Neil Hewison: Shaping a Body of Modern Arabic Literature in Translation

At the end of this month, R. Neil Hewison will retire from his position as Associate Director for Editorial Programs for American University in Cairo Press, after more than thirty years working at the publishing house:

Hewison—an author, translator, publisher, and educator—helped steer the press’s development from its early years through ever-shifting landscapes: from floppy disks to ebooks, through major and minor political events. In these thirty years, Hewison has done perhaps more than any other individual to shape the corpus of Arabic literature in English translation.

Launched in 1960, AUC Press was reorganized in 1984. From then, the press took its uncontested place as the most prolific publisher of Arabic literature in translation. Through nearly all of those years, Hewison has been at the center of the press’s decisions on who and what to translate.

“Without Neil Hewison, the AUC Press would not have become the pioneer publisher of Arabic fiction in English translation,” said multi-award-winning translator Humphrey Davies. “He was, to my knowledge, the only member of the press’s management with the language skills, love of literature in general and of Arabic literature in particular, and taste needed to make this happen.”

Hewison was born in Yorkshire, Eng­land, and, after studying linguis­tics at York University, he chose to join Voluntary Service Overseas. As Hewison said in a 2015 interview with The Arab Weekly, he’d expected put his two years of Swahili to good use.

Instead, he was sent to teach Eng­lish in a secondary college in Fay­oum, Egypt.

While there, Hewison began learning Arabic and writing a seminal book on area, The Fayoum: History and Guide. In 1982, Hewison moved up to Cairo, where he taught English for four years and finished up his Fayoum book, originally published by AUC Press in 1984. Two years after publishing his book, Hewison joined the press.

Then, in 1988, enormous news rocked the press: Naguib Mahfouz had won the 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature.

Post-1988: ‘Not just Mahfouz’

With pioneering translator Denys Johnson-Davies.

After 1988, Hewison and AUC Press launched a range of initiatives to translate Mahfouz, but also to expand translation beyond Mahfouz’s works. In those years, “The AUC Press started to broaden out with our acquisition of the Heinemann [publishing house’s] series of Arab authors,” Hewison told Al Ahram Weekly in 2004. “We wanted to make available a much wider range of Arab writing, extending beyond Egypt and across different generations.”

However, Hewison added to Ursula Lindsey in 2010: “We were optimistic [that Mahfouz’s success] would open the doors to all Arabic writing – but it didn’t, or not as wide as we thought. It took much longer—it took additional successes like The Yacoubian Building.”

Throughout the 1980s, Hewison was the only editor on staff at the press. “In those days, there was no computer technology, but we did have one computer in the press –– a pre-Mac Apple that had two floppy disk drives, which we used for keeping a general record of publications,” Hewison told AUC Today in 2010.

In the 1980s, the press’s three top sellers show AUC Press’s range. One was about contemporary Egyptian women (Khul-Khaal: Five Egyptian Women Tell Their Stories, by Nayra Atiya, 1984), one about ancient Egypt (Gods and Myths of Ancient Egypt, by Robert Armour, 1986), and the third was the 1989 edition of Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy, a major effort translated by William Maynard Hutchins, Olive E. Kenny, Lorne M. Kenny, and Angele Botros Samaan.

In the 1990s, Hewison decided to do his own translating, and his first book-length translation was Yusuf Idris’s novel about revolutionary Cairo in 1952, City of Love and Ashes. Hewison’s translation of the 1956 novel came out in 1998, after the book had won the new Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Translation.

In these years, Hewison—who also knew French and German—came to master not just Egyptian colloquial and Modern Standard Arabic, but also Middle Egyptian.

Hewison continued to help broaden AUC Press’s list, leading the effort to produce more than a dozen translations each year. He also translated a second novel, Wedding Night by Yusuf Abu Rayya, published by AUC Press in 2006.

One of Hewison’s goals was to bring out Arabic novels that could be enjoyable and familiar for a wide range of English-language readers. At a translation slam in 2013, he said:

“I generally prefer to produce texts that are a comfortable read for the English reader,” he said. “You can still have plenty of cultural color in there – if people are wearing galabeyyas and sitting down to eat girgeer and so on, it comes through in the text. But I don’t like the idea of throwing obstacles in people’s way. Anything that trips the reader up is to be avoided.”

Five favorites, 1986-2010

In 2010, Hewison told ArabLit that five of his favorites, published by AUC Press, were:

Hoda Barakat, The Tiller of Waters (Lebanon) — an absorbing, enlightening, multi-layered novel set in the empty war-ruins of Beirut, as a man struggling to survive and retain his sanity among packs of feral dogs reconstructs his history and the histories of those close to him through the metaphor of fabric (in which he used to trade), and slowly reveals the secret meanings of linen, cotton, velvet, silk. This is simply one of the best Arabic novels I have read, and it is beautifully translated by Marilyn Booth. 

Mourid Barghouti, I Saw Ramallah (Palestine) — a poetic revelation of what it means to be an exile, and what it means to return. This is one of the most powerful — because it is told so calmly, without rancor — indictments of the great injustice that is Israel. Translated perfectly by Ahdaf Soueif.

Ibrahim al-Koni, Gold Dust (Libya) — a great desert novel that is simple and universal at the same time. You will feel the heat and the sores and the thirst and the pain. In an elegant translation by Elliott Colla.

Naguib Mahfouz, Miramar (Egypt) — everybody must have their favorite Mahfouz novel, and this is mine. It is the story of Egypt and its Revolution, brilliantly told by four very different men staying in an old-fashioned pension in Alexandria, as they hover around the country girl who works there.

Ahmed Alaidy, Being Abbas el Abd (Egypt) — weird, funny, unconventional in form and content, short but effective and memorable.

Post-2011: Digital, Flexible, and Hoopoe

With AUC Press author Mona Prince.

Like the rest of the region, AUC Press saw another major shift after 2011, following the Eighteen Days. AUC Press’s location—and Hewison’s—put them at the epicenter of unfolding events.

In the difficult economic landscape that followed, the press scaled back slightly while working to become nimbler. Part of this process was a move into paperback originals and ebooks, which Hewison said in 2013 was, “better for us, because we don’t need to judge how many hardback copies of every book to print before going into paperback — instead we can print a bigger quantity of paperback copies right away for a longer period.”

But far more important was the launch the Hoopoe imprint in 2016. This imprint, which Hewison worked hard to help design, promises to bring “fresh writing from Marrakesh to Baghdad and Khartoum to Aleppo for adventurous readers everywhere.”

Through thirty-one years of nearly unceasing effort, Hewison has become one of the major forces in Arabic-English translation. Recently, he has moderated a translation slam; spoken as the face of the AUC Press; hosted numerous book events; and continued to steer the press’s publication and translation choices.

Hewison has been central to the press’s choices of now more than a hundred Arabic books in English translation: titles selected, translators chosen, editorial decisions. His work forms a nucleus of twentieth and twenty-first-century Arabic literature in translation, a point from which to build and rebuild.

Hewison is set to leave AUC Press at the end of October. Each Thursday throughout this month, ArabLit will celebrate and reflect on Hewison’s role in Arabic literature in translation, running excerpts from his translations, interviews, and more.