First Words illustration by Hanna Barczyk
illustration by Hanna Barczyk

“Tell me the story of your romance with the Arabic written word.” The journalist asking was from The National, Abu Dhabi’s English-language newspaper. She wanted to know why we’d devoted an issue of The Common, Amherst’s literary magazine, to Arabic fiction. Editing Tajdeed: Contemporary Arabic Stories had been a labor of love, but it had not been romantic. Just as setting off naively for “the West” or “the Far East”—destinations that are grand notions rather than findable locations—is romantic in inspiration, but in reality involves a lot of getting lost and stuck in the mud.

The inspiration to create Tajdeed came while my husband, Amherst philosophy professor Nishi Shah, and I were teaching for a year in Abu Dhabi in 2012–13, and my return this past April was cause for celebration and reflection.

It was also an opportunity to meet Hisham Bustani, my co-editor, who lives in Amman, Jordan. For four years, we had worked together electronically to conceptualize, edit, publish and promote Tajdeed, coordinating 26 authors, five visual artists and 18 translators from 17 countries.

After publishing his short story “Freefall in a Shattered Mirror,” The Common’s first piece of literature translated from Arabic, Hisham and I discovered a shared idea for an English-language compendium of new Arabic writing. Superficially, we were an excellent team, with complementary skills and contacts. Still, we did not know how well we would work together over a long and improvised journey. Most important: Would we agree on the literary merit of the writing?

This question was doubly vexed because we experienced the texts in different languages. Hisham could judge the originals, but I had to rely on translations.

Translating Arabic to English is notoriously challenging. As Hisham often says, an excellent translator must be both bilingual and bicultural. But beyond understanding culturally specific references, regional dialects and local idioms (complicated enough in a language spoken by 422 million people in 22 countries), there are fundamental grammatical differences between Arabic and English that require careful attention. Arabic sentences are often long and complex in structure. Rendering the original verb-subject-object order into English requires a deft hand to avoid a baroque and belabored feel absent in the original.

Mention to translators the different “time paradigms” of Arabic and English and they throw up their hands. In Arabic literary writing, a past-tense verb at the beginning of a paragraph can create a kind of “past-tense container” that allows all subsequent verbs in that paragraph to be written in present tense but understood as past action. Translated incorrectly, such passages can display a sudden, bewildering shift in time. Add to this a standard Arabic literary construction that describes action in a way that English speakers read as backwards: “So-and-so did such-and-such after doing such-and-such.”

English is not meant to be understood by reading what happens first at the end of the sentence. A word-by-word approach to translation—simply “documenting” the original writing, as our translations editor, Alice Guthrie, puts it—is ultimately less faithful to the original than one in which the word order is changed but the meaning and ease preserved. I understand some of these issues now. At the time, I banged my head on the desk trying to figure out why I was so confused about what happened when.

Another revelation was that publishers in the Arab world serve more often as printers than as editors. Authors unfamiliar with the editing process sometimes read suggestions as criticisms and were reluctant to engage, but diplomacy and explanation eventually erased their skepticism.

The authors learned to trust us just as Hisham and I grew to trust each other. We were bushwhacking an unfamiliar and uncommon literary path, while also bringing Arabic writers into an often unwelcoming country and culture—and to a literary public skeptical of works in translation. Of all books published in the United States in any given year, only 3 percent are works in translation; of those, only 1 percent are from Arabic. We could not reverse this trend, but we could make a mark.

Hisham and I found ample literary common ground. Each story he secured contained its own surprises, elegance and terrors. Many reflected what Egyptian writer Youssef Rakha calls “the increasingly dangerous business of living in this part of the world.” A family housebound by street fighting is halted midstep by sniper bullets. A young woman recalls the dangerous advice of a beloved grandmother. An arrested man is deprived of not only his possessions but also his internal organs. This last story is in fact deadpan hilarious.

By April 2017, Hisham and I were ready to toast our long, rewarding, messy process, and to get to know each other as friends.

We shared meals, saw contemporary art and a Flamenco performance and drove the desert streets. Over lunch one afternoon, Hisham’s friend Rami asked, “What’s next?” I had been thinking of this visit as a culmination. But our first journey had seasoned us, taught us the lay of the land. Now we could plot future routes with more confidence. Rami pointed out that our lunch spot happened to be on an island called Al Raha, which means comfort in Arabic. We laughed at that—being in the comfort zone. We would not stay there for long. 

Video: Watch excerpts from Tajdeed read aloud. Read stories from the issue at

Jennifer Acker ’00 is editor-in-chief of The Common.