by India Stoughton
American poet and author Maya Angelou famously wrote that “history, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”As long-standing rulers across the region began toppling like dominoes last year, many people have begun looking to history in an attempt to predict what might come next and avoid the past repeating itself.
As one of Egypt’s better-known writers on the international scene, Ibrahim Abdel Meguid has had several novels published in English, though The House of Jasmine, first published in Arabic in 1984, was only recently translated. Translated by Noha Radwan, the book appeared in English for the first time this June – almost 30 years after publication – a reflection of increased interest in historical literature set in the region among the English-speaking world post-Arab Spring.
Set in Alexandria in the era of President Anwar Sadat’s rule, the story is narrated by the oddly named Shagara (Arabic for tree). The book opens on June 13, 1974, the day that the then-president of the United States, Richard Nixon, came to Alexandria, as part of a state visit to Egypt.
The incredibly tall Shagara, who works as an administrator in Alexandria’s shipping yard, is charged with the task of escorting a group of workers to cheer the president’s arrival. Instead, he pays each worker half the money due to them, sends them off to spend the day as they will, and keeps the leftover cash, thus adding his petty act of corruption to the larger lie being played out for the international press.
For those not very familiar with Egypt’s history, it is worth reading the translator’s afterword before commencing the novel, as it astutely links the contents of the book to current events, as well as contextualizing several key events which might otherwise pass over the heads of readers due to their low-key treatment.
Radwan’s afterword puts the book’s opening events into perspective, noting that the day after Nixon’s visit the New York Times reported that “President Nixon received a rousing welcome from hundreds of thousands” – presumably not knowing that the crowds had been paid-off by a manipulative regime.
Abdel Meguid continues to provide an alternative perspective on the officially sanctioned history of Sadat’s 11-year rule. Shagara and his friends watch on television as Sadat lands in Jerusalem in 1977, as part of the negotiations which led up to the signing of the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty.
Though the treaty won the Egyptian President a Nobel Peace Prize, through the eyes of Shagara – who is not particularly politically engaged – Abdel Meguid provides an insight into the sense of betrayal felt not only by hard-line Egyptian Islamists, one of whom assassinated Sadat two years later, but by the average Egyptian citizen.
Silence falls in the cafe as Sadat shakes hands with Menachem Begin and Golda Meir, and Shagara describes his emotions with an uncharacteristic poetry. “Silence and gloom were filling the space behind me as darkness fell,” he says. “I was sitting on the edge of a cliff over a deep valley. One push backward would have left me dead.”
Abdel Meguid has succeeded in lending his protagonist a quirky, memorable voice and a believable range of habits and viewpoints, which run the gamut from endearing to alienating. Like the character of Zaki Bey el Dessouki in Egyptian author Alaa Al-Aswany’s best-selling 2002 novel The Yacoubian Building, Shagara’s main preoccupation is women, whom he thinks about almost constantly. Unlike Dessouki, however, his thoughts center not explicitly on sex, but on the means to this end – how to find himself a wife.
He begins the book living with his widowed mother in a tumbledown house, but is gradually able to increase his personal standing, thanks in large part to acts of petty crime. He has just three friends, misfits like him, all of whom are trying to run away from reality in some way.
Shagara’s friend Hassanayn finds escape in reading old history books, studying for a degree he does not need. Magid dreams of owning his own pharmacy, but having achieved this aim decides to leave the country.
Abd al-Salam, an ex-soldier who fought against Israel in the 1973 war, cannot find a place for himself either, eventually emigrating to Iraq. “None of us have been successful at anything,” he tells Shagara before he leaves, “but we have not been failures either. We stand in a vacuum.”
Abdel Meguid paints a compelling picture of a country in which corruption is rife, leading to a frustrated population, who one minute riot in the street and the next appear resigned to their fate – almost apathetic.
He prefaces each chapter with a surreal short story, loosely linked in some way to Shagara’s experiences. Most of these are grim little tales, though recounted in a whimsical style – babies born with tails, a dead woman who comes back to life and runs through the streets naked, luring people to an uncertain fate, and a man who climbs a light tower and refuses to come down, eventually slitting his throat.
These passages remain unexplained. Are they dreams? Moral tales? Premonitions? Or are they perhaps just Abdel Meguid’s way of adding an extra pinch of the surreal into the reality of an Egypt where nothing quite seems to make sense?