|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
31 Jan. - 6 Feb. 2002
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
Of friends and letters
The packaging may seem starched, but there is plenty of passion within
Profile by Amina Elbendary and Youssef Rakha
Despite the inevitable game of tag we play whenever we're on assignment, we managed to arrive on time -- again. "You must be English." Our host welcomed us with a smile into his maze-like flat, where walls and floors are cushioned with vivid Oriental carpets. "These are English hours indeed."
He himself is an Englishman, or so he would appear to be. Well-known his name may be, but responses are often sketchy:
"Isn't he the man with a monopoly on translating Arabic literature into English?"
"He writes children's stories, I believe."
"Oh, the famous Orientalist?" ("If there's one word I hate," he says, "it is 'Orientalist'.")
Or else, in Fayoum: "You mean the khawaga? Madame Paola's man?"
We are promptly ushered into the living room-cum-study. Again there are batiks, cushions, a small painting by Anna Boghiguian, books neatly stacked on the coffee-table, ranging from Michel de Montagne's essays to a volume by Mohamed Qutb and (one can't help noticing) the latest issue of the Weekly.
A compact book-case stands in the corner; a huge television set prominently occupies the middle of the room. We are made comfortable on the couch and armchair. Our host is ready to tell us his story; he must have gone through it in his mind already. Would anyone care for a cup of tea first?
Surely you know of Denys Johnson-Davies. If you've read any Arabic literature in translation, you must have read at least several volumes by him, and you may even have read some of his stories to a beloved niece or picked up a volume of his own short stories Fate of A Prisoner. Yet, however much you think you know about him, your answer to the question of who he is will probably be just as tentative as everyone else's.
We mustn't fail to mention, we are discreetly advised, that he isn't really a translator, after all -- at least not a professional one. He couldn't have afforded such a flat in Garden City, nor his house in Fayoum, if he lived solely off translation. This from the man who has almost single-handedly introduced modern and contemporary Arabic literature to English readers, the man who has become the established authority in this (admittedly dwindling) field. The information is imparted in the most earnest, simplest tones. Both homes are as simple and unpretentious as their master, after all. In their way, however, they are as sophisticated. One must be intrigued.
Arabic, of course, but how and why?
Johnson-Davies was born in Canada in 1922. His father taught at a secondary school in Cairo for two years and then moved through various Commonwealth countries: Egypt, Sudan, Uganda. The family moved with him. "I was sent to England for the first time on my own when I was 12," he explains. But his experience at a minor British public school turned out to be painfully disappointing; and Denys missed the school he had attended in Kenya; the young boy just didn't fit in.
PRECARIOUS POISE:'To do what I like is of prime importance to me. And so I live in Egypt because I particularly like Egypt. I like Arabic and Arabic literature. And I couldn't live in a country where I didn't know what was going on around me'
photos: Paola Crociani
The great escape from this brand of rigourous discipline came when he was not allowed to join the school squash team, being under the minimum age. Denys was superbly qualified, however, and his father would not let him be deprived of his favourite sport (he was a champion at 14): he was taken out.
What to do with a 15-year-old? He was almost immediately dispatched to the School of Oriental Studies at the University of London (now SOAS); a year later, he enrolled at Cambridge, where he studied Oriental languages. This was 1938: great Orientalists like Nicholson and Arberry were still around. Many of them, however, the young man was soon to notice, had no practical interest in the Arab world at all; they couldn't really speak Arabic, knew nothing about Arab life and sustained only the most detached fascination with classical Islam, Sufism and the old canon. There were no students of Arabic around at the time either. It is worth noting that, of the three Oriental languages on which he was tested, Johnson-Davies received a First in Persian (because he especially liked his teachers) and a Third in Arabic, failing in Hebrew. Yet it was Arabic that he was to pursue.
