Posts Tagged ‘Egypt’

Sunset Oasis

10 June 2012

Sunset OasisSunset Oasis by Bahaa Taher

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Egyptian police officer Mahmoud Abd El Zahir is sent to administer the restive oasis community of Siwa in the late 1890s. He smells a rat, knowing that his English overlords have been suspicious of his role in a major uprising in 1881-82, led by Colonel Arabi or Urabi Pasha against the English, and the Khedive who had acceded to imperial rule.

That uprising is described later in the novel. A sickening mismatch of military power left the rebels in disarray. The bravest, the most far-seeing and generous-hearted layer of the population were mown down – killed off, or damaged internally, morally mangled afterwards as they betrayed each other to save their own lives, or at least denied all part in the rebellion. On the other hand the servile flourished. The foundations for 20th century Egypt were being laid. Mahmoud is one of those mangled – self-hating, deadened within.

Remarkably, he is married to a spirited Irishwoman, Catherine, who has appalled her peers by her choice of husband. A passionate Irish nationalist, she is also a classical scholar fascinated by the story of Alexander the Great, and the mystery surrounding his sepulchre; she wonders if it might have been moved to Siwa, and itches to inspect local relics. She also nurses her own emotional wounds from a failed former marriage. Relations are complicated further by the arrival of her sister, the saintly, frail beauty Fiona, who had once seemed destined to marry Catherine’s own former partner.

With its Berber population, Siwa regards Egyptian Arabs as colonists, quite apart from the English. Its population have a murderous hatred toward the outsiders who impose such heavy taxes. However, they are themselves bitterly factionalised.

For most of the novel Mahmoud manoeuvres between the different players in Siwa – half-heartedly, so little is he attached to life. Catherine wants to revive him, and their relationship, as well as explore her scholarly interests, her poetic sensitivity to the desert, and friendship with locals; but it is she who jars most heavily with the local culture and its brutal restrictions on women.

The theme of deadness is played out from many angles, and has appeared in the author’s other literary work. Perhaps that is not surprising in someone who lived through decades of Western-financed dictatorship in his homeland.

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Cairo trilogy volume 3

2 January 2012

Sugar St.  Naguib Mahfouz. New York : Doubleday, 1992.

Sugar St concludes the stories of the two older generations of the Jawad family, which now continues into its third generation. However the grandchildren’s characters are less developed, and function more as devices to illustrate social change.

As Ahmad enters decrepitude he is confined to the house, the fate to which he had formerly condemned his wife, Amina. She is now free to go where she will but her focus remains on religion and family. They have both become background figures.

Khadija and Aisha’s lives are defined by their roles as mothers. Aisha has been shattered by the deaths of her husband and sons, and now lives only for her daughter, the fair but dangerously frail Na’ima. The character of Khadija’s daughter, Karima, is least developed of the grandchildren, her sole role being to marry a cousin. Khadija’s sons, Abd al-Muni’m and Ahmad the younger, get more attention. They are caught up in wider social currents. Muni’m joins the Muslim Brotherhood. The young Ahmad works as journalist on a radical leftwing newspaper, where he meets a female fellow-worker, the first female character who sees options other than wife or prostitute. Yasin’s son Ridwan, meanwhile, becomes the protege and darling of the gay politician Abd al-Rahim Pasha Isa.

Personal trajectories diverge: Fuad, son of Ahmed Jawad’s shop assistant, becomes a government attorney, gaining the sort of prestige that Kamal had disdained. The possibility of Fuad marrying Aisha’s daughter, Na’ima, is uncomfortable to the more highly placed Jawads; but they find that Fuad’s ambitions have risen higher than her for his nuptials. Elswhere, the entertainter/sex worker Zubayda sinks into destitution while her colleague Jalila flourishes. Yasin’s third wife Zanuba, having secured respectability through marriage into a good family, now plays this card for all it’s worth.

Zanuba is also streetwise enough to manage Yasin, constrain his compulsive flirtation, and generally make herself indispensible to him. In the workplace, meanwhile, the shiftless Yasin has his fortunes hoisted up for him. Thanks to the intervention of his son’s powerful patron, Yasin becomes a senior official, part of the layer of corrupt parasites installed as buffers between the people and the elite.

While Yasin is a more minor player in this volume, Kamal remains in focus. He has devoted himself to, or hidden himself away in, philosophical abstractions, writing dense articles that no-one reads. Difficult, fruitless, disconnected from the flow of events in Egyptian society, his theorising is a sterile playground of the mind. His sexual needs, instead of powering a drive toward deep personal bonds, are diverted onto prostitutes. He feels a pang as friends disappear into married life.

It is in this context that he discovers a tragedy affecting the family of his former muse, Aida: her father, destroyed by the Depression, has killed himself. Aida and her husband Hasan Salim live abroad, as does her brother, Kamal’s old friend Husayn. Left in Egypt, more or less destitute, are Aida’s mother and the youngest daughter, Budur, who had once adored Kamal, and would now, he realises, be entering marriageable age. His feelings stir to life, but come up against his inner paralysis. The religious and the fairytale spirits of his childhood have morphed into the abstruse writings of C18th and C19th philosophers: another inner world of phantoms that keeps a ghoulish grip on his heart.

Backstage, seedy politicians squabble, the king and the English manouvre, the pure hopes raised by the 1919 revolution sink into a quagmire. Sugar Street, it turns out, is a place of unrelieved bitterness. Each character’s road becomes a blind alley, as Egypt turns from degraded semi-colony to a military prison, a maze with no exit. Until 2011.

