A Curiosity: Andrew Madigan on Naguib Mahfouz’s Before the Throne

Before the Throne, Naguib Mahfouz, trans. Raymond Stock, American University in Cairo Press, 2009

First published as Amam al-’arsh in 1983, Before the Throne is a story of Egypt’s past, an allegory about its leaders and the ethics of leadership. Nearly 60 of the nation’s former rulers, from the obscure to the world-famous, from 3000 BCE to the 1980s, are called before a tribunal. They are to be judged by the Gods Osiris, Isis and Horus, while Thoth, Scribe of the Gods, records the proceedings. Those who are deemed worthy, who served the best interests of the people, will be granted immortality.

Mahfouz’s method is to bring Egypt’s rulers, who are otherwise seen as demigods, down to smaller, human proportions by placing them before Gods. Through this juxtaposition, we’re supposed to see them more clearly and honestly rather than being overwhelmed by their fame and majesty. King Menes, who originally unified the nation and cultivated its strengths, is the first to be called. The Gods debate his strengths and weaknesses as a leader and as a moral being:

“You reaped one hundred thousand of the Libyans’ lives,” Osiris reproached him.
“They were the aggressors, My Lord,” said Menes in his own defense.
“And of the Egyptians, northerners and southerners combined, two hundred thousand fell as well,” Osiris reminded him.
“They sacrificed themselves for the sake of our nation’s unity,” said Menes.
“Then security and peace reigned over all, while the blood that had regularly been shed in periodic fighting ceased to flow into the waters of the Nile.”
“Could you not win the people over with words before resorting to the sword?” asked Osiris. (3)

This process is repeated, with little variation, throughout the book. Egypt’s rulers must answer for their decisions, without the excuse of expediency, executive privilege or personal glory. This is an intrinsically complex task, however. Menes sums up the difficulty with this project of accountability: “‘Thoth, your sacred scribbler, has condensed my life in words….How easy is the telling, and how hard was the doing!’” (2).

Most of the rulers are judged leniently and given a favorable judgment. Raymond Stock, the novel’s translator, writes: “only those who serve that great national ka–according to Mahfouz’s own strict criteria–are worthy of his praise and a seat among the immortals” Afterword 152). The “national ka” refers to Egypt’s identity and glory; Mahfouz’s criteria, which isn’t altogether strict, amounts in some cases to imperialism and national strength. Most of the country’s rulers are acquitted of their crimes. The ones who aren’t, curiously, are often judged in large groups and given very little space in the text to account for themselves. Chapter 31, for instance, is the trial of Ramesses IV-XII; nine rulers are sent to Purgatory with only a half-page of analysis, and Chapter 9 sees six kings condemned to Hell with only one page of discussion.

Before the Throne is a dialogue, though it’s not a work of philosophy. In an interview, Mahfouz claimed that it was a work of history, but this is not defensible (Afterword 145). We learn bits and scraps about Egypt and its past, but the book lacks the objectivity, thoroughness, attention to detail, academic rigor, and of course the basic verisimilitude of History (the putative tribunal, for instance, is not factual). Before the Throne recalls the work of Diderot more than anything else; fiction is used as a canvas for thinly-dramatized vignettes relating to non-fictional events and ideas. It’s an intriguing book, a curiosity, but ultimately it would have been better if it were either more fictionalized or more dedicated to History, Philosophy or some other discipline. As it stands, the book is didactic, heavy-handed and repetitive, though it does offer, like an epic poem, a selective and concise summary of the Egyptian past.

Lost Inside Maryam: Marcia Lynx Qualey on Mansoura Ez Eldin’s Maryam’s Maze

Maryam’s Maze, Mansoura Ez Eldin, trans. Paul Starkey, American University in Cairo Press, 2007

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.

Purchase Maryam’s Maze


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.

Fractured States: Robert McGuire on Being Abbas el Abd by Ahmed Alaidy

Being Abbas el Abd, Ahmed Alaidy, American University in Cairo Press, 2009

Among the mentors who Ahmed Alaidy thanks in the acknowledgements to this short novel is Chuck Palahniuk, and the influence shows. Being Abbas el Abd has a theme and plot – and a twist ending – so similar to Palahniuk’s Fight Club that it almost reads as a modern dress restaging of the same story.

