Tomorrow afternoon, November 22, the public is invited to a reading and discussion of the first ever English translation of Naïm Kattan’s 1991 novel Farida at the University of Sherbrooke. Animated by the author as well as translator Norman Cornett, the open discussion will address the context of pre-world war two Iraq and how the issues at play in that society still play a major role in the world today.
Published in 1991 during the height of what’s now known as the first gulf war, Farida tells the story of a popular Jewish singer struggling with her freedom in a world that is rapidly moving toward war, along a path that involves sex, murder, and intrigue.
“My fingers were singed in translating some sections,” Cornett joked. “it’s a real page-turner.”
“When you read Farida it’s like watching the nightly news,” the novel’s translator continued, noting that Kattan grew up as a part of an ancient Iraqi Jewish community that is now nonexistent. “He knew the Sunni, he knew the Shia, he knew the Kurds, he knew the Armenians, and of course he knew about the western powers that wanted to get their hands on the petroleum in his native Iraq.”
Although the present-day news out of his homeland is largely about the rise of Islamic extremism, Kattan said that the Iraq of his childhood was a land of diverse cultures that have gradually disappeared through one conflict or another.
“Farida gives an insight into how society lived with all these differences before,” the author reflected. “If you see the news today it’s about Mosul and Qaraqosh, which is a very small Christian city near Mosul. The Christians in Iraq are the oldest Christians in the world, they still speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus, but now they too are disappearing.”
Cornett, a religious studies scholar, said that it was the context of that cultural crossroads between different religious communities that inspired him to translate the book, but said that he sees the value of the story going further. For example, the story touches heavily on matters of women’s liberation that have great bearing on current conversations about the hijab.
“I had known, when I was a young boy, the best singer in Iraq, and it inspired me to write this book,” Kattan said, explaining that while the book is a fiction, it deals with the difficulties of being a woman, Jewish, and an artist at a time and in a place where women were and are expected to hide themselves away. “These same difficulties for women in Arab lands are still common now in a certain way.”
In addition to looking at the high costs for a woman seeking the right to free expression, Cornett said that he feels the book’s discussion of interfaith dialogue opens a door to its use as a tool for generating real discussion between English and French speaking populations in the province of Quebec.
“This is what Tuesday’s event is about,” the translator said. “Believe it or not Naïm Kattan has published over fifty books in French, and yet Farida is only the fifth book available in English.”
Cornett said that he found it remarkable that Kattan, who is a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur in France and an Officer of the Order of Canada for his internationally recognized writing, is so relatively unknown in English. By working to translate Farida, the scholar said that he is working to try to balance that scale.
“In this way we make the best of Canadian Literature available to both major language groups,” Cornett said. “It is a way to get beyond the caricatures and actually talk to each other.”
Kattan shared that the idea appeals to him, in part, because of his long-time friendship with Hugh MacLennan, author of the book seen as the definitive voice on Quebec’s divergent linguistic communities; Two Solitudes.
“I wrote the introduction to the French translation of his book,” Farida’s author shared, explaining that he strongly believes in the work of building bridges through literature between Francophones and Anglophones in Quebec.
Despite the arguments about the value of the ideas in Farida, however, but Kattan and Cornett underlined the fact that this is not an academic text and that Tuesday’s discussion is not mean to be an inaccessible scholarly talk.
“It’s more of an open-mic afternoon,” Cornett said. “There’s only one wrong question, and that is the unasked question.”
In addition to the innate value of the story itself, which Cornett called a “barn-burner”, the translator encouraged people to come out to the discussion of Farida because of the rare opportunity to interact with a very prominent author.
“How often does the public at large get up close and personal with an internationally renowned writer?” Cornett asked, noting that Kattan has flown in from Paris specifically for the discussion.
Tuesday’s talk begins at 4pm in room 166 of the A4 pavillion of the University of Sherbrooke and is expected to last just over an hour.