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.