Denys Johnson-Davies on How Tayeb Salih Got His Start

As what would’ve been Tayeb Salih’s eighty-fifth birthday passes, eminent and pioneering translator Denys Johnson-Davies shares some reflections on his time with Salih when the great Sudanese novelist first joined the Arabic section of the BBC in London:

By Denys Johnson-Davies

Photo credit: Paola Crocian
Photo credit: Paola Crocian

I was introduced to him by the head of the Arabic section as someone who had spent some of my early years in the Sudan. He didn’t seem to be particularly interested by this fact, and I can understand that.

Then the time came, some years later, when he suddenly rang me up to say that he would like to come and see me. When he turned up in my office, he produced a small number of typed pages and explained to me that this was a short story that he had written. He then went on to say that he had never published any of his writings.

I saw that the story was in Arabic, so I told him that I would be interested in reading it, especially if it was a story about the Sudan. After that, we shook hands, and he said, “I hope you like it. And perhaps you might feel able to publish it in Aswat.

When I read the story, which was a very short one, called “A Handful of Dates,” I was very impressed and immediately I decided to publish it in the magazine. He was delighted to hear that his short story would appear in Aswat, which was a magazine in which the top Arabic writers were happy to be published.

I then decided to make a translation of the story into English and sent it to the famous English literary magazine Encounter. I was surprised and delighted when they replied to say that they liked the story and could I tell them about the author. Salih was also happy when I informed him that I had translated his story and that it had been accepted for publication in a top English magazine.

Here, I would like to quote a passage from a classic of Arabic literature, Kalila wa Dimna, where a man’s dangerous situation in this world is vividly portrayed, and which Salih quoted at the beginning of his novel Maryoud (Bandarshah):

“Searching for an allegory about man, I found that he is like someone who has escaped from the danger of an enraged elephant into a well. He is suspended in it and has clung onto two branches that are at its opening to the sky. His feet have dropped down onto something in the wall of the well, where four snakes have put out their heads from their holes. Then he looks down and sees in the bottom of the well a dragon with an open mouth waiting for him to fall so that it may seize him.

“Raising his eyes to the two branches, he finds there two rats, a black one and a white one, gnawing away restlessly and untiringly at them. While considering how best to deal with his situation, he sees close by him a beehive in which there is some honey. He tastes the honey and is so taken by its sweetness that his enjoyment prevents him from giving any thought at all to his predicament and from searching for an escape for himself. He does not bring to mind that the two rats are relentlessly cutting the branches that, once severed, he will fall on the dragon. He remains oblivious and heedless, captivated by that sweetness until, falling into the dragon’s mouth, he perishes.”

Tayeb Salih’s language

Any writer of fiction in Arabic today has to make certain basic decision about the language he is going to use. This is made necessary by the existence of both a written language, common to the whole of the Arabic speaking world, and a spoken language which differs, sometimes considerably, from country to country – or indeed within different areas of a country.

While the natural choice is to write the narrative in a written language and the dialogue in the spoken, this choice has not in practice been easy to take. While Naguib Mahfuz and other Arabic writers had chosen to write only in a classical language, some other writers, especially today, have chosen to write the narrative in classical Arabic and the dialog in the local dialect.

Tayeb Salih, though not interested in language as such, exploited to the full the richness of the literary language in his narrative and uses the vivid local dialect for his dialog—even though the Sudanese dialect differs from all other Arabic dialects and is not always understood by non-Sudanese readers. Thus recently, when publishing in a magazine a portion of his novella Maryud (Bandarshah), he attached a translation into literary Arabic of all the dialogue.

Tayeb Salih’s work shows his wide reading in the byways of Arabic literature, including poetry, which has helped to fashion a style which is direct and fluent, a style which an Arab critic has described as being closer to dramatic writing than that of the novel

It was this view of language that Tayeb Salih used in all his writing.

This essay, originally published in Arabic in Bayan, is part one of a two-part reflection on Salih’s life and work.