Size / / /

Here Is A Body coverHere Is a Body revolves around an authoritarian regime, and sit-in protests against it in “the Space.” Homeless boys—Rabie al-Mahdi, Youssef, Emad, and Saad, among many others—are abducted from a garbage dump by the titans, who work for the general and the System. The children are brought to a rehabilitation center, but in reality, it is an army training camp. They are deprived of their names, and instead, they are all called Bodies, whereas the titans are called Heads. Inside the camp, children attend mandatory lectures to reshape their consciousness of reality and brainwash them to be loyal to the general and support his regime. They are heavily trained to attack the opposition group that is protesting in “the Space.”

That group is the “Raised Banner Movement,” which, alongside many other people in “the Space,” is calling for the return of the abducted ruler. Ordinary citizens like Dr. Murad, his wife Aida, and their son Adam, join these sit-in protests; so, too, do Salafists like Shakir, who have abandoned their religiously-based deferral to legal rulers on the basis that the authorities have become undeniably corrupt and have therefore remained loyal to the abducted leader. Eventually, after receiving army training, the formerly homeless children aggressively attack all the people in “the Space” and wipe out the sit-in protest. Dr. Murad gets shot in the head. His wife and his son survive. Ibrahim is arrested and put on trial. On the other hand, Youssef, Rabie’s close friend, is shot by the titans because he refuses to kill protestors. In depicting these brutal and violent scenes, Abdel Aziz aesthetically critiques the violence and political repressions that formed the backdrop of the Arab Spring.

Basma Abdel Aziz’s novel, first published as Huná Badan in 2018, is a step forward from her acclaimed debut novel al-Tábúr (2013, translated into English as The Queue by Elisabeth Jaquette in 2016). [1] But both texts can be contextualized within the dystopian literary movement that emerged after the Arab Spring. For example, Abdel Aziz explores the role of gender in dark circumstances, giving a visible agency to women, especially widows, after the massacre in “the Space.” In one episode, Shakir’s widow and Aida, among others, start using social media and the internet to gather vital information that is intentionally ignored by the state’s media—and disseminate it to the public. After launching their website, they attract public attention and receive numerous conflicting responses. Some people blindly support the general while other supporters call for the return of the abducted leader. The women also want to document the survivors’ accounts of the massacre, but their plans are crushed before they continue to do so when the security police forces arrest the woman in charge of the website. And Aida is dismissed from school due to her participation in the sit-in protest; meanwhile, doctors refuse to treat her traumatized son, who “sank into a permanent moody silence in his bedroom” (p. 326).

One of the most striking features of the novel is the language of its children, who are around fourteen years of age. They speak Standard Arabic, which is rather bizarre because such a linguistic register would not be their native dialect, since it is only acquired through formal education and takes several years to master. Moreover, most of the children are illiterate, except for Youssef who is the only one who knows how to read. Interestingly, this is also carried out in the English translation, albeit in a domesticated way. The children’s sophisticated language may seem unrealistic, which in turn might make the readers less compassionate about them, but the writer perhaps opts for this eloquent language to show the seriousness with which we should take both the children and their fate. In addition, the main character, Rabie al-Mahdi, narrates a larger part of the narrative using standard and eloquent language, crafted with powerful prose to capture the intensity of the violence and the clashes between the military and the protesters.

The translation does a good job of carrying these linguistic effects, and the novel’s tone, into its chosen English. The award-winning translator, Jonathan Wright has great experience in translating several literary works from Arabic to English. His domestication approach to minimizing the foreignness of the original language is visible here, which in turn is reflected in the readability and smoothness of the translated text. In doing so, he makes the English version appealing to Anglophone readers. Some of this is merely typographical: the English edition also capitalizes the first few words at the opening of each chapter, which is not a feature in the original text since Arabic lacks the capitalization of letters. This common convention in English of course intends to capture the attention, and English readers are habituated to this special emphasis at the opening of each chapter.

