“Engaging with a text like this is not just another translation—there is a direct relevance out of a sense of feeling personally implicated, even if by proxy.”
Hilal Chouman’s novel, Sorrow in My Heart, is written entirely in standard Arabic, the form of classical Arabic prose that evolved in the late 19th and early 20th centuries mainly through the advent of journalism and translation. His writing style belongs to what we call in Arabic al-sahl al-mumtaniʿ—easy yet forbidding—and one of my favorite queer Palestinian writers, Raji Bathish, also writes in this fashion.
The (misleading) image of Beirut as a gay party destination for Westerners (and Gulfies) in the Middle East is omnipresent, as significant portions of the novel take place in nightclubs. “In the Underbelly of Beirut,” the excerpt published in NER 43.2, is split into fourteen mini chapters, and Hilal intelligently connects problematic implications with the legacy of one of the murkier periods of the Lebanese civil war. The narrator/protagonist Youssef, a gay man from Berlin, was one of the Lebanese children who were either kidnapped or sold by their parents to human traffickers, who then sold them for adoption in Germany in the mid 1980s. After growing up in Berlin, Youssef has finally tracked down his biological family and, encouraged by a Syrian-Kurdish lover, has travelled to Lebanon for the first time to see them. The narrative itself is an exercise in translation, as Youssef is thinking in German and translating himself into English to speak with his Lebanese interlocutors. When he gets high at a rave, he starts speaking to them in German, and all this is conveyed by Hilal in Arabic.
“In the Underbelly of Beirut” takes place in two prominent “gay” party spaces in Beirut; a gay bar/restaurant named Bardo (which sadly closed recently), and B-018, an underground club in the Karantina area just outside of Beirut that was actually the site of a massacre during the civil war. As a queer, nonbinary person and a student of Arabic literature who moved in these spaces in Beirut and maintains links with the queer community there, engaging with a text like this is not just another translation—there is a direct relevance out of a sense of feeling personally implicated, even if by proxy.
The sharply diglossic nature of Arabic is always an issue for translators as the way one talks sounds nothing like the way one writes. Hilal wrote the dialogue in roughly the same register as the narrative to reflect their “translated” nature, except for specific slang expressions used by the Lebanese characters, e.g., sharmout (“slut”), or nayyeek (“fuckboy”). Therefore, I chose to “slangify” the dialogue in the translation overall. Hilal is also not reticent to slip in English phrases that are used commonly in Lebanese Arabic, e.g., “graphic designer,” or when Jean yells out “fuck me!” to Farran the drag queen. Some purists of style might consider inserting these phrases instead of their Arabic equivalent to be rakaka, or poor style, but I believe they reflect the way people speak more realistically.
Translating the two sets of musical lyrics was the most interesting part of this translation. Both sets are sung by Farran during his performance. The first set of lyrics was in classical Arabic, and the other in Egyptian vernacular, both from songs by Umm Kulthum, arguably the greatest diva and most well-known voice of Arabic music in the 20th century. For the formal Arabic, I tried to render them in a slightly Shakespearian fashion as that is the effect they give in the original, i.e., they have that recherché, elevated tone. For the colloquial lyrics, I attempted to give a sense of rhyme that may sound slightly cheesy in English as they aren’t meant to sound “natural” to begin with.
Suneela Mubayi is a translator, independent scholar, and writer of Indian descent. She completed a PhD in Arabic literature from NYU with a thesis on vagabond poets between classical and modern Arabic poetry and has taught Arabic language and literature in the US and England. She is interested in the intersection between language, the body, and poetry, and gender and sexual liberation. She has translated close to a hundred essays, poems, and fiction pieces between Arabic, English, and Urdu for platforms such as Banipal, Words Without Borders, Asymptote, Jadaliyya, Mada Masr, and elsewhere.