Having coffee with Denys Johnson-Davies does not seem all that remarkable – until you remember that this silver-haired Englishman shared a table with Tawfik al Hakim three decades before you were born. Hakim may not be as familiar to western readers as Naguib Mahfouz, but he was a much bigger deal in his time. Then again, Johnson-Davies was a literary figure in Cairo long before Mahfouz made his name.
“Can you imagine,” he says, recalling his early days with the BBC in Evesham, where the broadcast company’s headquarters were relocated while London was bombed during the Second World War. “Here was Britain, with this enormous empire, throughout the Arab world – it didn’t have anybody who spoke Arabic. They did have this one Scotsman, Cowen,” he corrects himself, “but when the war came, there was nobody in Cambridge apart from me and Abba Eban,” he smiles, “who later became the Israeli foreign minister. When I started learning Arabic I was 15; they wouldn’t take me at Cambridge so I went to London, and I went to Cambridge when I was 16. The BBC had obviously contacted Cambridge and said, ‘Do you have anyone studying Arabic?’ And so I went to London, and I remember being taken into the studio to listen to a news bulletin in Arabic, and I didn’t even know what the subject was, let alone understand a word. But they took me on.” It was in Evesham, while living with the Arab employees (“mainly they were Egyptians”) in bunks in an army-managed dormitory, that Johnson-Davies began to learn Arabic for real: “It was a third university for me, and very much better than Cambridge or London. Directly I was released, I went to Cairo...”
Nearly six decades and numerous seminal translations later, Johnson-Davies received the inaugural Personality of the Year Sheikh Zayed Book Award in 2007, adding incentive to complete his new book of Emirati short stories in translation, a project begun several years ago to be published by the American University in Cairo Press with support from the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage in time for the next Abu Dhabi Book Fair. He is here with the final proofs, to revise them with Juma al Qubaisi, the director of the Abu Dhabi Book Fair, to catch up with the poet Ahmad Rashid Thani and other friends and to reflect on his relationship with the Gulf. On his way to Abu Dhabi, Johnson-Davies stopped in Doha, and was amazed to find absolutely no sign of the city he first knew in 1951. “I would ask about certain things and say, ‘It was here a long time ago.’ And people would say, ‘How long ago? In the time of Sheikh Khalifa?’ No, Sheikh Ali [bin Abdulla Al Thani]. ‘Sheikh Ali!’ It was as if I was talking about prehistoric times.”
Johnson-Davies originally went to Doha to represent an American oil company: “I had signed a two-year contract, but after a year they said there was no oil in the sea – it was a marine company. And then while I was there, somebody came along to me and said that in Dubai, they want a translator to translate for Sheikh Said bin Maktoum, but they have no money, so are you ready to perform this service? And I said yes; I’d love to see Dubai. So, I went by private aeroplane. There was no airport or anything in Doha, and nothing at all in Dubai, no hotels or amenities. They put me up in a place belonging to the sheikh, and I translated for five days or so, but I saw Dubai in 1951. And then,” he goes on in the same breath, “I came here as the head of Sawt al Sahel (The Voice of the Coast), which was a radio operated by the English, an Arabic broadcast, and all the employees were Palestinians, poor and cheerful men. The place was headquartered in Sharjah, but I would travel all round, to Ras al Khaimah, to Abu Dhabi. That was in 1969... So,” Johnson-Davies winds down abruptly, “I had experience very early on here.”
And as he gets up to greet the head waiter at the Beach Rotana, who welcomes him as an old friend, it suddenly dawns on you just how remarkable having coffee with Denys Johnson-Davies really is.
The National (UAE)