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Denys Johnson-Davies: Homecoming
Though it comes as a surprise to many native Egyptians, there are actually people out there who are completely and utterly obsessed with Egypt. It is safe to say that Canadian-born Brit Denys Johnson-Davies is one of those people.
The first time he visited Egypt, King Farouk was still on the throne. Having studied Oriental languages at Cambridge University, Johnson-Davies became a leading Arabic-English translator and came to work with the likes of Edward Said and he was the first to translate Naguib Mahfouz’s work into English, while he also translated three volumes of the Islamic hadith.
Johnson-Davies celebrated his 90th birthday by launching his latest book which is a collection of sixty years worth of Egyptian short stories. The book includes work by numerous Egyptian writers, both male and female, including Alifa Rifaat, Naguib Mahfouz, Mohamed Afifi, Yusuf Idris and Khairy Shalaby.
Most of the stories are set during different times, ranging from the beginning of the 1940’s until today. The majority of the stories take place in and around Cairo and generally tend to only focus on a few characters since they are usually just two to three pages long.
The most enjoyable part in reading the various stories is how diverse they are; they offer a lot of background on Egypt and its familial dynamics and day-to-day life. An interesting detail we noticed is that quite a lot of the stories either have food or cat-related titles.
Youngsters would be intrigued by Shehata Al Erian’s writing Hashish Steals the Night which revolves around the drugs scene in Cairo’s lesser affluent neighbourhoods. Nabil Gorgy’s Cairo is a Small City revolves around an affluent architect who loses his heart to a Bedouin girl only to find out that he had already come across her family a long time ago. Alifa Rifaat is strong as usual in her story Another Evening at the Club, which highlights the trust issues and power abuse between the staff of a household and their employers.
Though the translation is perfect, it doesn’t hurt having some knowledge on the Egyptian culture and the Arabic language. Some sentences contain sayings that are translated literally and make little sense in English. There are hardly any footnotes except for a short glossary at the back of the book, so having some knowledge about Egypt is definitely important.
For anyone interested in Egyptian literature over the years, this book comes as an absolute goldmine of stories.
The structure of the book is difficult to map out. While the story is chronological in the bigger sense, events tend to jump back and forth, where each child slave’s full story is only revealed the further you read. We do not know exactly how either of them came to be until to the end.
Other distractions from the story line are religious references. Using Biblical references, verses from the Quran and the history of Moses and Adam, Thompson uses mythical tales to reflect on the characters at hand and the trials they face. He even has a character and element that bears an uncanny representation of Noah and his arc.
Apart from his use of history and religious fables, Thompson also tells a very aggressive, and often times, dark story. Dodola is married off as a child and upon turning to prostitution is subjected to rape and mistreatment. Zam is a slave who sacrifices his manhood out of a loss of a better life. They are both abused time and time again and having their misfortunes sketched out for the eye to witness adds a shocking element to the novel.
This brings us to what makes the novel so wonderful at the same time; the illustrations. The detailing of the sketches and the exemplary hand-work at play is extremely commendable. Action scenes have your eyes rushing through the pages as frantically as one seen on a TV screen. The beauty in the details is endless; the graphics are looming and grand but also sensual and precise. There is a lot of calligraphy incorporated, which makes for an interesting experience for those who can read Arabic.
Another interesting aspect is his combination of the new and the old. Though the story takes place in today’s world, a lot of the prevalent ideologies are from nomadic times; primitive and beastly.
There is indeed something quite poetic about the story he tells – and the manner in which it is told – regardless of the gruesome, harsh aspects; on the contrary, it is these parts that make the novel that much more meaningful.
Born and raised in Texas, Gretchen McCullough's teaching career has taken her to Egypt, Turkey and Japan; currently, McCullough teaches writing in the Department of Rhetoric and Composition at the American University in Cairo.
Released earlier this year, her latest publication is titled ‘Shahrazad’s Tooth’; a compilation of short stories revolving around a host of eccentric individuals and their experiences in Cairo. A large bulk of the stories are driven by the thoughts rummaging through the characters minds and, more often than not, they transpire to be both charming and relatable.
‘Shahrazad’s Tooth’ has a colourful team of characters with strong presence, charisma and an air of familiarity. Digging deeper into their personal lives and problems, her writing style is distinct, bringing an American charm and non-linearity to her stories, which builds a pleasant intricacy.
With many of the characters connected by a single building in Garden City, McCullough allots the main characters in her stories as small cameos in others, spreading the characters' presence and allowing for further development.
In ‘A Little Honey and a Little Sunlight’, we are given insight into the raging nature of Professor Gary by his dying neighbour, Joe Pulaski - a poet - reminiscing his days spent living in Cairo. Many pages later in ‘Pure Water’, we find ourselves reading from the eyes of Dr Gary as he spends time with his bulky Greek friend, Kolombos, in a mental asylum before the uprising of January 25th. The title story, meanwhile, sees two main protagonists; journalist and teacher, Mary Beth Somers, and her dentist, Dr Samy. Far from sappy, the two fall into a love which avoids the overt romantic notions seen in cliched literature, despite ending on a melancholic note.
Aside from the characters, Cairo as a city is portrayed as an integral player in the stories. On regular occasions, vivid descriptions of popular places in the city are given, such as El Horreya, Windsor Bar, the Gezirah Club and Koshari Abou Tarek. Having visited all these places ourselves, it's obvious that McCullough has immersed herself in the city, and amongst its people, well beyond the point of a touristic escapade. She’s become a sort of semi-native, in touch with Cairene culture, but maintains enough outside insight to give a new perspective to those who’ve been living in the city for too long.
With its mix of emotions and interesting character troupe, ‘Shahrazad’s Tooth’ promises an entertaining, comforting read for both locals and foreigners alike.