Some may regard Johnson-Davies as one of the last in a generation of Orientalists, yet his pedigree is not easily traceable to that scholarly tradition. His interests were not purely academic: he acquired his knowledge of the language through direct interaction with native speakers and, whether in literature or in life, he was eager to find out what was happening then and there: "I really learnt Arabic at the BBC Arabic Service, where I started working in 1940. It had started in 1938 and they were looking for anyone who knew Arabic to work there. So many Arabs who were living in England at the time worked there, including many Egyptians." Having got the job, he decided to live in the boarding house where Arab expatriates, mainly Egyptians, congregated. And it was there that he befriended Arabic Service employees, learning to speak and finding out about Arabic literature. "It is my five and a half years at the BBC," he testifies, "that really taught me Arabic."
He went to Egypt in 1945, working at the British Council and then teaching English -- for LE49 a month, he remembers -- at Fouad I (now Cairo) University until 1949. Later, after moving back to England in the 1950s, he was a barrister for six years. And he has occupied a number of other positions, from managing an Arabic broadcasting station to representing oil companies in Gulf countries.
The need to earn his bread took him into a variety of fields and many different countries. He has lived and worked in Spain, France, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Lebanon, Qatar, Morocco, Iran, and Ireland. Since the mid-1970s, he has stayed in Egypt: "I never had an affection for England, you see."
His experience of Egypt thus spans the entire 20th century. His spell here in the '40s gave him insight into what would turn out to be the pre-revolutionary period. It also introduced him to the established literary figures of the day. The 1940s shine through his tales and anecdotes as a more-than-interesting time, when as a Briton he paradoxically felt, he confides timidly, less like a foreigner than he does now. The literary renaissance was in full swing, post-revolutionary disillusionment was as yet unimaginable, social attitudes were tolerant and sedate, and the political cause -- liberation from British occupation -- was clearly defined. Notwithstanding occasional bursts of violence and ideological hatred for the British, he was welcomed into houses, trusted with manuscripts that could have potentially sent their owners to prison, introduced to the most deeply respected figures of the day.
Indeed, those he calls his friends -- people he nonchalantly frequented and went out for dinner and drinks with -- sound like a bibliography of modern Arabic literature in alphabetical order. Louis Awad was a particularly steadfast companion, with whom he would go on visits to the venerable (blind) author Taha Hussein: "Louis never shaved, you see," Denys recalls with characteristic irony. "The only time he shaved was when we went to see Taha Hussein." Yes, he knew Tewfik El- Hakim, too. And Yehia Haqqi. Mahmoud Taymour was the first author whose work he translated. He was a nice man, Taymour, and a good friend; and, although he was an aristocrat, he invited his friends to El-Gammal's on Adli Street, not posh places like the Shepheard's Hotel. Denys published the book at his own expense, but when he gave Taymour a copy the latter repaid him the full costs of publication: "What was nice was that there was no agreement about it from the start. I just went ahead and did it, and he was considerate enough to do that only after it was done." He met Naguib Mahfouz at a very early stage of the latter's career, translating some of his earliest short stories. Badr Shaker El- Sayyab, the universally acclaimed Iraqi poet, he also knew very well, through his Lebanese friend Youssef El-Khal. Naguib El-Rihani, the father of Egyptian comedy, attended his first wedding in Cairo. And another friend, the Palestinian novelist Ghassan Kanafani, introduced him to Mahmoud Darwish, the poet of the Palestinian resistance, a volume of whose verse he would translate.
As he recounts these stories his eyes glow, however fleetingly, with the power of nostalgia: "I suppose I was something of a novelty in those days; an Orientalist who actually spoke Arabic," he laughs. "It was very easy to move in such circles."
Between the '40s and the '70s, Johnson-Davies continued to visit Egypt regularly. For many years he worked on a collection of short stories from all over the Arab world, and it was a joke with his Egyptian friends who asked him -- year in, year out -- just what had happened to the book. But he couldn't find a publisher until 1967, when Oxford University Press accepted his volume, Modern Arabic Short Stories, on the condition that a leading Arabist write an introduction to it. And so an ageing and reluctant A J Arberry did the honours. Yet the book, coming out as it did in that ominous year, did not sell well or receive sufficient attention in the literary press.