Set in the wildly Westernizing economy of 21st-century Cairo, the story features an alienated young narrator wandering through a wearisome cityscape that is wound to the breaking point by generational, religious and economic conflict. The environment is politically repressive, yet driven by capitalist boosterism, idolatrous of history, yet youthful and media driven, a state increasingly divided against itself. The city is so shackled to discredited pieties and commercialized antiquities, but still so unable to resist cultural pollution from outside, that the young feel they have no ground to stand on but nihilism.

The narrator comes under the tutelage of Abbas, a magnetic emotional vandal who counsels, “Don’t fight things by resisting them because they’ll strike back with a vengeance. Fight things by doing them – that way they lose their meaning.” On a lark Abbas persuades the narrator to impersonate him on two comically chaotic and simultaneous blind dates with a pair of women who share the same name, each on a different floor of the same cafe. A mistaken-identity fiasco ensues when the narrator can’t keep straight which date is which or what persona they expect him to portray.

Navigating the prank, and his eventual rebellion against Abbas, is made more difficult for the narrator by the after affects of extreme malpractice at the hands of his mad scientist psychiatrist. We also get hints that the narrator may be experiencing some kind of disassociative episode and that the high-tech mood stabilizers he is cruising on may be doing more harm than good.

But it’s hard to say for sure. Most of the plot is just plain hard to follow, broken off at points without resolution, subjected to digressions with no apparent relevance and told in a fractured narrative style meant to reflect both a corrupted state of mind and life in a corrupt State. “We are the autistic generation,” the narrator says in one of his lucid moments, “living under the same roof with strangers who have names similar to ours.”

The narrative style is the most interesting aspect of Abbas. The book is stuffed with energetic wordplay, such as when the narrator comes out on the losing end of a “dialogue of fists” and he regrets being treated “like a rug on a date with fate over the balcony railings.” Bored waiters, sycophant traffic cops, hard-hearted prostitutes, senile landlords, fundamentalist moral guardians and the urban elite all have turns around the stage to lend their characteristic voices to the urban cacophony only to have the narrator run contemptuous verbal circles around them.

I suspect only a fraction of the jokes are appreciated by a reader (like myself) unfamiliar with the linguistic heritage the author is playing on. For example, the translator, Humphrey Davies, explains in an illuminating endnote how the traditional border between classical and colloquial Arabic idioms is transgressed for ironic effect and ultimately in support of the theme of generational tension. A sentence in the classical idiom may “have at its syntactical center an undeniably colloquial verb, resulting in what, from a traditional perspective, is a disorienting sense of a breakdown of borders.”

A degree of that disorientation is likely lost in the translation, but the naughty winking energy still comes through and provides its own kind of delight. Consider the following passage:

I walk to the end of the street, where the minibus drivers have come up with a new unofficial stop.
“Ramses! Ramses! Ramses!”
As the tout shouts he waves at me and says: “Heh, mizter! Going to Ramses?”
I shake my head and make my way to the big minibus that some call ‘The Phantom.’
The tout pulls me in by the shoulder like someone dragging his drawers off the line.
Then he gets off again looking for more underwear, drumming on the paneling the while to pass the time as he shouts: “This way and watch your step! (Bam bam bam!) Ramses! (Bam bam bam!) Coming with us, miss?”
In gets a petticoat.
(Bam bam bam!)
In gets an undershirt.
(Bam bam bam!)
“You, sonny?”
In gets a pair of boxers.
“All Helpful All Wise All Giving All Gener. . . ! Something wrong, mizter?!”
“What do you think you’re doing, buddy? Whacking cockroaches with a slipper? Enough with the bang, bang, bang. Give your hand a nice dangle for a bit.”
“What’s it to you, buddy? Someone bang you?”
Have a horrible day!
“‘Someone bang you?’ Whoa! You want to try out your smartass cracks on me? Wise up. I’ve been around since before your mommy peeled your daddy’s banana.”
“Uh . . . what’s that mean?”

What layers of irony are the English-language reader missing? Something in the tout’s mispronunciations, something in his cry of “All Helpful . . . .”, something in the names of the bus lines. There are jokes here I’m not getting, I’m sure. (Actually, there are jokes that perhaps only the youth of Egypt are meant to get. The translator’s note explains how the Ramses bus line is a local pun that famously went over the head of academic readers who never expect to find the language of the street in print.)

But an inventive voice comes through nevertheless, in this passage and elsewhere, in the volatile braggadocio, the alternating innuendo and frank punning, the separatist argot of bleeding edge technology buffs, the inventive revision of traditional proverbs. Being Abbas el Abd for this reader serves as a tantalizing hint at unfamiliar depths in Arabic literature. Admittedly, this kind of literary tourism is probably unfair grounds on which to assess a book, and I do hope it gets more contextualized attention by a less naïve reader. But ultimately I doubt that a fuller appreciation of the language play is successfully going to paper over the lack of development in the story or the lack of discipline in the storytelling.


