My shelves are filled with books bearing Denys Johnson-Davies’ name:
Denys had a wide and varied range of interests and literary careers within careers: from the short-story collections he’s edited, to his 40+ children’s books, to a memoir on translation, to his scholarship, to the novels he labored on translating into English.
Choosing ten was too difficult, so here are eleven, with eleven photographs, courtesy of Denys and his wife Paola Crocian.
1) Memories of a Life in Translation: A Life Between the Lines of Arabic Literature (2006), by Denys Johnson-Davies.
“An unlikely set of circumstances set me on the path to studying Arabic,” the memoir opens. He spent his childhood in Cairo, Wadi Halfa in Sudan, and finally in Uganda and Kenya, traveling back to England on a doctor’s orders at the age of twelve. He didn’t thrive there, and when his father asked him at fourteen what he wanted to do, his answer was unequivocal: “I would like to study Arabic.”
The memoir touches on many figures of contemporary Arabic literature, with dozens of entertaining anecdotes and observations about twentieth century Arabic literature.
2) The Fate of a Prisoner: And Other Stories (1999), by Denys Johnson-Davies
It would be a disservice not to include Denys’s own short stories. In an interview with Lammert Holdijk, about his own writing:
“As a young man I published a lot of short stories in magazines like Modern Writing, International Reading. I published a lot there. I think a good agent is an excellent thing. And I had at an early age a very small agent, his name was Leslie Bereson. We got on very well. I was about 19 or 20 at the time. He got all kinds of things of mine published in strange magazines, in Australia, and here and there. And I did get som payment here and there but that was not what concerned me. It was just to get published.”
He clearly would’ve preferred his writing be better known, as he wrote in his memoir that the collection “received no notices except for a complimentary review in Al Ahram Weekly by my friend John Rodenbeck of the American University in Cairo and — surprisingly — a more than generous piece in The Literary Review by the novelist Francis King, who was unknown to me except through his writings.”
3) Arabian Nights and Days, (1995), by Naguib Mahfouz, trans. Denys Johnson-Davies
Denys met Naguib Mahfouz at a very early stage of the latter’s career, translating some of his earliest short stories.
You can see him speak about translating Mahfouz in a video interview with AUC Press. In the interview, he said he didn’t much that the mid-twentieth-century British did not take the idea of modern Arabic literature very seriously. In the 1940s, he translated most of a novel by Naguib Mahfouz. He then put it in a drawer, because he couldn’t find a publisher. Many years later, the novel was later translated by someone else and published in Beirut, but not London.
Johnson-Davies blamed British prejudice for this lack of openness to Arabic literature. “They couldn’t bring themselves to believe that an Arab, who is probably sitting in the desert somewhere…that an Arab could be sophisticated.”
“So it took a long time for people to get used to the fact that possibly something could come out of the Arab world.”
4) The Lamp of Umm Hashim and Other Stories, by Yahia Haqqi, trans. Denys Johnson-Davies
Without Denys, it’s not likely Yahia Hakki (1905-1992) — an important writer of the early twentieth century, would ever have been translated into English. This collection brings together four of Hakki’s works of humor and sympathy: “Story in the Form of a Petition,” “Mother of the Destitute,” “A Story from Prison,” and the titular novella, “The Lamp of Umm Hashim.”
As the Cairo Times had it: “The Lamp of Umm Hashim is not only looked upon as one of the most important pieces of writing in the so-called renaissance of Arabic literature in the 20th century, it is also one of the most well-loved and popular stories that came out of the period.”
5) Distant View of a Minaret and Other Stories, by Alifa Rifaat, trans. Denys Johnson-Davies
Alifa Rifaat’s stories were not collected and published in Arabic, yet Denys made the effort to collect them in English translation, where they were acclaimed by authors such as Chinua Achebe. Indeed, Denys made an effort to bring women writers into English.
In a 2002 profile by Amina Elbendary and Youssef Rakha, they noted:
Johnson- Davies also introduced Arab women writers to an English reading public long before they were in fashion. His first volume includes stories by Latifa El-Zayyat and Laila Baalbaki; subsequent collections showcase Alifa Rifaat, Hanan Al-Shaykh, Salwa Bakr as well as unestablished writers like Buthayna Al-Nasseri and Alia Mamdouh (from Iraq), Salma Matar Seif (from the United Arab Emirates), Hana Attiya and Amina Zaydan (both from Egypt). Alifa Rifaat’s Distant View of a Minaret and a volume of Salwa Bakr’s stories, The Wiles of Men and Other Stories, are among his best-known works in this context.
