Sunset OasisBahaa Taher (trans. Humphrey Davies). McClelland & Stewart. 320pp.
For more on Sunset Oasis, read M. Lynx Qualey’s interview with the book’s translator, Humphrey Davies, in this issue of The Quarterly Conversation.
The International Prize for Arabic Fiction, the so-called “Arabic Booker,” did not send the reading public into Nobel-like shock when it awarded its inaugural prize in 2008. The first IPAF went, perhaps predictably, to one of the reigning giants of Arab literature.
It was awarded to Egypt’s Bahaa Taher for his novel Sunset Oasis, which has just been published in English. (Though the book has a Canadian publisher, it is as yet unpublished in the United States.) Taher has not written many novels in his seventy-four years—this was his sixth—but most have been powerful and widely read works, particularly his Aunt Safiyya and the Monastery, published in 1991.
Sunset Oasis, which appeared in Arabic in 2006, takes place in the remote Siwa Oasis, where few other novels have tread. Siwa is now a fully Arabic-speaking, tourist-hosting part of Egypt, but, at the time when Sunset Oasis is set, Siwa was a very different place—back then, Siwis closely guarded their language, their secrets, and their borders.
The novel explores the story of the fictionalized Mahmoud Abd el Zahir, who is sent to Siwa as District Commissioner at the end of the 19th century. Mahmoud must bring Siwa under control and collect their back taxes—a thankless task, and one for which the previous District Commissioner was killed. Mahmoud is accompanied by his Irish wife, Catherine, who is thrilled at the chance to come nearer to little-seen antiquities. The story unfolds in a series of first-person fragments, most of which are told by Catherine or Mahmoud.
Despite the fragmentation, the book does have an over-arching narrative line—Mahmoud arrives in Siwa, where he and his antiquities-hungry wife stir passions and trouble—but Taher is not afraid to step back from this line to explore the book’s themes: Orientalism, the possibility or impossibility of heroism, revision, and social control. As Taher told the magazine Egypt Today, “themes are the basic units of this novel,” and, in fact, if the book’s characters could be reduced to their thematic atoms—which, in truth, they cannot—Mahmoud would be the hero for whom heroism is impossible. His wife, Catherine, would be the Orientalist in love with dead history, people be damned.
The Siwis, then, would be the hoi polloi. They are a doubly colonized people, first by the Egyptians and second by the Egyptians’ overseers, the British. The Siwis also exert strict internal controls on their own people, particularly on the thematic atom of social rebellion, Maleeka.
* * *
When the book opens, both Catherine and Mahmoud see themselves as martyrs to their respective causes. Catherine’s cause is her own intellectual greatness. As she travels by caravan to the oasis, it seems to her that—with her superior knowledge of language and history—she will easily find the mark of Alexander the Great on the oasis. In the past, she believes, she was stifled by her first husband. This is her chance to triumph.
Mahmoud sees himself as a martyr to Ahmed Urabi’s failed nationalist revolt, and when he is sent to Siwa it seems the posting must be punishment for some defiantly nationalist stance. In the opening pages, Mahmoud confronts his odious British overseer, Mr. Harvey. If Mahmoud doesn’t outwardly rebel, he does have some excellent mental retorts to Harvey’s smarmy colonialist line.
Despite the fact that he bravely brought wounded Alexandrians to the hospital during the British siege of 1882, Mahmoud is dogged by doubt. Midway through the book, he sees a large stone falling toward a Siwi boy—also named Mahmoud—and the Commissioner hesitates. A sergeant rushes past him and saves the boy. Mahmoud’s hesitation is fatal neither for the boy nor for the sergeant, but it forces him to revisit the way he’s placed himself in his life story. After all, mightn’t he be a coward? Didn’t he freeze rather than save the boy? Didn’t he deny Urabi after the revolt? Didn’t he grovel to the British in order to keep his position?
The more details that appear, the more mixed Mahmoud’s picture becomes, the more anti-hero that appears. He is markedly uncomfortable with the mixture. He wants to either be pure evil—like his subordinate Captain Wasfi—or pure good, like Catherine’s sister, Fiona: “The problem is precisely you, my dear major! It’s no good in this world being half good and half bad, half a patriot and half a traitor, half brave and half a coward, half a believer and half a womanizer.”
But while Mahmoud is cut to all-too-human size—part good and more bad, some patriot and more a traitor—his wife Catherine is cut to less. She single-mindedly pursues her intellect, but then, perhaps, is not so smart after all. She violates social norms to get in touch with the Siwis, but then, perhaps, doesn’t care for them much.
Things come to a head when Maleeka, the oasis’s atom of rebellion, breaks through social taboos and makes contact with Catherine. Maleeka is the most attractive of the book’s characters, infused as she is with a rebellious spirit and true curiosity. But Maleeka appears fleetingly, and is gone.
* * *
Because of his failings in the oasis, Mahmoud must continually revise his picture of himself further and further from hero status, until he ends the book as a destructive menace. Nonetheless, even in his final, desperate act, he is the book’s most sympathetic character, the one presumably closest to the author’s heart.
With other characters, it can at times be infuriating to see them moved across the page for the greater explication of theme. This is particularly so with Mahmoud’s wife Catherine and her sister, Fiona.
Each time Catherine is disappointed by the world, and the reader feels some empathy—as after Catherine’s quasi-sexual encounter with Maleeka—the author seems to take pains to stifle the connection with our local Orientalist. Catherine doubts herself, but then slips quickly back to her previous self-confidence. She makes a discovery, but the discovery is shown to be little more than childish boasting. Her perfect, angelic sister does little to improve the situation.
These frustrations aside, Sunset Oasis is a book that rewards readers for a number of reasons. It rewards us with Mahmoud, whose doubts reflect the thorny choices in a landscape of colonial power. It rewards us with those wonderful sea-sick moments when characters must revise a cherished personal narrative. And, in Taher’s words, Sunset Oasis rewards us with a broad vision of the world.
In the June 2007 interview with Egypt Today, the author brushed off criticism of his narrative digressions, particularly the chapter narrated by Alexander the Great. “A novel is a complex world. In my book, Fi Madih El-Riwaya ["In Praise of the Novel"], I say that a novel represents a vision of the world; it is the novelist’s vision of the individual, society and the metaphysical questions a human asks.
“This is what great novels do.”
M. Lynx Qualey lives and breathes in Cairo, Egypt. You can read her blog, on Arabic literature in English, here.
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