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Moon over Samarqand
by Mohamed Mansi Qandil
The American University in Cairo Press, Cairo and New York, 2009 414pp
The taxi-driver and the General
Mohamed Mansi Qandil is both a travel writer and a novelist, and in Moon over Samarqand he uses his talents in both these areas to beguiling effect. The novel recounts the adventures in Uzbekistan of an Egyptian, Ali, as he seeks the Uzbek general who was his father’s best friend when he was a Soviet adviser in Egypt. Ali wants to ask the general some questions about his father, who held important positions in the military and intelligence but who died in suspicious circumstances after falling out with the Sadat regime over the 1979 peace treaty with Israel.
While searching in Tashkent for a taxi to take him to General Rashidov’s home city of Samarqand, Ai is taken under the wing of an aged taxi driver, Nurallah. The ebullient Nurallah speaks Arabic and has been more than once to Egypt, for reasons which become apparent only later.
Ali is a lost, lonely character. “Why this trip? What am I searching for? Or rather what am I fleeing?” he asks himself. He had a love-hate relationship with his father, whose position in the regime meant that Ali was regarded with suspicion by many of his peers.
Around the central thread of Ali’s “haphazard journey”, Qandil weaves a multi-stranded narrative of incident, history, eroticism and legend amidst the landscape and great cities of Central Asia. His themes include the rise of Islamism in recent times in Egypt and Central Asia and government crackdowns on militants. Qandil’s writing, in a lively translation by Jennifer Peterson, is robust and poetic. Nurallah is one in a series of memorably drawn characters; they include Ali’s first lover in Cairo, the depressive widowed painter Fayza al-Tuhami who has been sexually abused by her colonel father.
Qandil was born in the Egyptian Delta city of al-Mahalla al- Kubra in 1949 and is the author of several published novels, short story collections and children’s books, and lives in Kuwait where he is a travel writer and literary critic for the cultural magazine al- Arabi. It was while on assignment in Uzbekistan for al-Arabi that he met the taxi driver who became the inspiration for Nurallah.
Moon over Samarqand was published in Arabic as Qamar ‘ala Samarqand in 2004, and won the best novel prize from the Sawiris Foundation Award for Social Development in 2006. Qandil’s standing as a novelist was enhanced further when another novel, A Cloudy Day on the West Side, was shortlisted in 2010 for the prestigious International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF – often known as the ‘Arabic Booker’).
Moon over Samarqand has four sections. The first, Tales of the Steppe, is narrated by Ali and tells of his initial escapades with the unpredictable Nurallah. As Samarqand “glimmers on the horizon” Nurallah takes Ali on a detour to the tomb of Imam al-Bukhari – where Ali is surprised to find the taxi driver being revered as “our lord and master”.
The novel’s second section,Tales of Bukhara, tells Nurallah’s life story. He studied at Mir Arab, the famous madrasa of Bukhara, before the Soviets closed it and banned the use of Arabic. After Stalin died and the school reopened, the Soviet commissioner allowed Nurallah back as long as he agreed to become an informer. He rose in the official administration of Central Asian Muslims, and travelled with a delegation of Soviet Muslims to Egypt where he pleaded in vain with President Nasser for the life of Muslim Brotherhood ideologue Sayyid Qutb. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Islamist militants pushed for an Islamic state. Nurallah refused to issue a fatwa describing them as apostates and was banished as a result. He now lives from driving his taxi. “I roam, fleeing to cities, living mostly on their margins and sometimes in their centers, but paying the price everywhere.”
In Tales of Samarqand, the novel’s third section, Ali finds Rashidov. But the general and his wife are submerged in sorrow over the loss of their daughter Nadia to “a gang of bastards who rule the night in this city”. Ali undertakes to look for Nadia, and is helped to comb the seedy Russian nightclub area of the city by a young woman Tayf who works in his hotel and who becomes his lover.
Ali’s story, the novel’s final section, takes us back to his youth in Egypt and to his desertion by his mother and his painful relationship with his father. In this section Qandil presents an absorbing portrait of the generation of Egyptians that came of age in the wake of the defeats of 1967 and 1973. Some turn to Islamist extremism (at one point Ali is taken hostage by a cell of Islamist rebels at military college), others are involved in political demonstrations, and a number, like Fayza, seek release through art, or descend into depression.
In its concluding pages the novel returns to Nurallah and Ali and their car journey across the vast darkness of the steppe. Ali may not have received answers to the questions he started out with, but he has made many other discoveries in his odyssey.