Category Archives: Publishing

al-Mughira bin Shu’bah

Earlier this fall, in fact the very same week I sat down to start writing my thesis — a monograph on al-Mughirah bin Shu’bah (ra), the rather infamous Companion of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) — one of my advisors informed me that a work in Arabic had just been produced and published, albeit in Iran, on the very same man.  As an academic, even a very temporary academic like me, this is not the sort of news you want to hear.  In fact, it is very much like having the rug pulled right from under your feet.  Hours and hours of research in primary sources:  Tabari, Ibn Sa’d, Ibn Kathir, Baladhuri, Waqidi, Ibn Khallikhan, Ibn Khaldun, all the ahadith of the various canonized collections, all of that down the tubes, not to mention more contemporary tomes that helped me frame my thinking about these primary sources.

Holding “Mughira bin Shu’bah” for the first time.

But, wonderfully enough, through whatever absurd connections Princeton maintains around the world, the University was able to get me a copy of this book, even though it isn’t yet widely available.  As such my task in this monograph remains intact but also gets shaded just a little.  Not only will I produce a monograph of al-Mughirah bin Shu’bah (in English) but I will engage with this work, debate it, raise conflicting opinions, and jump into what might become a mini-academic debate.

The combination of curmudgeonly respect I feel for this volume, as I heft it for the first time, freshly hand-delivered to me by the library staff here, and disgust (that my idea has been stolen) has a certain curiosity to it, an NQR-icism unique, so far, in the annals of this blog.

Please wish me luck reading this tome, digesting it, and somehow incorporating it in my own endeavors over the next two months as I finish this thesis.  It remains for me to read and review and think about just what sources were used and what opinion of al-Mughirah bin Shu’bah the author of this study — a man named Abd’al-Baqi Qurna al-Jaza’iri — formed and conveyed in his preemptive strike on my (strangely cherished) objective.

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The 24-Hour Book

Amid a panoply of other academic tasks this week, I’m planning to write a response essay (300 words or less!) as part of the 24-Hour Book Project.

Brian Dillon hard at work on his 24-hour book

In short, a man named Brian Dillon has been closeted away at the Brooklyn offices of Cabinet magazine for the last 24-hours, producing a novelette he has titled “I Am Sitting in a Room.”  He started at 10AM yesterday and finished just a few minutes ago.  The manuscript zipped off to the printers and also to a few enterprising volunteer grad students from various disciplines here at Princeton.  We have 24 hours of our own to read, digest and respond — artistically, critically, banaly — to the work.

I’m interested to see if Dillon’s writing exhibits coherence in this short time-frame.  I’m interested to see what reaction it provokes in me, tossed and turned and sullied by the articles on Jewish mysticism, Islamic exegesis, and Christian gnosis I’m currently reading for my coursework.

Whether I produce something worthy of this cultural pearl or something more fit to toss to swine, it is an interesting and fun experiment in the narrowing of time and history, the mechanisms at our disposal for communication, and the speed of production and consumption in our present-day half-mad world.

It’s a project filled to the brim with Not Quite Right.

UPDATE #1 (1433hours, Sunday 11DEC2011):  After finishing three articles on the Merkavah and the approach to God in Jewish mysticism, I tore through a first reading of “I Am Sitting in a Room.”  Enjoyed it.  Found it more relevant to academia and less a ‘fiction’ than expected.  Will now let it take the air for a few hours while attending a Sunday evening lecture and dinner.

UPDATE #2:  (2302hours, Sunday 11DEC2011):  Returned from excellent dinner and lecture.  Reviewed materials for courses tomorrow.  Starting 60-minute essay on 24-hour book.

UPDATE #3:  (0043hours, Monday 12DEC2011):  Finished essay, submitted to IHUM, the Princeton program coordinating the book ‘release’ event.

UPDATE #4:  (1425hours, Monday 12DEC2011):  Editors of 24-hour book project notify me of my essay’s inclusion in the commentary volume that will be associated with the project.  Invited to speak as panelist at book event circa 1630hours but unfortunately — due to car maintenance issues — decline.


One Hundred and One Nights

Just received via overnight package two advance copies of the finished, published version of my novel “One Hundred and One Nights.” They came as a wonderfully-timed birthday present gift from my editor at Little, Brown.

The cover captures the essence of the main character, a little Iraqi girl named Layla.

It’s been a long process, shepherding the book to this point, a process that couldn’t have happened without the confluence of tremendous good luck, good circumstances, and grinding effort.

In the category of good luck, I must mention how fortunate I was to have a couple stories originally published by Storyglossia quickly anthologized by Dzanc Press in back-to-back editions of “Best of the Web.”  From there, I was doubly lucky for Jon Sternfeld, of the Irene Goodman Literary Agency, to contact me and ask if I might be able to write a novel similar to the stories he had read in those anthologies.

After bantering around a few ideas with Jon, I settled down to sketch out “One Hundred and One Nights.”  The process (here is the beginning of the GRIND) took a full year, writing during lunch breaks as I studied the Arabic language at the Defense Language Institute.  Eventually, 500 words at a time, I reached a point where I had put flesh on a very, very rough skeleton of a first draft.  Jon signed up to represent the novel and, after several thorough and complete edits/revisions under his guidance, he found it a home with Little, Brown’s imprint Back Bay Books.  Here, again, more good luck:  being pared with an editor (Vanessa Kehren) who took the book through several more important iterations of review and polishing and whose good ideas now pervade the novel to such an extent that it really should be considered a group effort, Buchholz-Sternfeld-Kehren.

