The maze that holds Maryam El-Tagi in its grip—locking her in a space between waking and sleep, clarity and insanity—centers on her childhood garden. The El Tagi family garden is full of strange sights indeed: spots of blood and suffocating jasmine, mad hoopoes and stunted apricot trees:
The small trees would grow until they reached a certain stage, then stop. They would not flower, but would remain just as they were, slender stumps laden with dark green leaves, with no branches growing off them.
Such is the life of Maryam. Our protagonist has grown until a certain point, but can go no further. Her branches have not spread, and she has borne no fruit (at least, not as far as she can remember). An adult life is never reached, and, throughout this very short novel, Maryam returns and returns to her childhood home, the El-Tagi palace.
Maryam is no longer able to touch her real family, but neither is she able to escape from their memories. Maryam feels sure that she’s had some adult relationship with a man named Yahia, and even finds a marriage certificate with their names joined together. But she never locates him, and eventually seems to give him up. She also seeks out a friend of her adulthood, Radwa. But Maryam is unable to find anything more than Radwa’s scribblings on a wall.
Things appear and disappear quickly inside Maryam’s maze, usually without explanation. We hear about a childhood friendship with Esther, a Christian girl who eloped with a local Muslim boy, but see little more of it. We hear briefly about the first Egyptian post-colonial president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, but are not sure what he means to Maryam. We hear about Saleh, who used to work as a watchman on El Tagi’s property, but see him only as he was, frozen at a particular moment in time.
This abruptly terminated growth of a young woman—one who remains trapped in the maze of childhood memories—could function as a critique of Egyptian society. Perhaps it is: We see that Maryam’s grandmother has gone mad as well; we hear, from the narrator, that perhaps this madness is the norm. But, because of the narrator’s limitations, it is impossible to see what’s going on outside of Maryam’s mind.
This is the simultaneous strength and weakness of Maryam’s Maze: the reader, too, is trapped within Maryam’s narrow past. We have a number of threads at our fingertips, but cannot quite join them, just as we can’t quite see beyond the walls of Maryam’s childhood garden.
Author Mansoura Ez Eldin is one of the bright new faces of Arabic literature: She is one of the Beirut39, a much-ballyhooed list of 39 Arab authors under 40; she has been shortlisted for the 2010 International Prize for Arabic Fiction for her 2009 novel Beyond Paradise; her work has been excerpted and featured in the U.S. magazine A Public Space and the U.K.’s Banipal.
Ez Eldin also is a breath of difference, carving out a path that’s distinct from much of Egyptian fiction. Popular Egyptian authors Alaa Al-Aswany and Mekkawi Said, for instance, are heavy on social critique and light on internalities and character development. Ez Eldin’s work focuses much less on story—we’re not really sure what’s happened with Maryam, although it feels pretty awful—and more on the worlds within.
Because of its exploration of the smaller things, Maryam’s Maze depends heavily on the success of its language. Perhaps the Arabic sometimes misses its mark. But one also feels, at times, that Paul Starkey has not spent enough time with the prose, that the story is not best served by “without beating around the bush” and other English-language clichés.
In the end, whether because of what’s lost in translation or the lost threads in the story, Maryam’s Maze is much like its protagonist and her apricot trees: beautiful, strange, and stunted, stopped before it was allowed to grow all its branches, and fruit.
M. Lynx Qualey lives and reads in Cairo, Egypt. Her fiction and essays have appeared in places like Black Warrior Review, The Fiddlehead, Crab Orchard Review, Third Coast, and AGNI. She also teaches writing at a community book store and blogs about Arabic literature at arablit.wordpress.com.