Mohammed El Bisatie Dies at 75

Egyptian novelist Mohammed El Bisatie, after a long struggle with liver disease, passed away on Saturday. He was 75.

The first work of El Bisatie’s that I read was his classic 1993 novel, Buyut Wara’ al-Ashgar, translated by Denys Johnson-Davies (as Houses Behind the Trees) and published by AUC Press in 1997. It beautifully and tenderly treats the village landscape that was a signature motif of his work: El Bisatie was born in the Nile delta’s governorate of Dakahliya, and most of his books were obsessed with the margins and characters of Egyptian rural life.

In the words of El Bisatie’s most frequent translator, Denys Johnson Davies, El Bisatie “peoples his writing with the usual folk who make up the population of such places: simple peasants, small shopkeepers, schoolmasters, fishermen and petty government officials. The stuff of his stories and his novellas is the daily comings and goings of these people and the small dramas and comedies of their lives.”

El Bisatie’s Clamour of the Lake was perhaps his most celebrated work. Clamour won the 1994 Cairo International Book Fair award; novelist and critic Youssef Rakha has called it an “epic prose poem whose hero is a place.” Its later translation, by Hala Halim, was a runner-up in the inaugural (2006) Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation.

Banipal judges noted: “Set in a landscape in flux, where lake meets sea, this innovative novel is a haunting and tender evocation of place and the passing of time through the linked tales of humble lake dwellers, whether fishermen, traders or treasure-hunting beachcombers. Hala Halim’s translation superbly renders the original’s lyricism and fluidity.”

El Bisatie’s 2008 novel, Hunger, shortlisted for the 2008 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, also treated the spiritual and physical hungers of life with both gentleness and humor. He departed significantly with the less successful novel, Drumbeat, set mostly in an unnamed Emirate, but with its most beautiful moments following Egyptians back to their village homes.

His most recent (2012) short story collection, Small Butterfliestenderly returned to the countryside.

It was a little more than two weeks ago that El Bisatie finally won the State Appreciation Award in Literarure. He had also previously won an Owais prize (in 2001), and was longlisted for the 2011 Prix-Courrier, a French foreign-fiction prize, for his novel Hunger.

An excerpt from El Bisatie’s untranslated And the Train Comes:

From Al Ahram Weekly.

And an excerpt from Hunger, also trans. DJD:

From The International Literary Quarterly