Posts Tagged ‘Dr. E. Harper Johnson’

Oh, My Friend!

November 28, 2019

Omar Aly Shafey 1930 – 1991/ E. Harper Johnson 1916 – 2016

“Oh, my friend!”
That was the response of uncle Harper when he called our home in Alexandria, Egypt from his home in the US, after he asked for my Dad, only to learn from me that he had passed away a few days earlier. Just those three words, sounding like a cry of pain … just those three words, and we both choked on our tears … just those three words, and he hung up …

I could still hear the long O in his voice today, 28 years later, stabbed with the agony of the sudden loss of a friend.

But let me go back to the beginning of a story of sincere friendship. My father was a member of a medical caravan to African countries in his capacity as a prominent surgeon and staff member of the Alexandria Faculty of Medicine in the mid seventies when he first met Dr. Harper Johnson* in Kenya. Johnson was commissioned by President Jomo Kenyatta to paint about nationalism in Kenya. Both gentlemen found a lot to talk about and enjoyed each other’s company immensely during their stay away from their homelands. And as usual, my father invited his new friend to visit Egypt as a houseguest.
Upon my father’s return, luggage filled with fine carvings of ivory, heavy ebony statues and hides of different animals, each with an amusing story, I remember him carefully unfolding a huge, full size zebra hide. He went on to tell us that he tried to bargain his way around the 500 sterling pound hide, but had to let go of the valuable piece. It was just before his trip back that his friend Harper presented him with that precious farewell gift that adorned our living room for many years.
Dr. Harper took my dad on his word and visited Egypt with his lovely Kenyan wife, Salma, a barrister. I have rich memories of the couple, especially the stories uncle Harper had to share about how he documented the coronation of the Shah of Iran in the 60s through his immense, life-size paintings which he showed us pictures of. There were more pictures of paintings of Africa, the details of costumes and features on faces are still engraved in my mind. I was amazed when he told me that he was once a cartoon artist, one of which was my favorite Dennis the Menace!
My Mom remembers how she drove uncle Harper on another visit to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo from our flat there daily for four or five days. He said no one could ever take in more than two hours of any museum per day to fully appreciate the art presented there.
Our families continued to be friends till the fateful day I answered his call … then we lost contact. Later with internet access I tried to find anything about him but was unfortunate, till just a few days ago when I found his business card in my father’s address book; Dr. E. Harper Johnson, Pictorial Historian. It was my mistake all along, looking for Harper Johnson. And it was then that I discovered that he had passed away in 2016 at the ripe age of one hundred.
I’ve been reading so much about his achievements throughout his rich life, unfortunately I found only one of his paintings which I am sharing here.

Twenty-eight years to the date today, Thursday, November 28th 1991 my father passed away. In loving memory to Omar Shafey, my dad, I would like to pay homage to their friendship, and to shed the light on an artist whom I believe not many people in my circle know of.
May your Friendship continue in Heaven.


Dr. E. Harper Johnson with Sultan Qabus of Oman

*.Eugene Harper Johnson was an internationally acclaimed pictorial historian, writer and one of the most prolific book illustrators of the 20th century. Dr. Johnson was blessed at an early age with remarkable artistic skills. Before the age of 10 in the city of his birth, Birmingham, Alabama in the US, Harper Johnson sowed the first seeds of his artistic genius and went on to illustrate for one of the local newspapers political cartoons. His artistic genius did not go unnoticed and he was sponsored to further his studies in France and later at the National Academy of Design and Pratt Institute in the United States. He is considered as one of the world’s most versatile artists and scholars

During the last 50 years, Harper Johnson devoted his life to pictorially recording the history of a number of countries, including the US, various nations in Africa, Iran and for over a quarter of a century in the Sultanate of Oman. Dr. Harper Johnson was granted with the Omani nationality by His Majesty Sultan Qaboos. Since then, his heart largely engaged with the Omani community. He also expressed that he finally found his homeland after a long, tiring life full of travel and work.

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