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by Bahaa Taher
Winner of the inaugural International Prize for Arabic Fiction, awarded on 9 March 2008
Published by Dar Al-Shorooq, Cairo, 2007
Dealing with a patriarchal past
Adding a powerful new work to an ever-expanding post-colonial Arab literature, Bahaa Taher’s latest novel Wahat al-Ghuroub [Sunset Oasis] evokes various aspects of the late 19th-century Egyptian social, cultural and political life under British rule. All is blended in the main character of this “Arabic Booker Prize winner” and beautifully written work. Mahmoud Afandy is an Egyptian official working for the British administration in Cairo when he is posted as the local governor to the remote village and oasis of Siyouh, almost 800 km from Cairo and close to the borders of Libya. The classical milieu of “life under colonialism” is present here: the callousness of the occupier, the collaboration of both the Egyptian upper class and the remnants of the Turkish khedives with the British occupation, the resistance of the poor and the patriotism of the middle class, the dreams of revolution and independence and the shattered personalities of those who find themselves in the middle of this web of relationships, trying to appease conflicting parties and survive the looming conflicts. Mahmoud belongs to the stratum of people particularly conflict-ridden, those who are unable to make up their mind. They neither join the resistance nor do they collaborate with the coloniser. They lose on both fronts, alas, miserably tormented by their own indecisiveness. The plot depicts the complexities of individual choices in a coloniser/ colonised situation, in which the truely traumatised people are those who suffer from “middle-ness”, who are caught in between choices.
Mahmoud’s “middle-ism” goes back to his youth. Coming from a well-off family he experienced various tastes of life, and found himself always at confusing and sometimes destructive cross-roads. When Egypt was erupting against the Khedive Ismail, Mahmoud was comfortably attending one of the elitist schools in Cairo, paying little attention to what was happening beyond its walls. On several days of the month he would accompany his father to the long spiritual Sufi dancing prayers which he adored. Several other nights of the month he would lead a wild nightlife with women and drink: “middling” between being a pious man and a sinner. He worked for the British-controlled government, but his heart was with the Urabi revolution against it: “middling” again, between collaboration and patriotism. Mahmoud’s “middle-ism” is negatively different from “centrism”. It is a lame standing between choices; a lack of decisiveness, the same decisiveness that Mahmoud sees practised by others and envies them for. In the beginning he might be very enthusiastic to do this or that, yet by halfway through any endeavour, his will and focus wanes. He loses the beginning as well as the end. He is always pulled in opposite directions, subjected to various “fathers”. These “fathers” control his life, strip him of any self-determination or power, rendering him impotent, unable to either “kill” or “follow” any of these “fathers” fully and resolutely.
Mahmoud’s past started to traumatise him from the moment Mr Harvey, his superior in Cairo, appointed him governor of Siyouh. The appointment was in fact a tacit punishment for Mahmoud who, despite his professional services to the British, had committed a couple of silly mistakes that were enough to put his loyalty in doubt. With no influential ”contact” around the British who could put in a good word for him, Mahmoud resigns himself to his fatal assignment. Mahmoud’s surrender encapsulates the crippled will and disillusionment of groups of “Egyptian civil servants” who had thought that their dedication to the occupiers would garner for them a source of self-identification and social legitimacy. Mr Harvey’s instructions to Mahmoud on how to deal with Siyouh’s people were blunt. He warns him not to interfere in the endless internal battles between the tribes: “These battles are part of their life and they are free in what they do to themselves.” Interference is advised however, Mr Harvey adds, only when it is deemed it will change the outcome of a certain battle and is to be used as a means of control over the potential victor. In such cases, the imperialist lesson is continuous, and it is best to avoid siding with any one party for a long time. Keep shifting your support between the factions and in this way you will prevail. “And don’t forget that your first mission is to collect taxes . . . a difficult mission, as you know . . . but survival will teach you politics” .
Before he sets out on his fateful journey to Siyouh, Mahmoud drowns in his “middle-ism” past. He mutters his own repulsion at himself, but the most effective power controlling him is his inability to revolt against the course of life that overwhelms him in the flow of things rather than choose a course of conscious resolution. The unrelenting surrenders of his past taunt him at the moment he moves on into his surrendering present. He sees the future-surrendering destination of this present and that past and yet can do nothing to change it. Behind the smart professional suits and his English-like appearance lies a shaky defeated man waiting for the rope to be put around his neck without any resistance.
