Reviewed: Zeyn Joukhadar, The Thirty Names of Night, Atria Books, 320 pp.
I have been desperate, recently, to find people just like me. Maybe it’s because we’ve been faced with incessant lockdown and I live alone. So I’m looking for people like me because I’m so used to looking in the mirror. I’m looking out the window as I write this, and a 60 km/h wind breathes into the cracks in my apartment. Where are the birds? The sky isn’t safe for them.
I’m carrying two years of writing published under a name I’ve since let go of. I renamed myself the day after my twenty-fifth birthday. I read Zeyn Joukhadar’s The Thirty Names of Night before this re-identification. While I was still wondering, what will I be? I opened the first page, and the dedication read, ‘for those who name themselves’. Another mirror.
Joukhadar’s novel has two narrators—one contemporary and one historical—whose voices appear in alternating chapters. The first character is an as yet unnamed trans-masculine Syrian American grieving his ornithologist mother in Manhattan. He lives and cares for his grandmother in the house he grew up in. The other is Laila Z, a fictional Syrian-American artist, narrating in an archival diary that starts in Syria in the early twentieth century and moves fluidly across the United States to tell her history of love and migration. Laila Z is around the same age as the unnamed character’s grandmother, which we eventually find is no coincidence.
The book’s refrain is a fictional species of bird that very few people believe exists: Geronticus simurghus. Phoenix-like, travelling in droves, these birds follow the earth’s circumference, never settling, which has made the species impossible to spot in the wild. Among the believers are Laila Z and the unnamed narrator’s mother. In order to put his mother’s ghost to rest, he tries to prove the bird’s existence. He finds Laila’s diary and lets it become the map.
In my dreams, I see impossible birds, inconceivable combinations of real-life breeds, birds with colours that don’t exist in the waking world. I recognise too well the frustration of trying to depict an animal that doesn’t exist. When I try to write these birds, it never works, so I’ll never stop. On foot forever, orbiting resolution.
How come every time I try to make a metaphor I turn to birds? How come all the other SWANA (Southwest Asian and North African) writers do it too? Maybe we are so accustomed to flying home, and we are homesick. But that’s too obvious—this phenomenon isn’t as common in the art of other diaspora communities. Is it even a diaspora thing? Birds have been in our vocabulary forever, from even before we left.
The Conference of the Birds (1177) is a long-form Persian poem by Farid ud-Din Attar. It’s about the birds of the world, gathering to decide which of them will be their monarch. The hoopoe suggests Simorgh, a massive and fantastic bird in Persian mythology. This is the bird that Joukhadar references in The Thirty Names of Night. Attar wrote birds as metaphor centuries ago and we haven’t been able to shake them since. For many SWANA people, The Conference of the Birds is a household reference, regardless of whether or not you read poetry. Why the obsession with birds? Maybe we want to be close to god. Or it could be because the first-ever person to fly, in the ninth century, was Abbas Ibn Firnas, and we are carrying his history in our feeble wingspans.
There is a hive-mind that comes with shared history, which Joukhadar calls by name. In The Thirty Names of Night, he writes of time and trauma: ‘things that happened years ago never truly go away’. I have written this exact line, too—it’s scary. Are all Muslim trans stories the same? Joukhadar is quoting my mum, my sister. There are parallels between the unnamed narrator’s story and Laila’s: one history that orbits the earth forever, connoted by Geronticus simurghus. I have a theory that the bird in the book is djinn. That’s why the white ornithologists can’t see it; they don’t have our eyes.
I first read The Conference of the Birds in a bathtub, after getting home from a poetry reading. Cover to damp cover I read all 350 pages aloud and by the time I was finished I had a different voice. Near-hoarse, I finally understood poetry as recitation.
When I started reading The Thirty Names of Night, I wondered when Attar would make a cameo. He appears on page 17. I thought I was clever for anticipating it, then I was disappointed by its predictability. A few chapters in, The Conference of the Birds is mentioned again, accompanied by an explanation of the synopsis and a brief history. Is this not a text that everyone knows?
I read The Thirty Names of Night as an editor, even though I didn’t want to. But I have specific stakes in this book. The novel’s protagonist is a trans-masculine Muslim from the Levant diaspora who loves birds. I am a trans-masculine Muslim from the Levant diaspora who loves birds; I want the book to do me justice. When I read the phrase ‘oud music’, I was furious. Substitute the word ‘oud’ for any other instrument and it sounds awkward, gratuitous, a poly-linguistic tautology that causes a breakage in voice. I annotate the line ‘Perhaps the negligence of a white editor?’
