February 16, 2018

“Very close to lived experience”: Ancient Egyptian poetry with a New Zealand accent


The Story of Sinuhe, written on stone.

My heart staggered, my arms spread out;
trembling fell on every limb.
I moved myself, leaping,
to look for a hiding place.
I put myself between two bushes
until the traveller had parted from the road.

That is the titular narrator of the four-thousand-or-so-year-old Story of Sinuhe, describing what he did after overhearing something he shouldn’t on a road between Egypt and Libya. The translation is by Richard Bruce Parkinson, a respected egyptologist who seems to be something of a Sinuhe specialist.

Sinuhe was popular during its Egyptian heyday, as is demonstrated by the many copies of which fragments survive, and it remains one of the best-known works of ancient Egyptian literature today. It was even the basis for a popular 1945 Finnish novel by Mika Waltari, which in turn became a 1954 movie starring Peter Ustinov and Gene Tierney (Parkinson calls it “an unspeakable travesty”).

It tells the story of an Egyptian who flees to the area of Canaan, rises to a position of great power, gets in scrapes, and returns home as an old man to die and be buried in a beautiful pyramid. Egyptian poetry can come across as leaden and cryptic in English translation, which is why Parkinson got his friend, New Zealand-born novelist and veteran Hammer film actor Barbara Ewing, to record a dramatic rendering. She gives it staggering-hearted new life.

Here’s the two of them talking through the process. Warning: they are very likable.

And you can hear Ewing read the entire poem (it’s about forty minutes) right here.

For more contemporary Egyptian storytelling, look right here.