Tag-Archive for ◊ Arab world ◊

Author:
• Saturday, June 01st, 2013

Bahaa Taher was born in 1935 in the Giza district of Cairo, Egypt, from an Arabic school teacher’s father. His parents were from Karnak, Luxor in the south of the country, known as Upper Egypt. Bahaa Taher graduated in literature from Cairo University as well as post graduating in History and Mass Media from the same university and participated in literary left-wing circles during the sixties. Bahaa Taher writes in Arabic and is one of the most acclaimed and widely read novelists in the Arab world.

In 1998 he received Egypt’s highest literary award, the State Award of Merit in Literature. In 2000 he was awarded the Italian Giuseppe Acebi Prize and in 2008 the inaugural International Prize for Arabic Fiction for his novel, Sunset Oasis and was long listed for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

In 1957 Bahaa Taher helped in founding Cairo Radio’s cultural programme. However, under president Sadat’s regime in 1975, he was dismissed as director of cultural programming at Cairo Radio for having communist ideals. He was banned from writing or having his work published. Taher then left Egypt and remained in exile for two decades. He travelled from Africa to Asia in the hope of finding a job as a freelance translator, which he eventually found in Switzerland in 1981, working for the United Nations in Geneva. The ban was lifted in 1983 and in 1995 he went back to Egypt and today still resides in Cairo.

Bahaa Taher has written several books to date:
East of the Palms and Qalat Duha, both books published in 1985, Aunt Safiyya and the Monastery, published in 1991, Love in Exile in 1995, The point of Light in 1999 and Sunset Oasis published in 2007 in Arabic and 2009 in English.

The story of Sunset Oasis, which is mostly narrated by the two protagonists, Mahmoud and Catherine – with some chapters narrated by Sheikh Yahya, Sheikh Sabir and by Alexander the Great – takes place at the end of the 19th century in Siwa, an oasis in the north west of Egypt.

Middle aged Cairene officer, lieutenant Mahmoud Abd El Zaher, is sent to Siwa as the Khedive’s District Commissioner in order to collect taxes from the inhabitants and transmit the funds to the Cairo authorities.

During this period, Egypt is part of the Ottoman Empire and at the same time is occupied by the British. Consequently the eastern and western Siwan clans, divided by internecine wars and rivalries, refuse to pay taxes to the occupiers. In addition to the two clans’ ingrained traditions and superstitions, the situation becomes difficult for any District Commissioner to deal with.

Mahmoud is sent by his Cairo established British superior, Mr Harvey, to his certain demise, since his two predecessors were killed by the Siwan tribes. This new post is intended as a punishment for lieutenant Mahmoud who had been assigned to protect Alexandria from the nationalist uprising of colonel Ahmed Urabi. Urabi was considered a traitor by the authorities because he opposed Khedive Tewfik’s policy of yielding to the European colonialists and was against the British and French financial control of the country. This British and French intrusion in Egypt had been put in place for the purpose of collecting the debts incurred by Tewfik’s predecessor, Khedive Ismail, who had been a spendthrift during his reign. Lieutenant Mahmoud had been suspected, by the British and other high-ranking officials of being disloyal to the Khedive and of being a revolutionary sympathiser despite his unproven involvement and despite having been acquitted.

Colonel Ahmed Urabi’s revolt failed in 1882 after the British navy bombarded Alexandria and pursued the attacks with their army defeating colonel Urabi at the battle of Tel el Kebir,110 km north east of Cairo, and exiled him to the then British colony of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).

Mahmoud’s Irish wife, Catherine, who, like her father, is a classical scholar, insists on joining him at his new post in the hope of rekindling their dying love and also in the hope of discovering the traces of Alexander the Great and locating his tomb. She read that Alexander the Great was supposed to have come to the Siwa oasis in 331 BC after the battle of Issus, at the time of Alexander’s occupation of Egypt. He had come in order to obtain an answer from the Oracle of Ammon – Ammon being identified by the Greeks as a form of Zeus – that he was the son of Zeus, as he suspected, and not the son of Philip II of Macedonia.

