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Travel

Meeting Charles Chahwan, the Arab World's Answer to Bukowski

The Lebanese author talks American literature, the Islamic State, and how conservatism has shrunk the Arabic language.
March 5, 2015, 1:30pm

Charles Chahwan sitting in front of his bookshelf

Wearing thick-rimmed glasses, a hoody, and a leather jacket, his head framed by a chaotic tumbleweed of hair, Charles Chahwan sat in a family-run cafe in Jounieh, a coastal town just north of Beirut.

On the table, surrounded by a Lebanese meze, was a decent-sized book. Its cover displayed an abstract painting in garish colors of a disheveled, bearded man in underwear, standing beside a cactus and drinking a bottle of beer. A crudely drawn, upside-down stick-person with tits and a vagina also peered out from the cover's right-hand corner.

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The image somewhat resembled Chahwan, perhaps after a particularly heavy night of drinking. However, though it was painted by him, it in fact pays homage to another Charles: Bukowski.

Chahwan's translation of 'Women'

Chahwan, a 50-year-old Lebanese author, best known in his home country for Harb A-Shawari'a ("Street Wars")—a collection of short stories profiling the lives of rival gunmen competing for control of Beirut's streets during the country's 1975–1990 civil war—is the first person to translate American author Charles Bukowski into Arabic. The book on the table is an Arabic-language copy of Bukowski's 1978 novel, Women. Previously, Chahwan has translated works by other 20th-century American literary figures, including Raymond Chandler and Paul Auster, as moonlight projects on the side of a career as a journalist and art and literary critic.

Chahwan became interested in Bukowski and writers of the Beat Generation during Lebanon's civil war while studying English literature at a faculty of the Lebanese University in Fanar, a town close to Jounieh.

"Back then, reading and writing provided me with an escape. I mean, they still do," said Chahwan, who penned his first book—a collection of short poems—at the age of 18. "I preferred American literature to British and other European writers. I felt like I could relate to it more—the aspirational side.

"Growing up in the 70s and 80s, the French colonial influence in Lebanon was still strong. Often I would first encounter excerpts from American writers in French magazines—I think maybe the first time I read Women was in French."

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At just over 300 pages, Women is arguably Bukowski's most autobiographical work. It describes, in smutty, matter-of-fact detail, the life of protagonist Henry Chinaski—a 50-something sexually re-awakened alcoholic writer going through a steady stream of vomiting, women, poetry readings, dog races, quarts of half-water, half-whiskey, the occasional quaalude, and a desire to live to 80 and have promiscuous encounters with 18-year-olds.

Three of Chahwan's books

Released in Lebanon shortly before Christmas, it has gained a fairly positive reception at book fairs in Beirut and in some of the local Lebanese press—the most liberal in the Arab world—albeit often as an oddity or point of intrigue. Given its subject matter, the book is unlikely to receive a pan-Arab release. Chahwan, understandably, was aware of such a reality before he undertook the translation.

"I can't imagine it going down well in the Gulf or Saudi," he laughed. "Saudi channels cut kisses when they show Western films. How can you have a romantic film with the kisses cut? The film won't make sense!"

Taking, on and off, two years to complete the book, once he was finished and had found a publisher, Chahwan was paid just $2,000 for his work.

"They're bloody thieves. I get screwed over every time," said Chahwan, shaking his head. " Women is pretty pornographic, so the translation was quite difficult—some modern Arabic dictionaries don't even have an entry for penis. Conservatism has shrunk the language; I almost had to consult a medieval scientific text."

Chahwan sitting in front of one of his paintings

In 2002, a comprehensive study conducted by the United Nations suggested that only 300 books are translated from Western languages into Arabic every year. Greece is said to annually translate five times more books from English than the entire Arab world, a stark contrast to the reams of literary translations during the reign of the Umayyad Caliph al Ma'mun, in the ninth century.

During that era, al Ma'mun founded an unrivaled school of learning in Baghdad known as Bayt al Hikma (House of Wisdom), which was home to a translation center marked by a vociferous appetite to translate the intellectual traditions of conquered foes. Among many of its achievements, it's partly through the endeavors of Bayt al Hikma that the foundations of modern science were established and the philosophical legacy of Aristotle and Plato rediscovered by the West.

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"It's a shame that more books are not translated into Arabic. Maybe if some of these guys from Daesh [the Islamic State] read Bukowski they would enjoy it and not go to war," said Chahwan, smiling. "I don't know. Maybe it would make some even more angry. These people are a nightmare—there was nothing comparable to them here during the [civil] war."

During the 80s, Jounieh—known for its casino, cobbled high street, and nightclubs—remained relatively conflict-free compared with other parts of Lebanon. However, Chahwan did, on a number of occasions, incur the wrath of the Lebanese Forces (LF), a Christian militia that came to control the area.

"The first time it was over a girl I had dated that an LF member wanted to marry," recalled Chahwan. "They basically parked a car full of armed men outside my house for a week to intimidate me out of seeing her again."

The tactic worked.

"Shame. She was a nice girl," said Chahwan.

One of Chahwan's paintings

"Another time they accused me of sacrilege for this short story I published in a local leftist magazine. They took offense to a metaphor I wrote describing Jesus in the form of a blond woman in a Ferrari," he told me. "It was called 'Jazz in Solitude.' That time I didn't leave the house for two weeks. They were really after me."

The relative dearth in translations of Western literature into Arabic is often attributed to religious conservatism and low literacy rates in the MENA region. The theory holds that this then leads to a focus on religious texts, written in Arabic. But in Lebanon, a large cross-section of the population is competent in both English and French.

"Most kids write text messages in [Lebanese] Arabic using the Latin script. In schools, they don't teach the children how to write proficiently in Arabic," said Chahwan, touching upon the difference between Arabic dialects (which differ from country to country, region to region) and written Arabic, which comes in a largely uniform style across the Arab world.

"It's sad that this connection with written Arabic is being lost. But speaking and writing in English and French creates opportunities to leave and establish better careers elsewhere. This has been happening since even before the civil war. It's also part of what makes Lebanon a bit different to other countries around here," reflected Chahwan.

"I mean, at least here in Lebanon people can buy my Bukowski translation," he added. "If you want, I can say I translated Bukowski as a counter-attack to ISIS – [that] I'm fighting against these kinds of mentalities. But really, I did it because I like Bukowski. If I were doing it for the money then I'd be an idiot, because there's no money in it."

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