Humphrey Davies will always mean Cairo to me. Whether it is him asking impish questions after talks at AUC, hosting film nights at his Abdeen apartment, strolling round downtown art exhibitions or going stall to stall at the Sayyida Zeinab book market. Whenever I came to the city and got in touch he always had some new place to try. And as we walked he would point things out – the empty space 10 stories high that used to house his first apartment in the city or an example of some curious anomaly in the contemporary Arabic of Egypt. He walked slowly, patiently waiting for Cairo’s traffic, updating me on his latest project or asking me about what I was doing.
Humphrey’s Cairo was always much bigger and richer than mine. His life had travelled through so many more turns he could see the city in many different ways. One thing we shared was Sudan, where he had worked many decades before. So, for the past few years, he would always have a new Sudanese place to try in downtown Cairo. First, we tried the ones around Ataba but as time went by we settled on one near Midan Mohammed Farid (or, as Humphrey insisted on pointing out, the true Midan Bab al-Luq).
Every time we went, Humphrey would order the Sudanese speciality tabaladi (baobab) juice, only to be told that they did not have it (but he would always still try). I knew that he had worked in Sudan a few decades previously but the subject of conversation never really came up. Around this time he was working on his translation of Mohammed al-Tunisi’s travelogue in Darfur and we preferred to talk about travels made 200 years before by a fourteen year old merchant in search of his father rather than talking about ourselves.
After dinner we would walk in search of dessert. Once we walked all the way to Sayyida Zeinab to get the fizzy-sour sobya from al-Rahmani. Sometimes we had a nightcap at his apartment and sometimes not. In a city that could be so rushed and chaotic, Humphrey was always an island of calm. Now that he is gone I have a lot of regrets – that I never asked him more about his time in Sudan, that I never asked him for more stories about his life, that COVID meant I missed my last chance to go to Cairo and see him.
Humphrey’s work and his generosity touched the lives of so many. I only played a small part in his. But he will always be there, in Cairo. When I finally make it back I will still see him, with his eyebrow ever so slightly raised, telling a century-old piece of gossip he has just discovered or recounting some neat piece of wordplay.
He left too soon. Condolences to all who loved him.