Zuzana Kratka reviews

Maryam’s Maze

by Mansoura Ez-Eldin

AUC Press, 2007 ISBN 978-1-84659-025-2 pbk 154pp

Dreams and Reality, Memory and Forgetting

Maryam’s Maze
is the first novel by a young Egyptian woman writer, Mansoura Ez-Eldin. Writing about the life of an individual, emotions, inner thoughts, the relation between dreams and reality and their impact on human psychology, Mansoura Ez-Eldin belongs to the generation of new Egyptian writing that tackles the issues of individualty rather than those of society as a whole, marking them out from classic Egyptian authors such as Naguib Mahfouz, Yusuf Idris or Mahmoud Taymour. Mansoura Ez-Eldin began writing short stories in newspapers and magazines before publishing her first short story collection Shaken Light (2001), and now her debut novel Maryam’s Maze (published in Arabic by Merit Publishing in 2004). Born in 1976 in a small town in the Egyptian Delta, Mansoura Ez-Eldin graduated in journalism from Cairo University in 1998 and started her career working for Egyptian TV, progressively moving into press journalism, where she presently works as Reviews Editor of the weekly Akhbar al-Adab [Literary News].

Focusing on relations between dreams and reality, on the one hand, and, on the other, memory and forgetting, with a particular focus on women, Maryam’s Maze builds on Ez-Eldin’s short story writing. Concentrating on the internal life of her heroine, Maryam, Ez-Eldin seeks to capture the feelings and experiences of a young girl unable to distinguish clearly between dream and reality and who has lost consciousness of time and space. The narrative starts with the scene of Maryam dreaming about going to El-Tagi’s palace, the place where she grew up, and feeling that there is a ghost girl, her alter ego walking beside her. When they enter the palace together, its former inhabitants appear as ghosts before they all disappear leaving nothing but blood stains behind them. The scene finishes with Maryam’s ghost-like alter ego stabbing the real Maryam, who then wakes up from this terrifying nightmare only to discover that she is no longer in the hostel where she went to bed the night before, but in a flat that belonged to her grandmother a long ago. The reader is then taken on a journey of Maryam’s sparse memories in which she attempts to re-establish her past – ‘I’m nobody,’ said Maryam, […] Maryam felt that she had been reduced to nothingness. She no longer had any physical existence to fill a space in the void. From this moment on, she had to face the world like someone experiencing life for the first time.

Interested in feminism, but also in the human body, as she acknowledged in an interview for Camden New Journal in 2006, made while on the Banipal Live UK tour, Ez-Eldin offers her readers numerous flashback insights into relationships between individuals and their bodies. Maryam’s mother Narges, for example, is described as a woman who feels she was forced to abandon her dreams and her ambitions for marriage and family life, a woman too focused on herself and in love with the body of her eighteen-year-old self, who found pregnancy [with Maryam] a painful and negative experience.Maryam’s Maze is a novel that stands out not only for its content, but also because of its structure.

Each chapter begins with fragments from the story of El-Tagi, Maryam’s ancestor who founded the family and built the palace to which most of the narrative is linked. Besides this intertextual feature, each chapter opener carries a symbol, which is then demonstrated in the narrative of the novel itself. For instance, in the sixth chapter we can find a parallel between apricot trees in El-Tagi’s garden and Maryam . . . the small trees would grow until they reached a certain stage, then stop. And we learn about Maryam’s upbringing and education, how despite being a very gifted child in science subjects, Maryam couldn’t reach minimum marks in others, and as a result had to make alternative choices in her studies and life.

The novel has now been made available to the English language readership in a remarkable translation by Paul Starkey, who is professor of Arabic at the University of Durham and translator of a number of Arabic novels into English. Starkey has also written widely on the subject of Arabic literature, most recently authoring Modern Arabic Literature (EUP, Edinburgh, 2006). Maryam’s Maze is an intriguing, intellectually challenging and yet very enjoyable piece of writing. It can be read, re-read and read again from many different angles, bringing each time new views and opening new perspectives. Highly recommended.

Mansoura Ez-Eldin

Paul Starkey

From Banipal 30 - Autumn/Winter 2007

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