Round Rumps, Clapping Feet and Other Polite Profanities

By Lynne Rogers

Leg Over Leg, Volume One & Volume Two
By Ahmad Faris Al-Shidyaq
Edited and translated by Humphrey Davies
New York University Press, 2013, pp. 367, pp. 446.

If you happen to have an Arab literary scholar, a linguist or an Arab comedian on your gift list this year, I suggest Humphrey Davies’ bilingual translation of  “Leg Over Leg or Turtle in the Tree concerning the Fariyaq What manner of Creature Might He Be otherwise entitled Days, Months, and Years spent in Critical Imagination of The Arabs and Their Non-Arab Peers,” by The Humble Dependent on His Lord the Provider Faris ibn Yusuf al-Shidyaq, Volume One and Two. The title alone sets the tone for the potential reader. In her introduction, Rebecca Johnson points out that al-Shidyaq, as “a pioneer of modern Arabic literature, a reviver of classical forms, the father of Arabic journalism,” remains a literary figure familiar to Arabic Scholars, while Davies’ edition represents the first English translation since the original appeared in Arabic in 1855. With ribald humor, intense linguistic twists and turns, Volume One begins with a 20 page list of various descriptions of male and female anatomy (some even surprised this seasoned reader). Teachers of the Arabic language may even want to keep a hidden copy of this extensive list as a secret weapon to illustrate the dexterity and vibrancy of the Arabic language. The plot follows the travels of the young man Fariyaq who, like al-Shidyaq, chooses a career of writing despite the lack of financial rewards.  In Fariyaq’s escape from one repetitive, humorous misfortune to another, the author shines his satire on women with ample rumps and priests with big noses.

Volume Two opens with a dazzling chapter, “Rolling a Boulder,” which lists man’s many uses for stones ranging from religious icons, and hearth stones to weapons. This chapter alone makes the text an ideal lesson for the advanced Arabic class and al-Shidyaq’s irreverent skepticism immediately dismantles any notion of Arab rigidity. In this second volume, Fariyaq travels to Egypt only to be sidetracked once again by lustful ruminations in “A Throne to Gain Which Man Must Make Moan.” Later, Fariyaq’s temporary illness in Egypt provides the narrator with a chance to satirize the medical profession before ultimately leaving our young hero to pick up his tambourine. Humphrey Davies’ intricate parallel translation stands fortuitously as a genial introduction of  Faris al-Shidyaq to students of nineteenth century literature and a generous gift for scholars and comedians who relish a good roll about with words. 

This review will appear in Al Jadid, Vol. 19, No. 68.

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