Imaginary Landscapes: The Village and the Desert in Egyptian novels, Ahmad Saidullah


Tales from Dayrut by Mohamed Mustagab001

Mohamed Mustagab. Tales from Dayrut. Translated by Humphrey Davies.
Cairo and New York: American University in Cairo Press, 2008. 204 pages.

gazelle tracks

Miral Al-Tahawy. Gazelle Tracks. Translated by Anthony Calderbank, Garnet Publishing, 2008. 94 pages.

  1. The Village

Cities, villages and deserts form the landscapes of the Egyptian literary imagination. The novel, which emerged in Egypt after the Napoleonic conquest in 1798, locates the tension between the traditional and the modern in these contested terrains.

In his essay on embargoed literature, the Palestinian thinker Edward Said noted with regret that Naguib Mahfouz was one of the few Arab writers known to the west, largely for his Cairo trilogy. Unlike Mahfouz, who spurned an academic post for a lifetime of bureaucracy, Mohamed Mustagab was born in Dayrut al-Sharif, a village in the Upper Nile Delta, and had little formal schooling. Despite his disadvantages, he became general director of the Academy of the Arabic Language in Cairo.

Mustagab belongs to the sixties generation of writers who broke with the patrician literary traditions of Mahfouzian Cairo. Typically, these writers’ canvases were villages in the Nile delta, not cities, teeming with peasants looking for work. The Dayrut that is recreated in Mustagab’s fiction overturns the romanticized nativism of the earliest Egyptian countryside novels of Yusuf Idris and Haqqi (Idris is cited in one story). Gone is the ornate “fusha” of Ottoman-period writers replaced by a leaner, sparer prose that emits sparks of violence, deadpan irony and humour.

The grand themes of justice and the destinies of generations of old families in the face of change have also withered away. Salamah Musa’s Fabianism that had influenced Mahfouz’s generation did not appeal to the younger writers. The 1919 revolution, Nasser’s stillborn pan-Arab socialism, the 1967 defeat, and Sadat’s compromises marked Egyptian writings of that period, including Mustagab’s and El-Bisatie’s works, with a sense of the unreal and the absurd that was influenced by European existentialist, absurdist and surrealist writings and by the nouveau roman.

In Mustagab’s excellent Tales from Dayrut, a collection of fourteen stories and a novella, any attempt to impose order or bureaucracy results in chaos, a natural order of things which is unsettling but also, at times, humorous. In “Bughayli Bridge,” a police officer’s search for a murder weapon in Dayruti Canal leads to unending discoveries of various skeletons and body parts that result in wild scenes. An elderly man stops and requests that they search for his five children. The behaviour of the chorus of spectators leads the police, frustrated and rapidly losing control, to abandon the crime scene, but not before the bridge collapses and the spectators fall into the water.

“The water of the canal filled with wheat stalks, turmoil, sycomore-fig branches, divers, peasant caps, arms, legs, timbers from the boat, and weeds from the bottom of the bridge. The spume scattered by the raging waves took on a bloody colour, like that of wisdom.”

The inevitability of an order, that overpowers human laws and individual identity, and repeats itself indefinitely is exemplified in the folkloric telling of “Horseman Adore Perfumes.” In this story without an ending, three generations of riders meet their deaths at the hands of the enchantress, with identical re-enactments of the quest and funeral rites. In another tale, a man is squashed like a bug

Clan feuds, as in “The Battle of the Camel,” which also seem to exist above the law, are narrated baldly without mercy or explanation, as if to suggest a commonplace occurrence in the village, a ritual rural order. Mustagab invokes assassinations and kidnappings as part of Dayrut’s ineluctable code of follies but in “A Woman,” there is courage and humour. The beautiful Mrs. N who “suffers from conspicuous desire for unbuttonedness” manages to thwart her assassin through a stunning reversal from her rooftop.

In “The Edge of the Day,” Mustagab’s scene-setting is done through an exhaustive catalogue of details in which every human action is described simultaneously with the accompaniment of different events in nature, however infinitesimal, ranging from grass, leaves, birds to beetles. The effect of conveying a simple act through such minute parallels is alienating, and imbues the ordinary with an enlarged perspective that does not fit within the reader’s scope. We are left grasping for meaning.

The most daring of Mustagab’s stories is “The J-B-Rs.”  Told in the form of a hadith, it narrates the parables of the Great Jabir whose last words the superstitious villagers rush to obey. He changes his deathbed instructions from “get a camel” to “get a mule” with devastating and hilarious effect to his final wish, “get a pig.”

In other stories, Mustagab uses footnotes and gazette entries about Dayrut for effect. In “The Offering,” the village, again, is the protagonist. The inhabitants have lost their powers of speech and develop a language of gestures and percussion which they use at weddings and ceremonies. They adapt and become prosperous using their skills until another disorder overtakes them.

Mustagab’s setpiece is a novella, “The Secret Life of Nu‘man Abd Al-Hafiz,” which won the State Incentive Prize in 1984, and was named among the top hundred books in the Arab world of the twentieth century. Although the novella does not have a specific name in Arabic, the well-established form, supposedly the oldest in the region, is usually picaresque, with an anti-hero as the protagonist. Nu‘man’s birth, circumcision, his engorged member and wedding are narrated in the same deadpan, somewhat hieratic, semi-heroic style. Bathos results.

Mustagab, who died in 2006, deserves to be known better in the west for his work is inventive, horrifying and humorous in turn and has some similarities with Ismail Kadare’s novels.