Now in his forties, Mahmoud is aware of his lack of achievement in life. He had been hoping to go to Siwa without his wife in order to try and “discover himself” in the stillness of the desert which he thought he could achieve once away from everything. However, his wife insists on joining him despite his efforts to dissuade her. Now with his marriage failing beyond retrieve and his great disappointment in Urabi’s thwarted revolution, he feels tormented, depressed and melancholy. He is a weak and helpless character who has lost his ambition and has no aspiration in life, unlike his brother Suleiman, who has settled with his wife and children in Syria and seems to have a steady existence.

Mahmoud feels lost and lonely after his parents’ death and after the disappearance of broken hearted Ni’ma – the slave girl who worked in the family’s home since Mahmoud’s childhood and who adored him devotedly. She is the only woman he really felt passion for without ever disclosing his love. Mahmoud says to himself: “A woman who hasn’t left me all my life long. Ni’ma visited me last night… and filled me with joy. All I can remember of the dream is her beautiful face… She was my friend and with her stories would make me a child again. Then, with her love, she would make me a man once more. I loved her as I had never loved anyone else.” Unfortunately, it is too late to go back and rectify the present.

Mahmoud’s wife, Catherine, seems to be his opposite, being a strong and determined character. She realises that her marriage is no longer working and that her husband doesn’t approve of her obsession with Alexander the Great’s searches. He neither agrees nor accepts her behaviour which upsets the traditions, values and superstitions of the Siwans who are already hostile to them both.

Despite everything, Catherine defies all the odds and pursues her search for Alexander’s tomb in the hope of making a name for herself in history. The arrival of Captain Wasfi, Mahmoud’s junior officer who is also interested in the same historical period, doesn’t help to make Catherine give up her project.

Mahmoud’s beautiful sister-in-law, Fiona, dies of tuberculosis while staying with them in Siwa which devastates him as he has been secretly in love with her. That is the turning point of Mahmoud’s life which culminates in the suicidal explosion of the ancient Egyptian temple in Siwa called Om Obayda and him with it. A tragic end for a despairing character.

The ancient Egyptian temple of Om Obayda was in fact destroyed by Mahmoud Azmi, the real life district commissioner of Siwa at the end of the nineteen century, as mentioned in the author’s note.

In Sunset Oasis the characters are convincing and well depicted. Bahaa Taher said: “I have always thought that you cannot separate politics from fiction. It is important to combine what is happening to ordinary people because what happens in the political field affects everyone.”

The book portrays great insight into the cultural, social, political and existing tensions and rebellion of the natives against the foreign occupiers, Turkish and British, at this period in Egyptian history on one side and the unruly Bedouin on the other. An echo of the tensions and unsettled situation existing presently in Egypt albeit for different reasons.

 

Author:
• Saturday, October 29th, 2011

Alaa El Aswany was born in Egypt in 1957, the only child of an ex aristocratic mother and a well known father from Aswan, in Upper Egypt. His father, Abbas, who received the Egyptian state award for literature in 1972, was a lawyer before becoming a novelist.

Alaa Al Aswany studied in a French private school in Cairo, Le Lycée Français du Caire, which was followed by a Cairo University dentistry degree in 1980 and a Masters degree in 1985 from the University of Illinois in Chicago, where he spent 17 years before returning to live in Egypt. Today he still lives in Cairo with his second wife and three children.

Alaa El Aswany is one of the founding members of the political democratic opposition movement, Kefaya (Enough), meaning enough of president Mubarak’s undemocratic, oppressive regime and its corruption. The movement was founded in 2004.

In 2010 El Aswany was named one of the 500 most influential Muslims for arts and culture. He was also nominated for the prestigious 2010 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for his novel Chicago, published in 2007.

Born Muslim, El Aswany is a secular and free thinker. He has written many articles for Egyptian newspapers on political issues, social matters and literature.

