Gamou, Poetry and Translation..

After a long period of distraction, and of mentally and physically wasting time and energy on things that didn’t really serve any true purpose in my life… I am finally falling back in love with my original passions; studying, reading, writing and translating.

Anyone who knows me knows that from the age of 13, I’ve been a lover and admirer of the Senegalese scholar Sheikh Ibrahim Niasse, whose family and disciples have taken me in as their own, and whom I have been blessed to meet and spend time with, in Senegal and across the world. As Rabi al-Awwal, the birth month of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ approaches, the family and community of Sheikh Ibrahim Niasse are preparing to celebrate the night of his birth on the 12th of the month and the occasion of his naming ceremony a week later on the 19th, by reciting poetry and narrating the biography of the Prophet Muhammad in an annual event called the Gamou, which draws hundreds of thousands of people from across the world to the city built by Sheikh Ibrahim in rural Senegal – Medina Baye.

On these occasions, two main poems are recited, both of which are panegyric biographical poems which illustrate the life and character of Muhammad ﷺ in beautiful and eloquent rhyming verse. The first poem, which is recited on the main night of the 12th is the Hamziya (meaning the poem which ends in the Arabic letter ‘Hamza’) of al-Busairi, a 13th-century Egyptian poet and author of the other famous poem, the Burdah. The second poem, which is recited during the second celebration on the 19th (Gamouwatte) and is Lamiya ( poem ending in the letter ‘Lam’) of Sheikh Ibrahim Niasse himself, who was a celebrated poet in his own right with a plethora of works, the vast majority of which are praise poems for The Prophet Muhammadﷺ, which are memorised, studied and recited across West Africa, however this poem is significant as he wrote at 24 years of age and it was the first poem that he ever wrote and dedicated to The Prophet ﷺ

The event always follows the dates in the Islamic Lunar Calendar, which sees it shifting back 11 days every year, and this year due to me starting my Masters, I will not be able to attend the event in Senegal. This is painful considering a lot of my close friends from here have already purchased their tickets, and my close friends from there keep calling me and sending me WhatsApp voice messages asking if I will be attending this year. However, despite my inability to attend, The Universe came through and consoled me and I was blessed to have received a copy of Ibrahim Ahmad Niang’s commentary on Sheikh Ibrahim Niasse’s poem, and re-discover my copy of Ibn Ajiba‘s commentary on Busairi’s Poem which I had bought years ago on a trip to Fez, Morocco.

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Reading them, and studying the poems via WhatsApp voice notes with my teacher Habib Sall has got me back into my element and is slowly preparing me for the approach of the Sacred Month, and reading the poem of Sheikh Ibrahim has particularly touched me, considering the fact that he wrote it when he was at a similar age to me, and in it he expresses his experience of moods and sentiments that I have been feeling very strongly; he eloquently voices some of the exact emotions, states and thought processes that I have been going through recently, and this has to lead me to consider translating parts, if not all of the poem and sharing it with those who I know would be interested (even though my Arabic is nowhere near where it should be to do so).

One of my close friends and teachers Jubril, always describes attempting to translate Arabic poetry as ẓulm, or oppression, due to the fact that the beauty and eloquence of the rhymes and rhetoric used, as well as the flow of the poem and the deepness in meaning can never be fully expressed in English, and I agree. However, after some reflection and re-reading of the poem, I’ve decided to approach this the same way the author, a young 24-year-old Ibrahim Niasse approached the composition of the poem himself, which he eloquently expresses in the first few lines of the poem:

إيه فكري مدح الأمين ولا تعـــ            با قصوراً عن درك ذاك المجال

Oh thoughts of mine! Praise The Trustworthy One ﷺ ( al-Amin) and do not burden yourself with considering your shortcomings in trying to accomplish your objective in that field

كيف إذ أنت أقصر الكل باعاً                  خامد الفكر أنت ذو إقلال

How can you accomplish this, when you are the least accomplished in learning compared to your peers, mentally inactive and possessing so little?

