Artist and writer Joy Garnett (@joygarnett) is working on a book about her grandfather, Ahmed Zaki Abushady, the Egyptian poet and bee scientist. She answered a few questions about AZ Abushady, his work, and her book project:
< AZ Abushady as a young man. 1909.
ArabLit: When did you first become interested in your grandfather’s life and work (in a serious way)? What role did family stories play? Can you describe your current book-project and what it will encompass?
Joy Garnett: The book is a family memoir and an adventure story – a love story – that focuses on Abushady’s life, his work as a poet and bee scientist, and his premature death in relative obscurity in the US. It’s not a biography in the conventional sense. I have an inside story to offer, told through family members and Abushady’s own voice. My discovery of an archive containing his letters and decades of correspondence was a pivotal moment. They reveal how his personal story is entangled with political and cultural conflicts played out from 1922 to 1946 in Egypt. Central to the story is the point of view of my aunt Safeya, the source of so much of this material. She is Abushady’s oldest daughter and the last living family link to that time. So, I am telling an idiosyncratic story partly through her, and in a way that I think anyone will relate to, whether or not they’re interested in Egypt. Specialists in Modern Arabic poetry and Egypt between the wars will, I hope, be interested as well.
I grew up hearing stories my mother told me about her childhood in Alexandria. Abushady loomed large, but his significance was related in broad strokes. It was all a bit vague and romantic. I was in college when I started to get a real sense of who my grandfather was. I started studying fusha at McGill’s Institute of Islamic studies and got into a conversation with an Egyptian classmate. She set me straight.
When I finally got to Egypt, it was on a student loan. I enrolled in the American University in Cairo’s summer language program. I was twenty. I made a point of looking for Abushady’s books and asking questions about him. I started to figure out who my family was. Once back at the Institute, I sought out critical articles about his poetry, but this was premature. The bulk of critical writing in English was still being written.
In my twenties, I stopped studying Arabic and Abushady altogether. I decided to pursue an art career instead. There was a point when I realized it was either him or me, and I had to make a choice. Many years passed where I barely thought about him, and then a few years ago I felt the pull. Even dead, Abushady is a force of Nature.
When my mother, aunt, and uncle started to grow old and sick, I was jolted back into thinking about this project. I taped interviews with them. I had a day job in a museum library that gave me free access to things like JSTOR and interlibrary loans. And of course, this time around I have the Internet.
I’ve spent the past couple of years traveling to different archives and doing research independently to try to piece together the many parts of Abushady’s life, which is not easy. As a physician, bacteriologist, beekeeper, agricultural and social reformer, poet and publisher, he defies categorization. I want to bring together what I’ve discovered about his main achievements in a single narrative. I would like to show the extent of his influence on Modern Arabic poetry as well as his impact on bee husbandry in England and Egypt. For him, poetry and bees were deeply interconnected. But of course, no one in Arabic literature circles knows much about his bee science contributions and vice versa. The connections are interesting.
AL: Does it get into other family history? For instance, your great-grandmother’s Cairo literary salons?
JG: There are some colorful characters in the extended family. My great-grandfather, Maitre Muhammed Abushady Bey, was a big lawyer and a pal of Sa’ad Zaghlul. Legend has it that he could get anyone off no matter how serious the offense. His milieu included many writers and poets who exerted an early influence on his young son. I’ve had difficulty extracting more than a few details from that earlier time. I’ve had better luck with the period following Abushady’s return to Egypt in 1922 after ten years living in England. A creative DIY urban scene greeted him, and he was perfectly suited for it. Our close cousins through my great-grandmother, Amina (née Nagib) were the painters and satirists Seif and Edham Wanly, who were integral to the Egyptian artist “scene” in Alexandria. They were part of my grandfather’s circle, which included poets, writers, journalists, cartoonists, calligraphers, painters, sculptors, composers, etc. The Wanly brothers provided illustrations and cartoons for Abushady’s various publications. Edham was very close with my aunt, and they exchanged letters regularly until his death in 1959.
There was also an evil stepmother, an atheist grifter, several instances of unrequited love and a string of tragic, youthful suicides. There are probably too many intrigues to include in one book.
I made an unexpected discovery concerning my grandmother, Abushady’s first wife, Annie. They met when he was a medical student in London, and she was English, of course. Her maiden name was Bamford. It turns out that she was descended from the radical labor organizer, Samuel Bamford, who was a poet in the Lancashire dialect. Her father was a member of the Oddfellows, a centuries-old mutual organization that presaged trade unions. So she came from a long line of radical working class poets who believed in things like financial support for working people and free healthcare for the poor. I believe Annie had a significant influence on Abushady’s vision for social reform. She may have provided the inspiration for his feminism. He was promoting women’s suffrage in Egypt in the 1930s! And he named his two daughters after Huda Sha’arawi and Safeya Zaghul. He actually wanted to institute the principles of England’s Co-operative Movement in Egypt, which shows his romantic, against-all-odds brand of idealism. He was a Wafdist like his father, and as a nationalist he wanted, of course, to see an end to the British occupation. So his Anglophilia was complex, if not conflicted.