6) Tigers on the Tenth Day and Other Stories, by Zakariya Tamer, trans. Denys Johnson-Davies
Although Denys is remembered as a translator of Egyptian literature, he also translated great writers from other countries, including Syrian short-story writer Zakariya Tamer.
Denys apparently met Tamer in London, as per his memoir, where he talks about how he “produced a representative volume of his work under the title Tigers of the Tenth Day with Quartet Books.
Several more stories, trans. Denys, were included with The Hedgehog.
“Grandfather Talks While Grandmother Sleeps” opens:
“My mother and I went to the cemetery to visit the graves of her father and mother, which were next to one another.
“I said to Mother, ‘Grandfather spoke to me just now and asked me to ask you not to cry.’
“Mother, wiping her eyes with a white handkerchief, said, ‘Keep quiet. Quit lying.’
“My mother said, ‘And what else does he have to tell me?'”
7) The Wiles of Men, by Salwa Bakr, trans. Denys Johnson-Davies
From the first and titular story:
“There was a knock at the front door. The person arriving was the awaited bridegroom. Faheema the seamstress gave a gulp of joy and clapped her hand to her breast, then said to herself, ‘How fortunate I am! O how happy I am after all this waiting and longing!’ She hurried off to take a good look at herself in the mirror to make sure about the lipstick she’d put on and the kohl on her eyes. She also arranged her hair and what have you, and a mere five minutes later she had entered the parlour where the bridegroom was sitting with her uncle, with glasses of fruit juice. The two of them drank and said to her, ‘Congratulations, Faheema.'”
Salwa Bakr is a fine crafter of short stories, and Denys turns them into a charming English.
8) Goha the Wise Fool, by Denys and Hag Hamdy Mohamed Fattou
Denys wrote more than forty children’s books, some of them about important historical personalities, such as Ibn Battoutah, and some about folktales, such as his Goha books. Indeed, his Sheikh Zayed award for “Cultural Personality of the Year” particularly marks his children’s books, writing, “He published more than 40 English books for children inspired by many literary classics including Kaleela wa Dimna, Saif Bin Thee Yazan and Arabian Nights in order to familiarise children across the world with the Arabic literary heritage, which reflects the creativity, liveliness and cultural tolerance among nations.”
This is despite that Denys told Youssef Rakha and Amina Bendary “children don’t interest me — I prefer cats.” He was, however, interested in Goha. “And so a series began and was sufficiently successful to spin off others. This project is being continued by Dar Al-Shorouk publishing house, which is embarking on English publication for the first time.”
Denys also translated Hanan al-Shaykh’s A Bird in the Hand, a children’s book about a henna-painted bird on a child’s hand that takes flight while the child sleeps.
9) The Essential Tawfiq al-Hakim, by Denys Johnson-Davies
Denys produced several translations of the work of the great and under-appreciated (in English) Tawfiq al-Hakim, including this “essential” collection. From the promotional material of this enjoyable and funny book:
“In this volume, Tawfiq al-Hakim’s fame as a playwright is given prominence. Of the more than seventy plays he wrote, The Sultan’s Dilemma, dealing with a historical subject in an appealingly light-hearted manner, is perhaps the best known; it appears in the extended edition of Norton’s World Masterpieces and was broadcast on the old Home Service of the BBC. The other full-length play included here, The Tree Climber, is one that reveals al-Hakim’s openness to outside influences—in this case, the absurdist mode of writing. Of the two one-act plays in this collection, The Donkey Market shows his deftness at turning a traditional folk tale into a hilarious stage comedy.”
10) Houses Behind the Trees, by Mohamed Bisatie, trans. Denys Johnson-Davies
When Bisatie died, it was to Denys that I turned for comment and context. He wrote:
“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.”
11) Season of Migration to the North, by Tayib Salih, trans. Denys Johnson-Davies
When what would’ve been Tayeb Salih’s eighty-fifth birthday passed, Denys shared some reflections on his time with Salih when the great Sudanese novelist first joined the Arabic section of the BBC in London. He wrote for ArabLit:
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. (Full essay.)
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