Sea of Debt: An Interview with Ahmed Yaqoub AlMaazmi by Sara Hammami

Sea of Debt: An Interview with Ahmed Yaqoub AlMaazmi by Sara Hammami

By Sara Hammami

Ahmed Yaqoub AlMaazmi is a scholar and translator completing his doctoral work at Princeton University. A historian with graceful language and the ability to sooth curiosities, AlMaazmi is bridging gaps in histories and using a Khaleeji lens to shift focus away from European accounts of Khaleeji histories. AlMaazmi is a diligent, talented translator, and seemingly effortlessly lifts the wonder in Bishara’s Sea of Debt into Arabic. He kindly lent us his time to answer interview questions for Kutubna Cultural Center’s Spotlight. He is interviewed here by Sara Hammami.

In this interview, Ahmed will delve into his extensive experience as a translator over the years, shedding light on his translated work Sea of Debt. Through this discussion, you'll gain insight into Ahmed's personality, background, and perspectives.

Sara Hammami: In the acknowledgements of the book Sea of Debt, Bishara opens with “Thankfully, my son carries on his grandfather’s boundless curiosity.” This manner of curiosity is one I see reflected throughout the book. Do you think it is also reflected in yourself, and did it create a compatible experience to translate this work, or did you find yourself at times at wars with the process of translation?

Ahmed AlMaazmi: My story with the captivating world of Sea of Debt can be traced back to 2017 when a historian of migration in the Gulf, Lindsey Stephenson, introduced it to me. At that time, my impression of the Gulf’s historiography and the state of the archives in the region led me to pursue a master's degree in cultural and linguistic anthropology at Rutgers University. My fascination with anthropology stemmed from a perception that the stories I'd heard from my grandparents, and through them, their ancestors, were missing from the historical accounts I encountered, which mostly focused on the influence of European powers in the Gulf region. Instead, I sought a deeper understanding of the everyday lives of regular people in the Gulf. Anthropology held the promise of doing that—of making the archives that I was seeking out there.

The allure of Sea of Debt, authored by Fahad Bishara from the Gulf itself, hit me immediately. Its writing style, the stories it unveiled, and its ability to bring to life a plethora of local archives left an indelible mark on my perception of the Arabian Peninsula’s connection to the Indian Ocean world.

While reading the book, I had a strong urge to connect with Fahad Bishara and engage with the ideas that had reshaped my intellectual journey. This marked the beginning of my exploration into the world illuminated by Sea of Debt and my ongoing discussions with Fahad Bishara, who played a pivotal role in redefining how we view the history of the Arabian Peninsula in relation to the surrounding ocean.

Given the dearth of such books, I endeavored to spread the book's insights by recommending it for translation, particularly to local translators who could capture and relate to its stories. However, my attempts hit roadblocks until an unexpected opportunity presented itself at the end of 2020. By then, I had nearly completed my doctoral degree requirements at Princeton University, except for the dissertation. The unexpected twist came when I was asked to pause my studies and embark on a 16-month military national service in my home country, the UAE. This shift from academia to military duty was a significant change, and taking Sea of Debt with me was a way to hold onto the intellectual world I was leaving behind. Amid the rigors of military life, the book was in my bag next to the few allowed things I could bring for many weeks while at the bootcamp, secluded from the world with no phone and access to the internet. Sea of Debt became my companion, transporting me to the landscapes of Omani forts, East African forests, and bustling Indian ports.

The process of translating the book proved both challenging and fulfilling. Stripped of the usual language references, I delved into the essence of the text itself. I visualized its narratives before attempting to render them into Arabic. This process allowed me to capture the book's spirit beyond mere words. The book introduced me to unfamiliar fields like legal history and economic life, and finding suitable terms in Arabic was a puzzle that demanded creative solutions. At times I lost the words that I was seeking to capture the beautiful idiomatic language that Fahad Bishara used to portray people speaking many languages in South Asia, Arabia, and East Africa.