Once in Siyouh Mahmoud is ordered to collect heavy taxes from poor peasants. This is a vile and dangerous job to do in such a place and time. His predecessor was killed by angry locals, whose revulsion to Cairo and its changing ruling elites multiplies in accordance with the amount of levies the elites impose on Siyouh. The main trajectory of the novel has thus been set forth: the fate of Mahmoud in facing the dilemma of fulfilling the mission and not getting killed. Yet an auxiliary line of events in the novel keeps lurking in the margins in a surprising and sometimes irritating manner. This plotline surrounds an obsession with the Pharaonic and Greek past of Egypt as expressed by Katherine, Mahmoud’s Irish wife, and later Wasfi, Mahmoud’s deputy and would-be replacement in Siyouh. It is not an obsession that is confined to reading books and scrutinising old scrolls, but more destructively stretches to the surrendering of the present to a nostalgia for the past and its patriarchal authority. Katherine and Wasfi, although sharing this common interest in the past, differ as to where they each are coming from with this obsession and to what end. Wasfi, the young, ambitious, military officer who represents an emerging Egyptian generation, sees no sins in the British occupation of Egypt. He is inferior to them and believes that his people should be led to the door-step of civilisation and progress by the British. Wasfi has no answer to Mahmoud’s question that if the great Pharaohs exemplified Egyptian glory why do their grandsons and daughters not only fail to restore that glory but also accept being slaves of the British? But as we discover, Mahmoud himself is no less controlled by a patriarchal past, too.
A peculiar and perhaps most thrilling aspect of Siyouh is the old temples that link the place to the past glories. In this remote village Pharoanic and Greek paths had crossed. Not only that: Ares, the Greek God of war, had his temple there and the “mother of all myths” maintains that Alexander the Great himself was also buried there. It is said that his body was transported in a magisterial convoy from Alexandria in the northern part of Egypt to Siyouh to be laid next to his divine father, Ares. Although delving into these ancient myths does serve the tragic end of the novel, it also involves an apparent and unwarranted digression that could have been pruned.
While the central course of events continues to take place with and around Mahmoud and his internal and external conflicts, the irritating subplot involving Katherine’s (and Wasfi’s) obsession with the ancient past always looms on the horizon. However, what we have been made to think is marginal turns out to become, in the final tenth of the novel, the main plotline. In a swift and beautifully executed detour the past becomes the haunting reality of the present. We know that at this point Mahmoud has maintained the cynical opinion of his wife’s “meaningless” interest in Egypt’s past that he had held back in Cairo. Now he has grown more sarcastic of her daily excavations in the temples of the village to “prove” that Alexander was buried here. Her efforts (a blonde European lady wandering around those old places on her own) have brought disasters upon him. . The ultra-traditional men of Siyouh detested the woman and also suspected her intentions. Rumours had abounded for many decades that underneath these temples lay massive treasures. These European plunderers will not rest from hunting our treasures, such was the talk of the locals keeping an eye on Katherine, particularly after her sick sister joins her from Ireland in search of fresh desert air for a cure.
The “middle-ness” past of Mahmoud cripples him further in the shadow of his pro-active and decisive wife Katherine. When Mahmoud fell in love with her two years earlier he adored many things in her. Perhaps second to her beauty was her ingrained Irish hatred of the British, which clicked with his own similar feelings. But he also loved her forward-looking attitude to life, her sense of adventure and discovery, her attachment to Egypt and her fascination with its past. She loved his stature and gentlemanly stance, so unlike many other Egyptians who would ask to sleep with her the first time they met her.
Later on when Mahmoud becomes irritated by Katherine’s obsession with Egypt’s past there is something latent in his cynical comments about her work. Katherine is in control of her obsession with the past, unlike Mahmoud, who is under the control of his own past. She is not imprisoned by that past or by any other whereas he is tortured and enslaved by his own patriarchal past. On the surface it is Katherine who is tied to the past, searching out minute details, repeatedly clinging to her admiration of it; and Mahmoud is the one who disparages this past, declaring himself free from it. Yet in reality Katherine seeks the past with her feet firmly anchored in the present and even the future. She wants to be the one who proves that Alexander is buried in Siyouh, to assure her name in the future. She visits the past as a wondering tourist. In contrast, Mahmoud, and worse than him his junior Wasfi, are tied clinically to the past. Their “father” is in the deep past, where “he” enshrined glory, conquered territories, built magnificent pyramids, then was laid with dignity and satisfaction in a tomb whose door was left open to the future. From that door “he” can oversee the doings of his own sons and grandsons. “He” watches them from afar, from the deep past, and they watch him back, always looking back, their eyes vigilantly fixed on “him”, not on their present or future. They yearn for “him”, the past, when they fail in their present, or feel unable to venture into a new future. The fatherly past is the source of warmth to which they frequently resort. Only when embraced by that father do they feel safe.
The father-past of governor Mahmoud, along with his crippling “middle-ness” past, becomes more shattering and destructive when Mahmoud sees that “father” clearly materialised in Wasfi’s obsession. When Katherine and Wasfi reach a peak in their excavations to prove that the temple of Siyouh is indeed the place where the glorious past, Alexander the Great, is buried, Mahmoud’s tormented present-past explodes. He needs to break that link once and for all. He plants explosives in and around the temple, surrenders himself in the middle of it, and sets off the explosives, destroying the past in his own present. He kills his “father” past and kills himself as well.