“Dimi… First Love…” ..ديمي..حب أول
Introduction to Arabic Text
Saudi Arabian author, Dr Muhammad al-Hodif, is a well-known writer, whose literary and journalistic work is popular across the Arab world. It has been my pleasure to translate the opening 2015 words of one of his short stories, written in 2003, called ‘Dimi… First Love…’ It is a story told within a story. Speaking in the first person, the narrator introduces a character called Mus`ab, who himself narrates a personal account of a particularly moving experience he had while studying in the USA. It is a bittersweet tale, told as part of a conversation with the narrator over coffee. The casual tone and honesty, with which Mus`ab describes his experience, reflects the relaxed setting of the conversation, as well as the close nature of his friendship with the narrator. This conversational tone, despite being in Modern Standard Arabic, is maintained without sounding too artificial.
Numerous parts of the story and Mus`ab’s character appear to reflect aspects of the author’s own life, leading the reader to wonder if it is a true story that is based on the author’s own personal experience. It is set at a conference in the USA. Mus`ab is an Arab, who has studied at American university and who is an active Muslim evangelist. He describes how his life was turned upside-down the moment Dimi approached him and began inquiring about Islam. The two main themes of the story are: Mus`ab’s internal conflict as he tries to deal with his attraction to this non-Muslim girl ‘of extreme beauty’; and addressing the misconceptions and stereotypes associated with Islam. The latter theme does not come into full play until later in the story, but the former dominates the first 2015 words.
According to his website (www.alhodaif.com), Dr al-Hodif also studied in the USA, reading a Masters at Kansas University (1988) in Media Studies, specialising in ‘theories on persuasion and stereotype’. He has also attended numerous conferences in the USA, including one in Chicago entitled “Image Stereotyping: Counter Attack” and a conference in Washington D.C. entitled “The East as Presented In Western classical Studies: The Impact of Negative Image”.
In my translation I had to make significant punctuation changes, particularly in the use of commas, in order to adapt the Arabic to standard English punctuation. Occasionally the Arabic made use of unnecessary or redundant information, which is a common stylistic device in Arabic, but which requires modification in the target language.
I see this translation for an English readership with no particular educational background or specialized knowledge of Arab culture. This feels in line with the original intention of the author, whose aim has been to educate the general public on the issue of stereotypes and prejudices associated with Islam and Arab culture in general.
I have, therefore, avoided any excessive exoticism, by limiting my use of transliteration and using paraphrasing where necessary to communicate any foreign concepts. I have also highlighted in my commentary where there appears to be a borrowed foreign concept or metaphor in the source text.
We had just finished one of the conference sessions and less than an hour remained until the appointed time for midday prayer. I suggested to him that we have a couple cups of coffee, with a slice of cake, in order to relieve some of the stress, which had been imposed by the pressure of the programme that had begun in the early hours of the morning. He agreed and we headed towards the hotel, where we were staying.
In the lobby on the ground floor we took a remote corner, whose isolation offered us some privacy and plenty of much-needed quiet. I had gotten to know Mus`ab at a former conference and our relationship had remained intact despite the great distance and had even strengthened and developed into a close friendship.
Mus`ab is in his twenties, bronze in colour, with jet-black hair and his face covered with a light beard that gave him an air of confidence and seriousness, despite his young age. In the shadows of his eyes a sadness is concealed and not revealing itself and a shyness wards off any question about the sadness, which made Mus`ab reserved in his speech and made anyone who knows him reluctant to enter an adventure to discover Mus`ab’s inner self.
We did not talk very much, but the delicious taste of the coffee and the calmness of the place prompted me to ask Mus`ab, when I saw the signs of relaxation on his face and drowning in deep moments of contemplation, about the most difficult situation he has come across throughout the five years that have passed during his stay here in the United States of America as an active Muslim evangelist.
When he looked up at me, it appeared as though he was already thinking about what I had asked him, and the moment I finished asking the question… he spoke, as if he was defending himself of an accusation:
His eyes were definitely saying something and I felt discomforted by the way he answered me and by the way he was looking at me; so I remained silent. Moments of silence passed between us, during which I occupied myself by stirring my spoon in the cup of coffee, which was half empty, while he amused himself with a line of sugar cubes on top of each other on the plate in front of him.
