“And here she interrupts him, saying, ‘I take your meaning, which is self-evident and calls for no explanation, and is just what I was going to say myself. So give me your hand and take mine’—and so it continues until their hands have roamed all over, groping and grasping, swiping and wiping, searching and seeking, poking and stroking, squeezing and teasing, clasping and parting, slapping and tickling, rooting and rummaging, delving and digging, rubbing and pinching.” This passage, translated from the hundred-fifty-year-old Arabic book Leg Over Leg shows the book at its best: playful; linguistically limber; language, sex, and love balled into one jumble. With the publication of Humphrey Davies’ translation of Volume III and IV of Aḥmad Fāris al-Shidyāq’s novel, the introduction of this Lebanese classic of Arabic literature into English comes to a close, and opens the doors of discussion, interpretation, and a chance for more Arabic literature in translation to find the attention this work has received. Written in 1855, in a language that is severely under-translated, and largely autobiographical, there’s the temptation to turn to the historical record to contextualize the book, to focus on it as a piece of history. That this translation is a chance for English-language readers to have a greater understanding of al-Shidyāq’s place in the history of Arabic literature is undeniable. He’s an author who blended Western traditions and culture into Arabic while practicing traditional Arabic forms and mining the depths of obscure and unimaginably specific Arabic words. However, to focus too much on the historical, the timeline of literature, risks reducing Leg Over Leg to mere artifact, dead facts instead of living literature. It can deny the life, the entertainment, of the book, and cut off interpretations and reactions that come from reading it now, responding to the text as a contemporary reader. Reading Leg Over Leg somewhere between historical blindness and overt attachment to autobiographical and historical readings deepens its well of interpretation, as understood by the author himself, who writes, “A book . . . grows more valuable with each passing year, and its benefits multiply.”
The benefits of Leg Over Leg have multiplied, and its contemporaneity is astonishing. It is a bawdy celebration of sexuality, satirical of religion, narrated by an author aware of and commenting on the act of writing and reading, proto-feminist, and more. This shock, that a book from its time, from its area of the world, could be so involved with the complications of a protagonist who both is and isn’t the author, that the narrator is self-aware, that the equal rights and intelligence of women is promoted, also risks overwhelming the book: when trying to convince friends it’s worth reading, I found the easiest arguments tempting, that it’s progressive in many of its values, especially for 1850s Lebanon, and it’s wildly transgressive in spending six full pages listing words for different types of vaginas, penises, and sex. This reduces, and undersells. In ways, in the arguments between husband and wife that make up much of Volume IV, Leg Over Leg is progressive and transgressive for 2010s America through their honest, open expression, reaching for solid ground to stand on together, even if the perspectives themselves are familiar:
“Is there a single man who can maintain an affection and not deviate from it every day. I swear, were women to desire men as much as men desire women, you wouldn’t find a single man unbewitched.”
“Is there a single woman who can maintain affection and not deviate from it each day a thousand times?” I asked her. “All books bear witness to the trustworthiness of men and the treachery of women.” “Weren’t the ones who wrote those books men?” she countered. “They’re the ones who made up those stories.” “But only after investigation and experience.”
It beats out most contemporary novels in the formal risks it takes, as when the narrator interrupts to challenge the reader to keep up, or ends a chapter by admitting that both author and reader need to take a break, relax a while. In a three-sentence chapter titled “Nothing,” the narrator declares that he must “sit myself down a while in the shade of this short chapter to brush off the dust of my labors.” The shock of a novel such as this coming from when and where it does also, oddly, denies the historical, forgets that the basic, confined structure of the novel is actually, as shown at length in Steven Moore’s The Novel: An Alternative History, a modern development. “The novel has always been a workshop, not a museum,” Moore writes. A reader’s surprise at the “newness” of Leg Over Leg is an immediate, surface-level gut reaction, and to go no further is a denial of the historical, much as the historical is itself a denial of what is new.
