham Told Us, or, A Period of Time.

AuthorBeard, Michael
PositionBook review

Muhammad al-Muwaylihi. What 'Isa ibn Hisham Told Us, or, A Period of Time. Ed. and trans. ROGER ALLEN. 2 vols. Library of Arabic Literature. New York: NEW YORK UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2015. Pp. xxxvi + 484 (1), viii + 404 (2). $40 each.

Muhammad al-Muwaylihi (1868-1930) exemplifies a moment in Arab literary history that is only beginning to receive the attention it deserves. He was an observer of the period marked by rapid change that we call the nahda (the "reawakening" or "renaissance"; late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries). Our university curricula emphasize what went before and what comes after. (What comes after--contemporary poetry, the novels that are taught so frequently--have become so familiar and recognizable that they have overflowed into neighboring disciplines.) The nahda is an intermediary period, the middle child of Arab studies, which may feel experimental, tentative, harder to place in a social context--a period assigned to the experts.

Al-Muwaylihi's What 'Isa ibn Hisham Told Us (alternate title, A Period of Time--used here as a subtitle) was at first certainly not for specialists. It was serialized in a Cairo newspaper (Misbah al-sharq, Lamp of the East), edited by al-Muwaylihi in collaboration with his father Ibrahim. The stories ran from 8 September 1898 to 28 September 1899, collected later, and published more than once rewritten in book form. In the 1920s, as Roger Allen's introduction adds, it was used as a school text (p. xxv). Though I would be curious to see what changes were necessary to produce out of these narratives a volume appropriate for school, Allen's decision to make the earliest version available, as it appeared in Misbah al-sharq, is astute. (Allen translated the third edition in 1968 for his doctoral research at Oxford, published in 1992 as A Period of Time [Ithaca Press, St. Antony's Middle East Monographs Series].) The version we read here has a compelling charm--humane, earnest, observant, and erudite--which makes at least one contemporary reader wish it were better known to a wider readership, though we know realistically that it is likely to remain in the hands of scholars.

Translating it is a daunting project. Faced with al-Muwaylihi's aspiration to classical style, Allen finds the proper level of formality in English, and when the text includes quotations of classical poetry that require a still higher level of formality, the result is convincing. Sometimes it is simply too daunting: when al-Muwaylihi uses the classical style called saj', the traditional Arabic rhymed prose, Allen decides to pass on devising rhymes in English--a right choice: an English saj' is possible, but not worth the trouble. The endnotes and glossary respect the reader's intelligence, never over-defining, never telling us what we do not want to know. Running heads show the date of each installment. (There is an exception, a chapter dated 34 August 1900, a typo that spreads beyond the table of contents to the running head, a casualty of technology.)

Simply as a physical object, it is an appealing book: it lies flat; the margins are sufficient and wide enough for notes. (I certainly used them.) As always...

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