El-Bisatie ‘Should Never Be Passed By Unread’

Pioneer Arabic-English translator Denys Johnson-Davies and Hala Halim, professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies and Comparative Literature at NYU, who translated Mohamed El-Bisatie’s Clamor of the Lake, both shared expanded written memories of El-BisatieHalim wrote briefly:

“The loss of Mohamed El-Bisatie is a huge blow. Words like ‘nobility’ and ‘magnanimity’ may seem threadbare, the stuff of obituaries. I will always remember an evening at the very end of 1994 when I started reading his just-published novel Sakhab al-Buhayra (Clamor of the Lake): I could not put it down and wished the opportunity would arise for me to translate it. It will always amaze me that, some months later, he instantly accepted that I, who had hitherto only published translations of short texts, should translate his masterpiece that won the Cairo International Book Fair’s award for Best Novel of the year. He was already a well-translated writer who had the option of working with established translators.

“Aesthetically, ethically and politically incapable of compromise, El-Bisatie took his stand through the bleakest Mubarak years away from the limelight. Critically acclaimed for placing the marginalized and underprivileged, mostly in rural but occasionally also urban settings, at the center of his texts, El-Bisatie breathed his commitment to social justice and human dignity into masterly fictions that are a signal contribution to Arabic and world literature.”

Denys Johnson-Davies also sent his own tribute to El-Bisatie, which asks:

“How was it that I came to add El-Bisatie’s name to the short list I already had of
writers whose work should never be passed by unread? Was there any particular story by him which converted me or did I gradually decide that here was a writer who should not be ignored?

“As it happens there was one particular story that told me that here was a
writer who demanded attention. I remember coming across the story in some magazine or other. Normally, perhaps, I would have ignored it, seeing that it was not printed in one of the well-known literary journals and was not by a writer known to me. I remember that the title of the story was ‘A Conversation from the Third Floor’ and it opens with a scene of a woman being stared at by a policeman close by who is seated on a horse.

“Slowly it emerges that the woman has come with her young child to visit
someone in the large building in front of which the policeman is standing. She is worried about the presence of the policeman, but explains, hesitantly, that she has come to visit her husband, who inhabits this large building which, we learn, is a prison that is about to be pulled down…

“Suddenly a face appears at one of the windows and a voice calls out to her. It asks her whether she has pruned the two date palms. He then asks her whether, as requested by him, she has brought the cigarettes he wants. It seems she has brought him the cigarettes but, somehow, two of the packages have been mislaid. The man says it doesn’t matter that two packages have disappeared. He then tells her he is being transferred to some other prison. He’ll tell her when he knows. For the time being she shouldn’t come back to this building. She takes a last glance at the prison window but there’s no face there any longer and then she passes by the policeman; his eyes are closed and his hands are holding the pommel of the saddle, as she makes her way along the narrow passageway towards the main road.

“And so the story ends.

“As I wrote in the introduction I did for the book of his short stories that I
published under the title A Last Glass of Tea: ‘While there is drama in his stories it is never highlighted: The menace lurks almost unseen between the lines.”

A brief excerpt from Clamor of the Lake:

An Old Fisherman

The waters of the lake flow languidly as they approach the sea. The lake’s distant shore that blends into the horizon emerges swathed in mist and looms pale gray, revealing curvatures and protrusions, then it twists, mud-dark, in a sharp bend.

The reeds and brush thicken as the lake’s two shores draw closer and proceed sinuously to form a narrow channel with thick mud seeping over its banks. The reeds disappear as the channel approaches the sea, where the sandy shore sprawls with its huge, dark rocks.

The waves of the lake chase each other lazily, small and even like the lines of a ploughed field. Drawn by the roar of the sea at the end of the channel, the waves flow toward it, now constricted by the two banks. The regular pattern they have long kept is disordered, and a violent movement churns beneath the tranquil surface. They rush, murky and turbid, weeds and algae bursting out from their depths, with a tinge of mud and a low rumble. Keep reading.

Reviews and criticism of Clamour seem to be quite rare in English:

ExploringFICTION: “The voice in the chest

Arabophile: “It is a technically impressive mode of writing, one el Bisatie employed to brilliant effect as recently as 1994, in Sakhab al Buhairah (Clamour of the Lake), a prose poem-cum-foundation myth of life in the rural space between the lake and the sea in the governorate of Domyat.”