And, as for the good circumstances?  There I must credit my work in the military, first as a Civil Affairs Officer in Safwan, Iraq, and now as a Foreign Area Officer learning more about the Middle East, both experiences which have provided the waft and the supporting weave in which to stitch something I hope will convey a certain measure of reality while also invoking a bit of empathy for the people of the village of Safwan, Iraq.

A further bit of fortunate circumstance — taking my family with me this last year in Oman and throughout the Middle East.  They not only enlivened my days, but provided space for me to write and inspiration for me to write about.  I think “One Hundred and One Nights” reflects a little bit of them, my father feeling for my children especially which comes streaming out between the seams as the character Abu Saheeh slowly unravels his story.  My family might say that living with someone who is trying to write/edit a novel is Not Quite Right but, without them, I would have been lonely, empty, and only resonating with the sort of hollowness that haunts Abu Saheeh in the beginning of the tale.

Please help me spread the word about this book!  It will ship to bookstores (and ship from Amazon both as a hardcopy and as an eBook) starting in December!  I’ll return to normal NQR blogging with most of my posts hereafter, though occasionally some exuberance, some note about especially great things going on with the book, may bleed over into this forum.

Thank you for your patience with my exciticism.  I hope, if you do read the novel, that you find it both enjoyable and meaningful.


National Geographic

It doesn’t seem that National Geographic would be a likely candidate for a Not Quite Right moment, though the more closely a person looks at another culture the more that even the most familiar things turn out to be slightly twisted.

This twist, in particular, demonstrates a little something about the power of language and the power of having power itself, providing a good example of the old adage about the ‘winner gets to write history.’  And the winner, at least right now in the Arabian Gulf region, is Abu Dhabi, one of the seven Emirates in the UAE and the place where the new, Arabic-language version of National Geographic Magazine started being published last October.

The 'tampered' title, which reads "The Trucial Emirati Coast"

First, let me say that I love National Geographic.  My family dreads the moment it arrives in my mailbox.  I hide away with it for hours, more hours than normal now that the magazine is available in Arabic.  It gives me a chance to learn vocabulary I’ll probably never encounter elsewhere, stuff like:  super-nova, Inca lip-piercing, Mormon tabernacle, plate tectonics, Gorilla repopulation studies.  It is wide-ranging reading, good for the brain.

But it seems that Abu Dhabi couldn’t resist a little historical rewrite.  One of my Omani friends pointed out that the December 2010 cover story is a reprint of a 1956 National Geographic article on the UAE.  However, the UAE hadn’t even formed yet.  It was still known as the Trucial States (due to a century-old treaty with Great Britain that was aimed at controlling piracy in the Gulf).  Or, even more pointedly, as the “Trucial States of Oman.”

In fact, the full title of that 1956 article was, in the typically verbose style of those days:

Desert Sheikdoms of Arabia’s Pirate Coast: In Trucial Oman’s Principalities, Cradled by Seas of Sand and Salt, Camels, Dates, and Pearls Support a Fiercely Independent People

Abu Dhabi seems not to have liked publishing a magazine cover that hinted at its one-time fealty to the Sultanate of Oman.  So they took some liberties and changed the title.

The arabic of the cover story now procliams ساحل الإمارات المتصالح:  The Trucial Emirati Coast.  The editors in Abu Dhabi went with “Emirati” even though the name “Emirates” didn’t have any association with their chunk of the earth until 1971, a decade and a half after the article appeared.

Slightly political, yes, but mostly just Not Quite Right.


Arabic Script vs. Microsoft Word

With One Hundred and One Nights incorporating a few simple bits of arabic script in the chapter titles and a couple other artistically significant places, the formatting of the manuscript has provided me with new proof that Bill Gates is the antichrist.  I don’t use the word antichrist lightly here either, for the tricks played by my computer during the final phase of my work polishing the manuscript have been bizarre, other-worldly, devilishly Not Quite Right.

First of all, the arabic language is written right to left instead of left to right like English.  Embedding arabic in a Word document results in repeated switching between left and right justification.  Word doesn’t play that game.  Its all left.  Its all right.  It switches between the two at unexpected intervals.  Its rarely alright.

Example of incorrectly and quasi-magically separated Arabic computer script.

Second, when saving a document in Word (or even saving it as .txt and then accidentally opening it in Word) the program sometimes, but not always, likes to break all the nice flowy letters apart.  This is different than, say, just adding space between English letters.  It becomes nearly unreadable.  Decipherable yes.  But only with great strain.

Third, and most exascerbating, to overcome the issues listed above, I decided to turn each and every usage of Arabic into its own little .jpeg, thus removing any chance, outside of honest-to-goodness black magic voodoo, of Bill and his minions interfering.  But, because the .jpegs had to be at 300dpi (I learned a lot of computer jargon during this exercise!) I couldn’t just snip the words with a screen capture, save them as .jpegs and send them on their merry way.  No.  I had to cut and paste each section of script into MicroSoft Publisher, a program I’d never even heard of prior to this adventure, let alone used.  Then at long last the image from Publisher could be exported as a .jpeg, with all the correct DPI, FPT, FBI, RGB and CIA levels or whatever.

Notice the little white breaks between letters, here the yay, the ba and the tamarbutta.

Yet, just when I thought I had won, just when I thought I had vanquished ol’ Lucifer, I opened one of my freshly incubated little bits of Arabic to find, horribly, that Bill had still crept in — inserting little white breaks between any of the letters where the script connector between letters touched the base line!!!  I had to manually create, insert and fit a little rectangular ink-colored box over each and every one of those corruptions.

I’m sure half of these issues were due to my status as a certified electronics troglodyte.

But the other half, I am equally certain, was the work of the Dark Lord.