“I’m not sure what to call Land of No Rain. The publishers call it a novel, but I’d like to call it a meditation”, began Jonathan Wright, the book’s translator. “It’s a thriller, a love story, a succinct political history of the Arab world, it has surreal elements to it. It’s a story about memory, and reconciliation with your past”.
On November 13, the Notting Hill Gate Library hosted Jordanian author Amjad Nasser in conversation with Jonathan Wright about Nasser’s novel Land of No Rain, published earlier this year by the newly-reinvigorated Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing.
The evening began as Wright read an excerpt in English translation, followed by Nasser, who read the first few pages of the novel in Arabic. Nasser’s poetic reading was a treat for the audience, a mix of Arabic-speakers and non-Arabic speakers seated between the bookshelves in an intimate library setting, and highlighted the beautiful oral qualities of his writing in Arabic.
The discussion that followed was a conversation between two people who clearly knew each other, and Nasser’s writing, quite well. While Wright mentioned that Nasser had the Odyssey in mind when he wrote the book, Nasser responded that “I didn’t take a decision to write the book, it came out of a desire to expand the way I express myself literarily”. Wright noted that Nasser shares a number of similarities with the main character in the book–they each have two names, and two identities, and both share a history of exile–yet although Nasser had been banned from returning to Jordan for 14 years, he stressed that this tale of exile wasn’t his own: “It’s not my story; it’s the story of my generation. It’s the story of my friends”.
Appropriately for the location, Wright and Nasser reflected on how the setting of London appears in the book, a place referred to only as ‘The City of Red and Grey’. Wright pointed out that no native inhabitants appear in the city as it is described in the novel, and Nasser responded that this element perhaps reflects his experience in London at times. “London’s geography encourages immigrants to stay among themselves”, he said, explaining that some days he would go from working among Arabic speakers at al-Quds al-Arabi, the Arabic newspaper where he is an editor, to see friends, and go for days without conversing in English. While ‘The City of Red and Grey’ may reflect that experience, Nasser spoke about the importance of engagement, not estrangement, with the other. “This is the story of my whole life: fighting for a better relationship with the other”, he said, speaking to classic themes within Arabic literature. “Maybe for some, I am the Other. Maybe the self is the Other. But without the self there is no Other; and without the Other, there is no self”.
The discussion also turned to the process of translating Nasser’s novel. When asked whether Amjad’s poetic writing style was difficult to translate, Wright responded that what makes a text difficult is clarity, not register of language. “What delays the translation process is when a text doesn’t make sense”, he said. “Land of No Rain is remarkably clear, partly due to the tautness of the language. There are no extra words here, which is likely the influence of Nasser being an editor at a newspaper, and a poet”.
The evening was hosted by the Nour Festival and supported by Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing, and was a particularly noteworthy event, given that Nasser was unjustly denied entry to the United States to inaugurate the Gallatin Global Writers series at New York University earlier this year. The conversation between Nasser and Wright offered itself as a parallel of the book in some respects: moving fluidly from topics as disparate as classical Arabic calligraphy and architecture, to Nasser’s personal background, to current events, to analysis of literary trends in the region–and illuminating the diversity influences and topics to which literature can speak.
Elisabeth Jaquette is a writer, researcher and translator. Her translations from the Arabic have been published in The Book of Gaza (Comma Press, 2014), Banipal Magazine and Words Without Borders. She is currently translating The Queue, a novel by Egyptian author Basma Abdel Aziz, which received a 2014 PEN Translates Award and will be published by Melville House. Follow her on twitter at @lissiejaquette.