Fertile Desert: Arabic short stories from the UAE

Browsing the internet, I came across an interesting book review of “In a Fertile Desert: Modern Writing from the United Arab Emirates”. As the title implies, this is a collection of short stories from the Arabian Gulf, specifically the UAE, translated into English.

As the originator of the collection, translator Denys Johnson-Davies, explains
“people who live there now … should know that there was something there before – that people didn’t really have enough to eat et cetera et cetera, but that they had their own culture.”

Many of the contributors were already well known in other roles, including a vice chairman of the Dubai Culture & Arts Authority, a former editor of Emirati newspaper Al-Ittihad and the editor of Gulf News. Equally many of the stories were written by previously unknown authors. As the collection’s compiler, Johnson-Davies hunted this latter group down through the internet and word of mouth.

He describes the book’s Arabic stories as:

“I was looking for stories about the sea. I knew that these people were pearl fishers, they were making a living out of ordinary fishing and so on and so forth. That they had their birds, their hawks and all this, and that this was their traditional life. And I found it very attractive…”

Johnson-Davies himself has had an interesting career as an Arabic to English translator. In fact, he was described by the late Edward Said as “the leading Arabic-English translator of our time”.

Born in Canada, Johnson-Davies split his childhood between Egypt, Sudan, Uganda, Kenya and English public school. In a bizarre story, he left boarding school at age fourteen because they didn’t allow him to play squash, and instead took the entrance exam for Cambridge University which he went up to aged only 16. This story and more are detailed in his memoir, “Memories in Translation: A Life between the Lines of Arabic Literature”. In fact, this book is more than an entertaining account of an unusual life, having also been described as a “a useful introduction to modern Arabic literature”.

To sum up, for those interested in Arabic literature or Arabic to English translation, this seems an interesting collection from a fascinating character – well worth a look.

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