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Drinking from the Original Fountain

Bringing The Illiad into Arabic
An engraving of the god Jupiter sending an evil dream to Agamenon in The Iliad. Jupiter is shown on a throne with his left hand raised.

Until the nineteenth century, The Iliad had only been translated into European languages. By 1914, however, the situation had changed. Suleiman Al-Bustani’s 1904 Arabic version was just one among many translations into non-European languages—Armenian, Bengali, Urdu, Turkish, Gujrati, and Marathi, among others. This sudden interest in an ancient Greek epic poem might be understood from an anti-colonial perspective. It reflects the belief, held by many intellectuals of the period, that the symbolic power of Homer could be used to resist European claims to authority in an era of imperial expansion. If Homer’s epic is born, as Bustani argues, of the four corners of the world, the principle so central to Western Europe’s “civilizing mission”—that the ideas of Ancient Greece are the cultural foundation of the Christian West—loses some legitimacy.

These translations were also far more than responses to Europe. For Bustani, The Iliad represented an inquiry into the Jahiliya of the Greeks: the period in Greek history that corresponds to the period in Arab history marked by the absence of divine guidance, prior to the revelation of the Quran. In his preface, Bustani suggests that Arab readers, immersed in the tradition of jahili, or pre-Islamic poetry, were better placed to grapple with the poem’s ethical, epistemological and political questions than their European counterparts. More than a gem or pearl stolen from the neck of the West, the epic becomes, in Bustani’s rendering, a resource for thinking through the problems of Arab modernity. The following excerpt, which represents only a small section of the massive, nearly two-hundred-page preface to the translation, finds Bustani reflecting on his process of translating The Iliad into Arabic during the waning years of the Ottoman Empire, no doubt aware of the developments that would later culminate in the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement.  

That Bustani turned toward an inquiry into the condition of Jahiliya can teach us about the possibilities of cultural politics. In Bustani’s vision, the Jahiliya is not Islam’s opposite—as Sayed Qutb, the ideologue of the Salafist movement, would have it—so much as its complement: a plain of extremes, both of suffering and of pleasure, upon which what cannot be accommodated by Islam is permitted to flourish. On the Trojan plain we can glimpse the desires of Paris and Helen, the rage of Achilles, the grief of the Trojan women. These scenes are essential to think about because they depict a world without god, without straight paths. They resist incorporation into cultural nationalist projects and doctrines of religious purity.

Safwan Khatib

Many of my literary friends have asked me: How did I bring The Iliad into Arabic? And what compelled me to do so? I wrote, therefore, the following chapter, and perhaps it is not entirely devoid of something useful for those enjoined to pursue a similar challenge.

The more I read ancient or modern verse, the more my appreciation for The Iliad grew.

At a young age I went out of my way to read narrative poetry, particularly the imaginings and religious fables of the ancients, since our language was for the most part devoid of that sort of poetry, and since the rigors of school lessons consumed my time, leaving no time to read what little resembles that poetry. Such lessons prevented me from drinking the waters from their original fountains, so I took to gleaning what happened to spill from the mouths of teachers or what appeared by way of evidence in school books. I incorporated these into my own poetic attempts—and all this when I had not yet completed the second decade of my life. Let the keen reader not ask for any examples of these poems. It is enough that I mock myself: I can’t help but laugh whenever something of these compositions comes to mind, for there was truly a swirling sea in which the gods of the Chaldeans mixed with those of Greece and Rome, the religious practices of Egypt were set down in the place proper to those of India and China, the masculine was mistaken for the feminine, and European names were confused with Greek names in the way that writers have recorded in many of their reports about nations from past eras. And this, unsurprisingly, is the case with every writer who dares to enter the domain of an art by a means other than its door.

When I disciplined myself and became more efficient with my free time, I realized that I didn’t know anything, despite my previous conviction in the breadth of my reading—so I stopped. In this way, I reached the point where I had to begin. Then I immersed myself in the classic poems. Because I had not read any of them properly except for Milton’s Paradise Lost, I read everything that I could get ahold of—every book in its original language if I could read it, or else in a translation into a language I know.

The more I read ancient or modern verse, the more my appreciation for The Iliad grew, because while it is the oldest in age, it is the most modern in splendor, the most elegant in narrative, the greatest in clarity, the widest in scope, and the most eloquent in all aspects. The elite poets wove their verse after its manner and didn’t come close to its stature. They drew water from its sea, and their own seas grew full, but they never exhausted their source.

So I said to myself: our Arabic language deserves a version of this rare gem. Indeed, our language is more deserving of it than those of the various urban societies that have acquired it; for there is nothing in the poetry of the Europeans or in European languages which offers it the means to flourish in as beautiful a dress as that which our language is equipped to provide; for Greek poetry is in a language close to the natural constitution of the world (fītra), much like our own language. And the subject of The Iliad is an inquiry into the Jahiliya of a people much like our own Jahiliya. The verse of our ancestral poets, in its wisdom and poetic description, is more in accord with that of The Iliad than the verse of any other poetic tradition. And so my spirit called upon me to bring the poem into Arabic, though I knew the gravity of the task, the difficulty of the path, and the length of the hardship. I said: that pleasure shall take up my free time, for if God revealed and clarified the purpose, I would ease the text’s reception for readers. If not, I would exercise my spirit, the poem being excellent for that purpose. I was determined, upon composing its first verse, to not abandon it until I should arrive at its end.

