Celebrating the Life of Egyptian author Ahmed Khaled Tawfik

Translator and writer Hisham Fahmy recalls how reading the works of famed author Ahmed Khaled Tawfik helped him find his way when he was lost

Illustration: M J Sulaiman

by Hisham Fahmy

Culture 16 May 2018

“You should never meet your heroes,” said Allan Carr, and, to an extent, he was right. Usually, meeting someone you consider a hero entails some measure of disappointment, because we tend to make those whom we admire into larger-than-life figures, only to realize that they’re people just like us.

That wasn’t the case for me with Ahmed Khaled Tawfik. Not that I considered him my own personal hero (though I had a great deal of admiration and respect for the man). The thing is, I had known before we met that he was just a normal person. His writings taught me that the types of people he chose to make his main characters, the way he expressed himself through them, and how he—much like those characters—felt like “one of us”. Especially in his brief appearance at the end of every book to answer readers’ mail or publish a bit of their own writings.

I was 19, still not sure what to do with my life except maybe to finish college and improve my English. The thought of being a translator hadn’t yet occurred to me, but I knew I wanted to do something that involved writing, and Ahmed Khaled Tawfik, whose books I had been reading for eight years at that point, was one of the people who played a major part in setting me on that path. This is why, when the opportunity to meet him in person was presented to me through a common friend, it was a no-brainer to take it. I knew I wouldn’t be disappointed, and I knew that in real life the man would continue to do what he did best on paper: teach.

He never saw himself as a great writer or someone who deserved honors and credits, but he believed that he had to do his part in making young adults read.

Witty and modest, sarcastic and sharp, with a good ear for music and a wealth of knowledge, Ahmed Khaled Tawfik proved to be exactly as I had imagined. Many hours we spent talking about his writings, writing in general, my aspirations to be a writer, movies and music, and even video games. It didn’t take me long to realize that every time we met I had to learn something new from him, be it about the oranges in The Godfatheror the philosophy of Camus or Boney M’s greatest hits. It wasn’t very different from learning something new from one of his books. He never saw himself as a great writer or someone who deserved honors and credits, but he believed that he had to do his part in making young adults read.

At the time Ahmed Khaled Tawfik started publishing his series Ma Wara’ al-Tabeea (Beyond Nature), pocket books were very popular in Egypt and had been for decades. Mostly, they were translations and abridged versions of stories by Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Maurice Leblanc, and a ton of other whodunits by a myriad of foreign authors. There were also a few original Arabic series whose themes of science fiction, adventure, and espionage had inflamed the imagination of thousands for years, but there wasn’t yet a single Arabic book of horror.

Perhaps we didn’t know at the time that we lacked such stories, but right away we realized that we needed them, and for over twenty years we were introduced to different themes of horror; ghosts and monsters, mythical creatures and warlocks, demons and vampires and werewolves. Weaved through the fabric of every new adventure by the main character Refaat Ismail was a wealth of knowledge. One story could be about Dracula, but you’d still learn a thing or two about Voltaire or Shakespeare or Dostoevsky or Avicenna, and you’d learn how and where to find their works and learn more about them. One story could be about the horror of Goya’s black paintings, and with that you’d add to your knowledge a lot about the different schools of painting, the story of a mad artist, and a little of the history of France and Spain at a certain point in time.

On his tombstone, Ahmed Khaled Tawfik wanted it to be written that “he made young people read.” That he did. Indeed he did. He made us read, write stories and poetry and articles, sing, direct movies and documentaries, paint, translate, take pictures, and do another million things we would only dream about as children. He wasn’t our only influence for sure, but I daresay that he was the most important. It was clear how proud he would be when one of his readers achieved something remarkable. I know he was proud of me when I told him about my decision to be a translator. At first I did subtitles, which he thought was a great way to improve my English. And it was. Later, when I showed him my translations of Chuck Palahniuk and Stephen King, he remarked that it was through translating American dialect in movies that I was able to really get it right. He was as supportive and proud when I translated Tolkien, Neil Gaiman, and George R. R. Martin into Arabic. He even gave me a few notes and remarks, which were very helpful.

I know I owe Ahmed Khaled Tawfik a great debt of gratitude. His entertaining, insightful writings appeared in my life at a time when I was lost between childish magazines I was getting bored of and heavy books (literally and metaphorically) whose language was still difficult for me to comprehend. He gave me keys to all kinds of knowledge in the simplest, most amusing way possible. Now, I try to repay that debt by giving every new translation my best, as if he would still read it and tell me his thoughts.

Hisham Fahmy is a literary translator based in Cairo, Egypt. He studied English literature at Alexandria University and published a number of books translated from English into Arabic, including Frankenstein by Mary Shelly, Survivor and Lullaby by Chuck Palahniuk, The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman, and The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. He is currently working on the fourth book from George RR Martin’s saga A Song of Ice and Fire, having published the Arabic translations of A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, and A Storm of Swords. Follow him on @hishamfahmy

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