Monday, July 20, 2009

denys johnson-davies' 'fertile desert' book of uae stories

‘Fertile’ literary vistas open up in the UAE
by Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette 20 July 2009

DENYS Johnson-Davies, the doyen of translators of Arabic literature to English, has always been a pioneer. In 1946 he published in Cairo at his own expense, the first-ever book of Arabic short stories to appear in English translation – a selection from the work of Mahmoud Teymour. More than 60 years on he has scored the latest in a string of ‘firsts’ with the publication of the anthology “In a Fertile Desert: Modern Writing from the United Arab Emirates”.

According to its publishers, this is the first such anthology “to emerge from this commercially and culturally vibrant center of the Arab world.” It is published in paperback in the UK by Arabia Books, under an arrangement with the American University in Cairo (AUC) Press.

Moreover, in 2007 - the first year of the Sheikh Zayed Book Awards - Johnson-Davies won the Award for Personality of the Year in the Field of Culture. He subsequently thought that in return for this “very worthwhile “prize, he would like to do something for UAE literature. That “something” was the compiling and translation of an anthology of short stories.

It was not until the 1970s that the genres of novel and short story were discovered by readers and potential writers in the UAE. When Johnson-Davies started selecting stories for his anthology, he was not certain he would be able to find enough worth translating. Only one UAE writer is known beyond the Middle East, and that is Dubai-born Muhammad Al-Murr. He has 14 volumes of short stories to his name, some of which have been translated into English.

Johnson-Davies [pictured] need not have worried. Through combing a variety of sources for suitable stories, including published anthologies, magazines and the Internet, he reached his target of 20 stories. He had previously translated and published one short story by a UAE writer, and that was “The Sound of Singing” by Ajman - born Salma Matar Seif. The story appeared in his anthology “Under the Naked Sky: Short Stories from the Arab World” (Saqi Books, 2000), and it is republished in “In a Fertile Desert”.

In the story a girl is fascinated by a beautiful black woman who has a secret power over the girl’s brutal grandfather. The grandfather has “the heart of a pearling ship’s captain who buries his divers in the sea’s depths.” His secret unravels to reveal a harrowing scenario with the oppression of women and slaves at its heart.

The stories chosen by Johnson-Davies portray a world far from the clichéd images of ultra-luxurious buildings and glitzy lifestyle associated with Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Many of the stories reflect anxiety over change, and mixed feelings towards the old days when living conditions were harsh but authentic. The oral tradition of storytelling continues to influence written stories.

Certain of the stories involve marriage choices. “A Decision” by Ebtisam Al-Mualla depicts a man who has brought his British wife back to the UAE. He coldly tells her he is still in love with the local girl he had wanted to marry but whose dowry he could not afford to pay. The twist at the end of the story is predictable, but the story has a certain poignancy.

The contradictory pressures on Emirati youth in the apparently liberal atmosphere of Dubai form the basis of “A Slap in the Face” by Dubai-born Abdul Hamid Ahmed, editor-in-chief of the English-language daily Gulf News. A young man from the town of Khor Fakkan travels to Dubai. When he follows a particular woman and makes a vulgar request of her, he is hauled in by the police.

The stories in “In a Fertile Desert” frequently have an air of mystery. “Fear Without Walls” by ‘A’ishaa Al-Za’aby is a creepy tale centering on an abandoned house around which all sorts of legends have sprung up.

Johnson-Davies points out that since he started working on “In a Fertile Desert, there has been increasing interest in the UAE in arts and literature. Several important projects and publications have been launched such as the Kalima translation project of the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage.
He is hopeful that his first anthology of stories by UAE writers to appear in English translation will be followed by others, and that UAE writers “will become better known in the rest of the Arab world and will increasingly attract the attention of other translators.”


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