One of the most famous classics by one of the most influential, modernist intellectuals, The Days, is published in Denmark, supported by DEDI.
By Agnete Flyger
By Agnete Flyger
“The Dean of Arabic Literature” needs no further introduction in Egypt, however in Denmark, Taha Hussein (1889-1973) has until now primarily only been known among Middle East scholars and literary enthusiasts.
Hussein’s autobiographical novel The Days was published in Egypt in 1929 and almost 100 years later, on the 17th of March 2022, the Danish translation of the classic has been published.
Known for his writings, his time as Minister of Education where he introduced free schooling for all Egyptians, and his visual impairment, Taha Hussein is famous in all of the Arab World – easily recognizable with his big, dark glasses.
The Days is a literary autobiographical third-person narration of a poor boy from the countryside in Upper Egypt who becomes blind at the age of three but is determined to go to university. By memorizing the Quran, he is able to leave his village and attend Al-Azhar, a prestigious Islamic University in Cairo. In the book, he describes deciding to leave the religious Al-Azhar University in favour of the secular, newly-opened Cairo University in 1908. From there, he was then able to obtain a scholarship at Sorbonne University in Paris. In The Days, Taha Hussein is tracing his journey, and his poetic language allows us to feel rather than see the life he lived. The book is a cornerstone in modern Arabic literature and is today a staple part of the curriculum in Egyptian schools.
The Danish scholar and translator, Elisabeth Moestrup, has translated The Days from Arabic to Danish. “The Days lives on, almost 100 years later, partly because it gives an interesting insight into the Egypt of that time,” she says.
The first part of the book describes Taha Hussein’s childhood in rural Upper Egypt in the late 1800s. “His childhood is described with a great sense of humor as it tells the story of a young Taha Hussein, for instance, struggling to remember the Quran by heart. As he struggles to recite in front of his father, his teacher quickly assures the father that he certainly knew it yesterday,” Moestrup says adding that it also gives a humoristic insight into what “El-Kottab” – an unofficial popular educational system – was like.
The Days gives the reader a rare insight into Egyptian society, norms, and values in the 1900s as well as the notable changes that were taking place within politics, literature, and intellectual life in the Arab world. Also, the book is a relevant and enriching reading experience today because of Taha Hussein’s deeply nuanced understanding of people as well as his literary expression of the perception and experience of the world as a blind person.
Elisabeth Moestrup found his rich use of language the most challenging when translating his work. “He uses all of the Arabic language, all these words that are not commonly used in Arabic anymore, a lot of wordplays and alliterations and hidden references to the Quran,” she says adding that she could sometimes spend four hours on a specific word or context. “A lot of people in my network helped me during the translation of the book by answering questions and helping me research,” she recalled.
He uses all of the Arabic language, all these words that are not commonly used in Arabic anymore, a lot of wordplays and alliterations and hidden references to the Quran
Elisabeth Anagnostaki Moestrup
It is the self-disciplined fight, that is most important in The Days, not his days as a powerful cultural personality
The Days (Dagene) has been well-received in Denmark. In a review by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, Erik Svendsen highlights Taha Hussein’s humor when he continuously writes to the university demanding to be sent to France to study – without having the level of education required – and his insistence is rewarded. According to Erik Svendsen, “It is the self-disciplined fight, that is most important in The Days, not his days as a powerful cultural personality” he writes.
The Danish translation of The Days comes with a preface written by Bjørn Bredal, literary critic and Head of Johan Borups Højskole, poetically depicting Hussein’s personal journey of love, religion, and authorship. Jakob Skovgaard-Petersen, Professor of Islamic Studies at Copenhagen University, is the author behind the afterword in which he places The Days in its political, societal, and historic context. By tracing Hussein’s life story, an insight into the history of Egypt appears while simultaneously pointing to his impact today.