This article was last updated on April 16, 2022
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Spanish-Arabic translator Shadi Rohana takes us between seventeenth-century Spain and twentieth- and twenty-first century Palestine, between Miguel Cervantes’ Ricote and Emile Habibi’s Said, in his re-reading of Don Quixote in Arabic:
By Shadi Rohana
In December of last year, an Arabic-Spanish-English reading was held in Haifa, Palestina, to commemorate 400 years since the death of William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes. The reading was part of a year of activities held all around the world in commemoration of the two writers, which included a collective Shakespeare translation workshop held in Mexico, Colombia, Poland and Germany; publication of new editions of Cervantes’ works in Spanish-speaking countries; and the choosing of Cervantes’ Don Quixote as the major theme for Sao Paulo’s yearly carnival parade by the Brazilian samba school Imperador do Ipiranga.
When I expressed to a friend — a poet and a writer — that I found it strange how no activities were held in Palestine, his reaction was: “Strange? What does Palestine have to do with Shakespeare and Cervantes?”
In response to his comment, I decided to organise a reading in Haifa together with my friend Asmaa Azaize. The reading was held at Fattush Restaurant and Bookshop in Haifa’s German Colony on December 13, 2016.
In English, fragments from The Merchant of Venice were jointly read by the actors Amer Hlehel and Makram Khoury. Hamlet’s soliloquy was later read in Arabic by Hlehel, who, for this occasion, chose to read from the translation by Palestinian writer Jabra Ibrahim Jabra (Bethlehem 1919-Baghdad 1994), who translated Shakespeare’s Hamlet and sonnets into Arabic. Actress Lana Zreik gave a talk on the Other in Shakespeare’s plays.
The following text is an English translation of the talk I gave at the event, about the presence of Al-Andalus in Cervantes’ Don Quixote. For the talk, I translated two fragments from Spanish into Arabic (here presented in English), which were read by the writer Majd Kayyal and Khashabi Theatre’s Khulood Tannous, pictured below.
The fragments in English that appear here are taken from John Ormsby’s The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha (1885), available online through Project Gutenberg.
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Khulood Tannous from Khashabi theatre reading Ricote’s words in Arabic translation.
We are in the year 1605, when the first part of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra’s El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha came out. The novel came to Arabic only in the 20th century, translated in different shapes and forms.
In Arabic, we know our hero sometimes by the name of دون كيشوت [don kišot], because the Mashreq’s Nahda scholars and poets first read Cervantes in French. We also know him as دون كيخوته [don kiḥote], which is how the name was translated by Abd al-Rahman Badawi (Egypt) and Rifaat Atfeh (Syria). Closer to Spain, in the city of Tetouan on the other side of the Strait of Gibraltar, our hero’s name was translated by Al-Tuhami Al-Wazani as ضون كيخوت [ḍon kiḥot, using the emphatic ḍad] on the pages of the newspaper Rif in 1951. And finally, in Cairo in 2002, the Egyptian Sulaiman Al-Attar translated the novel as الشريف العبقري دون كيخوتي دي لا مانشا، الشهير بين العرب باسم دون كشيوت (The Genius Noble Don Kiḥoti de la Mancha, Known Among the Arabs by the Name of Don Kišot).
If it were up to me, I might have given our hero an Arab name and origins in a Palestinian village few people had ever heard of. Maybe something like The Adventures of Don Abu Mukh from Baqa, or The Valorous and Witty Knight-Errant Don Rohana from Issifia. Let’s remember how the novel begins:
“En un lugar de la Mancha, de cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme…”
That is, “In a village of La Mancha, the name of which I have no desire to call to mind…”
For in 1605, the year the first part of el Quijote was published, to be from La Mancha meant that you were not from England, Gaula, or Greece, like the other famous knight-errants that had books written about them and that people, like Don Quixote, passionately and obsessively read. In 1605, to be from a village of la Mancha meant to be a nobody from some insignificant village, from nowhere, like most of the novel’s readers back then, including the illiterate who listened to it read out loud. For let us not forget that the collective practise in which books were read out loud coexisted with the modern one where individuals read in silence (and that’s why Don Quixote’s illiterate squire, Sancho Panza, could sometimes engage in philosophical and literary discussions with his lord).
Tilting at windmills notwithstanding, the image of Don Quixote has been romanticised along the years to be that of an hero, or antihero, fighting the lost battle in defence of the poor, oppressed, orphans, and widows. However, in 1605 Cervantes tells us a different story. In an article from 1933, Argentina’s Jorge Luis Borges writes:
“… We are ought to rescue Cervantes’ posthumous life from the strange purgatory in which it suffers. His novel, his one and only novel, Don Quixote […] has been denigrated to a school textbook, […] to obscene luxurious editions, to a kind of book that looks more like a piece of furniture than a book. One might say ‘that’s the price one must pay to earn glory.’ What’s worse is that the Royal Academy of Language —that is, the institution that plays the role of the Spanish Inquisition in our days— identify itself with Don Quixote. I will never understand how that happened. […] We only have a single means of defence: Reading Cervantes.”
In 1605, Don Quixote is a Spaniard of flesh and bones, albeit a singular one, and the son of an insignificant village of la Mancha, a region in central Spain. One day, drunk from reading chivalric romances, he decided to become a knight-errant and wander around Spain looking for trouble.
Now let’s go to the 8th chapter from Part I and read it, as Borges advises.
Long story short, Don Quixote is engaged in combat with a Biscayan and both have their swords uplifted and about to split one another in half. However, here the narrator of our story interrupts the battle and says:
“But it spoils all, that at this point and crisis the author of the history leaves this battle impending, giving as excuse that he could find nothing more written about these achievements of Don Quixote than what has been already set forth.”
In other words, the story is over for lack of archival materials. But our novel doesn’t end here, and we can still feel the heaviness of the book between our hands. All we have to do is turn the page to chapter 9:
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From chapter IX of part I (1605), translated by John Ormsby
One day, as I was in the Alcana of Toledo, a boy came up to sell some pamphlets and old papers to a silk mercer, and, as I am fond of reading even the very scraps of paper in the streets, led by this natural bent of mine I took up one of the pamphlets the boy had for sale, and saw that it was in characters which I recognised as Arabic, and as I was unable to read them though I could recognise them, I looked about to see if there were any Spanish-speaking Morisco at hand to read them for me; nor was there any great difficulty in finding such an interpreter, for even had I sought one for an older and better language I should have found him. In short, chance provided me with one, who when I told him what I wanted and put the book into his hands, opened it in the middle and after reading a little in it began to laugh. I asked him what he was laughing at, and he replied that it was at something the book had written in the margin by way of a note. I bade him tell it to me; and he still laughing said, “In the margin, as I told you, this is written: `This Dulcinea del Toboso so often mentioned in this history, had, they say, the best hand of any woman in all La Mancha for salting pigs.’”
When I heard Dulcinea del Toboso named, I was struck with surprise and amazement, for it occurred to me at once that these pamphlets contained the history of Don Quixote. With this idea I pressed him to read the beginning, and doing so, turning the Arabic offhand into Castilian, he told me it meant, “History of Don Quixote of La Mancha, written by Cide Hamete Benengeli, an Arab historian.” It required great caution to hide the joy I felt when the title of the book reached my ears, and snatching it from the silk mercer, I bought all the papers and pamphlets from the boy for half a real; and if he had had his wits about him and had known how eager I was for them, he might have safely calculated on making more than six reals by the bargain. I withdrew at once with the Morisco into the cloister of the cathedral, and begged him to turn all these pamphlets that related to Don Quixote into the Castilian tongue, without omitting or adding anything to them, offering him whatever payment he pleased. He was satisfied with two arrobas of raisins and two bushels of wheat, and promised to translate them faithfully and with all despatch; but to make the matter easier, and not to let such a precious find out of my hands, I took him to my house, where in little more than a month and a half he translated the whole just as it is set down here.
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In 1605, that is, 113 years after the fall of Ghurnaata/Granada in 1492, marking the end of Al-Andalus, there were still Arab Andalusians walking around Spain, and the narrator only had to look about to find one in order to translate for him the Arabic manuscript of Don Quixote.
As we know very well here in Haifa, expulsions and exterminations of human beings are never complete. There is always a minority of survivors, those who remain. In the case of Al-Andalus, the “Moors” and Jews who remained in the Iberian Peninsula after the consummation of the so-called “Reconquest of Spain” were forced to become Catholic and were baptised en masse. They were prohibited from speaking or writing in Arabic, and they were forced to adopt Spanish as their only language as well as other habits related to clothing, food, and more.
The “Moors” who remained in the Iberian Peninsula became known as “Moriscos,” and the Jews as “Conversos.” Overtly, they were Spanish Christian Catholics, but secretly — and sometimes not so secretly — they were bilinguals in Spanish and Arabic, and sometimes even combined Catholicism with forms of Islam and Judaism. At the end of the 16th century and beginning of the 17th, there were people in Spain who held names like Abd el Karim ben Alí Pérez, Bencacím Berajano, Francisco Núñez Muley and Juan Pérez Ibrahim Taibili.
However, the kings and queens of Spain, who were already practising policies of purity of blood and religion in the New World (in 1492, the fall of Granada coincided with the beginning of the discovery, conquest and invention of America), could not tolerate the presence of these impure Spaniards within their borders.
In 1609, four years before the publication of the second part of Don Quixote, King Phillip II of Spain decided to expel all moriscos from Spain. With the publication of the decree, the operation to deport the remaining moriscos beyond Spanish borders began, and they were transferred to France by land and to Morocco by sea.
The operation took five years, and in 1614 some believed that Spain was completely regained from the Arabs and purified of its Andalusian past. However, here again the operation wasn’t complete, and some moriscos infiltrated the Spanish Kingdom to return to their homes, harvest agricultural corps, and recover the treasures they left behind.
Cervantes was not indifferent to these historic and political events. Moreover, his personal story shows he was not indifferent to Spain’s Andalusian past and present confrontation with the Ottoman Empire: he was a soldier in the ranks the Holy League that defeated the Ottomans during the naval Battle of Lepanto in 1571, where his left arm was injured (“for the glory of the right,” as he would later write). Four years later, he was on a ship that was attacked by Ottoman pirates and was taken to Algiers, where he spent five years as a captive. Eventually, in his writings, he was to choose an Arab as the author and historian of the adventures of Don Quixote.
Now let’s go to chapter 54 of the second part of Don Quixote, published in 1615, after the expulsion of the moriscos from Spain. Don Quixote’s squire, Sancho Panza, is alone on the road without his lord, which doesn’t happen very often. He runs into an old neighbor of his and a friend, Ricote, one of the moriscos who was expelled from their common home village. Even though Ricote was dressed up as a German pilgrim so the Spanish royal and religious authorities would not recognize him as a morisco, both Sancho and Ricote recognise one other, hug one other, go to sit on the grass away from the road, and, with “all eyes fixed on heaven” (meaning looking up to sky as they were enjoying their “botas” of wine), started telling each other what had happened to their lives ever since they last met, that is, ever since the morisco Ricote was forced out of Spain:
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From Chapter 54 of Part II (1615), translated by John Ormsby
… and without once falling into his own Morisco tongue Ricote spoke as follows in pure Castilian:
“Thou knowest well, neighbour and friend Sancho Panza, how the proclamation or edict his Majesty commanded to be issued against those of my nation filled us all with terror and dismay; me at least it did, insomuch that I think before the time granted us for quitting Spain was out, the full force of the penalty had already fallen upon me and upon my children. I decided, then, and I think wisely (just like one who knows that at a certain date the house he lives in will be taken from him, and looks out beforehand for another to change into), I decided, I say, to leave the town myself, alone and without my family, and go to seek out some place to remove them to comfortably and not in the hurried way in which the others took their departure; for I saw very plainly, and so did all the older men among us, that the proclamations were not mere threats, as some said, but positive enactments which would be enforced at the appointed time; and what made me believe this was what I knew of the base and extravagant designs which our people harboured, designs of such a nature that I think it was a divine inspiration that moved his Majesty to carry out a resolution so spirited; not that we were all guilty, for some there were true and steadfast Christians; but they were so few that they could make no head against those who were not; and it was not prudent to cherish a viper in the bosom by having enemies in the house. In short it was with just cause that we were visited with the penalty of banishment, a mild and lenient one in the eyes of some, but to us the most terrible that could be inflicted upon us. Wherever we are we weep for Spain; for after all we were born there and it is our natural fatherland. Nowhere do we find the reception our unhappy condition needs; and in Barbary and all the parts of Africa where we counted upon being received, succoured, and welcomed, it is there they insult and ill-treat us most. We knew not our good fortune until we lost it; and such is the longing we almost all of us have to return to Spain, that most of those who like myself know the language, and there are many who do, come back to it and leave their wives and children forsaken yonder, so great is their love for it; and now I know by experience the meaning of the saying, sweet is the love of one’s country.
* * *
This Ricote remind me of another character we are all familiar with here in Haifa. I of course mean Saeed, the ill-fated Pessoptimist, or opsimist, from Emile Habibi’s novel. Saeed is someone you might like and identify with at times. But his collaboration with the State, his passivity and silence also makes you dislike him, while maybe still painfully identifying with him. But there is one thing that cannot be denied about Saeed and Ricote, which is their sweet love for the patch of earth allotted to them by birth.
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Antonio Alatorre: Los 1001 años de la lengua española (2012)
David Huerta: “La voz y la sabiduría de Cervantes” (2016)
Jorge Luis Borges: “Una sentencia del Quijote” in Textos recobrados II (1931-1955), pp. 60-63 (1933)
Louis Cardaillac: Moriscos y cristianos: un enfrentamiento polémico (1442-1560) (1979)
Margit Frenk: Entre la voz y el silencio (2005)
Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra: El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha (1605 and 1615)
Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra: The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha (translated by John Ormsby, 1885)
Shadi Rohana has introduced and translated a number of Latin American authors from Spanish into Arabic, including Rodolfo Walsh, Yolanda Oreamuno, David Huerta, Eduardo Galeano, and José Emilio Pacheco, as well as speeches and declarations from the EZLN in Chiapas. Las batallas en el desierto was his first novel-length work.
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