Cairo trilogy volume 2

7 December 2011

Palace of Desire.  Naguib Mahfouz ; translated by William Maynard Hutchins, Lorne M. Kenny & Olive E. Kenny. New York : Doubleday, 1991.

Palace of Desire is the name of a street – and more than that, needless to say.

In volume 2 Ahmed Jawad’s old female ‘friends’ no longer stir him, despite their best efforts. Instead his lust turns, idly at first, to one of their their support staff, the young flautist Zanuba. He is used to dictating terms to his women, crediting his success to charisma – so he’s baffled when this girl remains cold; pressure only makes her prickly and spiteful. He decides to move on from her but discovers, to his surprise and alarm, that he cannot… she is only available though money, and a great deal of it.

Yasin, meanwhile, gets married. Why not? It is the socially sanctioned path to good, regular sex. Unaccountably, though, monogamy soon loses its freshness, so the search for good sex hoiks up again. He bullocks his way through social protocols, class layers, delicate interfamily understandings and alliances – into all sorts of trouble, including a dalliance with a middle-aged woman whose personal disarray seems to parallel that of Yasin’s father. Indeed, Yasin’s path intertwines with that of his father in remarkable ways.

Kamal takes his own road to folly. All his imagination and sensibilities fasten on the beauty and poise of Aida, older sister of one of his rich school friends. Her baby sister adores Kamal effusively, a counterpoint to the remoteness and reserve of Aida herself. For all it’s intensity Kamal’s love is courtly, immaterial. In his own way he is just as disconnected from the hearts and minds of women as the other men in his family – unaware that while the men’s road through life may meander, women have to run on the rails of matrimony or whoredom.

The Cairo Trilogy volume 1

30 July 2011

Palace Walk. Naguib Mahfouz. New York : Doubleday, 1990. 498 p.

The Cairo trilogy covers decades of life in an exceptional nation through the story of one extended family, the Jawads. While the focus of these books is on personal life, the family is impinged by politics, war and foreign occupation – as well as traffic hazards, illness and the health and education systems. The trilogy opens during the Great War and English colonialism and closes at the end of WW2, as Egypt enters six decades of dictatorship.

In an ultra-conservative society the Jawad family lives in its most conservative area, in the old quarter of town. Even here, however, they stand out as extreme. While many things are likely to jar with the modern reader, the characters are complex agents and you are not pounded by didactic messages.

The middle-aged patriarch is Ahmed Jawad (al-Sayyid Ahmed abd al-Jawad). Sombre or belligerent towards his family, he is easy and charming with customers in his shop, and the life of the party with his friends – and he parties often, at various venues, with male friends and female ‘entertainers’. He gets home after midnight to a wife routinised into awakening herself to meet his various noctural needs.

He keeps his wife Amina housebound. She peers through the latticework of her enclosed front balcony. “There was nothing to attract the eye except the minarets of the ancient seminaries of Qala’un and Barquq which loomed like ghostly giants enjoying a night out by the light of the gleaming stars. It was a view that had grown on her over a quarter of a century. She never tired of it. Perhaps boredom was an irrelevant concept for a life as monotonous as hers.” Her world is family life, piety, and the jinn that haunt dark corners of the house. His daughters Khadija and Aisha are also locked up, unseen and unmentioned. When an Islamic cleric known to the family uttered their names during a conversation with him – a modest enough form of public exposure – it “sounded odd to al-Sayyid Ahmad”, and had “a strange and unpleasant impact on him”. When a wedding eventuates, the gaity and licence that it allows to the Jawad women grates on him.

The 20 year old Khadija asserts herself with sarcasm, while acting emotionally as a second mother. She inspects her vast nose before the mirror, full of secret fear that she will not marry. (“We were talking about you”, one of her brothers jests. “We were saying that if every woman looked like you, men would be spared all heartaches.”) She comforts herself that at least she is beautifully fat. Aisha, her 16-year old younger sister, is mild, slim, blonde and blue-eyed, with a family role as “the useless personification of good looks and charm”. Aisha allows a dashing young policeman to view at a momentarily-opened window: it fills her older sister with jealousy, but also with dread that their father might learn of it.

The sons play bigger roles. Yasin, the eldest, was the child of Ahmad’s first wife, who’d left him, bridling at his tyranny. Yasin had a confused early life, with a distracted mother and a chain of her passing male friends. He later views this period through the lens of his father’s austere religion, and was revulsed. Yasin lacks finer feeling: warm and easygoing, but cynical, mentally lazy. Above all he is driven by lusts.

The younger sons, children of Amina, have taken on her sensitivity. Fahmy is capable of a romantic desire for the sequestered girl next door, available for illicit chats across the roof as she hung out washing, but he is also drawn to the cause of national liberation from colonial rule. (When Amina exposes herself to ridicule by explaining the behaviour of the English rulers along the only model she knows, family life, Yasin smilingly urges her on for his entertainment, but Fahmy irritably puts a stop to it.)

The youngest, Kamal, cleaves most strongly to his mother, and sisters, perhaps because Ahmad is at his harshest towards the little boy, perhaps because his physical appearance is unappealing. He inhabits his mother’s phantom world of spirits and Islamic piety, drawing deep inspiration and sustenance from the presence of the martyr al-Husayn at a nearby mosque.

Palace Walk traces the family and its fortunes up to the unsuccessful revolution of 1919, a mass movement that will surely evoke parallels with Egypt today.

Egypt: more than Revolution 2.0

18 February 2011

Online Opinion 8 February 2011