September 2013

Rebecca Ariel Porte


An Interview with Emily Selove

One of my most vivid childhood memories is of a sort of spiky orange fungus that grows on coniferous trees in southwest Missouri. The trees that bore this fungus grew on the property of a girl in my fourth grade class, Emily, at whose house I often spent time. For some reason, we had decided that the orange fungus would make a splendid dye -- possibly for hair and clothes -- or else a thick, bright paint. Our experiment involved plucking the fungi from the trees, tossing them into a green plastic bucket, mashing them into a paste with the butt of a handy trowel, and dipping an assortment of items into the resultant goo (paper, swatches of wallpaper, a brother's T-shirt). At last, we had to declare the trial a failure. The haunting orange of the fungus -- somewhere between the color of marigolds and the shade of a cheetah on a Lisa Frank Trapper Keeper -- evanesced, when crushed, to the hue of a rust-mottled strip of tin.

We didn't see this as a tragedy. I don't even think we were particularly disappointed. The inquiry itself was the point of the thing, to satisfy a question about the properties of an object and also to invent processes of such industry and arcane detail that their very execution was an end in itself. We were scholars first, scholars of fungus only incidentally. We were scientists. We were playing, but we were playing very, very seriously.

Emily was, at once, the most serious of my elementary school friends and also the most whimsical. She possessed the faculty of utter unflappability. You could say or suggest anything to her, no matter how odd it might seem -- that your brother was a robot, that the little ochre frogs looked like they were made of peanut butter, that it was time to build an amphibious car, that numbers just went on forever without stopping. Nothing fazed her. In fact, she would probably offer up in return something richer, stranger, rarer than anything you might have imagined on your own. Epic comics that went on for days. Names like "Ruth Dinosaur" and "Magenta Featherbottom." She was the only one of my friends at that time of whom I was perpetually a little in awe.

We lost touch when Emily moved away for school -- just after sixth grade, I think -- though our families still spoke from time to time. It was only when I came across a notice about a book called The Art of Party-Crashing in Medieval Iraq, written by al-Khatib al-Baghdadi and translated and illustrated by Emily Selove, that I thought back to those intense, early days of our childhood friendship. It didn't surprise me that the girl I knew had grown up to translate such a work. The Art of Party-Crashing is, itself, a record of serious play: a document that details the complex etiquette of being an uninvited guest, or tufayli, at social gatherings like wedding and follows, too, the exploits of Bunan, the most famous and successful of medieval Iraqi party-crashers.

I was curious about the difficulties involved in translating such an intricate work -- and also about how Emily, now a postdoctoral fellow in Arabic literature at the University of Manchester, had come to The Art of Party-Crashing -- so I looked her up. She graciously agreed to answer some questions by email and, over the past months, we've carried on an idiosyncratic conversation about al-Baghdadi, drawing, translation, sad girls thinking about hamburgers, and chewable honey. She even allowed that I might ask her about the weather, so of course I did.

How is the weather in Manchester?

The weather in Manchester is famously wet. In fact, the cotton industry thrived here because the moist atmosphere was good for the cotton fibers. So I was all ready with a new umbrella when I moved to Manchester, but I've actually only needed it once or twice, because it tends to just drizzle pleasantly when it rains. It's very rarely too wet to walk in, and I do like rain. I am also generally amazed by how mild England's winter weather is. 

Generically, The Art of Party-Crashing reads to this pair of twenty-first-century eyes rather like a mélange of religious commentary, etiquette manual, and sketch comedy. To what degree is this text ordinary among eleventh-century Arabic literature? To what degree is it extraordinary?

The Art of Party-Crashing is a very typical example of medieval Arabic adab literature (adab being a word difficult to translate because it means both "belles lettres" and something like "good manners.") Books of this genre were often composed on a particular subject and, like you described, contained anecdotes that were entertaining and edifying, pious and drunkenly debauched. Wine, incidentally, is a very common subject as well. You'd really be hard-pressed to find an Arabic book from that era that didn't mention it, in anywhere from love poems to medical recipes.

"Party-crasher" is such a gorgeous, evocative term -- descriptive too! Would you say a little bit about why you chose it to translate the Arabic tufayli -- and also about why the custom of party-crashing merited such extensive treatment in the medieval Iraqi milieu?

Tufayli is also the Arabic word for parasite, as in tiny little unwelcome bugs and worms that live on the skin and in the stomach. In the human context, I guess it means something like "social parasite," and is sometimes also translated as "sponger." But in practice, it usually means someone going to a food-centered party uninvited, and it almost always means someone obsessed with fine food. At the end of the day, I wanted my translation, like the original book, to be funny, and "party-crasher" is a funny word. Whenever I mention the phrase "medieval Arabic party-crashing" (as I very often do), people laugh and want to know more. So I guess it's a bit of marketing, in a way.

I think the reason party-crashing (or social parasitism) was such a popular genre at the time was the importance of hospitality in Arabic culture, and Mediterranean cultures more generally. (You find party-crashers in lots of ancient Greek and Roman books too, for example). The miser was another popular character, and, while the party-crashers often come off looking rather good, the misers are always laughable bad guys. It's far worse to be stingy with your food than to be a sponger.

That etymological gloss on tufayli is fascinating -- it says so much both about how like and yet how unlike are our contemporary social structures, how our codes of etiquette and taboos evolve or do not. Which brings me to another question: Anne Carson has written quite eloquently of the pleasures and problems of the untranslatable. What elements of The Art of Party-Crashing presented themselves to you as most or least translatable? How do you approach these moments as a translator? Maybe what I'm really asking is how much, in your own practice, you favor modernizing and recontextualizing and how much you're after some kind of preservation of the archaic or estranging nature of the ur-text.