What mattered most was conveying the same experience I had while reading the book. It was about encapsulating not just the language, but also the visceral connection I had developed over the years spent with Sea of Debt. Upon returning to my familiar surroundings after the bootcamp stint, I refined my translation, juggling it alongside the demands of military life.

My translation journey aimed to retain the book's rich idiomatic expressions and technical terms, while introducing new Arabic terms where necessary. Preserving local concepts in their original languages like Arabic, Swahili, and Gujarati was a deliberate choice, honoring their conceptual frameworks. Through this translation, I hoped to craft a testament to what it means to document the history of the Indian Ocean world in Arabic, capturing the intricate threads that bind cultures, trade, and human experiences across vast waters.

Sara Hammami: Are there other translators that you have looked to for inspiration or practice?

Ahmed AlMaazmi: Back in 2011, the United Arab Emirates University organized an event that would introduce students to the world of the Kalima translation project. This initiative granted students free access to its publications, leaving a lasting impression. The diverse range of unfamiliar topics and the brilliance of well-crafted books captivated my attention, marking a significant departure from my experiences at Arab book fairs.

Throughout my undergraduate years, the Kalima Project for Translation emerged as a wellspring of knowledge, breaking down linguistic and cultural barriers in the UAE and the wider Arab region. It acted as a portal to uncharted territories, offering insights into subjects previously inaccessible. The choice of translated titles was meticulous, emphasizing in the selection of translators’ excellence in linguistic precision, production quality, and expertise in the relevant field. This effort represented a cultural endeavor, aiming to bridge the knowledge gap between Arabic readers and various fields where Arabic intellectual output had fallen behind in recent times.

More than a cultural revival, the Kalima Project for Translation harnessed collective human knowledge to cultivate generations with global awareness. It acquainted readers with impactful ideas emanating from diverse regions, encouraging interaction and knowledge creation. As an Emirati historian and translator, I view the Kalima Translation Project as an organic catalyst within the cultural history of the Gulf region. It stands as a link within a lineage of endeavors that gave rise to pioneering intellectual circles across Basra, Al-Ahsa, the Gulf Islands, the Emirates' coast, Oman and beyond, with influences spanning from Bombay, to Aden, and Cairo to Zanzibar.

My personal involvement with the Kalima Project started in 2022, when I interacted with its representatives during the Sharjah Book Fair. This interaction led to the publication of my fourth book, a translation of Professor Fahad Ahmad Bishara's A Sea of Debt: Law and Economic Life in the Western Indian Ocean 1780-1950. The warm reception and encouragement I received as an Emirati translator were heartening. The administrative and editorial team’s dedication ensured that the book project received meticulous attention from its inception, resulting in a polished final product.

Drawing from my own journey, I wholeheartedly encourage those with a passion for translation to embrace this extraordinary opportunity presented in the UAE. It stands not only as a personal experience

but also as an invitation to contribute to a historic endeavor in the realm of translation, fostering connections between cultures and enriching the Arabic library.

Sara Hammami: Are you working on any other translations at present?

Ahmed AlMaazmi: Currently, my focus is dedicated to writing my dissertation titled "An Enchanted Sea." Upon its completion and submission, my intention is to immerse myself once more in the historiographical expanse beautifully woven by Fahad Bishara. His upcoming book on Gulf seafarers within the Indian Ocean world beckons, a venture I eagerly anticipate delving into for the purpose of translation. Just as seafarers navigate uncharted waters, I am poised to navigate the intricate currents of linguistic expressions that Bishara is drawing from the personal writings of sea captains “Nakhodas,” aiming to bring this enlightening work to a wider audience through the power of translation.

You can find more of AlMaazmi’s books, translations, and papers here. He can be found on twitter at @Ahmed_Yaqoub.

Sara is fragmented between language & is always thinking & dreaming of life underwater. She has poems living with DEAR Poetry Journal, Grist, and forthcoming in ANMLY Press.

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