Then suddenly he said to me:
“Did I seem unpleasant in my response to your question…?”
“No… but it seems that I did not do well in forming the question, or perhaps I imposed myself on a private matter.”
He bowed his head a little while, saying nothing; I saw a dark cloud overshadowing his face. Then he raised his head and said:
“You know your place with me; I shall tell you about one of the most incredible things that happened to me…: Last year I underwent a trial… the semester had reached its end or was about to. It was the final lecture… before the final examination and the teacher of the subject “research methods” had promised that he would complete in that lecture what he had started in the previous lecture by illustrating the most important parts of the subject.
I was listening intently to the professor, the words came flowing from his mouth, like a volcano erupting its ashes. At that moment, a student arrived late – I didn’t pay attention to him – he began to cut through the rows of seats until he took a seat next to me.
I was sure that he had sat in the adjacent chair, when he requested the book in which I was recording my notes.
I gave it to him, without looking at him, or even asking him why… because I was busy taking notes on what the professor was saying.
The professor had concluded his talk, when I heard the student who had sat next to me say:
“I would like to borrow your notebook… by the way, are you Muslim…?”
I turned towards the source of the question, which came as a surprise, but my eyes were struck by an even greater surprise.
The one who had sat next to me and had requested my notebook was in fact a girl of extreme beauty. She was turning over between her hands a sticker, the kind that is put on the rear of the car and which has phrases, such as: ‘Read the Qur’an… the final revelation that came down from heaven’, or ‘Islam is the last of the revealed religions… familiarise yourself with it.’
The sticker had been, amongst other papers about Islam, inside my lecture book, which she had asked to look over. I said to her, while trying to organise my notebook:
“Yes, I am Muslim.”
“By the way, what is Islam…?”
I was confused, my mind was torn between, on the one hand, answering her question and entering into conversation with her, despite how she had affected my heart; and on the other hand, my feelings of responsibility to illustrate to her what Islam is.
It was a surprise that paralysed my ability to think; I did not expect a situation like this. Despite the passing of three months of the academic semester, I did not see this colleague a single time, because I was the last person to arrive, moments before the appointed time of the lecture and I sat in the last seat in the lecture hall. Also, I was the first person to leave a moment after the allotted time for the lecture had finished, without observing the faces of the students who share the place. Between these two times, I was busy recording what the professor was saying, or thinking about one of my private concerns outside of the university.
She was waiting for my reply to her question, standing over me, the place had been abandoned by everyone except by her and me. Trying to put an end to the situation within which she had placed me, I said:
“The subject needs time, but I am able to give you some pamphlets, which answer some of your queries.”
She was quick to respond:
“What do you think about us sitting in the cafeteria and me inviting you for a cup of coffee…?”
I felt hard pressed and asked myself: what if someone sees me with this woman? Who will believe that I am explaining Islam to her…? Who will believe that she is the one who asked me first…?
She did not wait for my reply, but considered my silence to be the sign of consent then said:
“Thank you for accepting the invitation.”
We walked to the cafeteria and took a remote spot, after ordering our coffee. I began talking to her about Islam. I paused for some moments at fixed points throughout the talk in order to give her the opportunity to ask a question.
She was asking… and her questions were revolving around matters that had no direct relevance to the subject, but which were closer to a clarification of the nature of my personality and my way of thinking. I also noticed that she was writing down everything I was saying.
At that point, I concluded the talk and apologised, explaining that I had a commitment to a previous engagement.
As I was about to leave, she said:
“How will I return your papers to you…? You have forgotten to tell me your address…”
In reality, I had not forgotten, but I did not want her to know where I lived. I said:
I picked myself up; I was sinking under the weight, not because of the mass of books, which I had jammed into my bag, but because of the pain that I began to feel pressing down on my heart.
I had begun a conflict between the head and the heart. Two issues were pulling me back and forth: on the one hand, my desire, which was presenting myself in a favourable light talking with this girl in the name of evangelism and on the other hand, my reason, to which my self-accusing soul was calling out.
I had arrived at my car; I threw my body onto the seat and put my head on the steering wheel. I was breathing with difficulty. My eyes were filled with tears, but I did not cry. I inserted the keys and started the car.
At that moment the sound of the Qur’an burst forth loudly from the tape player, which was in the on-position. Oh God, that dryness, which was about to suffocate me and besieged the tears in my eyes, was spread in an echo of the unending call, the Word of God, glory to Him; the warm tears flowed from my eyes and I began to whimper like a child. Forgive me my lord… this devil has placed herself in my way, I will put her out of my mind, I will uproot her from my heart. Oh my heart… help me, Lord… help me… for my heart is afflicted!
The next day I was in the library in my usual place, in the hall of university dissertations, which is connected by a narrow aisle to a special section for books that are no longer in the shops and out of print; either because of legal reasons or because their topics are outdated.
I prefer this place because of its quietness and because of the scarcity of students sitting in it, due to the old-age of the building and the weakness of the tables, as I think that few students tolerate the stares of the old researcher, who has never left that place since I first came to the university, and by chance I happened to stumble across this remote corner in the library.
That man always stared at any newcomers, and his stares became sharper at any sound, even if it was the flapping of the pages of a book turning.
I settled into my chair and gave a smile to my research friend, who stared at me from behind his glasses, and returned the smile. There had developed an unwritten contract between him and me, stating that both of us had a right to the place. Maybe because after he had forgotten his wallet on one occasion, I found it and gave it to him. Then he said to me, after he had inspected it in front of me, and I did not know what was inside of it:
“You are a trustworthy man”.
Just as also I have a place in his heart, since I gave him once some bread with humus. Then, after he had eaten it as if he was starving, he said that it was delicious and added:
“You are a kind man”.
Almost three hours passed by, and I was engrossed in studying, for I had not gotten up from my place, and my concentration was going well. Maybe one of the reasons was the quietness of the place. Perhaps another reason was my feelings of the importance of the subject and my harmony with it.
I was in a state of inner peace that I had never felt before, to such an extent that not even anything returned to my mind from the events and situations, which had passed over the previous days. These ideas came quickly to my mind, then I smiled a smile of contentment to myself, and gave a yawning gaze at the watch, which usually I laid out in front of me, sometimes out of laziness…other times out of anxiety.
For a moment I thought I had heard this. I did not raise my head from the book, but said to myself:
“Delusions have begun to afflict me, why don’t I rest a while, and read some journals…?”
Another time… as if it was her voice, I raised my head, and said startled:
“Have I disturbed you…?”
(Oh God, I had not been imagining things!)…
“How did you know where I am, Dimi…?”
“It was not difficult… for a person like you; it is easy for someone like me, to know the key to his personality. Did you forget that my subject specialization is psychology…? Oh, excuse me… I forgot to tell you that. I, by the way, note down in my book everything about those I meet. Does it bother you to learn that I have done the same thing with you…? Please consider this strange behaviour of mine as a type of academic curiosity.”
I was looking at her face and felt that I was becoming fonder of it while she was speaking to me in such a confident way.
I said while feeling an inner anxiety leaking bit by bit into my soul:
“Dimi, how did you come here…?”
Joking, she said:
“Should I remain standing…?”
I motioned for her to sit, and smiled at my research companion in the place, who appeared to be another one who was surprised by this sudden guest. He was not used to me having guests or visitors of any kind, since we first met in this place, throughout the last three academic years, let alone a guest of this kind… and it seemed that he had realised the awkward situation that I was in, for he gave me a very different kind of smile this time.
I looked at her inquiringly, waiting for her to tell me how she found out where I was… she said:
“You are a serious person, you have particular interests. Maybe because of the influence of the culture to which you belong, your relations with women are limited, and it seems that you do not aspire to anything like that. Putting these things aside; the other places in the library are full of activity, and full of female students moving about. We girls love parading, even in academic environments. The result; based on what I mentioned before, I knew you would be in a place like this. Naturally I did not come here directly, but after doing a quick sweep of other places, I made sure that if you were in the library you would be in a place like this… my expectations were correct, weren’t they? What do you think; am I not a good psychology specialist…?
I nodded my head as I let out from my depths a sigh that echoed in her ears… she said:
“Are you tired?”
“Is there anything I can do…?”