  1. The Desert and the Village

Miral Al-Tahawy’s short, intricate novels focus on women and their lot in the patriachal society of desert dwellers. Born into a noble Bedouin family, Al-Tahawy, an associate professor at Cairo University, who is working on a thesis on the desert novel, has had to struggle against the wishes of her family who did not want her to teach in Cairo.

In Gazelle Tracks, Al-Tahawy’s third novel, Muhra, the heroine, is born to Mutlig and Sahla of the clans Al-Shafei and Minazi’ of the Bani Sulaym. Both sides of Muhra’s family had been granted the noble privileges of safeguarding Hajj and merchant caravans through desert routes.

Although Muhra’s ancestor Jidd Minazi’ had hunted with King Faisal ibn Saud (who had romanticized the Bedouin lifestyle for its purity and detachment but refuses to listen to Mutlig’s plea to return to his ancestral lands in the Hijaz), the discovery of oil, the post-colonial division of states, and the movement of Jewish immigrants into Palestine made the movements of Bedouin tribes across borders awkward for many rulers. Muhammed Ali, the suzerain of Egypt, gave the nobles Nileside estates where they put up their goat-hair tents in front of their lavish mansions and lived with their families, falcons and horses tended by Black slaves acquired through travels.

Muhra’s family regard themselves as the true Arabs, the real owners of the land that they opened up for hunting and commerce all the way to the Red Sea. Mutlig boasts that his ancestor Jidd Munazi was the first to discover the source of the Nile, much before the Europeans.

The Bedouin nobles see the Gharabwa and Baramwa, their neighbours in Egypt, as little more than thieving peasants whose Arab stock has been diluted with Turkish blood. This fixation with purity of lineage is evident in the pursuit of falconry and horses and is applied to human bloodlines.

Intermarriage, mostly to first cousins such as Mutlig, Sahla and Hind, is a way of preserving this purity. Although young Mutlig molests slave girls, Lamloum, Sahla’s father, marries her off and her beautiful younger sister Hind to their cousin against their will. Lamlam excuses this by exclaiming that, “a girl will marry her cousin even if it is the last thing she wants.”

Sahla’s father goes on to say that “an Arab girl is like an obedient she-camel. The place where you tether her is the place she kneels, the place you lead her, that’s where she goes.” Muhra remembers the women in the household mentioning the ballad of Khayaliyyah, a young women who caught the eye of royalty and was fed to the crocodiles by Muhra’s ancestor so that she would “remain a thoroughbred, and not be mounted by a peasant, even if he were Abbas I, King of Egypt.”

Al-Tahawy handles Muhra’s quest to find out the truth about her mother through memories, photographs and the paintings of one Pierre Kamm, a European artist also known as Sulayman, who was fond of Sahla and her sister Hind, and who perished in the desert. The presence of European adventurers and travelers such as Dorvetti are also evoked along with the fatal attraction to European luxuries.

As the presence of women (despite their storytelling) is muted in the book, it is Muhra’s father, ironically, who emerges as the most memorable character. A rake in his younger days, he now embodies the plight of uprooted Bedouin nobility. Steeped in desert lore, he keeps his nostalgia for the desert alive through his love of poetry and literature.

Mutlig sets himself up as a falconry and equestrian expert. He hopes to sell that one horse or falcon that would make him “Sheikh Al-Arab,” without realizing that the best stables and stud farms are now in Europe. He entertains visiting dignitaries and travels to the Alps with a prince to hunt for gyre falcons with a GPS. While he keeps up his petitions to King Faisal, he maintains his lavish lifestyle by selling his parcels of land to the peasants he despises.

Gazelle Tracks is a lyrical and powerful book that should win many readers in the west even if they are unfamiliar with Bedouin culture in Egypt. Al-Tahawy’s telling is fluid, with frequent shifts in perspective. She draws upon the apocrypha of Hatim Ta’i, and quartrains from desert lays, and desert lore to frame the narrative. The twisted loops and skeins that the senile bird trapper Abu Shreek uses to snare falcons provide the best metaphor for Al-Tahawy’s highly digressive narrative style which somehow ties up all the loose ends in the end. Fittingly, for this elegiac novel, the phrase “gazelle tracks” refers to a constellation of stars in the night sky whose origins lie in a myth of loss and grief.

In his essay, Edward Said imputed the neglect of writing from that part of the world to anti-Arab sentiment in the west. One should be grateful that occidentalist interest in Arab culture has been piqued recently, even if that is owed to a morbid and perverse post-9/11 curiosity.

Al-Aswany, Rafik Schami, Adonis, Hanan al-Shaykh, Al-Ghitani, Tayyib Saleh, Elias Khoury, Ahdaf Soueif, and Edwar Al-Kharrat are some fine writers whose popularity is growing in the west. The American University in Cairo Press has a current list of over 60 translated writers in its Modern Arabic Literature series alone.

Compared to South Asian writers, true, high literary honours may have eluded most of these writers (with the exception of Nuruddin Farah who writes in English) in the western world, but it’s only a matter of time before their works in English win a major prize or two.

This pair of fine translations of Egyptian writers sets a fine precedent.

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Ahmad Saidullah is a prize-winning author from Toronto, Canada. A winner of the CBC Literary Award for the title story, his Happiness and Other Disorders: Short Stories, which was published in Canada and India in 2008, received rave reviews. The book was shortlisted for The Danuta Gleed Literary Award in 2009. A French translation of Happiness will be published in Canada by the University of Ottawa Press in 2009.

2 responses to “Imaginary Landscapes: The Village and the Desert in Egyptian novels, Ahmad Saidullah

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