Tag-Archive for ◊ wars ◊

Author:
• Saturday, December 13th, 2014

Amitav Ghosh was born in 1956 into a middle-class Bengali Hindu family in Calcutta, India, to a lieutenant colonel father and a housewife mother. He grew up in India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. He received a B.A. degree in 1976 and an M.A. degree in 1978 from the University of Delhi followed by a Ph.D. in social anthropology from the University of Oxford in 1982. As well as working as a newspaper reporter and editor, Ghosh also taught at the University of Delhi, the American University in Cairo, Columbia University in New York City and Queens College in New York.

Amitav Ghosh is a novelist, an essayist and a non-fiction writer. He has received prestigious awards including the Prix Médicis étranger, The Padma Shri, the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the Frankfurt International e-Book Award and he has been short-listed for the Man Booker Prize and for the Man Asian Literary Prize. The Shadow Lines, Ghosh’s second novel, published in 1988, won the Sahitya Akademi Award and the Ananda Puraskar.

Ghosh is now a full-time writer. He lives between the USA and India with his wife Deborah Baker,
who is a biographer, an essayist and a senior editor at Little Brown and Company, a publishing house in the USA. The couple have two children.

The Shadow Lines is set against a historical background that moves back and forth from the second world war in England to the nineteen-sixties in India, leading to the eighties and interwoven with the fictitious lives of the characters. The author tackles a specific theme: the power of memory, the art of remembering almost everything and how one can travel, virtually, to various places through one’s memories. The writer brings together, through the main nameless character, various periods of time and series of events experienced by generations of the family and friends in Calcutta, Dhaka and London.

Events start decades before the narrator’s birth and end on the eve of his return from London to Delhi. After becoming a mature young man and after studying in London for one year, he comes to terms with the fact that there is no longer hope of having his beautiful cousin, Ila, share his love now that she is married to Nick and madly in love with him despite their misfitted marriage. Before leaving London the narrator also finds out from May, Tridib’s lover and Mrs Price’s daughter, the truth about the mysterious death of his elder cousin and mentor, Tridib, while visiting Dhaka during the Bangladeshi revolt.

Tridib is a great story-teller, through his tales of London and various other topics like “Mesopotamian stelae, East European jazz, the habits of arboreal apes, the plays of Garcia Lorca, there seem to be no end to things he could talk about”, make everything real for his younger cousin. Both cousins are gifted with vivid memories, an acute sense of perception of the past as well as a strong desire to learn new things to feed their imagination. Additionally, the narrator’s grandmother, through her many stories about Dhaka, where she was born before settling in Calcutta, has “no home but in her memory” and she makes the narrator feel as if he was there with her.

The narrator realises, while sitting on the edge of a camp bed in the cellar back in Raibajar with his beloved cousin, Ila, surrounded by objects that carry a lot of memories, like ghosts of time, that “they were not ghosts at all: the ghostliness was merely the absence of time and distance – for that is all that a ghost is, a presence displaced in time”.

The Shadow Lines is a compassionate, powerfully moving novel in many ways. Ghosh masterfully expresses his thoughts in his eloquent writing. His characters are well depicted in an interesting, vast array of individuality. The narrator is a passionately imaginative recorder of the events and lives of people around him. The young Tridib is an idle, avid, multifarious intellectual. Ila is portrayed as a spoiled, beautiful young bohemian seeking complete freedom in her new world and although born an upper-class Indian, feels devoid of identity. Tha’mma’s husband dies when she is thirty two years old and in order to survive, she works for twenty seven years as a schoolmistress in Calcutta. She is hard working and authoritarian unlike her only sister, Mayadebi, who is richly married and referred to ironically as “Queen Victoria” by her elder sister. There is also the very old friends of Tridib’s family, Mrs Price, and her two children, May and Nick.

The violence in Dhaka and Calcutta described subtly by Ghosh and shown as incomprehensible and aberrant brutality, as in the violent death of the innocent Tridib, sadly still exists today in many other places of the world, e.g. in Syria, Iraq, Ukraine, Libya, Israel, Yemen and Bahrain. In his novel, Ghosh describes shadow lines that create a seemingly unbridgeable gap producing bloodshed. These lines leave their shadows wherever they happen to be. They are irrationally man-made in order to divide people and separate countries artificially. While wars, religions, partitions and violence alienate people and nations, at least the power of memory combined with imagination keeps them united.

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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.