A Talk with Hamdi Abu Golayyel: On Bringing Bedouin Language & Culture Out of the Shadows

By Ibrahim Fawzy

Hamdi Abu Golayyel, born in Fayoum, Egypt, in 1967, is an original and award-winning author, a chronicler of the lives of Egypt’s marginalized and working-class. He is the author of numerous short-story collections and novels, including Thieves in Retirement (tr. Marilyn Booth, Syracuse University Press, 2006), A Dog with No Tail (tr. Robin Moger, AUC Press, 2010), which was awarded the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature in 2008, and The Men who Swallowed the Sun (tr. Humphrey Davies, Hoopoe Fiction, 2022). He is editor-in-chief of the “Popular Studies series,” which specializes in folklore research, and writes for Arabic news outlets, such as al-Ittihad and al-Safir

On January 12, 2023, judges of the 2022 Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation announced that the late Humphrey Davies, translator of Abu Golayyel’s The Men Who Swallowed the Sun was co-winner of the prize. The judges applauded Humphrey’s translation “for the impressive skill and creativity involved in tackling such a dense and complex text written in non-standard Arabic.”

Abu Golayyel’s works have received much praise. Ursula Lindsey called A Dog with No Tail, “A clever and complex meditation . . . full of swift sarcasm . . . an exploration of Abu Golayyel’s Bedouin identity.” Mona Zaki described Thieves in Retirement as “a great read” while the Library Journal called it “masterful.” And the BULAQ podcast called The Men Who Swallowed the Sun “an anti-epic epic told in a rough, powerful storyteller’s voice.” 

Abu Golayyel’s works focuses mostly on the lives of the dispossessed, mostly men, in Egypt and abroad. These men are often in the process of struggling to reinvent their lives; to do so, they must reinvent language, reinvent their stories. His works don’t focus only on drawing a portrait of Bedouin society and culture, but they also celebrate the Bedouin dialect.

I spoke with Abu Golayyel on the phone, and we talked about his work, his literary influences, and the author-translator relationship.

Three of your books have been translated into English: Thieves in Retirement was translated byMarilyn Booth,  A Dog with No Tail by Robin Moger, and The Men who Swallowed the Sun by the late Humphrey Davies. How do you feel about the process of translation? Is it important for a writer to have his works translated? Is English the gateway to a larger audience, or are you interested in seeing your work in other languages? Has having your work translated had any effect on the way you write, or the way your works are received by literary critics? 

Hamdi Abu Golayyel: To be translated means to be read widely. Every writer feels delighted when they see their works rendered into another language, especially into English, since it’s a lingua franca. Also, the English reader, as far as I know, is a voracious one. Every writer, you see, lives in the hearts and minds of their readers. 

Honestly, I want to be read by my neighbors here in El-Omrania, the district where I live in Giza. Yet to my surprise, fortune smiles on a book that’s translated because readers in the Arab world get more interested in it, as though translation is a proof of its literary merit. Unfortunately, Arab authors, including the Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz, are still far from the English reader. I think Arabic literature doesn’t move freely in the English market, since it hasn’t reached commercial publishing companies, which will only translate our books when they’re one hundred percent sure that these books will bring them commercial profit. Until now, only university presses or publishers who admire our culture and defend our issues are interested in translating our literature.   

The title of your novel سقوط وانهيار الصاد شين (roughly The Rise and Fall of the Saad-Sheen) became The Men Who Swallowed the Sun. Also, الفاعل (roughly The Worker) became A Dog with No Tail. Tell us more about the Arabic titles, and what you think of the new English ones. Also, how do you think this title change might have affected reviewers, readers, librarians, and teachers of the book?

