“Impostures” by al-Ḥarīrī, translated by Michael Cooperson

A page from the Maqamat (Bibliothèque Nationale) A page from the Maqamat (Bibliothèque Nationale)

The title of this book is the first “imposture”, flouting the venerable approach of calling this 12th-century Arabic classic the “Assemblies” or the “Seances of Hariri”. Maqamat means a halting place, where an audience might sit around and tell stories. It can, at a stretch, mean “to get up”, focusing on the storyteller standing before his audience. With “Impostures” as the title, Michael Cooperson, a professor of Arabic literature at UCLA, puts us on notice not to expect a traditional translation. The Maqamat recounts in 50 episodes the impostures of the protagonist Abu Zeid, posing as beggar, poet, plaintiff, scholar or sufi, in order to con money out of his appreciative and affably gulled assembly of listeners. He succeeds in opening their purses by deploying the most dazzling verbal gymnastics imaginable. Acrostics, palindromes, rhymed verse, rare words, this does not even begin to describe the extent of Abu Zeid’s rhetorical arsenal.

One episode contains a riff of insults using near homonyms: “mukhtal wa muhtal wa mughtal”, “rouge, thief and assassin”, with an effect like saying “you’re bad, sad and mad”. Another phrase uses identically written words with different, unwritten vowels: akhtiru and akhturu. Not surprisingly, the published Arabic texts provide a half-page of explanatory notes for every page of Hariri’s dense prose. In yet another instance the meaning varies depending on how one groups the letters into words, always the bane of having to  interpret manuscripts: “hurrun yara  (“a free man deems it good”), if read without a space between the two words, yields “hariri”, the author’s own name.

This work made Hariri an instant celebrity.

Impostures, al-Ḥarīrī, Michael Cooperson (trans) (NYU Press, May 2020)
Impostures, al-Ḥarīrī, Michael Cooperson (trans) (NYU Press, May 2020)

The author could be forgiven indulging in sneaky self-promotion. This work made Hariri an instant celebrity, and in his lifetime, it became one of the most copied manuscripts in Arabic literature. Several extant copies are products of Hariri’s own hand, a testimony to its popularity that is unique in the history of Arabic literature. The sumptuous copy in France’s Bibliothèque Nationale contains the finest and most frequently reproduced illustrations of Arabic book art.

The fame of Hariri’s Maqamat extended to a cosmopolitan audience that could not read Arabic well enough to appreciate the original text. Several Persian translations were made, as well as a Hebrew version, which became a minor classic in its own right. One of the great contributions which Cooperson makes here is to explore the techniques of these translations, which include that of Rückert (whose poetry inspired lieder by Schubert, Schumann and Brahms). This section alone should be read by anyone interested in translation. Inevitably, we conclude that one must choose between form and content. So Cooperson’s second imposture is that his is a translation of an untranslatable book. It could be possible to imitate almost all the verbal fireworks of Hariri, if one were to forgo making sense, or would could retell the stories in prose, with no pretense to provide the excitement of the original.

Cooperson escapes from this dilemma, Houdini-like, with a conceit that initially seems silly but after a few pages becomes compelling. Inspired by French surrealist Raymond Queneau’s Exercise de Style, the translator choses a different register of English for each episode. Channeling by turns Mark Twain, Alexander Pope, Gangs of New York, Singlish or Cab Calloway, Cooperson extends the vocabulary, rhythms and syntax of English in a way that standard English could never suffice, so matching the protean nature of Hariri’s Arabic. In this way the episodes capture the beguiling verbosity of the original.

This small verse illustrates how wide Cooperson casts his nets in the sea of English. Here Abu Zeid advises that when begging for money, it’s useful to pretend blindness.


One queer lamp has Mother Goodluck,
And dark her other glim;
If you need her help to come off rye buck
Best keep your ogles dim.

Cooperson’s erudition is both engrossing and entertaining, just as Hariri would have wanted.

The third imposture in this book is that, as you may notice above, Cooperson’s texts themselves need translating. Episode 7 uses over 200 glossary items drawn from 19th-century police commissioner George Matsell’s dictionary of New York gangster slang. This puts the reader of the translation in the same position as the reader of the Arabic text with its copious notes. This additional effort is worth it, however, as Cooperson’s erudition concerning both Arabic and English literature and prosody is both engrossing and entertaining to read, just as Hariri would have wanted.

David Chaffetz is the author of Three Asian Divas: Women, Art and Culture in Shiraz, Delhi and Yangzhou (Abbreviated Press, November 2019)