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Taming the ogre
Published in Ahram Online on 26 - 01 - 2021

The winner of the 2020 Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Fiction for her ground-breaking Mamluk centered novel, Awlad Al-Naas, Reem Bassiouney has maintained her high profile in the literary world by rapidly producing another brilliant historical novel, Sabeel Al-Ghariq. The timeline of the new book is more recent. It opens in the final decades of the 19th century and moves into the early years of the 20th, the key events shaping this period being the construction of the Suez Canal and subsequent British occupation of Egypt, as well as Khedive Ismail's legacy of modernisation which brings in its wake a radically changing social scene. To say the least, this mesh of events was regarded by many as nothing short of an ogre.
Alexandria is being bombarded by the British as the European power claims its pound of flesh for debts owed for the building of the Suez Canal. Debts in this narrative thus become a running thread. The national debt is intertwined with and underscored by many other debts, some real and some imagined, some social, some domestic, some overwhelmingly moral.
The captured historical moment is of an Egypt at a crossroads. Politically, the country is on the brink of 70 years of British occupation, but British canon fire is met with fierce resistance led by Ahmed Orabi. While the political and military struggles rage on, a swirl of time-honoured traditions and norms are imperceptibly being questioned and transformed by the incoming Europeanising influences. Slavery as a legitimate practice has been terminated. Budding journalism is bringing with it a new form of documentation and knowledge. Money changes hands in new ways as a thriving cotton trade, in an increasingly cosmopolitan city, becomes a new and unexplored source of wealth. The first school for girls is established, initiating a rising awareness of the role of women empowered by education. Meanwhile, Cairo's architecture is being refashioned to reflect the increasingly visible ethos of a European city. As always in a Bassiouney novel, the voiceover as it were is of a bewildered collective narrator. Nonetheless, nationalists like the pioneer Jewish journalist Yaqub Sanu and the Muslim Sheikh Mohamed Abdou – standing at two ends of the spectrum – are asserting the power of the incoming tide in unison.
Against this minutely researched historical backdrop, a domestic drama is played out. In the foreground is Bassiouney's favoured character, a fearless, forward-looking, bold and audacious female, fighting for her rights and using a discourse that is futuristic rather than contemporary. Galila is a 19th-century Egyptian feminist who flies in the face of tradition by becoming a student, then a teacher, at Al-Suyofeya – later known as Al-Saneya – the first girls' school created by Ismail Pasha. Spurning marriage, Galila nonetheless finds herself embroiled in an unlikely but reciprocal and passionate relationship with her dedicated black servant-slave, Hassan – an impossible romance. In the midst of political and social turmoil, she makes a calculated gamble by clandestinely marrying Hassan, and the marriage, although fraught with scepticism and social rejection, becomes a legendary union.
Ambitious in its scope, this novel is certainly more than just a fictional rendering of a historical moment. Rather, it is a curious concoction of history, folklore, and prphecy. Built on paradox and equivocation, the allegorical dimension of this multifarious novel is struck as a keynote with the frame story of the avatar, Al-Shater Hassan, whose obvious namesake is the protagonist. Having lost his dream of possessing the daughter of Sultan Al-Ghuri, Al-Shater Hassan builds a sabeel, which people later name Sabeel Al-Ghariq, as a memorial to his defeat and despair. This despair is mirrored by the sultan's own defeat at the hands of the Portuguese, who monopolise maritime trade via the discovery of the Cape of Good Hope. This catastrophic loss of power and wealth, uniting both Mamluks and the Venetians, is given further depth through the interpolation of an imaginary correspondence belonging to the historical Venetian trader, Francesco Teldi.
Although water remains the most prevalent image, referring to life-giving springs and waterways, to rites of passage, streams and crossings, human existence remains ruthlessly intractable. Despite the factual postscript and documentary photos, riddles, equivocation and ambiguity ultimately clinch the narrative. This text is peppered with Sufi and mystical aphorisms, all pointing to the futility of the quest for certainty. The restless reader is only left with the precarious trajectory of defeat and victory, of sanity and insanity, of the known and the unknown.
Written in lucid and lyrical Arabic, this is the work of a virtuoso of literary technique, combining meticulously researched realist detail with captivating discourse. Evocative of a rich past, and combining the timely with the timeless, this compelling text can easily be adapted to the silver screen.
Reviewed by Nazek Fahmy
*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 January, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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