Monday, July 9, 2012

"A Naughty World": Syria - Shakespeare on... Wikileaks

My jet-lagged friend Elias alerted me early yesterday morning that the latest batch of Wikileaks Syria emails includes some correspondence with one Lamis Ismail Omar, an intimate friend of Bashar al-Asad who's completing a PhD at Durham University in the UK.  She's in the School of Modern Languages and Cultures: Translation and Linguistics.
Dissertation topic: "The Translation of Metaphor in Shakespeare's Drama from English into Arabic."
Dissertation advisors: Daniel Newman, Paul Starkey, David Cowling.
And forgive me but: she's very hot, for a Shakespeare studies grad student!

By the time I've gotten to look into it, the press in several languages is alleging that Lamis is Asad's lover, citing the extremely affectionate tone of their email and the large portrait of him on her wall in Durham.  Durham university is scrambling to deny any formal links with Asad or knowledge that he or his pariah regime (but she enrolled in 2006!) paid Lamis Ismail Omar's tuition. Wikileaks' copy of Lamis' fourth-year-student review is down (probably from excess traffic) and a search for Lamis Ismail's profile on LinkedIn, with what seems to be her correct dissertation title, mysteriously re-routes to another profile named Janah Rahman.  No further information to be gleaned from In a more recent photo she looks more grad-studenty, or perhaps just harried by the press.

Newspapers have republished some of the 800 emails released by Wikileaks. The messages are mostly in English, with a lot of Arabic mixed in.  In some cases they're downright romantic, quoting Nizar Qabbani poems about roses etc.; elsewhere, Lamis shares worries about her mother's health.  Others reveal a shared interest (between Lamis and Bashar, who writes as in some subtleties of the English language: metaphors, catchphrases, stock expressions, lexical nuances. She coaches him on stock expressions to use in upcoming meetings. They share an iPhone app for idioms, and she sends him a very long writeup (with sample quotes from books by scholars such as Steven Heydemann who are of course critical of his regime) of the issues involved in translating certain politically loaded terms such as "revisionist."  As a translation professional she seems really smart. You can read a few more of the emails here  [update - does Lamis have a son??] and see Al-Akhbar's analysis of the whole cache.

[Update, which casts more light on how things work in academia than anything else. Wikileaks is back up. In her review, Lamis' committee writes:
As usual, the quality of her work is very high. She is currently working on the revisions of chapters submitted this session, as well as on a sample analysis of metaphors in her corpus (Shakespearean plays and their Arabic translations). Professor Newman has no doubt that Lamis will be able successfully to complete her PhD by 2012, and that her dissertation will make a significant contribution to her field of study; he adds only that it is imperative she does not lose momentum during her stay in Syria.
If she has other projects going on besides grad school, such as, e.g., translating Bashar's speeches or performing any other services in Syria's Ministry of Presidential Affairs (!), her advisors do not mention it and probably don't know or care.]

I should say that Arabic Shakespeare translations have been a staple topic for dissertations by Arab students doing PhDs in the UK (and, to a lesser but still important extent, in the US).  I catalog over a dozen such dissertations in the intro to my book.  Many of them are excellent, though some are unduly nitpicky (asserting the grad student's superiority over an Arab translation tradition portrayed as backward). None so far has been published as a monograph, perhaps because the students leave with their PhDs and go on to publish and teach in the Arab world, so English-language academic publications may be less important.  A dissertation on "The Translation of Metaphor in Shakespeare's Drama from English into Arabic" seems plausible, even potentially trendy.  I don't understand when and how Durham University is supposed to have intuited that Lamis Ismail was being sponsored by the Syrian regime, or why it's necessarily a scandal that she's due to graduate in September.  (If she's having an affair with Bashar, that's a scandal of a very different scale and kind.)

Finally: the sig quote that wraps up most of Lamis' emails is, you might say, weirdly a propos of the Wikileaks phenomenon:
How far that little candle throws his beams!
So shines a good deed in a weary world.
It comes from The Merchant of Venice 5.1- albeit in the Willy Wonka version rather than Portia's.  In Shakespeare it's a "naughty world" -- which seems apter still.

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