كيف لكن هرول تطفل لتلفى             في جموع المداح قبل النوال

How can you? But, regardless, hurry and solicit what you are able to, so that you can be counted amongst the other eulogists before they are rewarded (for their efforts)

قم وهرول واستنجدن عون رب          مالك نعم العون من ذي الجلال

Stand up, and hasten, and seek help and assistance from your Lord, The King, who is the Owner of Majesty and the best source of support.

And so with that, I will be going ahead with this (or at least attempt to) and hopefully share some extracts of the translation here with you guys over the coming weeks…

 

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“If they are beautiful… Then they aren’t faithful…

Yesterday, after spending a sleepless night working on my Translation of Nur al-Basr (Otherwise known as the Lamiya), I proceeded to my 11am lecture for my ‘Practical Arabic to English’ Translation module that I am taking as part of my MA Translation Degree at SOAS. Due to months of being on holiday without a regular schedule and full of late nights out and about in London, or illegally streaming my favourite American TV series (don’t judge me), or FaceTiming my best friends in Cairo and Boston (and hence outside my time-zone), or attempting to read the numerous books I’ve stockpiled over the year; I am having trouble adapting to the early mornings and functioning during the daytime like normal people do.

Regardless, I showered and got ready, left the house, bought a double-shot cappuccino at my local coffee stand, and jumped on the bus to head towards the University. It was an interesting morning for me due to the fact that earlier on, after spending the night working on the first 17 lines which form the introductory chapter of Nur al-Basr, I was reflecting on how terrible my attempt was and whether or not I had bitten off more than I can chew. I finished typing up the final word in the last line and then suddenly my phone vibrated, informing me that I had received a voice note on WhatsApp from my friend Baba Gadji.

Baba is a well-renowned Zakir or religious singer from Senegal, who usually animates gatherings across the country with melodious recitations of Sheikh Ibrahim’s and other Sufi poetry (as seen here reciting an extract of the poem in question), and regularly sends out recordings of his recitations to his friends via WhatsApp who were unable to be present at the events, and this Voicenote was particularly special for me as when I played it I realised he was singing the first 17 verses that make up the introductory chapter of Nur al-Basr. The exact same chapter of the poem that I had just finished typing up.

Was this merely a very shocking coincidence? Or some sort of divine intervention or reassurance that I should continue with my efforts? Who knew, but as I reflected on it (and on how bad my translation attempt was) on my way to class, I arrived late (as usual) and settled down, and during our break one of my coursemates produced a piece of paper with a beautifully handwritten quote in French, which she informed us was the ‘translator’s motto’ as shared with her by a friend of her husband, a professional translator who was visiting them from abroad. The quote read;

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Which can be translated as “ If they are beautiful, then they are not faithful, and if they are faithful, then they are not beautiful”. Due to the feminine grammatical structure of the sentence, I immediately assumed (as some of the people who I showed the quote to afterwards via Instagram did) that it was some bitter Frenchman’s misogynistic analysis of relationship dynamics, (see Drake- Trust Issues), however my course mate explained that it was a double entendre that illustrated the challenges that translators face when dealing with equivalence when translating from the source text to the target text.

“If your translation is beautiful” she explained, “then it probably isn’t 100% faithful to the original text, and if it faithful to the original text, meaning you translate it word for word, or more literally, without taking creative licence to interpret it in a way that makes it more eloquent in the target language, then it probably won’t be beautiful”

It was like something beautiful clicked in my mind and I could visualise the lightbulb appearing over my head and switching on like it does in the cartoons. My whole struggle as an aspiring translator, and my experience with all my attempts, especially with this poem, was beautifully summed up in this short aphorism. And so after deciding to take a picture of it to post on my Snapchat and Instagram (as any straight thinking millennial would) and keep it as a source of encouragement for when I decide to butcher and mangle my future translation attempts, I also decided that, inshaAllah, after re-writing and editing my translation, I will share my attempt at the first chapter of Nur al-Basr with you all as well, so look out for it in the following weeks.