As well as editing the notable British-published Arabic literary quarterly, Aswat (1961-1963), he was responsible for the appearance of the Heinemann Arab Authors Series in the early 1980s, an extension of the African Authors Series that was discontinued, he recalls ironically, a few months before Mahfouz received the Nobel award for literature. "Both Heinemann and Quartet have given up, you see," he explains sadly. "I'd hoped that Arabic writing would come out of the academic cupboard. But Mahfouz's Nobel hasn't done anything to make publishing easier, really. There is just nowhere, you see. Winners of the AUC Mahfouz Medal are supposed to be published in England or America as well as Cairo, but so far not a single one of them has been."
The difficulty of finding a publisher is a problem that has informed his work as a translator -- an abiding hobby, as he describes it -- throughout Johnson- Davies's life. On one hand, it has severely limited the potential of how much can be produced. On the other, however, it also means that he has had almost free reign in choosing who and what to translate -- a prerogative often directed as an accusation against him. "I do it because I've wanted to do it," he retorts. "I knew all those writers, and I was conscious that a renaissance of Arabic literature was happening and that someone should do something about it. And when I started out translating, not many people were actually capable of that. For years I didn't do any translation due to that... But since it is my business to find a publisher and undertake the work, I think I have every right to translate what I like." He is, in other words, unapologetic.
Most of his translations are of short stories, an indication of his particular interest in the genre. "I am not very keen on Arabic novels," he admits, the main exception being Tayeb Salih, of whose work he produced Season of Migration to the North, Bandarshah as well as The Wedding of Zein and Other Stories. As far as novelists go, he is partial to somebody like Nabokov. He doesn't really read Arabic for pleasure, he tells us matter-of-factly. And for once, his translation tasks sound a little like a mission. He started out with the work of writers whom he knew were responsible for an Arabic literary renaissance, but his tastes changed the more he read. So he has translated stories by Youssef Idris, Edwar El-Kharrat and Yehia El- Taher Abdallah -- experimentalists and trailblazers of the modern world. From the earliest stages his tastes were somewhat eclectic; the out-of-the-way, the vanguard, fascinated him. He has always been interested, he says, in works that were "profoundly local, immersed in local culture." Mohamed El-Bosati, Said El- Kafrawi, Kanafani, Abdel-Hakim Qasem, Zakariya Tamer (as well as writers belonging to different schools, like Nabil Gorgy and Abdel-Ilah Abdel- Razzaq): for him, these offered an intimate connection with grass-roots realities that Mahfouz, for example, does not. "It is just my taste, I suppose..." Johnson- Davies also introduced Arab women writers to an English reading public long before they were in fashion. His first volume includes stories by Latifa El-Zayyat and Laila Baalbaki; subsequent collections showcase Alifa Rifaat, Hanan Al-Shaykh, Salwa Bakr as well as unestablished writers like Buthayna Al-Nasseri and Alia Mamdouh (from Iraq), Salma Matar Seif (from the United Arab Emirates), Hana Attiya and Amina Zaydan (both from Egypt). Alifa Rifaat's Distant View of a Minaret and a volume of Salwa Bakr's stories, The Wiles of Men and Other Stories, are among his best-known works in this context.
Translating what he likes is part of his attitude toward life in general: "My experience working for the oil company taught me that I really wanted freedom; I wanted to take all that is available from life. I enjoy Japanese food and Japanese literature very much, for example. I have not been all that interested in making money. Even though I do enjoy the good life, I don't like to stay in swish hotels," he tells us simply, without the arrogance of someone who knows he's achieved something rare. "To do what I like is of prime importance to me," he says endearingly. "And so I live in Egypt because I particularly like Egypt. I like Arabic and Arabic literature. And I couldn't live in a country where I didn't know what was going on around me. I want to die and be buried right here," he confesses finally.
We visited Johnson-Davies at the Fayoum house on a surprisingly warm winter morning. It has been home to Denys and his wife, Italian photographer Paola Crociani, for the past ten years. But he bought it from its original owner, jewellery designer Suzy El-Masri, without ever having seen it. Tunis, a village in Fayoum, is a community of sorts, where several foreigners and Cairenes have built houses overlooking Lake Qarun.