“No… thank you, I feel a bit overexerted.”
(Why did you come, Dimi… I’m trying to avoid you)… I said to myself. Oh Lord, help me, for I am falling more and more into her abyss! Her voice and her speech no longer move me with the same affect as they had at our first meeting. Now I want her to stay; now I want her to keep talking… Oh God, help me!
 The Arabic transliteration may be ‘Demi’, as in the actress, Demi Moore, or ‘Dimi’, which can be used for boy/girl. Although Demi is more common in the USA, I have decided to use ‘Dimi’ because I prefer the sound of the name.
 You would expect the Arabic to use the definite article: “الحب الأول” . The author’s choice may be indicative of a colloquialism or an alternate meaning, like “A First Love”, which sounds peculiar in English.
 There is a comma here in the Arabic, where it is not appropriate in the English. This is a common occurrence throughout the text, illustrating the vast difference between Arabic and English punctuation.
 Perhaps: ‘bronze coloured’ or ‘with bronze (coloured) skin’. Rather than translate simply as ‘tanned’, I have retained the somewhat poetic language to fit in line with the style of the following description: ‘jet-black hair’.
 Lit.: ‘as an active person in the field of inviting to God/Allah.’ Although the Arabic has yet to specify that he is Muslim, I have chosen to specify this in order to avoid the reader being led to assume he is a Christian evangelist, which is the more common collocation.
 I have placed the side information, which is in brackets in the Arabic, between his speech in order to make the text flow more idiomatically in the English. The brackets are not necessary in the English.
 Lit.: ‘was breathing its last (breaths)’. It is difficult to tell how strong the metaphor is in the Arabic and so whether or not the image of the original metaphor should be retained in the translation.
 Perhaps: ‘an extremely beautiful girl.’ I have maintained the literal translation, however, as I prefer its style, which is somewhat unusual and in this way is reflective of its meaning, since her beauty is also extraordinary.
 Lit.: ‘the surprise was that I was not expecting a situation like this.’ Grammatically, the surprise is the not expecting such a situation. But in English, it makes more sense for the surprise to be the situation itself.
 It is not entirely clear what the function of محددة is in this sentence. Either it means ‘at fixed points’ (i.e. at predetermined points in the talk) or ‘to ask a question about specific points’ (i.e. specific questions that she might have).
 Or: ‘sternly critical. It is a term appears to be an allusion to the verse in the Qur’an; 58:2: وَلَا أُقْسِمُ بِالنَّفْسِ اللَّوَّامَةِ which has been translated as “Nay! I swear by the self-accusing soul.” Translation from: http://uiforum.uaeforum.org/showthread.php?5839-I-swear-by-the-self-acusing-soul
 Quoting a Hadith. Translation taken from: http://www.sunniforum.com/forum/showthread.php?55985-12-Rabiul-Awwal-Mubarik/page3
 Lit.: ‘The speech of the truth’; a fixed term used for the Qur’an. Here الحق is one of the names of God in Islam, therefore I have translated the Arabic as “the speech of God” or “the Word of God.”
 وتر lit. means “odd” or “uneven”, but is also the name of a non-compulsory prayer, named as such because of the odd number of movements involved. I have chosen not to use the transliteration as this would produce excessive exoticism in the translation.
 Here it is likely not referring to the aforementioned ‘devil’, since in this case the gender is masculine. Therefore it appears to be referring to a different yet specific devil (i.e. Satan, or “the Devil”).
 This appears to be a borrowed metaphor, most likely from English and perhaps through translation of news reports; for example, about an airplane making a ‘sweep’ of an area during reconnaissance.
Al-Hodif, Muhammad, ‘Dimi…Hub Awal’, http://www.alhodaif.com/main/?p=92
Al-Hodif, Muhammad, ‘Fil badā…ana’, http://www.alhodaif.com/main/?page_id=2
Understanding Islam, http://uiforum.uaeforum.org/showthread.php?5839-I-swear-by-the-self-acusing-soul
Wehr, Hans (1994), A Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic (Arabic-English), Edited by J Milton Cowan, Fourth Edition, Spoken Languages Services, Illinois.
..ديمي.. حب أول
- Source Text: 2015
- English Translation: 2774