Rather like proverbial London buses that make passengers wait for one to come along, and then three arrive at once, English-language publishers abroad have finally been waking up to the rich back catalogue of works of modern Arabic literature already available in high-quality English translations.
A classic English-language version of Sudanese writer Tayeb Salih’s 1966 novel Season of Migration to the North by veteran translator Denys Johnson-Davies made it into the catalogue of UK publisher Penguin almost two decades ago, followed by a similarly well-established translation of Egyptian writer Tawfiq al-Hakim’s 1933 novel Return of the Spirit by William Hutchins in 2019.
As if to complete the group of three, Wadida Wassef’s 1970s translation of The Cheapest Nights, a collection of stories by Egyptian writer Yusuf Idris, has now appeared in a new edition published by Penguin. It is to be hoped that it will introduce the work of Idris to wider audiences and be the harbinger of additional works in widely circulating and high-quality English-language translations.
The new Penguin edition of Idris’s stories includes a foreword by Egyptian novelist Ezzedine Fishere introducing them to a new generation of readers along with Wassef’s original introduction. This usefully situates Idris in the wider context and provides readers with pointers on what to expect when they first open a collection of his stories.
Born in 1927 in a small town in the Delta, Idris first came to Cairo as a medical student. While he initially welcomed the July 1952 Revolution that ended monarchical rule in Egypt, he was soon disillusioned with the apparent inability of the country’s new rulers to make good on some of their promises, particularly with regard to wider political participation and more even economic development.
Idris joined a larger group of writers and others known for their opposition to the revolutionary regime’s sometimes anti-democratic tendencies. Unlike his elders, however, who sometimes passed over the lives of the mass of their countrymen in their writings and described instead the lives of the Cairo middle classes, Idris was determined to describe the lives of the Egyptian lower-middle and working classes and have them speak directly in their own voices.
Perhaps this had something to do with his own social background, but whether for this or for other reasons, even today readers may well be struck by the range of experience recorded in the stories collected both in this new edition of The Cheapest Nights and elsewhere. “All on a Summer’s Night,” for example, one of the stories in the Penguin volume, describes an incident in the lives of a group of young men in a Delta village in a way that is entirely free of sentimentality or condescension.
Comparing this story with earlier works depicting Egyptian village life, whether from the bureaucratic heights of al-Hakim’s novel Diary of a Country Prosecutor, in which the residents of Delta villages can be made into figures of fun, or even Abdel-Rahman al-Sharqawi’s famous novel The Earth, in which they take their place in an elaborate political argument, it is easy to see that with Idris a new and powerful voice had entered the literary arena.
Perhaps it is for this reason that Fishere in his foreword says of Idris that though his ideological commitments were always clear, his characters are also always presented in and for themselves, being introduced neither to entertain the reader nor to advance a sociological thesis. Idris’s stories “deal mostly with poverty and injustice – and there was no shortage of either,” Fishere says. Like many other writers of his generation, “he stood with the poor and underprivileged and traced the source of their suffering to Egypt’s political and social conditions.”
“Yet Idris’s characters, even the most rudimentarily described, are real; they are conflicted, struggling, and facing real-life challenges, not types. This is why they stay with the reader long after one’s finished reading.” Fishere adds that having grown up in the Delta city of Mansoura, not so very far from where Idris was born some generations before, he can still remember the first time he read one of Idris’s stories.
“I had never read such a graphic description in Arabic,” Fishere says. “It was so poignant, it almost hurt.” There was the sense in which through his use of the Egyptian spoken dialect and of a “surgical style and an economical use of language, hostile to redundancy, hyperbole, and melodrama” in the written language, Idris was handing down important discoveries to subsequent generations of writers.
Widening horizons: Although he lived until 1991 and was publishing works of fiction and other material almost up until the end, Idris perhaps had his most lasting successes in the 1950s and 1960s.
Some of the reasons for his later fame can be found in The Cheapest Nights, first published in Arabic in 1954, but including later stories in Wassef’s Penguin translation. In addition to “All on a Summer’s Night,” for example, in fact coming from a 1959 collection called Dregs of the City, the English version of The Cheapest Nights also includes the title story of this later collection as well as other pieces.
Among the most notable are the remarkable “Did you Have to Turn the Light on Li-Li?” from the 1970 collection House of Flesh, “The Shame” from the 1960 collection of the same name – a similar story, novel length, later inspired a famous film – and “Al-Sheikh Sheikha,” here rendered as “The Freak,” from the 1966 collection The Ends of the Earth.
Perhaps the earlier stories are mainly characterised by descriptions of the human consequences of poverty and injustice, like in the title story which spells out how these things can suffocate hopes and force aspirations into narrow channels. Later ones can become both longer and deeper, like in “Dregs of the City,” almost novella length, a penetrating study of sexual jealousy with overtones of class-related spite reminiscent of work by the Swedish writer August Strindberg. There are shorter and more concentrated pieces, whose aim may have been to capture the essence of an often somehow stigmatised individual in a very few words.
Reading the stories again, some readers might be struck by how many refer to something like a loss of innocence or at least to the acquisition of experience that can act like a form of poisoning. “Dregs of the City” is a terrifying account of the destruction of a maidservant by a rich employer, who apparently acts out of a mixture of idleness and vanity in a kind of motiveless, even trivial, malignity that nevertheless has serious consequences.
“All on a Summer’s Night” describes the acquisition of another kind of experience, this time attended by more brutal violence. “Did you Have to Turn the Light on Li-Li?”, written in a first-person confessional mode, outlines what seem to be festering sexual fantasies entertained against a local woman.
In his Essential Youssef Idris, a selection of Idris’s short stories put together by Denys Johnson-Davies in 2009, there are other stories that flesh out some of Idris’s characteristic themes, though, as his editor notes, Idris’s stories, already scattered in their Arabic original versions in the various magazines and collections in which they appeared, can be even harder to track down in English versions. In addition to Wassef’s versions of the stories collected in The Cheapest Nights, there are also four longer stories, almost novellas, available in English versions by Catherine Cobham in the collection Rings of Burnished Brass (1984), and an early novel, City of Love and Ashes, that appeared in an English translation by R. Neil Hewison in 1999.
“Rings of Burnished Brass” presents one side of Idris at his best – Cobham’s translation is included in the Essential Yusuf Idris – and is the story of a boy who takes a middle-aged woman as his sexual partner, perhaps inevitably seeing the relationship as simply a step towards sexual knowledge. While the collection also includes some stories not easily available elsewhere, such as the remarkable “House of Flesh” and “Farahat’s Republic,” it does not include Cobham’s version of “The Black Policeman,” another study in poisonous experience, this time of a military conscript set to work in the monarchical regime’s prisons before the 1952 Revolution.
As Johnson-Davies notes in his introduction to his edited volume, Idris was also an important journalist and commentator, and standard bibliographies of his work list dozens of essay and other collections, sadly none of them translated into English. He was an important dramatist – and his 1964 play Al-Farafir (“Small Fry”) was a notable attempt to cast off European models for Egyptian theatre and return instead to more local sources including the traditions of the aragoz (puppet theatre), shadow plays, popular epics and chanted tales, and the samir, or evening gatherings in which dramatic stories were at one time told.
This side of Idris, his theoretical and manifesto pieces on Egyptian theatre, has also not been translated into English.
Yusuf Idris, The Cheapest Nights. Trans. Wadida Wassef, New York: Penguin, 2020, pp185.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 February, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly