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"Mohamed el-Bisatie is no longer with us but his work will remain to be read by generations of readers"
Mohamed el-Bisatie passed away on 14 July 2012 after a long illness. His long-time friend and translator Denys Johnson-Davies told Banipal that he “was a writer who was not afraid to treat death as an inevitable part of life. [His passing] is a big loss for Egypt and the Arab world.”
Born and brought up in the Nile Delta Mohamed el-Bisatie started publishing short stories in magazines, and in 1968 his first full collection was published. After that, came six more volumes of short stories and twelve novels, with six works published in English translation, and some in French, German, Italian and Spanish. Mohamed el-Bisatie was awarded the prestigious Owais Prize in 2001.
Denys Johnson-Davies writes:
Death has its Time
The first words my wife uttered to me this morning were: “I’m sorry to tell you I have bad news for you today.”
She didn’t need to say anything more to me than that, at once I instinctively knew what that ‘bad news’ was. A friend of mine had passed away and I didn’t need to be told who that friend was. After a long illness my writer friend, Mohamed el-Bisatie, had been spared more suffering in his bed of sickness. I would no longer have the pleasure of having one of his caustic replies to my occasional enquiries by phone as to how he was. Of course he knew that I knew that he was on his death bed, but he was the last person to answer an enquiry about his health with anything but a ribald joke.
I have given these words the title of one of his short stories (Lil-Mawt Waqt), a story that I had included in the volume I had entitled A last Glass of Tea and other stories. In the short introduction I had written to that volume I had said of him that “he writes stories that are universal in their appeal”.
Mohamed el-Bisatie is no longer with us but his work will remain to be read by generations of readers. His first volume of stories was published as long ago as 1968 and it was then that I first became aware of the genius who would now be giving his talent to the short story. In that introduction to A last Glass of Tea and other stories I also wrote that “the life events of these stories is equally matter-of-fact where death has a part”.
Mohamed was a writer who was not afraid to treat death as an inevitable part of life. My thoughts for him will continue; also my grief at the loss of a much valued friend.
His passing is a big loss for Egypt and the Arab world.
Banipal No 7 (Spring 2000) published an extract from the manuscript translation by Hala Halim of Clamor of the Lake, that went on to be published by AUC Press in 2004, and then became the runner-up in the inaugural Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation, awarded in 2006.
Hala Halim writes the following tribute to Mohamed el-Bisatie:
"Aesthetically, ethically and politically incapable of compromise"
"The loss of Mohamed El-Bisatie is a huge blow. Words like “nobility” and “magnanimity” may seem threadbare, the stuff of obituaries. I will always remember an evening at the very end of 1994 when I started reading his just-published novel Sakhab al-Buhayra (Clamor of the Lake): I could not put it down and wished the opportunity would arise for me to translate it. It will always amaze me that, some months later, he instantly accepted that I, who had hitherto only published translations of short texts, should translate his masterpiece that won the Cairo International Book Fair’s award for Best Novel of the year. He was already a well-translated writer who had the option of working with established translators.
"Aesthetically, ethically and politically incapable of compromise, El-Bisatie took his stand through the bleakest Mubarak years away from the limelight. Critically acclaimed for placing the marginalized and underprivileged, mostly in rural but occasionally also urban settings, at the center of his texts, El-Bisatie breathed his commitment to social justice and human dignity into masterly fictions that are a signal contribution to Arabic and world literature."
Some of Mohamed el-Bisatie's works in English translation
The first collection of Mohamed el-Bisatie’s short stories in English, A Last Glass of Tea and Other Stories, was translated by Denys Johnson-Davies and published in the mid-1990s.
In 1998 Texas University Press pub published Denys Johnson-Davies's translation of his novel Houses Behind the Trees. This was reviewed in Banipal No 7. AUC Press published a Middle East edition in 2003.
In 2006 his novel Over the Bridge, translated by Nancy Roberts, was published by AUC Press.
In 2008 AUC Press published Hunger translated by Denys Johnson-Davies, as soon as it was published in Arabic (2008). The Arabic original of Hunger was short-listed for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction 2008-09.
In 2010, AUC Press published his novel Drumbeat, translated by Peter Daniel and excerpted in Banipal 37 (Spring 2010).
Mohamed el-Bisatie's works in the BALMAL library
Five of Mohamed el-Bisatie's six works in English translation are held in the BALMAL Library at the moment, and hopefully the first volume of short stories in translation will follow shortly. Click on the titles to find out more.
Houses Behind the Trees
Clamor of the Lake
Over the Bridge