At its core, Leg Over Leg is a travelogue. The protagonist is the Fariyāq—the name a portmanteau of Fāris al-Shidyāq—who moves from Lebanon, to Malta, to England, to Paris, and makes various stops along points in between. Along the way he makes friends and enemies, joins and leaves a monastery or two, works varied jobs as translator, dream interpreter, general scholar, marries, and has a family. And the book itself travels, has its own sense of motion. Though there is a sexual innuendo in the title Leg Over Leg—legs entwined, either in action or in the post-coital jumble of comfort—it also calls to mind a sashaying one foot in front of the other, traveling confidently, with style, across themes, obsessions, affections. Arguments over religion take hold in the first two volumes, then, like traveling from one land to another, crossing border regions, in volumes III and IV, family matters take over. Like an intelligent, careful traveler, the progress is gradual, never rushed, and lands far in the distance must be remembered or anticipated in order to be understood: the Fariyāq’s love of women is present in all four volumes, but begins to shift when he meets his wife, and then changes further when she turns out to be able to go toe-to-toe with him intellectually and conversationally.
The traveling pace is such that I became habituated to the physical act of reading. Published with the Arabic on the verso page, I turned pages quickly, glancing to my left only occasionally, journeying through the facing page of English. Later, reading some other book, when excited, or alternatively, when bored, I caught myself skipping that verso page, my hands wanting to be back in Leg Over Leg. Even if it changed the pace of the journey, it would be wonderful to see a single, English-only paperback containing all four volumes with minimized footnotes, opening Leg Over Leg to readers who aren't able to spend $40 on each individual hardbound volume.
The translation too wanders and weaves the best path through difficult landscapes and cities made of a mesh of crisscrossing streets. In Davies’ afterword, he explains the ways that his approach shifted as he went, finding new ways to handle the exhaustive lists that fuel al-Shidyāq’s delves into Arabic linguistic resources. The differing approaches are apparent in the English, which in other works could be off-putting, and read as an error, but fitting to the exploration of language, culture, and life that is Leg Over Leg. In a book filled with puns, rhyming, obscure wordplay, words with the same Arabic root being slipped in one for the other, for a translation to capture the suggestion of a pun even if the full pun itself is impossible is a new creative act.
Based on the complications of the language alone, one could excuse a translator for being too intimidated to take on the task. Added to that is the posturing of al-Shidyāq himself. Not only does he set up his fictional counterpart for competitive rivalries with translators, slagging them as harshly as he can, Volume IV contains a detailed, lengthy, and irritated collection of errors by translators from Arabic. We’re fortunate that Davies took al-Shidyāq’s insults as a challenge and rose to it. His perpetually inventive work made Leg Over Leg a worthy finalist for the Best Translated Book Award. As an overall award, honoring some combination of the author’s efforts and the translator’s efforts, Seiobo There Below was deserving to the upmost, but were it solely a translation award, this massive and successful undertaking, pushing to the boundaries of translation, Leg Over Leg would have, if you’ll forgive the pun, the leg up.
More than that, al-Shidyāq is out to challenge his readers as well, early on starting a chapter with a purposeful warning and challenge: “I must go on at some length in this chapter, just to test the reader’s endurance. If he gets to the end of it without his teeth smoking with rage, his knees knocking together from frustration and fury, the place between his eyes knitting together in disgust and shame, or his jugulars swelling in wrath and ire . . .” So with that warning, that combining of the intellectual into the physical, one can be put off, why read an author who is so intent on being difficult that he feels it necessary to tell you so? Because the play is in the warning itself. The little underlying giddiness is itself intriguing, sly in a way that puts al-Shidyāq on your side, and he finishes off that “if” clause with “I shall devote a separate chapter to his praise and count him among those readers who are ‘steadfast.’” Regardless of where we find the reward, we’re promised one, and it’s there even in the moment of warning. If the warning itself is a pleasure, then Leg Over Leg won’t really be that difficult—and that’s the exact game that al-Shidyāq is playing.
From the earliest pages, al-Shidyāq is out to celebrate the Arabic language, to demonstrate its breadth of expression, his knowledge, and his skills in deploying that knowledge. The most direct way this is expressed is through lists, which come in two basic forms. There are lists in the running text that are a sign of the narrator getting carried away with his passion and prowess, as when he turns his attention to the beauty of Englishwomen and their movements, “You see them turning disdainfully to one side, shying, flying, starting, bolting, flinching, fleeing, proudly turning, racing, baulking, jibbing, bounding, leaping . . .” These lists give the prose its sense of being carried on a river of language, flowing momentum, each jump from one to the other a virtuoso performance. Some of these lists come in only a few words; others run for a page or more. It is in these that Davies notes he relied on the dictionaries and thesauri for the translation, which would seem to diminish his own input, but for each passage to maintain that propulsion, and for the associations between words to be wide but clear, for sounds of one word to play off the sounds of those ahead and behind, demands creativity and care.
