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Book review: Randa Shaath's autobiography explores the link between soul and place
Published in Ahram Online on 28 - 02 - 2020

Gabal El-Raml (“The Sandy Hill”), Randa Shaath, ElKarma Books, 2020
It is a long and truly breathtaking journey of so many going-and-coming-back trips that the author surrenders to under a stream of consciousness, whereby she is chasing her own soul in the memories she has accumulated through the years in so many places.
In her book, Shaath writes that she would not mind for someone to write of a place out of touch with that place. Not in her case, as she comes to admit right away. Like all her photos, which have long championed the illusive shades and impressions that a black-and-white picture prompts, Shaath is deeply immersed in a relationship with a place.
In this close to 200-page book, which includes a selection of uncaptioned black-and-white photos, Shaath recalls the places rather than the incidents or even the memories around the places.
It is perhaps the adjacent venues that these places engraved on her own heart that decide the beginning and the end of the story; and, for that matter, the length that each place is allowed space in The Sandy Hill.
The centrepiece is clearly her maternal grandmother's house in Al-Mandara, a seaside venue in Alexandria that, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, was the vacationing venue for the foreign communities of the harbour city. It was a house that was built by a passionate grandfather who Shaath herself never knew, and it was kept alive for 93 years, the age at which Fatemmah, her beloved grandmother, passed away.
It is at the house in Al-Mandara that Shaath spent what she does not call the happiest years of her life. And it is by the sandy hill in the yard of this house that was full of love, cooking, and neatly tied linen and bedspreads that Shaath developed the first of many attachments to particular spots.
Indeed, for years she wrote that the whole of Alexandria was nothing but Al-Mandara.
Al-Mandara takes over even from Garden City, where she lived with her parents, moving from one apartment to the other while building affection and connection to a particular rooftop or a particular grocery store.
Beirut is there, on the eve of the civil war and after. Algiers is there at the end tail of the ten years of horror of the 1990s.
Gaza and Ramallah are there again and again – with houses that defy the heavy and aggressive Israeli presence.
But it is particularly Al-Mandara and its sandy hill that seem to be the point of reference for Shaath as she tells a story of a woman who was born in the early 1960s to an Egyptian mother and a Palestinian father.
It might be the binding love of a maternal grandmother that had always been there for a preferred granddaughter. It might be the aimless rejoicing that is only possible when one is young and carefree. It might be that particular longing for family gatherings that she developed in that house and kept carrying in her heart.
In the end, the maternal grandmother is gone and the house of Al-Mandara is demolished, as the family succumbs to the violent presence of thugs who would not leave a house that was there for Shaath to dream of when she was running away with her family from a civil war, when she had to lose her mother in a tragic car accident, when she was fearing for colleagues who were on the street taking photos during the 18 days of the January Revolution, or when she was stepping out of a marriage of love that had kept going for 20 years.
Shaath's book is a soul-searching trip that prompts the reader to think of the places of the heart.


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