Al-Ahram Weekly Online   15 - 21 September 2005
Issue No. 760
Books Supplement
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Letters to the editor

Egyptian Jewry

Regarding Abul-Ghar's and Beinin's books (Cairo Review of Books, June, 2005), both have problems because neither seems to have much training in Jewish Studies. Even within Jewish Studies Egyptian Jewry constitutes a very specialised subfield that a specialist in Polish Jewry would not be able to address particularly well. One must also approach much Jewish studies material with scepticism because Zionist mythology permeates much of the secondary literature.

I do have this background, and I would like to draw your attention to the fact that any discussion of modern Egyptian Jewry should identify the following subgroupings:

-ethnic Ashkenazi political and economic migrants (about 50% by the 1940s if I remember correctly);

-indigenous Arab Egyptian Jews;

-Jewish Arab economic migrants -- mostly from Yemen;

-a long-existing Ibero-Berber refugee population that held itself aloof from other Jewish populations;

-a small relative recently-developed community of Polish Lithuanian Crimean Tatar Jews.

There was also a sectarian division between modern Karaite Jews and modern Rabbanite Jews. The Karaite Jews belonged to two separate ethnic groups: indigenous Jewish Egyptian Arabs and Lithuanian Polish Crimean Jewish Tatars. The latter group migrated to Egypt often for the same reasons as the ethnic Ashkenazim with whom Jewish Tatars were partially coresident. One could distinguish among Jewish Tatars on the basis of dialect differences (as one could likewise among ethnic Ashkenazim).

I no longer write much in the way of pure ethnographic studies because I consider anti-Zionist activism much more important. Even though the appended articles are somewhat political and do not pertain specifically to Egyptian Jewry, they may help you in discussing and presenting issues of Egyptian Jews to English-speaking publics.

Joachim Martillo

Jacques Berque

I am writing to you to let you know about a topic that might interest you for the Cairo Review of Books. But let me first briefly introduce myself. I am a sociologist, working as a consultant for international organisations in Geneva, Switzerland. I am also the author of Jacques Berque, une sociologie vaste et profonde, and the editor of of Jacques Berque's last book: Quel Islam? (Paris, Sindbad-Actes Sud, 2003). On the occasion of the 10th death anniversary of one of the most esteemed French Arabists, I think it would be interesting to present his last writing to your readers.

With my best regards, and good luck in your work.

Reda Benkirane

Mediterranean dialogue

I am a Maltese social anthropologist, specialising in the Mediterranean, North and South. I teach at the University of Malta and am a member of the Editorial Working Group of Journal of Mediterranean Studies.

I see the Cairo Review of Books as a valuable vehicle for dialogue, and I would like to see books to do with Mediterranean politics and culture reviewed in your Books Supplement. In this respect, allow me to propose one book for your consideration: the recent (May) book by Samir Amin and Ali Al Kenz on Euro-Med relations.

Ranier Fsadni

Arabian Nights

I read the obituary article on the late Franco- Algerian scholar Jamal Eddine Bencheikh that appeared in the pages of your Books Supplement with considerable interest (Cairo Review of Books, August 2005).

While I was interested to read Bencheikh's views on the translation and reception in Europe of the famous Alf leila wa-leila, the Thousand and One Nights, of which he published a French translation made with André Miquel in the Pléiade series shortly before he died, I wonder if your readers are aware of the equally fascinating story of the translation of these stories from Arabic into English?

Perhaps the best guide to this subject is The Arabian Nights: A Companion by the British scholar Robert Irwin, a new edition of which was published in London in 2004. In this book Irwin refers to the standard Arabic edition of the text, produced by Muhsin Mahdi in 1984, and to what he describes as a "very readable" English translation of this version of the tales by Hussain Haddawy, published in 1990.

However, Irwin is also very good on earlier efforts to translate the Nights into English, including those of E.W. Lane, better known for his Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians (1842), Richard Burton, the adventurer and explorer, and E. Powys Mathers in the 1920s. As Irwin correctly notes, the Arabian Nights, existing in different forms and different manuscript versions, is longer than the works of Proust, and any translation is likely to be only a selection from the many hundreds of tales that exist. Then there is the problem of choosing a suitable style or styles in English to translate the range and variety of the tales in Arabic.

Lane's version, appearing in 1838--1841, is an "instructional work," Irwin says, carrying an "enormous baggage of footnotes on cloves, graveyards, gypsum, chess, hippopotami, laws of inheritance, perspiration, polygamy, rubbish tips and much, much more" as these things would have existed in the mediaeval Baghdad and Cairo of the Nights, and his style "tends towards the grandiose and mock-biblical".

Burton's translation, which restored tales that Lane found obscene, appeared in 10 volumes in 1885 and translates the tales into "a sort of composite mock-Gothic, combining elements from Middle English, the Authorised Version of the Bible and Jacobean drama" to produce a kind of "literary Brighton Pavilion." There is some doubt about how well Burton understood the mediaeval Arabic of the original tales, and large parts of his translation appear to be made up.

Powys Mathers had a go at translating the French translation of the Nights by Joseph Charles Mardrus into English in a version published in 1923. Though Mathers's translation was a good one, he presumably could not have known that Mardrus had invented large swathes of his translation, producing a fin-de-siècle version of the Nights "compounded of opium reveries, jeweled dissipation, lost paradises, melancholy opulence and odalisques pining in gilded cages."

This appealed to Proust, who scattered references to the Nights throughout the volumes of his novel A la recherche du temps perdu. Proust used Mardrus's translation much in the way that Joyce used Burton's when including "mirages of old Baghdad and Basra in twentieth-century Dublin" in his novel Ulysses or "this scherzarade of one's thousand and one nightinesses" (sic) in Finnegans Wake.

The history of European translations of the Alf leila wa-leila is a fascinating one, and it is to be hoped that the late Jamal Eddine Bencheikh's French translation will now join the distinguished company of earlier translations.

Fadwa Ali

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