Similarly, sentences—and often the metaphors that warrant them—could have ended earlier. Phrases are overembellished, losing the sharp punch they could otherwise have offered, sounding like hesitant clarification. I find myself trying to identify the source of this indulgence. An example: ‘[…] the cries of joy became zagharit, as though this were a wedding and the guest of honour had arrived at last’. I do not need to be told what a zaghrouta is, but maybe this book isn’t written for me. And herein lies the tension, because I said the opposite just a paragraph ago. I spend 300 pages oscillating between ‘this is for us’ and ‘no it isn’t’.
Here’s a counter-argument: Joukhadar is writing fiction like traditional Arabic poetry: making the language richer, letting mental images linger through reiteration rather than steamrolling through. But this never works in English, wherein vocabulary is limited and sanitary. I know many Arabic-trained poets who started writing and performing in English instead. Catering to new audiences, their work is a shame. The dynamism of Arabic vocabulary doesn’t translate.
There’s a style of diaspora SWANA writing that code-switches only through nouns, occurring through a break in the English language to make way for words such as ‘zaatar’, ‘teita’, ‘abaya’. Editors only recently stopped italicising these nouns. That was a big win for us, finally acknowledging code-switching as a legitimate practice. Italicised or not, I still find the rhythm of this kind of writing off-putting—it still heels to Anglophone readers. Sitting with The Thirty Names of Night I realise that this self-orientalising act of self-translation was taught to us years ago. It was instigated by the first-ever negligent white editors (translators), then internalised by us and passed down across bloodlines.
Joukhadar points to this history in The Thirty Names of Night, writing, ‘There is no nightingale among my index of birds, only the bulbul; in Farid ad-Din Attar’s Sufi poems, Solomon’s confidante is not the hoopoe but the hudhud.’ When The Conference of the Birds was translated into English, it retained the species’ original Persian names.
However, Joukhadar doesn’t do this in Laila’s narration, which is meticulous. It references Arabic without the perfunctory code-switching to suggest that the prose was originally formulated in Arabic. Halfway through the book, Joukhadar writes of Laila spotting an oriole; the experience is transcendent. Speaking of ‘a streak of orange through the blur of trees’, she narrates, ‘the osage orange and apple trees were scarved in their finery’. A few paragraphs later, explaining a woman’s grief and motherhood, Laila describes her with captivating poeticism: ‘A woman whose words had been dammed up inside the lake of her mouth.’ These phrases carry the atmosphere that white translators attempt to approximate but often fail at. In this Joukhadar achieves the rhythm of Arabic narration without falling back on the predictable use of transliterated nouns.
Reading Laila’s narrative, we know that Joukhadar can write without self-orientalising. Perhaps, when writing in the voice of the contemporary character, Joukhadar is addressing the self-orientalising tendencies adopted by second-, third- or fourth-generation migrants due to their proximity to whiteness. If that’s the case, the narrative is misconstrued as the very thing it’s criticising. At one point the unnamed narrator is at a club and surrounded by queer people of colour, many of them Muslim. When ‘Isha athaan begins to sound, the narrator thinks about his relationship to Islam and to queerness. It’s a self-indulgent run of sentences that speaks to body positivity, gender euphoria, Muslim pride and death in a single page, with predictable bird metaphors such as the word ‘uncage’ as an act of liberation; identifying the heart as a ‘new bird’; describing someone’s dancing as ‘trying to fly’; having women burst into a room ‘like eagles’. I sense hesitation in Joukhadar’s voice—he fails to honour and trust the reader’s imagination. I’m reminded again of Geronticus simurghus and of Laila’s determination to paint every detail even though she knows she can’t do it justice.
Maybe the hypothetical white editor has frightened Joukhadar with a hypothetical white reader. So Joukhadar is protecting them, and shielding himself in the process. I’m being critical because I’m reminded of my own experiences: of white editors who aren’t hypothetical and who scare us into writing with one hand monkey-gripping the bannister. They tell us it’s too confusing to freefall, because no-one else will see themselves in it.
I know now that a book is not a mirror. But still, when I read The Thirty Names of Night I wanted something that would shatter if the sky decided to drop it, not something that would hit the ground with a dull thud, remaining completely intact. •
Hasib Hourani lives and works on unceded Wurundjeri Country. He is a 2020 recipient of the Next Chapter, and is completing his debut book of poetry on suffocation and the occupation of Palestine.