The couple first met during a meeting with El-Masri at the Fishawi coffee shop, in Al-Hussein. Built in a vaguely Hassan Fathi style, the house has retained its intrinsic simplicity. The walls remain unfinished, bare. No paintings, carpets or photographs decorate them. "I don't like to hang my photographs," Paola concedes shyly. She doesn't want to intrude too much, though one senses that the photojournalist in her would rather be around more people. But it's nice out here, she insists. And Denys is here. She takes frequent walks around the village, where everyone knows and likes "Madame Paola." Would we like some coffee?
Sparsely furnished, the spacious living room has large windows opening onto a garden and an inner courtyard. Instead are built-in mastabas, cushions and pillows. The coffee arrives, with warm milk. A very site-specific lunch is prepared by a kindly, middle-aged woman from the village: duck and chicken seasoned with rosemary and roasted in the brick oven conveniently built in the garden, as well as cabbage mahshi. All is served in earthenware dishes made by a local artist who is also a dear friend, Ahmed Abu Zeid. Another pleasant figure, Saad, looks after the garden and the house. Elegance seeps through the simplicity. There is an avocado tree and a papaya tree. There are rooms that open into rooms, doors that lead into others. A spicy aroma fills the bathroom: a discretely-placed incense stick. A regular run-of-the-mill mattress placed on the roof. Yes, they watch the stars at night; the sky there is very clear.
A chubby tabby cat runs past us as we sip our third round of coffee on the terrace and Johnson-Davies follows it fondly. "I've always been fond of animals, cats in particular." His fondness for animals and his interest in Islamic studies have inspired some of his literary projects, we now find out. He has translated a selection on animals from the famous 10th-century Epistles of the Brethren of Purity. Published as The Island of Animals, this dispute between beasts and humans ranks high among the world's animal fables and quite aptly argues the case for animal rights.
"Islam is far more concerned about animals than are Christianity and Judaism," he comments. Yet respect for animal rights and encouragement of mercy toward them is not an aspect of the Muslim tradition that is acknowledged in the West. This has prompted one of Johnson-Davies's current projects: a book on Islam's attitudes towards animals including a compilation of various Islamic texts that deal with animals. This will include selected Qur'anic verses as well as 50 or more Prophetic sayings that advocate mercy towards animals. So an initial interest in modern and contemporary Arabic literature has led him to embrace turath as well. Working with the Egyptian scholar Ezzeddin Ibrahim, the cultural adviser to Shaykh Zayed Bin Sultan Al-Nahyan president of the United Arab Emirates, he has translated, three volumes of hadith including Forty Hadith Qudsi. In contrast to the Qur'an, this is an area of Muslim scholarship not many have ventured into. The two are also currently working on selected readings from the Qur'an, to be arranged by subject matter.
Familiarity with the Arabic narrative tradition has informed Johnson-Davies's stories for children, too. Although he flatly states that "children don't interest me -- I prefer cats," over the last few years he has been producing stories for them. The initiative came from the publisher of Hoopoe Books. It had always been difficult to find a publisher; this time, a publisher found Johnson-Davies, specifically asking for children's stories, and the translator agreed. On one condition: that one of the first two books be Goha stories. He'd always been interested in Goha. And so a series began and was sufficiently successful to spin off others. This project is being continued by Dar Al-Shorouk publishing house, which is embarking on English publication for the first time.
Johnson Davies's contributions are to be launched this April. They include a number of traditionally inspired stories, one on Ibn Battuta's travels, and others from mediaeval texts such as Kamaleddin Al-Damiri's Hayat Al-Hayawan Al- Kubra (The Life of Animals). He has translated the poet Salah Abdel-Sabour's version of Ibn Tufayl's Hayy Ibn Yaqzan, intended originally for children. There are, as well, three stories of his own invention. One, aptly enough, concerns the mythical origin of the cat: the lion sneezed and it came into being, he explains.
He doesn't read stories to his three grandchildren, however. They and his only son, a computer expert with a PhD in psychology, live in England. He and Paola travel a lot in summer: Italy, France, Spain. They spend most of the winter in Fayoum. As old friends have gradually vanished, he has made new ones; many writers of the present generation are personal acquaintances. But it is no longer the way it once was. Now he is fond of Ezzeddin Ibrahim, he says. And, since he likes it here, "Saad, too, is my friend..."
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