Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
9 - 15 December 1999
Issue No. 459
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Books Monthly supplement Antara

In search of an attribution
WhatOs in a painting? The potential for disaster, for one thing. Nigel Ryan reviews Headlong, a tale of vanity and ambition saved only by a thoroughly modern moral equivocation

Sayyid Qutb: Othe right to revoltO
Sayyid Qutb wa Thawrat Yulyou (Sayyid Qutb and the July Revolution), Helmi el-Namnam, Cairo: Meret for Publication and Information, 1999. pp150

Interpretation and beyond
Fate of A Prisoner and Other Stories, Denys Johnson-Davies, London: Quartet Books, 1999. pp222

Questioning the body, questioning the mind
Nawal al-Saadawi, TaOam Al-Solta wal Jins(The Twins of Power and Sex), Dar al-Mustaqbal al-Arabi, Cairo 1999 , pp258

A political scientist among the historians
The Social Origins of Egyptian Expansionism During the Muhammad 'Ali Period, Fred H Lawson, The American University in Cairo Press, 1999 (first published Columbia University Press, 1992). pp215

Ancient Egyptian windfall
* Egypt, Ancient and Modern by Isabella Brega, trans. C.T.M. Milan. The American University in Cairo Press, 1999. pp135
* Egyptian Luxuries: Fragrance, Aromatherapy, and Cosmetics in Pharaonic Times. Lise Manniche with photographs by Werner Forman. The American University in Cairo Press, 1999. pp160
* Ancient Egypt. David P. Silverman ed., The American University in Cairo Press, 1999. pp255

Intersection points
Al Jadid, vol. 5, no. 28, 1999, Los Angeles, Al Jadid

Sharing the self
Dikka Khashabiya Tasa Ithnayn Bilkad (A wooden bench barely wide enough for two), Shehata el-Iryan, Cairo: Aswat Adabiya (Literary Voices) General Organisation for Cultural Palaces, 1999. pp206
To the editor

At a glance
By Mahmoud El-Wardani

* Al-Hilal, monthly magazine, issue no. 12, December 1999, Cairo: Al-Hilal Publishing House
* Al-Arabi, monthly magazine, issue no. 493, December 1999, Kuwait: Ministry of Information
* Al-Kotob: Wughat Nazar (Books: Viewpoints), monthly magazine, issue no. 11, December 1999, Cairo: The Egyptian Company for Arab and International Publication
* Mirrors, Naguib Mahfouz, translated by Roger Allen, illustrated by Seif Wanli, Cairo: AUC Press, 1999. pp186
* Ibdaa (Creativity), monthly magazine, issue no. 10, November 1999, Cairo: GEBO
* Sotour (Lines), monthly magazine, issue no. 36, November 1999, Cairo: Sotour Publications
* Al-Thaqafa Al-Alamia (OWorld CultureO), Kuwait: The National Council for Culture and Arts
* Adab wa Naqd (Literature and Criticism), monthly literary magazine, issue no. 171, November 1999, Cairo: Progressive National Unionist Party publications
* Qadaya Fikriya (Intellectual Issues), occasional book, issues no. 19 and 20, October 1999
* Al-OOsour Al-Jadida (New Eras), monthly magazine, issue no. 2, 1999, Cairo: Sinai Publishing House
* Nizwa, quarterly magazine, issue no. 20, October 1999, Oman: Omani Corporation for Press, Publishing and Advertising

To see other book supplements go to the ARCHIVES index. 


Illustrations courtesy of International Commitee of the Red Cross
"Folk drawings and tales", Cairo, 1996

Fate of A Prisoner and Other Stories, Denys Johnson-Davies, London: Quartet Books, 1999. pp222

Interpretation and beyond

Contemporary Arabic literature owes an enormous debt of gratitude to Denys Johnson-Davies, whose work as a translator has provided it with a large international readership in English that otherwise would certainly not exist. There are quite a few good translators now at work, but none has labored with such taste, diligence, technical knowledge, skill, and success over so many decades and none can claim either an equal understanding of the Arabic-speaking world or an equal sympathy with its ways.

Like all great translators, Denys Johnson-Davies is himself a literary artist; and these fifteen short stories must surely reflect his own life and interests from childhood onward. As a collection they emphasise brilliantly the classic boundaries of the genre: they are truly short, impeccably clean-limbed and fat-free in form and technique, and they focus incisively on characters who stand, whether they know it or not, at decisive moments in their lives.

Johnson-Davies' major theme is a condition that is familiar to some Al-Ahram Weekly readers, unknown and mysterious to others, and misunderstood by quite a few: the quality or state of being a "metci", a foreigner who lives without rights of citizenship in a country that is not his native land. Treating this quality in its largest and most meaningful sense, he directs our attention far beyond the disruptions incurred by mere expatriation to the moral potentialities that the condition represents, telling us, for instance, that one can certainly be an exile in the country where one was born. What he deals with ultimately might be called an expatriation of the hear.

