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The Magic of Turquoise
by Mai Khaled
Translated by Marwa Elnaggar
Published by the American University in Cairo Press, Cairo, 2011. Hbk, 104pp,
ISBN 978 977 416 504 7
Life in the balance
This is the fourth novel by Egyptian writer, radio and TV journalist and translator Mai Khaled, and the first to appear in English translation. It was originally published in Arabic in 2006 by Dar Sharqiyat as Sihr al-Tirkwaz. The novel’s translator Marwa Elnaggar was born in Ethiopia to Egyptian parents and has lived in numerous countries. She is a freelance copy editor, journalist, consultant and writer. Her translation of The Magic of Turquoise – a text that is suffused with colour, light, emotion and memory – is sensitive and flows easily. It is her first published translation of an Arabic novel and one of 22 titles, translated by 17 translators, submitted for the 2012 Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation, due to be awarded in February 2013.
At fewer than 100 pages of text, the book is more a novella than a novel. It takes the form of the interior monologues of a young Egyptian woman, Leila, and her paternal aunt Nirvana (known as Nunu), presented in alternating chapters. The novel opens at a moment of life-threatening crisis. Nunu has suffered a catastrophic blow to the head from a speedboat propeller while diving in the waters off Alexandria and lies in hospital in a coma. Her niece is consumed by guilt, suspecting that Nunu’s dive was a suicide attempt for which Leila was in some way responsible.
From this dramatic beginning, the author traces the relationship between aunt and niece. Leila’s monologue is frequently addressed to her aunt, and is full of questions as she tries to unravel her aunt’s history and what has led her to put her life in the balance.
Nunu, lying in her coma, relives in her monologues her encounters with a handsome young Egyptian named Muhannad, whom she met in 1984, when she was a medical student on a trip to the Bavarian Alps as part of an Egyptian delegation. By that time she had already signed a marriage contract with her cousin Tarek.
Muhannad is, like Nunu, entranced by colours and their spiritual connotations. In his case, the colours are those of the jewels in his jeweller grandfather’s now-closed workshop and store, in which he had grown up. Nunu and Muhannad engage in a holiday romance which, though fleeting and impossible, retains much significance for Nunu.
Leila feels stigmatised within her father’s family as the daughter of a woman who was an outsider. The family curse the day her father went against tradition and married a girl who was related by neither blood nor marriage. To add to the family’s negative view of the mother, she removed Leila from the convent school where she was struggling with the family’s favoured science subjects and transferred her to the humanities section of another school.
Nunu was the only member of the family to whom Leila’s mother had confided her due date to give birth to Leila in September 1987. With no daughter of her own, Nunu has felt a special bond with Leila since her birth.
The Magic of Turquoise is in part an interesting experiment in expressing through words the connections between memory and the experience of colours art, jewellery and nature. Nunu has artistic leanings, and inwardly vibrates to the colours in the world around her. But rather than following a career as a painter she fell in line with family expectations and went to medical school and then worked as a biology school teacher. As her family had always planned, she married Tarek.
Nunu has given Leila the sketchbook in which she painted when young, and she explains the meanings and family history that lie behind the colours and compositions of her pictures. She is keen that, unlike her, Leila should follow her inner voice: “Take flight now, with your uniqueness and individuality, without escaping far from me . . .”
In the days leading up to her possibly fatal dive, Nunu had been encouraging Leila to audition for an acting workshop at the Center for Creativity in Cairo. But Leila fled the audition without ascending the stage. She explained that she “felt empty inside”, but she was secretly worried that the director, Hazem, might see “my lack of talent”. Nunu persuaded Hazem to give Leila a second chance. But on the day on which she is due to have a new audition, at 7pm, Leila decides to takes the bus to Alexandria.
Nunu reacts with tears when she sees Leila and realises she does not intend go to the fresh audition. She is also disappointed that Leila has not yet read a certain significant email she has sent her. It is after this that she dives deep into the sea. With Nunu lying comatose, Leila vows that she will after all attend the audition, and will perform brilliantly for Hazem. The reader may get the impression that the dreams and expectations of artistic fulfilment that Nunu projects onto Leila are at times too much for the niece to bear.