Week in the Life Mohammed Daweesh, Baghdad: The only Joyce scholar in Baghdad

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The Independent Online
MOHAMMED Daweesh should be lecturing young Iraqis on the wonders of English literature. Instead he acts as resident intellectual and translator at the BBC office in Baghdad.

Mohammed has come to realise that working for the foreign media involves hours that few academics would accept. "There's always something to do. My colleagues never seem to sleep," he says with a mischievous grin.

"I live out of town in the small suburb of Dora with my wife, Samira, and our three children. We have a modest house and my wife teaches English in the mornings. At home we are happy but when you look around and see what has happened to this country, you have terrible despair," he said.

The deplorable state of the country's infrastructure, the intermittent electricity, and a new phenomenon, child beggars on the streets, compounds the gloom. "Never in Iraq before have we seen such a thing. Every day there are more in the streets, people with no work and no livelihood. It is a terrible thing. You know, we Iraqis are very proud and this really hurts me," he said.

Wednesday was the most important day for many years for Mohammed. It was not the air duelling between allied and Iraqi warplanes in the south of the country that preoccupied him, nor the meeting of the country's Revolutionary Command Council, but an important interview. It was his viva voce, the oral examination that would decide whether he would be awarded the title Doctor of Philosophy for his unusual thesis. The subject is a semiotic translation of James Joyce's novel Ulysees. "I am not really nervous," he claimed before heading off to the examination centre, "but this is six years' work and I hope there will be no problem."

To get to the university would usually involve a long and potentially hazardous trip in one of the ramshackle taxis that belch out vile fumes in polluted Baghdad. Nothing can be left to chance when it came to this interview, so Mohammed hired a taxi for the whole day and headed off to the university for the three-hour grilling by five professors. The remarkable thing about the academic scene in Baghdad is that it still exists, even if it is only a shadow of its former self.

At the party afterwards to celebrate his successful interview, the new Dr Mohammed Daweesh confided that he had been nervous. "You may think that all the best Iraqis are outside the country. I suppose that is true but they did not make it easy for me. Those professors that stayed behind are no fools, you know. They made it tough for me," he said.

After the excitement of the interview it is back to the humdrum existence of translating news conferences and dealing with the sometimes silly queries and questions of foreign correspondents. But every day, subject to the demands of his employer, Mohammed makes a point of visiting the library of Baghdad University to check on some fact for his research, or just for a quiet place to read. It is a habit that comes from a deep love of literature. "I have to read, and when I read I want to translate it into Arabic so that others can share the richness of English language literature with me," he said.

A short, almost throwaway phrase in Ulysses drew Mohammed into the rich and complex world of 20th-century literature. The passage concerns a cat asleep next to some children playing marbles, as the novel's hero, Leopold Bloom, journeys through Dublin. Deciding to avoid the cat, Bloom remarks to himself: "Better not to bother them. Mohammed cut his sleeve in order not to bother one." The intriguing reference to the Muslim Prophet in a novel whose central character is a Dublin Jew perplexed Mohammed, who was studying linguistics at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh.

Months of independent research failed to throw light on the reference, but a chance encounter with a Sufi mystic revealed its source: the legends that have built up among Sufi scholars. One legend surrounding the Prophet told of his waking from an afternoon siesta to find a cat asleep on his long sleeve. "He did not want to wake the cat, so he got a scissors and he cut his sleeves, left them there under the cat and went away," said Mohammed.

The episode speaks of the gentleness of the Prophet and is treasured in certain Muslim traditions.

"I wonder how James Joyce got this story. It is amazing. One would have to have a deep knowledge of the life of the Prophet to know this sort of detail. I spoke to many religious people here in Baghdad. They couldn't tell me anything about it.

"Perhaps he found it when he was in Trieste, from the Bosnian Muslims," he said.

From the age of 17 the work of Joyce and another Irish writer, Samuel Beckett, has fascinated him. "I started to read Beckett first but quickly realised that Joyce was in many ways the power behind Beckett. So I started reading Joyce. First Dubliners, then A Portrait of the Artist until I eventually came to Ulysees. What a novel, what an extraordinary project. I remember the first days reading it. It was very difficult, very complex, but absorbing."

His thesis on translating the novel into Arabic will now be followed by an attempt to translate the entire work.

Mohammed's greatest ambition is to walk the route of Bloom's travel through Dublin on Bloomsday, 16 June. That looks increasingly unlikely as sanctions have isolated even literary scholars such as Mohammed from the international mainstream. Last year he wrote to the British Library lending department in Yorkshire, requesting copies of the Joyce Quarterly journal. As an overseas member with credit coupons bought when he was resident in Britain, he was not prepared for the caustic reply. "They refused, saying they couldn't process my application because of sanctions imposed by the British Government, and they warned me. They said don't send any further requests until sanctions are lifted. It is depressing, upsetting. James Joyce has nothing to do with chemical weapons or biological secrets," he said, the look of bewilderment mixed with genuine hurt visible in his large brown eyes.

"The Western commitment to honouring sanctions has gone too far. It does not differentiate between individual needs and military needs," he said, before packing up his office materials and heading home for the day.

Tucked into his satchel is his latest project: the translation of a long obituary of the poet Ted Hughes. "I have always liked this poet. He is full of strange and powerful insights into nature and the violence that lives just below the surface of our lives," he said, before braving the chilly streets of Baghdad for a taxi to take him home. The article comes from a British newspaper sent by a colleague in London, in defiance of the intellectual embargo. "We've got to keep our minds alive, somehow. I'm sure the author and The Independent newspaper will forgive me."

The charming smile speaks volumes for the resilience and resourcefulness of the intellectuals and scholars that have stayed behind and survived in Iraq against enormous odds.