Five Suras


I translated five short suras for Yousef Rakha’s The Sultan’s Seal

The Fig

And by the fig and the olive tree

and by Mount Sinai

and this safe city

where we created people finely assessed

then echoed that they’re lower than the lowest

except the faithful and prayerful – for them an end with no obligation

so why your doubt after devotion?

isn’t God more just than the justices?


The full article


Eggplant Baskets and Qutrubbli Wine

Ain al khail.jpg

Here’s the second half of Hamadhani’s “The Saimara Session.” The first half went out last winter. If you didn’t catch it, it’s there in the archive under “Ropers and Bashers and Sugar Cane Candies.”


Our narrator known as Ibn al-‘Anbas showed up in Baghdad a rich man. He hung out with the local prominent citizens, invited them to his house and lavished them with food and wine and singing girls until he’d spent all his money. Then they left him and couldn’t care less about him. And he was stuck in his huge house lonely and full of regret, wandering room to room, until he was overcome by insomnia and set out wandering. He roamed all over the world gathering stories and strategies of cunning and trickery until no one could match him. And that’s where our story picks up:

The full letter:

Ropers and Bashers and Sugar Cane Candies


Hi everyone,

I’ve been working on my Arabic again. God knows how long this will go on. I’ve been translating a chapter from a 10th-century story cycle called the Maqamat. The word means “assemblies” or “stations” or “the place where you stand to tell a story.” When Abdellatif Kilito writes about them in French, he calls them “séances.” I’ve called them “sessions,” as in the Savoy Sessions or the Basement Tapes. The one I’m working on one is by an Arabophone Persian named Badi al-Zaman Hamadhani. His maqamat were much imitated, to the point that the imitations became a genre unto themselves.

In each chapter the narrator tells a story of trickery, cunning, deceit, always about the same trickster. The narrator and the trickster meet over and over again, in one town and then another and another. Each situation is different but we always know what’s going to happen, so the point is not drama, it’s just a showcase for wit and style and absurd vocabulary. They’re written in an incantatory form of rhyming prose called saj’, which, I understand originated with fortune-tellers and seers. The rhymes, when they appear, are irregular, sometimes stressing the end of long lines, sometimes tumbling after each other rapidly. And there’s a rhythmic quality based not on regular meter but on the repetition of word forms and phrase structures that seem endemic to Arabic. I’ve been experimenting to see if there’s a way to suggest this in English that isn’t unbearable.

I’m about halfway through this first attempt. I’m sending it out to you all so you can make fun of it, correct it, ignore it, or drive someone crazy reading it out loud.

Badi al-Zaman Hamadhani

‘Isa ibn Hisham said he heard this story from ibn Ishaq, aka Abu al-Anbas al-Saimara, and it goes like this:

Here’s what my brothers left me, who I picked out and groomed and tried to keep out of trouble. I told them stories, taught them lessons, if they’d only listen and learn and act like they heard me.

I came from Saimara to the City of Peace, with bags of dinars, goods and gear. I had nothing to fear, so I went around with business barons and real estate titans, high earners and heirs to fortunes. That’s who I chose to hang out with, to rescue from monotony, not stopping at dawn and not at night with a nightcap.

We ate roast suckling goats and baked Persian soufflés, charred platters of lamb and the best kebabs in town. We had honey-wine so renowned and singing-girls so famous, their names echoed off the distant battlements. I ordered peeled almonds and sugar cane candies, armloads of roses and sweet aloeswood incense. And I was smarter than Abdullah bin Abbas, wittier than Abu Nuwas, bigger hearted than Hatim and braver than Basim, more connected than Masrur, shrewder than Shaban, and more poetic than Jarir. I was fresh like the Euphrates and worth more than a body sublime.

The full letter:

Sait Faik Abasıyanık’s “The Shrimpmonger’s House”



Sait Faik Abasıyanık is known as a master of the short story, sometimes called the Turkish Chekhov.

This is a chapter from a 1951 novella called A Cloud in the Sky. The title refers to a Turkish expression meaning, essentially, forget about it.It portrays the city as seen by a man from the Marmara island of Burgaz (Sait Faik’s home) as he wanders through Istanbul, unable to take his mind off a young Greek girl he visits in the slums. He sits in taverns, stands on streetcorners, his mind circling back to the girl. Other chapters describe a pimp, a fortuneteller, sex workers drawing water from a neighborhood well, a cake shop where gamblers gather. “The Shrimpmonger’s House” describes the bedroom he rents from a poor Greek family to spend time with the girl.

Clauses pile up rhythmically, episodes repeat, characters drift in and out; there are subtle ambiguities in nearly every sentence. The troubled sexuality is always clouded by Sait Faik’s own passions (gay, bisexual – something that can’t be expressed openly). This ambiguity folds in on itself as the same scene plays out from different angles, slowly building an intimate picture of the city at its time.

The translation is here:

The Shrimpmonger’s House