Robert McGuire is a freelance copywriter, teacher and aspiring novelist living in New Haven, Connecticut. Excerpts of his unpublished novel, A Wish In One Hand, can be seen at www.awishinonehand.net. He blogs about the writing process at www.workingonanovel.com.

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.

Cairo Modern?: Geoff Fox on Gamal al-Ghitani’s The Zafarani Files


The Zafarani Files, Gamal al-Ghitani, trans. Farouk Abdel Wahab, American University in Cairo Press

This early novel by one of Egypt’s most prolific short story and novel writers is a slapstick comedy set in Cairo’s teeming al-Hussein neighborhood, back in the days of Anwar Sadat (Egyptian president, 1970-1981). The crowded, run-down and entirely imaginary Zafarani alley is inhabited by 50 or more named and mostly zany characters, each obsessed in his or her own way by sexual performance (their own and all their neighbors’) and their social standing. Normally, they tolerate one another’s routines—the effendi (an honorific for the rare alley-dweller with a steady job and some high school education) who pimps his own wife; the virile and rustic baker who has found work as a male prostitute at the baths; the retired, ancient sergeant major with his hallucinatory memories of serving the king and crown prince back before Nasser’s revolution; the alley’s only college graduate who dreams of swaggering around with a pistol; and wives and mistresses whose greatest entertainment (besides sex, of which they are very demanding) is starting or watching their own loud and violent quarrels. The quarrels are mostly about who has the best sexual partner, but having the most impressive domestic appliances also boosts a woman’s status– Sitt (“Madame”) Busayna, besides demanding daily intercourse from her beleaguered bus-driver husband, spends his money on outrageous luxuries like a transistor radio (the alley’s first – this is mid 1970’s, remember) and even a many-buttoned washing machine!

But one day the mysterious gnomic sheikh who lives in a tiny, dark apartment at one end of the alley, and whom hardly anyone has ever seen, magically deprives the alley’s men of what they prize most: their sexual potency. He hints that this is just the first step of his world-changing program, by which he will end all quarrels and bring universal harmony. The pimp loses his customers, the male prostitute his job, the other men—a taxi driver, a railroad coaler, a low-level bureaucrat, et al—their self-confidence, and the women have to resort to ever more desperate methods to get sexual satisfaction. Meanwhile, the government apparatus for political repression tries, with hopeless incompetence, to investigate these strange events while simultaneously denying to the world that anything unusual is occurring.

For a non-Arab reader it is hard to keep so many characters straight, especially since the names are often similar. For example, Nabil, Nabila and Umm Nabila are three different people, the first a young man that some of the local women fall in love with, the second a 26-year old female schoolteacher and unwilling spinster, and the third her mother—”Umm” means “mother of,” and may be followed by the name of either a daughter or a son. And inevitably, and despite the best efforts of the translator, English-readers will miss a lot of what must be jokes in Cairene slang and subtle political digs that must have been very naughty in the time of Anwar Sadat.

This work is a lot sillier than the better-known Naguib Mahfouz’s mythification of another Cairo alley (Children of Gebelawi, 1981) or his portrait of generational conflicts at the end of the Sadat period (The Day the Leader Was Killed, 2000), but its silliness is also sharp-edged satire. Al-Ghitani appears to have set out to scandalize everybody, religious sheikhs, pretentious bureaucrats, ignorant shopkeepers and tradesmen, women (though more gently), and the organs of the police state. The only characters who come across as reasonably sane are the “politico,” possibly a Communist (or so the state bureaucracy imagines) just released from long imprisonment, the young man who visits him to learn about the world, and the sweet-natured wife of the merchant “Radish Head” who escapes the alley and its ridiculous prejudices to parts unknown, though rumored to have run off to live with her English instructor.

And finally, nothing ever gets resolved. With so many characters, each with his own craziness, there is no central element holding them all together as a story except the sheikh’s curse (or blessing, or whatever it’s supposed to be). Yet, we never find out what happens to the sheikh (or even whether he really exists as they imagine him) or with the curse of impotence, which may still be in effect in that fictitious alley.

