When you take up Rasha al Ameer’s novel “Judgment Day,” you should start with the afterword. It’s not a matter of defying convention or gaining new, revolutionary insight, but rather to ensure you do not miss the point. Indeed, translator Jonathan Wright’s afterword may be the only thing that keeps you from abandoning this 250-page book a mere fraction of the way through. Wright’s afterward makes sense of what he calls the “peculiar and distinctive style” of the Lebanese author’s writing. He describes Ameer’s work as “pre-modern,” written in a manner than transcends the some 1,500 years of the evolution of the Arabic language.
He openly acknowledges the perils of translating such a work. Ameer has her characters interact with the work of the 10th-century Iraqi poet Al-Mutanabbi, using it as a technique to bridge centuries of Arab and Islamic culture and tradition. Wright found it challenging to find an English equivalent for this.
He pays Ameer a fine compliment in suggesting that perhaps Al-Mutanabbi could himself have read “Judgment Day” with ease – something Wright believes the poet would have been unable to with a 21st-century newspaper written in Modern Standard Arabic. Moreover, Wright admits that the English language has no equivalent to that employed by Ameer, which, he says, “comes close to transcending time and place.”
The afterword articulates the objectives with which “Judgment Day” was written. Without it, the English translation appears an excessively wordy, stylistically convoluted tale of an imam who embarks on a covert relationship with an independent, urbane woman with the purpose of reading ancient poems together, and little more – which compromises all that he preaches.
“Judgment Day” is neither a light read nor an easy one. Getting through it is slow going. The usual things that make a book compelling – plot, character development, humor – are weak or proscribed, and without knowing what more to seek in the prose, readers are likely to feel deflated if not frustrated.
The imam, the novel’s first-person narrator, moves from one unnamed Arab state to another to take up a position at the Mosque of the Expatriates. There, he meets an unveiled and unnamed woman – he refers to her only as “my lady” – and agrees, with limited qualms and a rapid infatuation, to assist her in her research and study of Al-Mutanabbi.
She seems equally drawn to him, but just why an educated, fashionable woman falls for an imam who speaks of such modern conveniences as microwaves and computers as if they are alien life forms remains undisclosed.
The couple’s relationship develops against a backdrop of mounting upheaval in their two states, as “evil-doers” carry out attacks and champions of modernity come into conflict with those of traditional Islam.
The weak plot is given a surprising (and inelegant) kick forward about halfway through the narrative when the imam is appointed producer and presenter of a new, cutting-edge television program about religion.
Whether the imam is being manipulated and exploited by political forces, or whether his appointment is just a clunky plot twist, is difficult to say. In any case, from this point forward he is in peril. He grows increasingly daring and outspoken, and eventually death threats are made against him. Later he is taken into custody for his own protection, which separates him from his lady.
While the prose is heavy and the plot cumbersome, there are moments Wright’s English rendering of Ameer’s writing is truly special. Several scenes in the lady’s kitchen are moving for the simplicity with which they are endowed.
These sequences depict a love blooming in the mundane: in a woman’s reaching for a dishcloth, in the seamless execution of the unthinking dance cooks perform in their own kitchens – fetching, stirring, chopping, tasting, serving and clearing.
Unfortunately, the gracefulness of these scenes is weighed down by the content. In an irritating reaffirmation of gender stereotypes, the imam swoons at his lady’s culinary talents. She, equally irritatingly, insists he not lift a finger to help her.
In another point of frustration, she writes well-received proposals for his television show, which he passes off as his own. The reader is left wondering if his increased independence of thought can truly be described as independent.
Ameer’s novel is also successful in its portrayal of the confrontation between modernity and tradition. The writer steers her imam through assorted queries from his flock, a dispute at his father’s graveside, questions from a lecture hall filled with students riled about the banning of the niqab on campus and the issue of whether it is permissible for a 15-year-old mentally retarded rape victim to abort the child she has conceived.
The imam takes a series of practical stances on these affairs, but consistently interprets Islamic law with a moderate bent quite out of keeping with his stated innocence of the technological and commercial state of the world today.
Despite these triumphs, and Wright’s commendable labors, one cannot but feel that, in limiting oneself to the English translation, the reader has been deprived something essential.
Rasha al Ameer’s “ Judgment Day,” translated into English by Jonathan Wright, is published by The University of Cairo Press. For more information, please see http://www.aucpress.com/p-4652-judgment-day.aspx.