These stories thus embrace a wide variety of characters and settings and a large and significant class of emotions, offering a range that accommodates such disparate figures as a small white boy in East Africa and his unspeakable sense of alienation from the arid and unjust world of his parents, two English wives exchanging confidences about their Egyptian husbands over coffee at the Marriott, or an old man confined to a nursing home in England who suddenly remembers southern seas and an instant of post-coital joy.

The shadow of the Middle East is everywhere. Three stories are set in the Gulf; the action of a fourth takes place in a murderous Beirut, a fifth is set in some hard-nosed Arab dictatorship not at all unlike Syria or Iraq, and a sixth is placed in Sudan. A seventh is set in East Africa, but with cultural reference points that are Muslim; and in three others, where the settings are England and Provence, the characters' backgrounds provide Middle-Eastern connections. The stories that will ring most bells with local readers, though, are certainly the five -- four set in Cairo, the fifth in the Fayyum -- in which the action concerns expatriates in Egypt.

Johnson-Davies' renditions of English-speaking metics in Cairo are absolutely spot-on. In "The Dream", for example, we observe the familiar and futile routine of James Murphy, an old Irish teacher whose nationality allowed him to stay on in Egypt after 1957, when nearly all other Europeans had left. We overhear his ritual conversation with his doddery cook-sufragi, still conducted after decades in broken Arabic and pidgin English. Murphy's dream of returning "home" to Ireland has long ago replaced living and has sustained the inertia that keeps him in Cairo, where he will never be really be at home.

We have all known a dozen of James Murphy's type. But one may also become an expatriate out of conscious ethical choice, rather than inertia, as is suggested in the last story in the collection; and the alienation that defines the condition of being a metic may sometimes allow effective action, as it does in "Fate of a Prisoner", the title story, from the detached vantage of a moral high ground that is made inaccessible to natives by the very fact of their belonging.

Closely related to exile are love and lust, the psyche's own mute and involuntary outcries against alienation, which Johnson-Davies treats with the seriousness they deserve, but also with a refreshing lack of rhetoric. "Garbage Girl" and "A Short Weekend" give us two kinds of hopeless love, a sophisticated narrator's conscious attraction to a courageous urchin and an unsuccessful writer's half-hearted yearning to be reunited with his ex-wife. In "Oleanders Pink and White" an expat lager-lout in a Landrover who knows only six words of Arabic is determined to "communicate" with a Badawi goat-girl and inevitably winds up attempting -- unsuccessfully -- to rape her. The sole visible record of his passage through a desert landscape is a pair of broken sunglasses.

The oleanders in the title of this story strike this particular reader as an ironic reference to that endearing French pop song of 1955, "Cerisiers roses et pommiers blancs", known in English as "Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White", most famously performed as a cha-cha-cha. Another ironic reference appears in "A Taxi to Himself", in a passage where Johnson-Davies explains the etiquette of Cairene taxi-riding:

If one is a man on his own and ... the taxi is empty, one should, unless one is a snob or doesn't mind being thought one, take the seat next to the driver, one also, of course -- even though a snob -- takes the same seat if there should happen to be a woman in the back. If the front seat is taken (by a man) and there is a lone woman in the back, then the man in the front gives up his place to the woman and he and the newly arrived passenger will share the back. If it happens that the front seat is taken by a woman, then she will move back with the other woman, giving up her seat beside the driver to the new passenger. If two men join the taxi and it happens to be empty, it is legitimate for them to sit together in the back, though sometimes one of them will sit in front with the driver and a three-cornered conversation will ensue; if there's a woman in the back, she will be invited to the front and the two men will occupy the rear seat. If you're a woman and the taxi's empty, you sit at the back; if there's another woman at the back, you join her; if there's a man -- or two men -- in the back, you sit next to the driver. If two women are waiting, they will, if the taxi is empty, sit together at the back; if occupied by another woman then they will all squeeze in together; if there's a lone man sitting beside the driver, that's all right, but if he's a snob and sitting alone in the back and doesn't of himself get out and move up front, the driver will ask him to vacate his seat to the two women. It is all based ... on the Prophetic Saying that where a man and a woman are alone together the Devil makes a third, though it would seem that taxi drivers provide an exception to the rule.

The in-joke here is that Johnson-Davies is writing in imitation of a famous passage from Chapter VIII of Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians (1836) by the great ethnographer E. W. Lane -- the same passage that was lifted wholesale by Lawrence Durrell and used by him in the Alexandria Quartet, to suggest cultural expertise. The difference between Durrell and Johnson-Davies is that this paragraph is original, not copied, and is true, amusing, and even useful, because it is based on a genuine depth of knowledge derived from real experience in a country the author loves.

It should be said, finally, that Quartet's editing of this wonderful book leaves a lot to be desired. The obvious typos in the Table of Contents and on the very first page of the text are inexcusable in a publisher who wishes to be taken seriously. An unworthy performance, Quartet! You should pull up your socks.

Reviewed by John Rodenbeck

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