A Hallucinatory Travelogue: Ahmad Saidullah on Mohamed Mansi Qandil’s Moon Over Samarqand

Mohamed Mansi Qandil, Moon Over Samarqand, trans. Jennifer Peterson, The American University in Cairo Press

Mohamed al-Mansi Qandil was born in 1949 in al-Mahalla al-Kubra, a town in the Nile delta. He is a graduate of the Faculty of Medicine at Mansoura University in Egypt who has written short stories, novels and children’s books. One of his short story collections won the State Incentive Award in 1988. His Moon Over Samarqand, which won the Sawiris Foundation Award in 2006, sweeps the reader into a whirlwind of adventures and stories that lead to a discovery of the truth and histories of the protagonists and their countries.

Qandil works as a literary critic and travel writer for the pan-Arabist magazine al-‘Arabi in Kuwait. He had visited Uzbekistan to develop travel features on Central Asia for al-‘Arabi. The trip yielded materials for what in the beginning of Moon Over Samarqand reads like a hallucinatory travelogue. This quest novel, which is made up of three parts, moves forward like a detective story by going back in time.

In the opening pages, Ali, a young Egyptian man, has hired a taxi to Samarqand where he hopes to meet General Rashidov, a family friend, to get some answers about his father’s death. The taxi driver Nurallah, modelled on a real cabbie that Qandil met on his travel assignment, turns out to be a sufi from Mir Arab, the largest madrassah in Central Asia that’s been raided and closed by the Soviet authorities. This “Don Juan from Mir Arab,” as a Soviet commissioner calls him, is on the run. The taxi ride is highly eventful and Ali despairs of reaching his destination.

Ali’s and Nurullah’s stories have parallels. Both have survived armed raids. In Ali’s case, it was a purge of an islamicist militant cell in the Cairene university where he was a student. Planned by Ali’s father, a high-ranking military intelligence officer in Sadat’s government, the raid resulted in Selma, one of Ali’s closest friends, being arrested.

For a few decades, Egypt and the USSR had shared close economic and military ties which find expression in the novel. Ali’s father’s ideals had been betrayed by the realpolitik of the Egyptian president who had him killed but not before he had confided in an Uzbeki army colleague. Ali goes to Uzbekistan to speak to this confidante, the Soviet general Rashidov, the starting point of the novel. We also learn that the taxi sheikh Nurallah had served under Ali’s father in Egypt.

This is not surprising. Like many African and Asian countries that emerged from the shadows of monarchism, feudalism and colonialism, Egypt had marched with the Soviets and nonaligned movement on a socialist path to nationhood. Qandil has set his novel in the “sad, dilapidated remains of those long days of socialism, and the dreams of equality that became a nightmare.” Ali’s and Nurallah’s journeys are microcosms of the USSR and Egypt where religion, particularly Islam, has been at odds with the state for a long time. (Lenin had dismissed yearning for a religious state as “bourgeois nationalism.”)

The novel explores the power struggles between authoritarian states and oppositional currents during the Uzbeki Soviet era and Nasser’s and Sadat’s reigns in Egypt. Although Russia had claims over Central Asia as early as 868, the Soviet annexations were supported by specious Marxist arguments about oriental despotism, the Asiatic mode of production, and the backward nature of Islam. During World War II, Stalin moved factories from western USSR to the Uzbek SSR to protect them. He also exiled certain ethnic groups thought to have collaborated with the Axis powers from other parts of the USSR to the Uzbek SSR which shifted the balance of the population. Although much of the Silk Road came under Stalinist and Maoist rule, vibrant cultures survived and flourished.

The Russian thinker Vitaly Naumkin noted that “Islam has served as a symbol of identity, a force for mobilization, and a pressure for democracy” in that region. Moon Over Samarqand’s opening pages reminded me of the great Yugoslavian writer Meša Selimovič’s novel Death and the Dervish, which commented on the suffering under the Turkish occupation. Unlike Selimovič, though, Qandil is taken with the figure of Sayyid Qutb who began his career in literature — he helped Naguib Mahfouz with his writing — before he became an Islamic ideologue and scholar and an inspiration to the extremists that Ali’s father seeks to eradicate.