The other lists are quotations from the Arabic dictionary the Qāmūs. These can last for up to a dozen pages and are presented in two columns, with the transliteration of the Arabic on the left side of the page, and the direct translation of the definition on the right. This is when al-Shidyāq puts aside his literary skills and wants to overpower the reader with the possibilities of language, listing near synonym after near synonym, or absurdly specific words, such as one for “a white stone like marble” and one for “a white stone softer than marble.” When a potential reader hears that at one point, back-to-back groupings of such lists surpasses twenty pages, it’s reasonable to fear a dry text, to think again of a historical relic, or to look forward to skipping such pages, but to do either would be a mistake.
For within each list, there are nuggets of joy for the lover of language, the satisfaction of knowing that a such specific words exist, or existed, in the world, or the pleasure of finding words to conjure up ideas not previously imagined, such as “a beast that can carry an elephant on its horn.” The moments of discovery will vary from reader to reader, and for the truly ambitious, from reading to reading. More than these little uncoverings, the lists are an essential part of the pacing the novel, and al-Shidyāq is conscious of this. Setting up one of the longest series of lists, he creates a scenario of a man not fully listening to his wife, instead thinking of “buying a donkey to ride,” then moves through lists of gems and metals, jewelry and ornaments, perfumes, and various household objects. When he concludes the lists, he jumps on our own drifting thoughts, telling us all that has been accomplished by amassing these objects, while “you’re still worrying about the ass.” In earlier references, the animal was always a donkey. It’s not hard to think that the change, the suggestion of the insult to us for still thinking about it, is intentional.
Leg Over Leg enacts, too, the occasional monotony of travel, but even such monotony serves a clear purpose. Only in such bouts of boredom could you suddenly stumble over something new, something that, if it were placed close to jokes and arguments would be totally missed. But there, in the boredom, you are able to see it freshly, see it at an angle of thought you’d never come from otherwise. It’s like walking aimlessly in a place you know well, and suddenly seeing a building or a wood from a direction you’ve never approached, and it’s seen anew.
The thin border, repeatedly transgressed, between the author al-Shidyāq and his mirror protagonist the Fariyāq is another way that Leg Over Leg opens up, creates space for the reader to roam and romp. Al-Shidyāq moves back and forth between the world that the Fariyāq lives in, and the world that al-Shidyāq controls. The line between the two is thin, and it’s up to us to fully remove it, creating a break between the Fariyāq and al-Shidyāq, or to leave it in place. When al-Shidyāq writes tells us after an interruption that the Fariyāq continues speaking, but yet he, the narrator, not the Fariyāq was the one interrupted, do we see that as a mistake, or purposeful confusion? Though he never lets us forget their overlaps, the narrator always happy to separate the two, as when the Fariyāq composes a less than stellar poem, and al-Shidyāq ends the chapter by admitting this and noting, “It is not my way, however, to pull the wool over the eyes of the reader, with whom I share an old friendship going back to the beginning of this work. Let him, therefore, take note of that fact.” But this separation is immediately followed by the most heartbreaking chapter, where the two fall together completely. After the death of the Fariyāq’s son, there’s a chapter-long poem elegy for him, and in there, the speaking “I” is an inseparable Fariyāq and al-Shidyāq.
The slippage of the narration occurs with other characters as well. Both al-Shidyāq and the Fariyāq take up rhyming, speaking or writing with rhymed pairs throughout a passage, sometimes the words just rhyming, other times paired as antonyms, or two words that now interact with each other, in a way that specific words sentences apart wouldn’t normally interplay. The Fariyāq and al-Shidyāq both do this when they become passionate about a subject, whether with affection or anger, and al-Shidyāq sometimes finds himself doing so without meaning to (so he says), so that when other characters take it up, it’s as if he, and not them, is worked up, and forgotten that he’s meant to be writing in their voice, not his. It’s another trick in his arsenal that lets him play as if he’s not in masterful control, as if language is such a powerful force that even a master like him is barely able to rein it in.
