Three Tales of Love and Death, by Out El Kouloub. Tr. and with an introduction by Nayra Atiya. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2000. xviii + 137 pages. $24.95.
Reviewed by Magda Al-Nowaihi
Out El Kouloub (1899-1968), an aristocrat who was "the richest woman of her time in Egypt" (p. xv) and who wrote exclusively in French, first published these three "tales" in Paris in 1940. Nayra Atiya, who has previously translated two of Out El Kouloub's works into English (Ramza and Zanouba), both of which were also published by Syracuse University Press, here continues her endeavors to smooth out and manipulate the original works of this writer "in an effort to keep the storyteller's voice active and spontaneous and subdue the ethnographer's pen, attempting all the while to stay true to the author's narrative" (p. xvii).
The three tales, as the title makes eminently clear, are about star-crossed lovers, and bad omens and premonitions of disaster litter the stories long before the actual catastrophes. The tales abound with descriptions of beauties like Zariffa, whose "eyes shone more brightly and her breasts filled out, her small nipples pushing against the cloth of her dress. She walked erect, her body swaying like a sapling..." (p.7) and "How beautiful Nazira was! Draped from head to toe in voluminous black veils, how straight and supple her body was! How graceful her movements!" (p. 39). When lovers meet, they melt in each other's arms, sighing "in wonder. To what land of enchantment had they suddenly been transported?" (p. 20) And when disaster befalls them, they lose their appetites and waste away, and their plight is described in expressions like: "Farewell to joyous celebration! Farewell to sweet love songs! Farewell to the life she and Ahmad had longed for since childhood! Zariffa continued weeping and wondered what other misfortunes lay in wait for her" (p. 19). The short songs that intersperse the text are of the following quality:
Oh, beloved! In your embrace,
Oh, beloved! In your embrace
I will learn the delights of heaven (p. 17).
These tales, which perhaps would be more suitable as a Harlequin Romance than as part of a translation series from a distinguished university press, are made "authentic," in the words of the cover jacket, by "bringing to light manners, customs, folklore..." and including descriptions of Egyptian "streets, bazaars, holy sites, homes, verdant fields, and deserts" (front cover jacket). …