Other choices are somewhat more complex. His slight use of transliteration is quite impactful, for example: “The conversation continued when cups of tea and plates of kunafa arrived for dessert” (p. 67). By transliterating the word kunafa, he reflects the local color of a traditional Middle Eastern sweet while also invoking its English meaning, since it is already implied in the context as a kind of dessert. In another example, the word suhour is transliterated because there is no equivalent in English. “Aida woke up after Murad left and stayed up late to eat the suhour meal before she began the next day’s fasting” (p. 59). Suhour (also suhūr) is an Islamic term, referring to a meal before dawn that Muslims consume before fasting during the pious month of Ramadan. Wright opts to transliterate it while hinting at its meaning based on context, to avoid any footnotes or glossary to explain it. The translator also minimizes the religious tone in the following sentence: “I felt certain that all of these things were signs that the end of the world had come” (p. 2 [boldface mine]). The original Arabic reads in my translation as follows: “I felt certain that they were signs of resurrection …” (2018, p. 11 [emphasis mine]). This quote illustrates how Wright domesticates the meaning of resurrection or judgment day to the end of the world, gravitating toward his target audience and revealing a secular orientation.

Another point worthy of attention in this translation is the changing of the novel’s front cover to a totally different image. The original edition shows a wide space with several tinted blocks and a couple of people, to capture the essence of the novel and to serve as a hint at the description of “the Space” where the sit-in protests take place. This choice communicated relevant information to readers. However, the English cover photo exhibits a human eye, alluding of course to surveillance, but also communicating a rather different message. Perhaps the publisher tried to make a connection with Abdel Aziz’s earlier novel, The Queue, since that book, too, showed an eye on its front cover. Even though such an artistic touch suggests a similarity between both of Abdel Aziz’s novels, it diverges from the intended message of the original image. I can speculate that the publisher (Hoopoe) seems to be interested in emphasizing the genre in general, due to its popularity to the target audiences, rather than necessarily reflecting the text.

Abdel Aziz has adopted the dystopian form in order to engage with ongoing real-world circumstances. She does so by means of estrangement, depicting recent historical and political events in a literary color. By incorporating relevant lexicons—such as those involving martyrs, street battles, marches, protests, sit-ins, trials, fatwa, and so on—her novel resonates powerfully with the present experiences of some regions of the Middle East and North Africa. Backed by her courageous and creative endeavors, Abdel Aziz is one of the most credible authors in the emerging genre of estranged dystopian fiction in contemporary Arabic literature. Her works merit attention both domestically and internationally.


[1] It is worth noting that Abdel Aziz has published her third novel, entitled The Mulberry Years (2022), which is yet to be translated into English and other languages. [return]

Rawad Alhashmi has recently received his PhD in Literature from the University of Texas at Dallas. He holds an MA degree in English from New Mexico Highlands University and an MA degree in Translation and Interpretation from the Libyan Academy for Postgraduate Studies. Currently, he works at the University of Tripoli and the University of Gharyan. His recent works appear in Translation TodayEnglish StudiesInterdisciplinary Literary Studies, and Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, among others. Find him on Twitter at @the_Pioneer86.
Current Issue
25 Sep 2023

People who live in glass houses are surrounded by dirt birds
After a century, the first colony / of bluebirds flew out of my mouth.
Over and over the virulent water / beat my flame down to ash
In this episode of  Critical Friends , the Strange Horizons SFF criticism podcast, Aisha and Dan talk to critic and poet Catherine Rockwood about how reviewing and criticism feed into creative practice. Also, pirates.
Writing authentic stories may require you to make the same sacrifice. This is not a question of whether or not you are ready to write indigenous literature, but whether you are willing to do so. Whatever your decision, continue to be kind to indigenous writers. Do not ask us why we are not famous or complain about why we are not getting support for our work. There can only be one answer to that: people are too busy to care. At least you care, and that should be enough to keep my culture alive.
Issue 18 Sep 2023
Issue 11 Sep 2023
Issue 4 Sep 2023
Issue 28 Aug 2023
Issue 21 Aug 2023
Issue 14 Aug 2023
Issue 7 Aug 2023
Issue 31 Jul 2023
Issue 24 Jul 2023
Issue 17 Jul 2023
Load More
%d bloggers like this: