Tag-Archive for ◊ exile ◊

• Friday, June 14th, 2013

Milan Kundera was born in 1929 in Brno, the Czech Republic, from a middle class family. His father was a musicologist and a pianist. Milan learned to play the piano from his father and later studied musicology and musical composition.

Kundera finished secondary school in 1948. He then studied literature and aesthetics at the Faculty of Arts at Charles University in Prague for two terms, before transferring to the Film Academy to learn film direction and script writing. He graduated in 1952 and worked as lecturer in world literature at the Film Academy.

He joined the communist party in 1948 like several intellectual Czechoslovaks of the time. He was expelled from the party two years later, for having “unorthodox inclinations”. However he rejoined the party again in 1956 and was discharged once more in the seventies.

Kundera’s works were banned and he was dismissed from his teaching job by the Czechoslovak communist regime after taking part in the short-lived liberalisation movement of 1967-1968.

In 1975 Kundera and his wife left Czechoslovakia for France, where he was appointed guest professor at the University of Rennes. He was stripped of his Czechoslovak citizenship in 1979 and lived in exile in France, becoming a French citizen in 1981. Presently he lives with his wife in Paris.

He has written novels, a short story collection, a poetry collection, essays and drama. In 1985 he received the Jerusalem Prize and in 1987 won the Austrian State Prize for European Literature. In 2000 he was awarded the international Herder Prize and in 2007 he won the Czech State Literature Prize. He was made an honorary citizen of his own home town, Brno, in 2010 and received the Ovid Prize in 2011.

“Nostalgia is the suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return”, says the long exiled Kundera at the beginning of his philosophical novel Ignorance. This sentence sets the main themes of the book which are: emigration, nostalgia, the longing for homecoming and the indifference that follows once back home as well as the deliberation on recollection and about human fallibility, creating a state of amnesia and ignorance. These are topics understandably close to the author’s heart, emigration being a first-hand experience for him.

Pregnant Irena, her husband Martin and their young daughter, leave their homeland, Czechoslovakia in 1969, one year after the Russian invasion, to seek refuge in Paris.

After twenty years of exile, Irena is now a mother of two daughters and a widow. With her new Swedish companion Gustaf, they decide to go back and live in the post-communist Czech Republic.
At Paris airport, while waiting for the Prague flight, her path crosses Josef – a short time heart-throb from adolescent days. He is also by coincidence, returning to his country for a brief visit after his wife’s death and twenty years of exile in Denmark.

The two uprooted protagonists, once back home after a long absence, are disillusioned to find their past forever gone. They don’t know how to pick up the threads. They come back to a completely transformed country from the one they remember, which no longer exists except in their own memories. They feel estranged in their native land among their compatriots and their families with whom they no longer have anything in common. They suffer through loss of identity as well as solitude for not fitting in with others.

Irena and Josef’ feel that their families and friends ignore them, as well as showing no interest in their lives in exile during the past twenty years. Irena, once in Prague, invites her friends and offers them an expensive French 1985 vintage Bordeaux wine but her friends who wanted “to teach (her) a lesson in patriotism” ask to drink beer instead. Irena believes that “rejecting the wine was rejecting her. She, as the person she is now, coming back after so many years…Either she succeeds in being among them as the person she has become, or else she won’t stay” because with their aloofness and disinterest in all she has been through abroad, they are erasing twenty years of her life.

Irena, on reflection, decides that her once beloved Prague of the old days is now completely alien to her. That is when she realises with assertion that she is more mature and wants to lead a life of her own and not stay in this city as it stands now. Her apprehension for the “Great Return” to the post-communist Czech Republic, occurs at the beginning of the book during her conversation with Parisian friend, Sylvie, who encourages her to go back home and reconnect with her past. After a short visit to Prague, Irena’s presentiment is proven to be correct – she no longer belongs to this new country.

Josef also feels the same as Irena and decides to go back to Denmark to continue living true to the memory of his deceased beloved wife. He was convinced after the disappointing visit to his older brother and his wife, followed by the visit to N., a Czech friend from forty years ago. To his surprise and sorrow, he discovers that neither his friend N. nor his wife are interested in his life and experiences during all his long years abroad. Josef discovers that even his mother tongue has become unfamiliar to his ears, as if it was “some unknown language”. He wonders what happened to Czech during these last two decades while he was away.

Just like Odysseus when he came back home after being tortured by his nostalgia and was eager to return to his beloved Ithaca after his long absence. To his great astonishment and affliction, he discovers “that his life, the very essence of his life, its centre, its treasure, lay outside Ithaca, in the twenty years of his wanderings. And this treasure he had lost and could retrieve only by telling about it”.

The several themes meditated, philosophically analysed at length and historically paralleled with Odysseus in the Odyssey, plus the inclusion of the Czech poet Jan Skacel, the Austrian composer and painter Arnold Schoenberg and the German writer,Thomas Mann, override the development of the one dimensional characters in the book. Kundera mentioned once during an interview, that the “unity” of a book can depend on its theme rather than on its plot.

The double erotic scenes at the end of the novel – between Irena and Josef on one side and her mother with Gustaf on the other, don’t enhance the story. They are gaudy and anticlimactic. They belittle the seriousness of the matters raised in the book, despite what the author says in one of his interviews that:“the erotic scene is the focus where all the themes of the story converge and where its deepest secrets are located”.

A very emotional, short, concentrated and thought provoking book. It analyses human weaknesses and therefore problems that touch many people today. These problems are unlikely to change because they have been with us since the dawn of time. Throughout the centuries, people have been pushed to emigration and homecoming with all that it entails.

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• 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.