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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.
The first impression of main character Abby, a freshman at university, is that she’s a goody-two-shoes and seems to have a reserved, shy personality. She is just starting a new independent life as a student far away from home, but her peace of mind is soon disturbed when she meets Travis; an underground fighter who goes to the same school. He's the kind of guy that every girl should avoid but still dreams of taming. With tattooed arms, the rebellious enigma captures Abby's attention instantly and though he has trouble written all over him, she can't help but get sucked into his world.
But on the other hand, Travis is also somewhat spellbound by Abby's innocence. What he doesn't know, and neither do we at the time, is that he’s in for a surprise; with a sharp tongue and a strong personality, Abby manages to charm the bad boy into submission. As the story progresses, we see Abby building a shield to protect herself from being another challenge that Travis conquers. Frustrated with Abby, Travis is forced to comply with her strict rules and settles for being ‘her friend’.
The novel takes an unusual turn when Abby loses a bet with Travis and is forced to live with him for a whole month. The lines between innocent friendship and love become blurred and as the story goes on, McGuire gradually delves deeper into Abby's fears and the dark past that is still hunting her.
Jumping up the New York Times bestselling charts soon after being published, Beautiful Disaster is much more than a just another romance novel.