It is the custom of my fellow writers sometimes to go back and leap over a period of time and connect an event that happened before it to an event that happened after it. This is called analepsis (tawriyah), that is, “taking backward” (waraʾ). They may also start by mentioning everything about the protagonist from his first whisperings into his beloved’s ear until his reappearance as a married man. In the course of this, the author will relate such long and tedious matters as how his face paled and his pulse raced when he met her, how he was reduced to a tizzy and felt ill while he waited for her answer, how he sent her an old woman or a missive, how he met with her at such and such a time and place, and how she changed color when he spoke to her of the bed, of drawing her close, of embracing, of leg over leg, of kissing, of kissing tongue to tongue, of intercourse, and the like … The leap backwards is acceptable, in my opinion, if the author finds himself faced with a block to composition; afterwards, he can return to what he was about. But leading the man to his bride’s bed and then shutting the book on the couple without peeping through the crack in the door to find out how they fared next I cannot accept; I have to know what happened to them after the wedding …
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Translated by Humphrey Davies
One of the most brilliant literary discoveries of recent years, for the English language at least, has been Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq’s nineteenth-century picaresque, Leg Over Leg, which NYU’s Library of Arabic Literature is just wrapping up in four bilingual volumes. Al-Shadyaq was at once a founder and a bad-boy of modern Arabic literature, impishly creating modern Arabic in his lexigraphic and journalistic work as he produced a subversive, bawdy, digressive, literary oeuvre that was almost immediately censored. Humphrey Davies’s bravura translation of Leg Over Leg renders its festival of wordplay and jokerdom with beguiling ease, enshrining al-Shadyaq with Sterne, Rabelais, and Cervantes among our founding clown-sages. We bring Leg Over Leg to Little Star in three parts.
Shidyaq was born to a Maronite family in Mount Lebanon in 1804. He become (like the hero of Leg Over Leg) a court copyist and from there a printer, journalist, translator, and reformer of the Arabic language, living at different times in Damascus, Cairo, England, France, and Istanbul, where he died in 1887. Although entailed throughout his life in bureaucracies, particularly religious ones, both Christian and Muslim, he became increasingly skeptical of orthodoxies and institutional authority, which are satirized mercilessly in Leg Over Leg.
Humphrey Davies is translator of of Arabic literature, including Yusuf al-Shirbini, Elias Khoury, Alaa Al Aswany, Bahaa Taher, Muhammad Mustagab, Gamal al-Ghitani, Hamdy el-Gazzar, Khaled Al-Berry, and Ahmed Alaidy. He lives in Cairo.