One of the most meaningful movements of characters and narrators opens Chapter 7 of Volume IV. By this point, the Fariyāq and his wife, the Fariyāqiyyah, have been arguing on and off for most of the volume—the arguments of a couple fiercely in love, both intelligent, both capable of honesty and defensiveness that borders on self-deception. Earlier on, the Fariyāqiyyah was introduced as essentially a pretty woman in a window who the Fariyāq falls for and marries, impressing her other admirers for “winning” such a woman. Instead, she reveals herself to be independent, opinionated, intelligent, and vocal, and increasingly so as the book moves on. By Chapter 7, she’s shown her ability to challenge the Fariyāq; consequently, the chapter's departure from his perspective—instead agreeing completely with the Fariyāqiyyah— means that their voices are given such equal weight that the reader must decide who to agree with, if picking sides is even necessary.
This work begins with a respect for women unexpected for its time, and so Volume IV is in ways more progressive and honest than anything we see today. Much of the time, expressions of feminism are necessarily monologues, and all too often when they are dialogues, they are between people who so vehemently disagree that few new thoughts are birthed, or are so moderated that both sides hold back from emotions, from the self with irrational beliefs, from personal experience, from mistakes. But here we have a man and a woman vehemently arguing with each other about the flaws and values of men and women, how they should act, why they act the way they do, and each one makes clear, thoughtful points, each loses track of themselves, defending or excusing, and becomes emotional and defensive, even insulting. Then, later, outside of the argument in thought or action, each of them proves wrong many of stereotypical flaws. Throughout, in argument and in narration, the harshest judgments of moral failure stereotyped to each gender are spread equally. Holding together all their agreements and mistakes is their underlying passion for each other: “‘My, my!’ she said, what’s this? Could it be that you’ve brought me to this country to recast me and fashion me into another woman?’ ‘I’d rather die!’ I said.”
Their arguments are also the culmination of the connection between expression through language and sexuality. Early on, pens are erupting with excitement, spilling ink, and among other things we learn that there is an Arabic word that means both food and sex, bringing two different pleasures into language play, and al-Shidyāq creates more overlap, as at a dinner party “how many a flank is pressed against flank, how many a milk skin gushes.” Neither husband nor wife forget their sexuality and mutual attraction during the arguments, in fact the Fariyāqiyyah repeatedly “misinterprets” something the Fariyāq says into a sexual pun, both expressing her own sexuality, and throwing him off the point of his argument. In one of the most enjoyable passages, their argument becomes a rapid fire exchange of rhymes and innuendo that ends with “‘In joking’ — ‘And poking’ and that concluded their merrymaking.” In a climax in more ways than one, the masturbatory becomes copulation.
As in so many reviews, this is an attempt to capture bits of what makes a bold, expansive, creative, and exploratory work of mastery all of those things, and with that, focused on what seems important, serious, but it would be doing Leg Over Leg a massive disservice to not make it clear how funny it is. This is a book that for all its challenges, all its insight into humanity, all its place in history, had me regularly laughing out loud. No sex joke is beneath al-Shidyāq, no fart joke, nothing that encourages you to explode with laughter is beneath him, neither are subtle jokes out of his reach. Deep into the book, the Fariyāq takes to task those people who, when they start learning a foreign language, immediately want to know the dirtiest words. He mocks them for their pettiness . . . yet this is a book that again, in the earliest pages, listed, seemingly endlessly, detailed descriptions of different types of vaginas and penises. When contradictions occur, it’s up to you figure out what you believe, what you hold to. This too is a sign of the importance of vast linguistic expression to al-Shidyāq: “She said ‘That in seriousness is humor and in humor seriousness.’” Humor and seriousness overlap, expression and morality overlap, and it all reaches out, demanding participation from the reader. Leg Over Leg is a sprawling work that asks the reader to be able to see the sprawl as well as the master who created it all.
P. T. Smith is a writer and critic living in Vermont. He has written for Three Percent, The Quarterly Conversation, and Bookslut.