Friday 9 September 2011

Found in Translation

I have been trying to write this post for the last three weeks, ever since I came back from Istanbul where my novel “When the Mountains are scattered as Dust” was published by Kaknüs in Turkish as Hakikati Arayan Kadin. For some reason I struggle to express clearly what I feel about this unexpected recognition.

Let me start with the easy task of telling you how the publication came about. If you are a believer like me you will probably agree with me, after hearing the story, that God is the best of planners. I couldn’t possibly have orchestrated the whole affair. If you don’t believe in a Higher Power, then you will call me lucky. Here is what happened.

I have been working on a novel set in 7th century Saudi Arabia for over a year. This was the time when the prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, emerged with his divine message amongst his people. I have been desperately searching to find literature in English or German that gives me details of daily life during that time, be it amongst the desert Bedouin tribes or the city dwellers of Mecca and Medina. While trying to find material online I came across an English website dedicated to the life story of the prophet Muhammad. I e-mailed them and asked for help. I got a reply from a woman, telling me that she knew of no English resources available, but that she had had a look at my blog. She was interested in reviewing my book. Could I send her a copy? I did. Only then did I find out that the editor of the website was based in Istanbul. In the end she didn’t think the novel suitable for a review on their website but she liked it so much that she passed it on to publisher friends of hers who eventually decided to publish it in Turkish.
All the negotiations were done by e-mail, the contract posted by snail mail. I didn’t actually meet the publishers, or the translator and editor, until the book was launched during Ramadan, three weeks ago.

This is the story on the outside. Very straight forward, no headaches whatsoever. Just before leaving for Istanbul I started to watch myself closely, taking note that I was getting excited about the prospect of spending a week in Istanbul, especially during the month of Ramadan. This is a holy month for Muslims that we spend fasting during the daylight hours. Fasting in this context means no food or drink is allowed to pass your lips. I did not mind getting excited about spending part of Ramadan in a Muslim country, what I got worried about was whether I was getting excited about the publication, about the attention I would get as an author. I judged myself as level-headed and neutral. In fact I had to force myself to tell people why I was leaving for Istanbul so suddenly. The publishers had not given me much notice. I think the real reason I was not letting myself get excited about the publication was the fact that I had been told that I would have to give interviews. Rather than worry about interviews I pushed the whole affair to the back of my mind. I can honestly say that I did not think about the issue until I sat opposite the first journalist who wanted to hear my story. Only when I was told how many interviews I had to give over the next three days, and that they were with national daily papers and weekly/fortnightly magazines, did I acknowledge the tremendous effort that my publisher had made to draw attention to my book. I was amazed by what they had achieved. I was, after all, an unknown first-time author.

They were a husband-and- wife team who were not only excellent in their field of work but also kind human beings who made sure that I was at ease, who welcomed my husband and daughter as much as they welcomed me.

To my surprise I enjoyed talking to the journalists. Most of them did not speak English and we depended on a translator for communication. The only downside was that I had to repeat my personal story, how I became a Muslim, over and over again. I found this very tiring and sometimes I let the translator tell the story. I joked that she will soon know my life story better than I do.

What worried me a little was how many people thought that the novel was my autobiography. It was my first novel, and yes, the emotional journey of one of the main characters was similar to my own, yet the story line was fiction and all the characters were fictional. Some people reacted with disappointment when they found out that none of the Turkish characters were “real”. ‘Not even the shaykh?’ they asked. ‘No,’ I had to say, ‘I have never met a Turkish Sufi shaykh in my life. I have never visited a tekke in Istanbul.’

All through the days of the interviews I was fasting. I think this fact, and the fact that my husband and daughter were around, helped me enormously not to get too excited and too joyful. This felt really important to me. If I failed this test, to stay level-headed when success came my way, I could no longer claim that writing was my prayer, that I was writing because I had to, because it was what I did well, what came from a deep place within me. The student on the spiritual path aims for serenity, for a way of coping with the frequent ups and downs of life. Her ultimate goal is not to be violently tossed about by the storm of life, but quietly sitting in its eye, surrendered to what it brings.

I am back home now, and I am pleased to report that my life has not changed. I am still paralysed as far as the novel I am working on is concerned. Maybe my next blog will deal with writer’s block. My home is still a mess more than three months after a fire (don’t ask, this is another story where sitting in the eye of the storm is demanded of me), yet despite everything I feel nothing but gratitude for what is, and a gentle curiosity about what God is unfolding for me from one moment to the next.

PS: I promised my publishers to put up the links to the Turkish media coverage of the book. If you speak Turkish, have a look. My Turkish is non-existent, but I hope that the articles are honest summaries of the conversations I had with the journalists.

Fatima Martin in Turkey
Links of Coverage of Hakikati Arayan Kadin in Turkish Media:
Interview on Kitap Cafe

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