So I made a plan for myself, and said: I’ll compose some samples of it, however it occurs to me to do so, and then present it to the men of letters. Then I’ll take account of how it impresses itself on their spirits and clearly ascertain the points of error, for it would be good for me to clarify them before launching into the work. And so, seeking support in God, I devoted myself to a French translation I had in my possession and read it out alongside an English translation and another one from the Italian. Opening the French book to its first third, I found there Achilles and Agamemnon fighting with each other as enemies, with Achilles insulting Agamemnon with slander and insolence. I then composed the verses which begin:

O king heavied by bliss of wine-nights

I brought it into Arabic using conventional metrical form. It was the first thing from The Iliad that I set in verse. That was in the final days of the year 1887 in Cairo, Egypt. Then I opened the book to its second third and found myself before a violent battle scene at the beginning of book fifteen. I thus composed the poem which begins:

The Trojans crossed over the border of the trenches
in which the double-edged swords of the Greeks are slaughtering them

It was a long poem in which I felt confident about the ability of the language to encompass the meanings and rhymes.

I opened the book to the final third and found myself on the third page of the twenty-third nashīd[1], so I returned to its first page and composed from it nearly a hundred lines with the rajaz[2] meter and with an internal rhyme I deemed appropriate and imagined to be adequate to my aspiration: to bring the entire nashīd into Arabic in a continuous way.

I picked up all of what I could gather of the three poems in their draft stages and began to show them to poets or people of letters who happened to visit me or whom I visited myself, to those who were familiar with contemporary poetry and to those who had grown up on ancient poetry. They approved of them and by their kind words my energy increased, yet I sensed on the part of some of them apprehension and fear that I would grow weary and hopeless at the abundance of burdensome toil that would attend this difficult work and the great expenses that would be unavoidable if it were to be put into print—and this in the absence of readers of Arabic or students of this kind of book to encourage the risking of such expenses, along with the personal stress and the loss of time; but that was the least of my worries when I set out. I had no greed for any profit that might come from this work; rather, I would be content with the loss if it occurs, not because I consider myself above financial gain, but rather because of a passion in my soul that eases the difficulty of the way forward.

Then I said: it is time to get started, so I returned to the first nashīd and began translating it in order until I had finished it and composed half of the second nashīd. But while producing my composition, I was comparing the different translations with each other and soon found a discrepancy in regard to which I was at pains to clarify the superiority of one version over the other. So I stopped composing and said: I must return to the Greek original, since translation is only valid if it is from the original source.

The poem is born of the four corners of the world.

My knowledge of Greek was little; it barely went beyond elementary reading and certain fundamentals and vocabulary items that would not satisfy a great thirst. I began, therefore, to search for a teacher who might quench my thirst. I was led to a scholar among the Jesuit priests and was told that he was as strong in Greek as he was in French. I knew that Jesuit priests did not have the time to conduct private lessons outside of their schools, so it was necessary for me to get the consent of the teacher and then of the headmaster. And thanks to God I was successful in both endeavors. I thanked them for this favor, and my teacher began to teach me the fundamentals of the language and to explain to me some sections of The Iliad. I worked tirelessly on the lessons, dedicating myself completely to benefiting from them. After spending some months with him, I learned that it would be possible for me to complete the instruction alone, and to undertake the Arabization (ta’rīb) of The Iliad from its original source with the aid of books on the language and commentaries. So I bid him farewell, thanking him, but stayed in residence at the school for a while, devoting myself to deep reading. Then, I resumed the process of Arabization.

I had with me some of what I had brought into Arabic of the first and second nashīds, so I went back to scrutinize this bit and to compare it with the original. I found inconsistencies which obliged me to correct and revise. I did not refrain from changing a verse or two, and many times I recomposed some small sections in their entirety, but I did not have to do this kind of restructuring in the rest of the nashids, unless it was to replace a phrase or hemistich with another or to change the rhyme to another one, just like everyone who composes verse. Besides that, I devoted myself to understanding the verse as best as I could before writing it down. 

I had not stayed long in Egypt before I was struck by the urge to travel, which I had done regularly since childhood. I departed Cairo in 1888, in love with it and yearning for it at heart. I ended up spending two years traveling through India, around the edges of Persia, and to Iraq, during which time I was for the most part obliged to close The Iliad. I was not able to return to it except for a few weeks. Yet I didn’t meet with any literary person from those places to whom I did not show something of its verse, the literary people of Iraq being very fond of listening to poetry.

Then I left for Istanbul. I took up a nice residence where I lived for seven years during which I moved around a lot between the Eastern and Western hemispheres. One day in Syria, a year in Europe and America, and a return to Istanbul. The Iliad was my companion whenever I went off to steal a little time in secret; as soon as my hands were free of work, I would return to it, and for a long time. Again, weeks and months would pass during which it was covered by a veil. Then I would tear it away from its sleep and return to work. And that happened often on mountaintops, on the decks of ships and railcars. The poem is therefore, in this sense, born of the four corners of the world.

I had resolved in my mind that wherever I stopped I would seek benefit from locals, especially in Istanbul, where I had the good fortune of meeting some Greek men of letters who loved Homer, among them Stavridis, an interpreter for the English embassy, and Karolidis, one of the professors of the Halki Greek college. As some of them read Arabic, I would seek their advice about what was confusing or obscure to me. They were generous with their time, and I read parts of the Arabic verse to them. They were overcome by rapture, delighted at the Arabization of the greatest poem by their greatest poet. I continued in this way, stopping and starting, until the beginning of summer 1895, when I left with my family for a summer residence at Fenerbahçe in the outskirts of Istanbul, and remained there for four months, at the end of which I had completed the toil of bringing the poem into Arabic.



[1] Bustani uses this word, which literally means “song” or “chant,” to translate what are often referred to in English as the “books” of The Iliad. In the Islamic tradition, the word is often used to refer to oral poetic compositions that speak to religious and historical subject matter.

[2] Rajaz refers to one of the oldest of Arabic meters. It is a meter associated with intensely emotional or ecstatic states of mind, which is likely why Bustani chose to use it when translating book twenty-three.