Earlier this week, the Library of Arabic Literature published the two-volume In Darfur: An Account of the Sultanate and Its People, edited and translated by Humphrey Davies, with a foreword by R.S. O’Fahey. Although the author is Muhammad al-Tunisi, who wrote the text is somewhat more complicated:
The text is fascinating for any number of reasons, not least of which is was taken on by Davies, which immediately puts it in the company of Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq’s Leg over Leg and Yusuf al-Shirbini’s Brains Confounded. Indeed, although In Darfur was published after al-Shirbini’s time, it did catch al-Shidyaq’s eye. His Leg over Leg ends with a denunciation of French Arabists, which takes him to In Darfur, which was assembled by al-Tunisi’s Arabic student and boss, Nicolas Perron.
Al-Shidyaq complains that Perron “freighted the whole book with misspellings and mistakes,” and goes on to note twenty-seven of them.
Perron’s relationship to In Darfur — which appeared in French translation before it appeared in Arabic — has fore-echoes of the Bowles-Choukri production of For Bread Alone. Indeed, in Davies’ estimation, some of the errors and colloquialisms come because al-Tunisi is speaking the book aloud from notes, which his Arabic student (Perron) is taking down. But, unlike For Bread Alone translator Paul Bowles, Perron takes charge not only of the French translation, but also the Arabic “original.” As Davies writes in his “Note on the Text”:
Indeed, Davies further suggests that Perron — who we should remember was al-Tunisi’s superior at work — printed up the Arabic edition and presented it to al-Tunisi as a fait accompli, with no opportunity to redact spelling or grammatical infelicities. However, Davies convincingly brushes aside claims that a beginning Arabic student (who had never been to Darfur) such as Perron could be considered the “real” author of the text.
There are also interesting differences between the French and the Arabic text. Davies’ note:
On occasion, Perron goes so far as to alter al-Tunisi’s text in the interests of political, perhaps specifically Saint Simonian, correctness. Thus, al-Tunisi’s statement “Rarely, though, is a chaste woman to be found among the Blacks. . .” (3.2.46) has no equivalent in Perron’s translation except in a backhanded form: in its place, we find a passage extolling the purity of Arab women (El-Tounsy, Voyage au Darfour, 262-63).
From the book.
As with the Bowles-Choukri book, the idea of the text is attributed to the foreigner, Perron. Al-Tunisi writes (in the Perron lithograph), “He studied Kalilah and Dimnah with me in Arabic, and I told him some of the splendid and amazing things I’d endured on my travels. He then urged me to ‘adorn the face of my copybook’ with an exposition of the marvels I’d seen and to tell him of the strange things that had befallen me on these journeys.’”
The book itself is plainly composed, perhaps because al-Tunisi was making things straightforward for his student. From the preamble of In Darfur: “Likewise, I’ve spared no effort to make it clear, and not gone diving after arcane words, to make it be plain to every ear.”
That is not even to mention the book’s interest as a traveler’s account of nineteenth-century Darfur — and an account of one man’s youth — which it certainly also is.
Over at the Library of Arabic Literature site, they’ve posted an excerpt taken from the middle of the first chapter, “The Reasons That Led to My Journey to the Land of the Blacks.” It opens:
Continue reading at the LAL website.
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