It is important to understand the context of Qandil’s fascination for this multifaceted figure. The 1948 Arab-Israeli war, the failure of pan-Arabism under Nasser, and the impoverishment of the state accompanied by widespread corruption among the elite led to mass disillusionment in Egypt. Disaffection grew sharpest among the militant followers of Qutb, who was executed by General Nasser. Qutb’s followers have been preparing for a takeover of a state that they think has become too westernized and beholden to western interests.

The rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Egypt was spurred by the growing westernization of Egypt which, under Sadat and Mubara’k, has become for many of the disaffected a US client state. Qandil’s preamble, with its elegies on idealistic faith and dogma crushed by brutal regimes, includes a lament for Qutb who founded the Muslim Brotherhood and inspired al-Qaeda terrorists. I almost stopped reading what seemed to be an uncomfortably tractarian Ikhwan apology but, happily, the novel turns out differently.

Part of its success may have to do with the diversity of the various locales and the cultures and stories that emerge. In Qandil’s book, a character asks someone: “I know you’re a Soviet Muslim, but which kind are you Tatar, Kazakh, Bashkir, Chechen, Uzbek, Tajik, Circassian, or a Russian in disguise?” It would be interesting to study how Tolstoi, Pushkin, Lermontov and other writers used Central Asian lore and stories, how they depicted those cultures, and the orientalizing role Russian literature played in legitimizing Soviet occupation of the region, particularly over the Muslim republics. The leading Soviet cultural theorist Plekhanov valorized the culture of the White race, views that were certainly used to justify the subjugation of different Central Asian cultures.

In his Memoirs of the Aksakov Family, Sergei Aksakov wrote about a housekeeper who had returned after a long gap: “Pelagéya brought with her a remarkable gift for fairy tales, of which she knew an immense number. It is obvious that natives of the East have imparted to the Russians at Astrakhan a strong taste for hearing and telling these stories.” These are the fund of stories Qandil re-presents in his opening section. We encounter legendary tales and exotica about gypsies, Jews, Mongol khans, criminals, islamic activists, and madmen, of magic, treasure, and love all blended with the modern-day telling. While the mix is interesting, the novel is on surer ground when the book shrugs off its religious garb and when the action shifts to a grounded present or later to Cairo.

The writing is most effective in family scenes and stories. The old general Rashidov and his wife ask Ali to rescue their runaway daughter Nadia but he is unable to prevent the death of the Nadia he’s met, a prostitute and a drug user. Fortunately, Rashidov’s daughter turns up safe. In Cairo, Ali learns that Fayza al-Tuhami, a girl that he is attracted to and who paints mutilated figures, is being sexually abused by her father while her mother refuses to acknowledge the rapes. The last days of Ali’s father are similarly powerfully told.

Ultimately, Qandil’s book is about fathers, strong leaders and patriarchs, which in autocratic countries is often a political allegory, who betray their sons and daughters. Ali feels he has not done enough to save his father who had also exploited him and put him and his university friends at risk in the raid. Nurallah is similarly ambivalent about his friend and mentor Lutfullah from Mir Arab whom he tries to protect. Ali’s own quest comes at the end when he rescues Nurallah. He bribes the policemen who are bent on beating Nurallah to death and, with his redemption, they “drive onward, without a windshield, without headlights, through the pitch-black night and the open steppe lands, not knowing to which city we’re heading.”

The Egyptian novelist Mohamed Al-Makhzangi wrote: “When I read the manuscript of Qamar ‘Ala Samarqand [Moon Over Samarqand], I found myself carried away by the lyricism of this astonishing work of fiction, which weaves past with present in a manner resembling that of the cinema. Nurallah, the novel’s protagonist, in particular is unforgettable, dealing in extreme emotions but showing a wisdom that comes from the heart. This novel is written with real distinction.” Perhaps, some of the lyricism has been lost in English but, despite a few bumps in the beginning, Moon Over Samarqand occupies a worthy place among AUCP’s distinguished list of novels translated from the Arabic.

One response to “A Hallucinatory Travelogue: Ahmad Saidullah on Mohamed Mansi Qandil’s Moon Over Samarqand

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