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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:
• Sunday, October 21st, 2012

Aravind Adiga was born in 1974 in Madras, now Chennai, India. He grew up in Mangalore where he went to Canara High School. In1990 he graduated from St. Aloysius High School in Andhra Pradesh. He emigrated in the 90s with his family to Sydney Australia and continued his studies in St. James Ruse Agricultural High School in Sydney, followed by English literature at Columbia College, Columbia University in New York City, graduating in 1997. He also studied at Magdalen College, Oxford. Starting his career he worked as a journalist for the Financial Times and Time Magazine.

Aravind Adiga lives in Mumbai, India and has written three novels to date:
Last Man In Tower, published in 2011.
Between The Assassinations (short stories/essays) published in 2009.
The White Tiger, his début novel, published in 2008, has sold many copies in several countries – won the 2008 Man Booker Prize for fiction and will be made into a film.

The story of The White Tiger is narrated during the course of seven nights as a series of letters addressed to the Chinese Prime minister, Wen Jiabao, who was visiting India at the time. The narrator is the novel’s main protagonist, the astute, determined, hard working, Balram Halwai. The Chinese premier wants “to meet some Indian entrepreneurs and hear the story of their success from their own lips.”

Balram writes the letter to Wen Jiabao from his 150-square-foot office, which is the only one in Bangalore“with its own chandelier”. The letter is about Indian entrepreneurship and explains that, despite the servitude, destitution and corruption prevailing socially and politically in present-day India, there is still some integrity to be found and some hope for mankind.

Balram Halwai writes about how, according to his school teacher, despite being gifted with an intelligence as rare as the white tiger, he couldn’t pursue his studies. He is born into an impoverished family and has to do menial work in the village tea shop. Nevertheless, he aspires to a better future than his father, the rickshaw puller, who died of tuberculosis in extreme poverty.

The highly ambitious Balram tries to improve his status by becoming a driver/servant to a rich landlord from his village as a first step to climbing the ladder to a better life. He wants to prove that he is indeed a rare feline species, an atypical Indian who refuses to perpetuate or be part of the “Rooster Coop” establishment, as he calls it metaphorically. His aim is to break the Indian ingrained class boundaries taken for granted by society from top to bottom and find a way out of this ambit to freedom.

Throughout the narrative the story changes rapidly, especially after Balram travels with his employer to New Delhi. The big capital becomes more of an eye-opener for the countryman that he is and makes him firmer in his beliefs, while kindling his desire for a brighter life. He becomes a “Thinking Man”, a sort of a philosopher, a thief and a murderer, before ending up as an amoral, successful entrepreneur in Bangalore.

He fulfils his ambition by becoming the proud owner of a taxi service through his auspicious Machiavellian plan of killing his master and stealing his money to finance his long coveted project – the White Tiger by now knows the law of the jungle. Balram watches his employers and proves to be a fast learner and a good observer, he becomes aware that in a corrupt society bribes are the only means to a successful business.

There are two phases in the novel, two different worlds: the rural dreary “Darkness”, the name given to a grim and rustic small village where Balram spent his young years in poverty before moving with Ashok, the young son of his employer, to the stimulating “Light” of the vibrant capital, New Delhi. In New Delhi he finds to his amazement the same constrained opportunities in the conventional, “Rooster Coop”. The wide breach he left behind, impersonated in the masters and chauffeurs/servants, is whirling around him. Even in this big city there is no escaping from class hierarchies and injustice.

The author is describing the current India and the considerable differences between the poor, backward rural areas and the advanced big cities. Through his writing the reader can detect his indignation, exasperation and concern about this important problem which might lead to an explosion one day if it is not addressed soon.

Aravind Adiga, tackles an array of subjects about Indian society. There is the caste system, the multiple religions and sects, the family ties and duties, democracy, corruption and advanced technology.

Balram Halwai, the main character, is interesting, witty and captivating, despite cool-bloodedly murdering his employer who treated him well. Nevertheless, in spite of his grim future in an unjust society maintained by the conservative mentality of people, is his act justified or even excusable? Couldn’t he find another way to attain his bid for autonomy without resorting to drastic measures? Knowing that reprisals will be swift on his family who will be killed because of his deed, as is customary in his village, are we to look upon him as a utopian, a rebel, a visionary or a common ruthless rogue, a social Machiavellian climber?

Through his main, cynical protagonist, the author is addressing the imperative future adjustments that have to be made in India, between the haves and the have nots. The well-being of citizens needs to be part of the economic prosperity of a country, as Balram says very succinctly to Wen Jiabao: “Never before in human history have so few owed so much to so many”.

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