Alaa El Aswany had his dental clinic in the Yacoubian building, in the centre of Cairo, but departed 15 years before writing his fictitious novel about the building. He still practises dentistry twice a week in his clinic in the Garden City district of Cairo, in order to stay in touch with people and have discussions with them, which, he says, is very important to him and helps in his writing since he treats patients as a professional dentist but writes about them as a novelist.

The Yacoubian building was first published by a small, private publisher in Cairo in 2002, after being rejected three times by the Egyptian Book Organisation, the omnipotent state-run publishers controlled by president Mubarak’s regime, because of its perceived controversial content.

The novel was translated into 27 languages and became a best seller in the Arab world. In 2006 it was made into a film with the biggest budget ever for an Egyptian film and in 2007 was made into a television series.

The Yacoubian building, constructed in 1934 in downtown Cairo by the Armenian millionaire Hagop Yacoubian, was an architectural paragon of its time. Unfortunately, after years of neglect and lack of renovation, the condition of the building declined.

It is early 1990 when the story begins. The author describes the everyday life of the people who live in the building. Whether these tenants are wealthy, nouveau-riche or poor, they all share the same struggle to survive and the suffering and hardship they are enduring at the hands of the current Egyptian regime.

Most of them have in common the same obsession for sex and decadence, just like the deteriorating building they live or work in, the corrupted leader they have and the iniquitous government that governs them. The run-down building is a metaphor for the state of the country.

There is the well-to-do, 65-year old, retired Francophile engineer, Zaki Bey Dessouki, the self confessed, “scientist of women” who belongs to the aristocracy of a bygone era, the good old days which his sister Dawlat feels very dissatisfied and angry to have lost and consequently gone with it her two children who emigrated. She becomes bitter and takes it all out on her only brother.

Then there is the rich, middle aged, homosexual, successful newspaper editor, Hatim Rasheed, who couldn’t control his sexual urges for the young, illiterate, Abd Rabo, an upper Egyptian peasant, and police recruit, who will prove to be fatal for him.

And there’s another character, the ambitious nouveau-riche countryman, the old Hagg Mohamed Azzam, who wants to be part of the Egyptian parliament in order to gain power and prestige, even if he has to pay a huge bribe. He discovers that he has uncontrollable sexual needs that his old wife could no longer satisfy and has to marry a second wife, the young Soad who becomes his victim.

Also not forgetting the dirty old, chain of boutiques owner, the rich, Talal Chanane and his young lady workers and sex sufferers, Fifi and Boussaïna, nor the corrupted Malak, who earns his living not only as a shirtmaker but also in the commerce of currencies, alcohol, contraband and anything that brings in money, including blackmail.

There is also the young, Taha El Shazli, the son of the building’s caretaker. He is a bright student who’s dream is to join the police academy and marry his childhood girlfriend and neighbour, Boussaïna. His dream is shattered when he is refused entrance to the police academy because of his father’s profession. Saddened and dismayed after realising that money and contacts in the right place count for more than good grades and perseverance, he becomes bitter and cynical and consequently loses Boussaïna for good. He enrolls at Cairo university and, through one of the students, joins a militant Islamic group and dies a martyr in an organised assault on a senior prison officer who was behind his torture and humiliation while he was jailed. With nothing to live for, and therefore nothing to lose, he died more out of revenge, deceit and loss of hope in the whole Egyptian system than for his Islamic belief.

A contrasting array of characters from dissimilar backgrounds, each one with a different life-style and morals, but all of them seeking a better life. They all inhabit the same building without ever encountering one another, each living in his own world, preoccupied with his own problems.

The characters and the seedy building, which is undoubtedly the main focus of the story, as the main title implies and which still exists in the centre of Cairo, are well developed and quite realistic.

The novel conveys a bleak picture of a contemporary Egypt that lost its bearings, but the ending gives a shy ray of hope for the future. A very interesting, good novel if it was not for the several explicit sex passages which belittle the novel’s many serious themes.

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