HAG: I’m skilled at crafting Arabic titles. And I suppose I’ve acquired this talent from journalism, since I’ve worked as an editor-in-chief for a couple of years. My book “Great, Dull-Witted Days” [Merit Publishing House, 2018] only sold 300 copies. Frankly, no one knows anything about that book except for its title that went viral after publication. When I was a young author, I used to insist on the literal translation of titles. But, later on, translators clarified that titles are changed for marketing purposes. The Saad-Sheen, for example, is meaningless for the English reader. In my culture, though, the Saad-Sheen is a whole group of people of Libyan origin, but English readers can’t easily get this. The original Arabic title of “A Dog with no Tail” is الفاعل  (which roughly translates as The Worker);  the title has three nuances in Arabic: the subject—ــthe doer of the action; the one who works in construction; and the active person who accomplishes his goals. When Robin Moger was working on translating this novel, he asked me to change its title because the literal translation of the title is nonsense for the English reader. In A Dog with No Tail, I narrate a real scene when I once told a girl in a Bedouin accent so as not to be understood, “You look like a duck coming back from the market.” But she scorned me and replied, “And you’re a dog with a docked tail.” I suggested the English title be ‘كلب مقطوع ذيله /a dog with a docked tail,’ which implies humor, and Robin Moger rendered it as ‘a dog with no tail.’ Honestly, I’m not totally satisfied with this translation, since it denotes that the dog is naturally born without a tail. There’s a big difference between the two: a dog whose tail is docked, and a dog naturally born without a tail. Sadly, the implied sense of humor in the title is lost in translation. As for The Men who Swallowed the Sun, neither me nor Humphrey chose its title; the editor suggested ‘the man who swallowed the sun.’ Humphrey at first was worried about this title, yet I convinced him to just change man into the plural, because there are so many men in the novel. I really love this title with its muscular irony. Some might say I want to go up to the sun, but my characters have swallowed it. That’s to say, I realized recently that the title is the business of the publisher who knows his market and target audience.

How did you receive the news that Humphrey Davies’s translation of your book, The Men Who Swallowed the Sun, was awarded the 2022 Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation together with Robin Moger’s translation of Mohamed Kheir’s Slipping?

HAG: I was in seventh heaven, because Humphrey’s extraordinary effort, which he exerted in translating such a complex novel into English, is acknowledged. Translating this novel needed a lot of work. My novels, in aggregate, are written in a language that is an amalgam of colloquial Arabic and standard Arabic. In The Men Who Swallowed the Sun, I wanted the characters’ voices to be heard on paper as they are in reality. Every character speaks in their own voice. The characters are ordinary people who sacrificed their lives and were willing to drown in the sea to travel to Italy. I discovered later on that the register I used can be understood only by a few people. In Egypt, you may find two villages, no more than 100 kilometers apart, but each has its own dialect. There’s a Fayyoumi dialect which is somehow different from the Cairene and so on; the young men who illegally traveled to Italy have invented their own dialect as well. That there’s no lexicon that includes much of the novel’s vocabulary made translating it a real feat. I was Humphrey’s sole reference, so I was very delighted for him and his translation. Humphrey loved the Egyptian regional dialects, and he was an expert at them. He very often surprised me that he knew the meaning of words that were known only by a few Egyptians. 

Tell us about your relationship with Humphrey, and how you were involved in the process of translating “such a dense and complex text written in non-standard Arabic,” as described by 2022 Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize’s judges in their statement? 

HAG: Translators, for sure, contact the authors they translate on a daily basis to fully grasp the (con)text. For instance, Stéphanie Dujols, the French translator of Thieves in Retirement, found this phrase قلبة السلم, and she didn’t understand it at first. We spent three hours trying to render it into French, but I couldn’t clarify its meaning. She came over to my apartment in Helwan, and I pointed at the flight of stairs so she could know the meaning of the word. In The Men Who Swallowed the Sun, I took a risk with language; it’s a mixture of dialects, my bold linguistic adventure. Humphrey did a wonderful job translating such a dense text. Amidst lockdown, he was in his apartment in downtown Cairo while I was in Fayoum. For three months, we spoke on the phone for an hour daily. Through our conversations, frankly, I sensed how difficult it is to be a translator. The translator plants a new seed in a new language. My experience with Humphrey was great.  May his soul rest in peace! 

Why didn’t you nominate The Men Who Swallowed the Sun for the AUC’s Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature, especially after your novel A Dog with No Tail (AUC Press, 2010; translated by Robin Moger) was awarded the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature in 2008?

HAG: I’m so pleased you asked this question. I didn’t nominate The Men Who Swallowed the Sun for the AUC’s Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature on purpose because I wanted Humphrey Davies to translate it. During the period of nomination, Humphrey spoke with me about his strong desire to translate it. Being nominated, you know, would have put off the translation for an entire year, and after that it wasn’t guaranteed that Humphrey would translate it. So I preferred that Humphrey translate the novel, and I was right.  

The Men Who Swallowed the Sun mixes fiction with non-fiction. Can we describe it as a semi-fictionalized autobiography?