Unfortunately, this is one of only three of al-Ghitani’s many novels available in English. He’s a writer we should know. Though ultimately The Zafarini Files fails to come to a satisfactory conclusion, it succeeds in amusing us by antics of its ineffectual and nutty characters, and gives us a glimpse of social conflicts in Cairo 30 years ago. Maybe not so much has changed in Cairo and its al-Hussein neighborhood

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.


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.

“63 Years Later”: Nii Ayikwei Parkes on Cairo Modern by Naguib Mahfouz

Cairo Modern, Naguib Mahfouz (translated by William M. Hutchins), American University in Cairo Press 


Cairo Modern, the fifth novel of a thirty-plus novel and Nobel-prizing winning career, was written in 1945 after the end of the Second World War, which is important to keep in mind when reading the English translation now released sixty-three years later. Over the years, the novel (particularly in English) has greatly changed embracing influences from Russia, South Asia, and Africa as well as evolving to subsume the constantly mutating lexicon of technological advancement. This is not to say that Naguib Mahfouz’s novel is in any way diminished, neither is his well-known bent for exploring existentialism compromised, but it does reflect the more subdued language of its times.


As the title suggests, the novel is set in Cairo exploring the trials, opportunities, and trends of the city in the 1930s. Specifically, the novel  focuses upon the lives of four friends in King Fuad University (what is now Cairo University) who come from different backgrounds and have varying philosophies in life. Ahmad Badir is a journalist who never truly reveals his position on issues, Ma’mun Radwan is a young man who believes in “God in the heavens and Islam on the earth,” Ali Taha is an idealist interested in a society that functions perfectly and remains relevant through constant renewal, while Mahgub Abd al-Da’im eschews principles altogether with the constant refrain of “Tuzz.”


All four live in a modern Cairo that is awash with ambiguity: patrons of society can barely speak Arabic, government jobs have a system of progression rarely honoured, and family ties are compromised by the company they need to keep. As the novel progresses three of the friends, whose lives are fairly stable due to their respectable finances and family connections, fade into the background leaving Maghub, poor and barely supported by his clerk father. Intensely ambitious and dissatisfied by his inability to keep up with his friends in leisure or love, Maghub’s life becomes even more difficult when his father becomes paralysed and is laid off leaving the entire family to survive on his meagre compensation. With a few months left before Maghub’s graduation, two choices emerge—to quit and support his family or to bargain with his family to sacrifice on his behalf with the promise of becoming the main breadwinner as soon as he graduates.


Within this maze of choices and consequences, all that Maghub has to guide him are his patchwork of principles or non-principles (depending on your point of view). This is where Naguib Mafouz’s semi-detached, third-person narrative shows its merits as it unravels the story without judgement allowing the reader to tumble into the story outraged or sympathetic in equal measure. After abortive attempts to get help from a rich relative Maghub turns to a former neighbour to help him enter the world of Cairo’s rich and powerful. Mahfouz hints early at the party that Maghub has to borrow money to attend so he can be introduced to a ‘patron’ just how deceptive this world can be:

He saw chests that almost touched breasts and arms that encircled waists. He was amazed that these people could control their impulses. He wished he were dancing. Scrutinizing faces with anxious bulging eyes, he whispered to himself, ‘Wealth. Wealth equals sovereignty and power. It’s everything in the world.’ His eyes happened upon a swelling bosom that almost made him dream it would poke through the diaphanous white gown. His lust aroused, he raised his eyes to discover his sweetheart’s face. What he found was an ugly crone, even if she was a coquette.


Therein ultimately are Maghub’s challenges in Cairo Modern: Can he tell the difference between what is real and imagined progress? Can he control his impulses? And will he be able to live with the consequences of the actions he takes, even if he has convinced himself that morals and judgement mean nothing to him? This juxtaposition of real problems and one man’s abstractions of philosophical positions lays the foundation of an entertaining drama, which is shot through with Naguib Mahfouz’s dry humour. Cairo Modern may be a tad didactic for modern tastes, but for its time it is actually a very liberal book and remains over sixty years after it was written a compelling read.




Nii Ayikwei Parkes is a writer of poetry, prose and articles, and author of the poetry chapbooks: eyes of a boy, lips of a man (1999) and M is for Madrigal (2004), a selection of seven jazz poems. He is also the Senior Editor at flipped eye publishing where he has overseen the production of four award-winning titles and a contributing editor to The Liberal. Nii is the current International Writing Fellow at the University of Southampton and his debut novel, Tail of the Blue Bird, will be released in June 2009 by Jonathan Cape .