Wordsworth into Arabic:  The lost legacy of Ali Luqman

by The Editor

   
Ali Muhammad Luqman in Aden c. 1941. 

In June 1940 Italy entered the War on the side of Germany and started bombing Aden from Italian bases in the Horn of Africa. In Western Europe allied forces were in retreat, and the mood in Aden was sombre. Freya Stark (FS), the British travel writer, was then working in Aden’s Information Office which had been established in late 1939 by Stewart Perowne, colonial administrator, scholar and broadcaster, to produce and disseminate news bulletins, and to counter enemy propaganda. 

In a chapter entitled The Sonnets of Wordsworth, of her book East is West (John Murray, 1945), FS describes the work of the Information Office and its small, largely Arab staff, singling out Ali Muhammad Luqman (1918–1979), the office’s ‘poet-translator’, for particular mention. FS was struck by Ali’s unshakeable confidence, even in the dark days of 1940, that the allies would eventually win the War. 

She wrote: 

‘He made it a labour of love to build Arabic prose out of the daily news which I picked up from the air and wrote over my breakfast on the terrace. Destroyers and the Red Sea sloops, battle ships and neutral ships and transports from New Zealand or Australia moved in and out below, beyond the ample bronze petticoats of Queen Victoria. In the clean sunshine and a breeze that fluttered the table-cloth edges, [Ali] would come out to discuss English meanings and Arabian cadences, building sentences that were to counter Italian propaganda and give to the people of Aden their only real news of the war . . . He believed in what we were fighting for . . . [His] feelings about it all were shown to me in June [1940]. The tired lines of [British] infantry were still on the beaches of Dunkerque. I was reading the sonnets in which Wordsworth in the years between 1801 and 1806 faced the invasion of England . . . I wondered if [these] sonnets would appeal to the Arabs of Aden in a time of danger, and gave them to [Ali] to take home. He came to the office next morning with the same bright light in his eyes and two sonnets already translated into Arabic verse. ‘This,’ he said to me with a sort of vehemence, ‘this is for the Arabs. It is brave’. ‘We thought that through Aden and the small coast towns, where readers are few, we might sell 500 copies, printed in tiny volumes . . . Stewart printed 2000; every copy was sold and more were asked for. ’ 

FS added, perhaps a little wishfully, ‘[Ali] was right; the poet’s words carried Dunkerque straight to the Arab heart. ’ 

Ali Muhammad Luqman was then twenty-three. He had been locally educated, and did not leave Aden to go to university (Aligarh in India and later Cairo) until 1943. So his translation of Wordsworth’s ‘Napoleon’ sonnets, as the one quoted below will testify, was a remarkable literary achievement, foreshadowing his later career as one of Yemen’s leading poets and dramatists: 

MILTON! thou shouldst be living at this hour: 
England hath need of thee: she is a fen 
Of stagnant waters: altar, sword, and pen, 
Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower, 
Have forfeited their ancient English dower 
Of inward happiness. We are selfish men; 
O raise us up, return to us again, 
And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power! 
Thy soul was like a Star, and dwelt apart; 
Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea: 
Pure as the naked heavens, majestic, free, 
So didst thou travel on life’s common way, 
In cheerful godliness; and yet thy heart 
The lowliest duties on herself did lay. 

Literary talent ran in the Luqman family. In 1939, Ali’s father, Muhammad Ali Luqman, a leading lawyer, had written the first novel, Sa’id, to be published in Aden; and in early 1940 he had founded Aden’s first Arabic language newspaper, Fatat al-Jazirah, of which Ali was later to become editor. By early 1941 Fatat al-Jazirah was being read throughout the Arab world, and from Mombasa to Singapore within the Arab diaspora. After the war the newspaper became a platform for the FreeYemeni movement and the propagation of Arab nationalist sentiment in southern Arabia. 

   
Dr Shihab Ghanem
   
Khaled Alyemany

In January 2008, Pamela, Lady Egremont, a fellow of the Wordsworth Trust, contacted a member of the British-Yemeni Society for help in tracing Ali Muhammad’s translation of the Wordsworth sonnets. She had heard some time earlierthat a translation hadbeen doneinAden duringtheWar, under the aegis of Freya Stark. She had informed the late Robert Woof, then Director of the Wordsworth Trust, whose enthusiastic interest had encouraged her to continue her quest to find a copy of the translated sonnets for the Trust. Her approach for help in January this year led to a trawl through files held in the British Library and in the National Archives relating to the activities of Aden’s Information Office in 1940; also to searches through the Stewart Perowne papers held by the Middle East Centre of St Antony’s College, Oxford, and the Freya Stark papers in the custody of John Murray in London. But these enquiries failed to produce a copy of Ali Muhammad’s translation. Meanwhile, members of the Luqman family were contacted, but none, neither Ali Muhammad’s two surviving brothers nor his children, had any knowledge of the Wordsworth translation. However, Ali Muhammad’s nephew, son-in-law and biographer, Dr Shihab Ghanem, volunteered the good news that he himself had translated into Arabic two poems by Wordsworth: Daffodils and The Rainbow. He kindly sent us copies of his translations (published in Dubai in 2002) for presentation to the Wordsworth Trust in Cumbria. When these were shown to Khaled Alyemany, Deputy Head of Mission in the Embassy of Yemen and an expert calligrapher, Khaled generously agreed to produce a calligraphic interpretation of each poem for the Wordsworth Trust. 

 
  
This calligraphic interpretation of Wordsworth’s poem Daffodils by Khaled Alyemany is based on Dr Shihab Ghanem’s Arabic translation. 
  
 
This calligraphic interpretation of Wordsworth’s poem The Rainbow by Khaled Alyemany is based on Dr Shihab Ghanem’s Arabic translation. 

Vol 16. 2008