HAG: Yes, I only write about what I’ve experienced. I believe that if any writer depends only on his personal experience, they’ll produce a universal story that any reader can identify with. Our lives are crazy, but the act of writing is sensible. Authors should write logically using their imagination, since imagination’s role is to hold back the absurdity and madness that one has seen in such a mad life. The Men who Swallowed the Sun works at the boundary of memoir and fiction, using experimental prose techniques to foreground the unreliability of the narrator and of memory.

In The Men Who Swallowed the Sun, you tackled the Bedouins’ life, language, and customs, as well as the social transformations they underwent. How can literature take readers on whole new journeys to worlds often hidden from view? And how can it keep oral heritage, like Bedouin poetry, alive?

HAG: Right! Literature reveals the hidden, and in my novels it’s the Bedouins’ culture. I belong to the Bedouins, and they’re my literary realm. I’m a writer without a cause; I don’t resist injustice or oppression for example, and I believe that it’s not the burden of the novel, but that the novel is supposed to delight and entertain. Sometimes, though, I feel responsible for the Bedouins, since if I hadn’t written about them—including myself—we would have remained in the shadows. Bedouin poetry, for instance, is oral, mainly based on intonation, and difficult to be easily understood or read. I include Bedouin poetry in my novels, so readers can get the meanings from the context. Luckily, Bedouin poetry fits the novel as a genre because Bedouin poets usually narrate a story that they have experienced themselves.

How do you think prizes have affected the literary scene in the Arab World?

HAG: I’m totally with literary prizes. I encourage all prizes because they help authors on all levels. In the 1990s, literary novelists just sold tens of their books because readers, back then, used to read other genres. But now, we live in the novel’s era, and the big prizes have drawn readers’ attention to the novel. I believe that prizes, unfortunately, have limited the freedom of the novel because many authors who write with prizes in mind tend to craft historical novels, assuming that historical novels are more likely to win prizes. 

Who or what is your writing building on, or in conversation with? What stories, songs, films, books?

HAG: I write whenever I feel happy. I can’t write when I’m frustrated. I write when I laugh, and I like laughter. So writing moments are rare because moments of happiness are actually few. I write motivated by a deep-seated desire to expose readers to my personal experiences. The structure of the novel is like a chain; every chapter leads directly to the other until the end is reached. But, unluckily, I didn’t manage to do that. In my novels, I narrate seemingly unrelated scenes leading at last to a novel; every chapter is a story on its own, but all chapters are connected chronologically not dramatically. To be honest, this technique has liberated me. Some poets write in free verse; why don’t we free novels, too? I failed to follow and imitate Mahfouz’s writing style, but I managed to invent a new style that Mahfouz, himself, had known nothing about. 

You said that your latest novel يدي الحجرية / My Rocky Hand, published by General Egyptian Book Organization in 2021, is the source of all your previous novels, and all of them were attempts to write it. Tell us more about this novel, how it originated, and how it’s in conversation with your previous novels. 

HAG: I’m not exaggerating when I say that I kept writing and rewriting  يدي الحجرية / My Rocky Hand more than twenty times. At long last, I made up my mind to send it off to the publisher because it was the right way to put an end to the journey of writing it. We have a Bedouin proverb that says, ‘send your son to the jungle, and look at the stalks he’ll get,’ so I decided to publish it and see how readers and critics would receive it. I’m not totally satisfied with it; Bedouin culture is much more complicated than my creative talents. At first, I attempted to write it the same way as Mahfouz’s Morning and Evening Talks (tr. Christina Phillips; AUC press, 2007). But I found that this way would just enable me to tackle only one family. I, though, had nine villages, and I wanted to write about all the people there, not just a family or two. I confess now that I failed to do so. What I have written is the product of my limited talents. That’s that.

What are you currently working on?

HAG: I’m currently working on a novel titled ديك أمي / My Mother’s Rooster.  I first titled it as  غيط أمي / My Mother’s Field. My mother used to raise chickens, and she had a rooster that was very dear to her. So I changed the title to “My Mother’s Rooster.” 

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Ibrahim Fawzy is an emerging translator. He holds an MA in Comparative Literature (2021). His translations, reviews and interviews have appeared or are forthcoming in ArabLit QuarterlyWords Without BordersThe Markaz ReviewModern Poetry in TranslationPoetry Birmingham Literary Journal, and elsewhere. He is currently an editorial assistant at Rowayat, and podcasts at New Books Network. In 2023, he finished a six-month mentorship with the British National Centre for Writing as part of their Emerging Literary Translators program, where he was mentored by Sawad Hussain.