Tag-Archive for ◊ British colony ◊

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.

 

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Author:
• Saturday, January 29th, 2011

J.M.G. Le Clezio was born in 1940 in Nice, France from French parents who were first cousins and originally from Brittany. Both their families emigrated to Mauritius in the 18th century which was at the time a British colony and where Le Clezio’s father was born.

In 1947 Le Clezio had to travel to Nigeria with his mother and brother to join their husband and father who was serving as a doctor there, during the Second World War. The family returned to Nice in 1950.

Le Clezio went to school in Nice, in 1957. With his baccalaureate in literature and philosophy in hand, he continued his studies at Bristol University, London University and l’Institut d’Etudes Littéraires in Nice. He received his M.A. Degree in 1964 from the University of Aix-en-Provence and wrote his thesis on Mexico’s early history, which entitled him to a doctorate degree at the University of Perpignan in 1983.

Le Clezio grew up with two languages, French and English. He taught at universities in Bangkok, Mexico City, Boston, Austin and Albuquerque to mention but a few.

Le Clezio has obtained several prestigious literary prizes :
Prix Renaudot in 1963, Prix Larbaud in 1972, Grand Prix Paul Morand de l’Académie française in 1980, Grand prix Jean Giono in 1997,Prix Prince de Monaco in 1998, Stig Dagermanpriset in 2008, The Nobel Prize for Literature in 2008 and he was rewarded the highest Mexican award for foreigners,The Aztec Eagle in 2010. He was made chevalier de la Légion d’honneur in 1991 and was promoted to officier de la Légion d’honneur in 2009.

Le Clezio has been married twice, in 1960 and in 1975. He has two daughters, one from each wedlock.

Le Clezio wrote and sold many books which have been translated into several languages. He is one of France’s well known prestigious contemporary writers.

His novel, Desert, was published in France in 1980. Twenty-eight years later it was singled out among all his work by the Nobel Prize Academy as his “definitive breakthrough as a novelist”.

The story of Desert is the tale of two young Moroccan teenagers from different generations, Nour and Lalla. They both belong to a nomadic tribe of warriors, called “the blue men”. They are both struggling for survival in a different way and their lives never connect. Their two stories run in parallel throughout the novel and take place in two different time periods, Nour being born in the nineteenth century and Lalla much later in the twentieth century.

The first period which starts from 1909 and ends in 1912, is related by Nour, a young teenager, whose family left everything behind to join the march with other North African tribes who also had to leave their homes, due to the advancing French colonialists pushing them out of their native land. They march stoically, an endless exhausting journey in the inclement North African desert climate, hoping to reach the haven promised by their old and wise venerated religious leader, Ma el Aïnine. Unfortunately Nour will witness the defeat of his people’s rebellion due to hunger and exhaustion against the better equipped and trained French army.

The second period which ends in the near contemporary, is the story of Lalla, a young wild and solitary teenager. She is an orphan raised by her aunt in a poor coastal, Moroccan shanty town. Lalla can’t read or write but that doesn’t seem to matter to her, as long as she can listen to her aunt’s stories and the tales of the old fisherman, Naman and as long as she is close to nature and feels part of it. Being wild at heart, she likes the sea, the sand, the animals and the insects.

Therefore, when circumstances lead Lalla to Marseilles, she feels bewildered in the big city. Completely cut off from nature she feels like a fish out of water and isn’t happy despite becoming famous as a front cover model with great career potential. Away from her beloved wild nature back home, she couldn’t survive. Lalla is a lonely young woman and the only way for her to be happy again is to go back to nature where she once belonged and where she feels the meaning of real freedom. She also longs to see her dearest, beloved deaf and dumb best friend, Hartani, the shepherd.

In Desert, the description of the landscape is so real and vivid that the reader can almost feel the heat of the scorching sand during the day, the bitter, bleak cold at night and the vastness of the endless North African desert. Nature in the novel constitutes an important part. It has its rules, its beauty, its harshness but also its whims.

Desert is not a thriller and doesn’t rely on a plot — it should be read and savoured slowly, like all good things in life. Desert is just sheer beautiful writing with a historical background and a great deal of love and compassion. A poetic profound contemplation with an enhanced enchanting leitmotiv, a sort of an ode to Nature in general and to the North African Desert and its nomadic people in particular.