That is a question I feel like I ask myself just about every sentence that I translate. I think that what draws me to these texts is their extreme relatability, and the fact that a modern audience can still find these 1000-year-old jokes funny. My first priority is to make sure that that relatability comes across. But I do like the rhythm and strangeness of the medieval language, and I don't want to make my translation seem like it's a modern book written in English (if that were even possible). So it's a constant compromise between the two. I think that I also wanted the book to be educational to students of Arabic literature, so when it mentions names or places that are unfamiliar, I'd rather leave them unfamiliar and let that be a learning opportunity for the reader.

Some things are pretty untranslatable, like one joke pertaining to a particular medieval Islamic property law. That's one of the few that I left untranslated. Poetry is, of course, famously untranslatable, but I do my best.

I really love what you've done with the poetry, actually, opting to translate it in a sort of catchy doggerel rhyme. Here's one of my favorite moments:

You've gone beyond in party-crashing,
further than we've seen done:
you eat what you oughtn't and then take home
your sugar mama some!

Yes, the jokes are really brilliant -- some because of, as you say, their immediate translatability, some because their age gives them a very fine patina of absurdist humor. What's your favorite joke in The Art Of Party-Crashing

I think that my favorite "joke" is actually one that doesn't translate very well, number 179, in which Bunan joins a kind of party-crashing cult in Basra, and after he gets caught trying to cheat them, flees in fear of the party-crashers who "know the unknown." One of the most interesting things about the trickster figure in medieval Arabic literature (and a lot of other literary traditions) is the way their characters blend into mystical holy men characters to the point that the two aren't always distinguishable. Sometimes it's just a funny way to make fun of people who behave in a pious fashion in order to trick people out of their money, but it's often something more than that. The reason that the party-crasher can appear as a kind of holy man is the subject of a large part of my dissertation, so I can't explain it all here, but I think we're all familiar with stories in which a god comes unexpectedly to a meal dressed as a beggar.

Yes, very familiar! The problem is always recognizing divinity when you see it -- an extremely important point of etiquette -- even when it comes in the form of an inveterate party-crasher like Bunan. Speaking of the shocks of recognition, I have to ask you about the wonderfully expressive illustrations -- your own, I do believe (!) -- that accompany the translations. This sequence of images bears an astonishing resemblance -- I hope you won't take this the wrong way -- to the elaborate illustrated narratives I remember you composing in grade school. (I remember one in particular about a quasi-monstrous creature called Eggbert who wore an oversized party hat with red polka dots.) The quality of your line is so distinctive to me. Seeing it again summoned up the uncanny sensation you get when you pass a half-open window from which some obscure song of your youth is issuing and you realize, suddenly, you know all the words by heart. Strange! Could you talk a little bit about why you decided to illustrate this volume and your relationship with drawing?

It's funny you should mention that Eggbert story! I was thinking about it, literally yesterday, because I was watching a bit of Cheech and Chong's Up in Smoke (modern-day party-crashers?). At one point Cheech puts his hat over his eyes and pretends he had gone blind. And I'm pretty sure that was the premise of that birthday hat story. It makes me really happy that you remember and recognize my drawing style -- I do think that the illustrations in this book very much grew out of the Eggbert tradition.

I think that since this book doesn't have a lot of the signposts modern readers would expect, I was afraid they wouldn't know how to take it, and with the illustrations, I was trying to communicate a few images that the book evoked for me that I found funny or interesting. But the pictures aren't much different from the animals and people you'd find scrawled all over the margins of every lecture notebook I've ever had. I think I must draw as a kind of therapy; I realized that recently: I was looking forward to buying a sandwich while out drinking at a pub, until I found out that the kitchen was already closed, so I spent most of the rest of my night out drawing a picture on a napkin of a sad girl thinking about a hamburger.

It's funny you should mention food. (Your hamburger story is quite tragic!) I was thinking quite a lot about food and the laws that dictate its disbursement as I read The Art of Party-Crashing, since the etiquette of infiltrating banquets is its basic concern. I encountered a number of intriguing foodstuffs on my way through the text, including a rather delightful-sounding substance called "chewable honey." What is chewable honey? How do you go about translating archaic comestibles? Are there any that you've tried to reconstruct?

That was one of the anecdotes I translated as an undergrad at Cornell, and I haven't thought about chewable honey much since. Basically the party-crasher brings cups of some gum-like chewable substance ('alakiyya) and comes back claiming that they wanted "nasiha," which means pure, and refers especially to honey. So go figure. There are recipe books from that time, and some of them have even been translated, like in Charles Perry's Medieval Arab Cookery, which has workable recipes.

Thanks, that's all very helpful -- if only because the phrase "chewable honey" had somehow infiltrated my dreams. Like a hypnogogic McGuffin. What are you working on now? And could the nine-year-old version of you (which, truth to tell, is the one I remember best) have predicted what you'd be working on now?

My job at the moment mainly involves transcribing manuscripts containing Arabic commentaries on the Hippocratic Aphorisms, which is to say, medieval medical stuff. I am interested in medieval medicine as it pertains to quackery and the obscene, and I hope to write something about that in the future, but in the meantime, I'm co-translating another Arabic party-crashing book with Geert Jan van Gelder of Oxford University. As for my nine-year-old self, I think if I had a little time to explain what was meant by "Arabic commentaries on the Hippocratic Aphorisms," she wouldn't be too terribly surprised by this turn of events. I think when I was really little I wanted to be a vet (because I loved animals), but I soon decided to be a poet instead, and that decision has everything to do with where I am now, because I translate a lot of poetry, and the Arabic language is home to one of the greatest and most beloved poetic traditions in human history, which is what initially drew me in. I still love animals, but satisfy that love mainly by gushing over strangers' dogs at the moment.