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Peter Clark reviews
by Gamal el-Ghitani
Translated by Farouk Abdel Wahab with Foreword by Edward Said
The American University in Cairo Press, Cairo and New York, 2004. ISBN 977 424 872 4
A World of Menace and Uncertainty
Zayni Barakat has been one of the most successful contemporary Egyptian novels. First published in the magazine Rose al-Yusif when the author was in his mid-twenties, it came out in book form four years later in 1974. This translation, by Farouk Abdel Wahab, was first published by Viking in 1988, and then by Penguin in 1990. It is now republished by the American University in Cairo Press with a new Foreword by the late Edward Said.
The novel is set in Cairo in the early sixteenth century, in the last years of Mamluk Egypt, just before the Ottoman conquest in 1517. The action takes place in the context of political instability and within an oppressive police state. Zayni Barakat is a senior official in charge of the markets of the capital, and of much else. His deputy, Zakariyya ibn Radi, has an army of spies who keep an eye on everybody including Zayni Barakat. Events are seen through the perspectives of a number of characters: Azhar students who earn a little extra by spying on colleagues, sheikhs, spies and the senior officials themselves. Narrative chapters are interspersed with apparently public announcements and decrees. The reader is drawn into a world of menace and uncertainty: political power may suddenly collapse; no person is safe from arbitrary arrest or torture. The People of Egypt must work out strategies for survival within a broader Islamic cultural environment and, for the majority, a subsistence economy.
Some of the characters are based on real people – including Zayni Barakat. Gamal al-Ghitani studied the chronicles and histories of late Mamluk times, especially Ibn Iyas and Makrizi. Some characters are creations, including Zakariyya, a chilling though resourceful, and inventive, chief of the secret police.
It is possible to see the novel as a coded commentary of Egypt in the 1960s, with Gamel Abdel Nasser’s heavy security apparatus. Torture and state security espionage become an art form. Official decrees start with the noble objective of enjoining what is right and forbidding what is wrong. European visitors are treated with suspicion, and there is a constant military threat from the north.
But the enduring popularity of the novel suggests it is more than a document of the times. There are echoes of Kafka. The individual, at whatever level of society, has limited control over his destiny, his economic security or his personal liberty. But, in Zayni Barakat, it is difficult to see where authority does lie. It is as if, as in Nasser’s Egypt, a system has taken over with a momentum of its own, often cruel, occasionally benevolent, always subtle.
This novel has a relevance that goes beyond the last days of Mamluk Cairo or the Egypt of Gamel Abdel Nasser.