The Things One Learns…

No reader of Arabic literature in translation would fail to recognize the name of translator Denys Johnson-Davies: He has worked on books by Naguib Mahfouz, Zakaria Tamer, and Tewfiq Al-Hakim, to name just a few. And he also translated Tayib Salih’s masterpiece, Season of Migration to the North. So I was more than a little disappointed when I came across these pearls of wisdom in his introduction to the Anchor Book of Modern Arabic Fiction. On the birth of the Arabic novel, he writes:

But many were the prejudices that had to be overcome. The idea of an author creating characters and making them inhabit worlds of his creation not only was foreign to the Arab Muslim mind but was even regarded as almost unacceptable. Take, for example, the ever-entertaining stories of The Thousand and One Nights. This anonymous work, so esteemed throughout the world as a masterpiece of imaginative literature, remains for most Arabs a work unworthy of serious consideration. Arab men of letters have long looked askance at the extravagances of The Arabian Nights, as the book is better known in the West, finding them suitable only for minds incapable of appreciating other forms of literature, and grudgingly admitting that the stories might have some merit only when the outside world lavished praise on them.

On the universal appeal of Arabic novels:

Many Arab writers have no experience of the outside world or of a foreign language, and their reading of world literature is confined to works translated into Arabic. Thus a reader of Mohamed El-Bisatie’s A Last Glass of Tea will find that every one of its twenty-four stories takes place in villages around Lake Manzala in the Nile Delta. But readers in the West have shown themselves capable of relating to cultures that they come across for the first time in fiction, especially when captured by a master’s hand.

On choosing to present the writers in the anthology by alphabetical order:

I prefer to treat the Arab world as the one cultural unit that it is.

But don’t let these absurd comments discourage you from reading the anthology (which is pretty amazing) or anything he’s translated (particularly Season of Migration.)

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