"In my view there is no more demanding work that deserves our dedicated collaborative efforts at the present time than inter-cultural understanding."
Salma Jayyusi was born 1927 in Jordan to a Palestinian father and a Lebanese mother, but she grew up in Palestine soaked in scholarly family, fascinated with books on Arab/Islamic and Western culture. Throughout her early life, she watched her father’s day-to-day commitment to achieve justice and peace for the Palestinians, both as lawyer and as a Palestinian political activist. Jayyusi’s secondary education was completed at Schmidt's Girls College in Jerusalem, and she then obtained a BA with honors in Arabic and English Literature from the American University of Beirut.
Soon after her graduation she married a Jordanian diplomat, Borhan Jayyusi, who traveled extensively around the world. As a diplomat’s wife, Salma Jayyusi lived in several European and Arab countries. In that culturally and intellectually diverse setting Jayyusi has become a gifted solid poet and critic. Jayyusi’s career as a critic began in 1970, when she was studying for her PhD in Arabic literature in School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London. It was then that she also began to write in English. Many of her poems and works on cultural history (both in Arabic and English) have been published in books and international journals.
Soon after obtaining her PhD she started off a teaching career, first at the University of Khartoum (1970-1973), then at the Universities of Algiers and Constantine (1973-1975). In 1973, she was invited by MESA (The Middle East Studies Association) of North America to give a series of lectures in Canada and the United States on a Ford Foundation Fellowship. She was a visiting professor for long time, in 1975 at the University of Utah and in 1980 at the University of Texas. Jayyusi has participated in many conferences and has lectured in cultural and academic institutions in the Arab world, the Far East and in the West. In 1987 and 1988 she received a Rockefeller Fellowship at the University of Michigan where she concentrated on research and writing. During this time she completed a study on "Modernist Poetry in Arabic", published in the Cambridge History of Arabic Literature, volume IV.
Jayyusi remained in the United States teaching at several universities before she eventually retired to concentrate on the translation of leading works from the heritage of Arab/Islamic literature into English. She realized that the paucity of Arab literary and cultural material in world languages, which largely lies behind the misrepresentation and misunderstanding of Arab/Islamic culture in the West, must be tackled. With the cooperation of other colleagues in both America and Britain, she helped to found Prota (Project of Translation from Arabic), a project that has supported translating hundreds of leading works from Arabic into English with the aim of introducing some of the best creative literary pieces of classical and modern Arabic literature to the English speaking world.
In 1988, when Najuib Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize in Literature, Jayyusi was invited by the Nobel Academy to attend the awarding ceremonies in Stockholm in recognition of her efforts in cross-cultural communication. By the end of the 1980’s, Jayyusi realized that, beside the translation of the literary works it was equally important to complement the project with material on cultural studies. Therefore, Jayyusi was inspired to create the East-West Nexus for this purpose and the first of her works in this respect was “The Legacy of Muslim Spain”, an 1100 page edited book written by 42 world scholars and was published by Brill in Leiden, the Netherlands.
Jayyusi spent the academic year 1994-1995 as a Research Fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin (Institute of Advanced Study in Berlin). Stimulated by its refreshing emphasis on interculturalism, she became deeply interested in Euro-Arab inter-cultural relations, a field that she considers highly vital in the current globalized world. While in Berlin, in a concerted work with Arab and European scholars of classical Arabic history, culture and literature, Jayyusi set out to write a book on “The Culture, Language and Literature in Pre-Islamic Arabia”, for which she held two workshops at the Institute of Advanced Study in Berlin.
She felt that a critical study of the roots of the large corpus of Arabic literature, one of the richest in the world, will lead to a greater understanding of its development as a universal scholastic heritage. In 1999, Jayyusi received a Fulbright Fellowship to conduct a research on the life of Palestinians, as reflected in their personal writings. She also spent a year (1999-2000) undertaking researches in Syria, Jordan and the West Bank.
Salma Jayyusi’s scholarly venture took her on a long journey in life. On a visit to the US in 1980, she realized that the influence of Arab culture on Americans was far less than she had expected. Motivated by the belief that mutual understanding between nations can only be based on the promotion of reciprocal knowledge between cultures, and determined to bring the heritage of Arab and Islamic culture to a wider audience, she was inspired to found The Project for the Translation of Arabic (Prota). For two and a half decades, she dedicated herself to making that visionary project a success.
Two significant dimensions of this endeavor stood out: Salma Jayyusi was constantly concerned with popularizing the superb achievements of profound literary figures in Arabic scholarship as well as the voices of writers who would easily have been overlooked, particularly young women poets and writers. Secondly, the project, like all visionary works, underwent a process of development and innovation, expanding beyond the boundaries of regional literature, especially with the addition of East/West Nexus to Prota in 1992. This is also a project for the dissemination of Arabic literature and Arab/Islamic culture and history. In this, Jayyusi's vision and accomplishments were to produce not only a frame for deeper knowledge and broad-mindedness between the Arab and the Anglophone world, but also within the Arab world itself.
Jayyusi's work demanded courage and willingness to stand alone and surmount the obstacles that encounter those women who are keen on venturing into the public domain. She worked hard to persuade people from cross-sectional scholarly settings to share visions towards the development of the project. Salma's journey has assisted in building a cultural bridge between a multitude of voices and positions, while managing to communicate them to the world at large.
Jayyusi’s efforts – as a scholar, translator, anthologist, analyst and disseminator of Arabic literature, both classic and contemporary – were aimed at exposing a Western audience to the heritage of Arab culture at a time when only few people were working on these issues due to various obstacles in the Arab world.
The Project for the Translation of Arabic (Prota)
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