Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
13 - 19 January 2000
Issue No. 464
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Books Monthly supplement Antara

The barber of Baghdad
Ard Al-Sawad (Land of Darkness), a novel in three volumes, Abdel-Rahman Mounif, Beirut and Casablanca: Al-Mou'assassa Al-Arabiya Lildirasta wal-Nashr (Beirut), Al-Markaz Al-Thaqafi Al-Arabi Lil-Nashr wal-Tawzi (Casablanca) 1999.

Fiction and reality
Abdel-Rahman Mounif

Chinese monuments and miracles
Al-Seen: Mo'jizat Nihayat Al-Qarn Al-Ishreen (China: Miracle of the End of the 20th Century ), Ibrahim Nafie, Cairo: Al-Ahram Centre for Translation and Publishing 1999. pp200

Deep roots, shallow soil
Landmarks in the History of the Communist Party of the Sudan in the half century 1946 - 1996, Mohamed Said al-Qaddal, Beirut: Dar Al-Farabi, 1999. pp310

Cinematic maladies
Al-Cinema Al-Arabiya Al-Mo'assira (Contemporary Arab Cinema),Samir Farid, Cairo: The Supreme Council for Culture publications,1998. pp260

Horses in the desert night
Night & Horses & the Desert, An Anthology of Classical Arabic Literature, Robert Irwin, London: Allen Lane, the Penguin Press. pp462

Heritage in the balance
The Arabic Literary Heritage: the Development of its Genres and Criticism, Roger Allen, Cambridge University Press, 1998. pp437

Summer torments
Azhar al-Shams (Flowers of the Sun),Youssef Rakha, Cairo: Sharqiat Publishing House, 1999. pp143

Hill of evil counsel Tal Al-Hawa ,Youssef Abu Raya, Cairo: Al-Hilal Novels, 1999. pp146

Century, conceived and edited by Bruce Bernard, London: Phaidon Press, 1999. pp1120 --see caption--

To the editor
At a glance
A shorthand guide to the month compiled by Mahmoud El-Wardani

* Al-Faylaq (The Corps), Amin Ezzeddin, Cairo: Fustat Publishing House, 1999. pp174
* Ana Baqqa wa Adel Hammouda (Adel Hammouda and Me), Ahmed Fouad Negm, Cairo: Zeinab Publishing House, 2000. pp108
* Jamal Eddin Al-Afghani, El-Sayed Youssef,Cairo: General Egyptian Book Organisation, 1999. pp255
* Masirat Hayati Hatta 1964 (The Course of My Life to 1964), Mohamed Youssef El-Guindi, Cairo: Organisation for Cultural Palaces, 1999. pp208
* Al-Mohammashoun wa Al-Siyasa fi Misr (The Marginalised and Politics in Egypt), Amani Massoud El-Heddini, Cairo: Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, 1999. pp302
* Al-Kotob: Wughat Nazar (Books: Viewpoints), monthly magazine, issue no. 12, January 2000, Cairo: The Egyptian Company for Arab and International Publication
* Al-Hilal, monthly magazine, January 1999, Cairo: Al-Hilal Publishing House
* Al-Arabi, monthly magazine, issue no. 494, January 2000, Kuwait: Ministry of Information
* Sotour (Lines), monthly magazine, issue no. 39, December 1999, Cairo: Sotour Publications
* Al-Osour Al-Jadida (New Eras), monthly magazine, issue no. 3, 2000, Cairo: Sinai Publishing House
* Adab wa Naqd (Literature and Criticism), monthly literary magazine, issue no. 172, December 1999, Cairo: Progressive Nationalist Unionist Party publications

To see other book supplements go to the ARCHIVES index. 


Illustrations courtesy of International Commitee of the Red Cross
"Folk drawings and tales", Cairo, 1996

Ard Al-Sawad (Land of Darkness), a novel in three volumes, Abdel-Rahman Mounif, Beirut and Casablanca: Al-Mou'assassa Al-Arabiya Lildirasta wal-Nashr (Beirut), Al-Markaz Al-Thaqafi Al-Arabi Lil-Nashr wal-Tawzi (Casablanca) 1999.

The barber of Baghdad

Ard Al-Sawad, which can be translated as either the dark or the fertile land, is the name the Arabs gave to Iraq when they conquered the country in 651 A.D. It is said that the name comes from the fact that it was dusk when the Arab armies first arrived, and thus their first glimpse of the land was coloured by the shadows of the thousands of palm trees that they saw. A different account has it that the name is derived from the famous fertility of the Iraqi soil. Modern Iraq, like ancient Mesopotamia, is irrigated by two large rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates, and these supplied the conditions under which cultivation of the soil in this ancient 'cradle of civilisation' could begin. There can be little doubt that Abdel-Rahman Mounif's choice of title for his trilogy of novels deliberately plays on the two meanings of the phrase, perhaps also including a play on the different connotations of the word darkness. Technically, the three novels are in reality one, since each volume picks up events from where the previous one leaves off. Volume one thus ends with Chapter 54, Volume Two beginning with Chapter 55, and the third volume ending with Chapter 133 of what is a continuous narrative.

Ard Al-Sawad, fraught as it is with projections onto present day Iraq, is primarily a historical novel that examines in considerable detail a few consecutive years in the history of the country during the long 19th century. As such, and for the benefit of those lacking Mounif's astonishing knowledge of the history of the period, it is useful to be reminded of the main lines of this history in order to appreciate how skillfully the author has been able to combine the historical record with novelistic invention. Such a reminder can only help us to appreciate the delicate balance Mounif has been able to achieve here between a straightforward chronicle of events, dramatic though these are in their own right, and the properly speaking more artful aspects of the work.

The life of Dawoud Pasha, the famous wali (governor) of Baghdad and one of the main characters in Ard Al-Sawad, is well known to historians. Born in Georgia in c.1774 to Christian parents, Dawoud came to Baghdad as a Mameluke, or member of an indentured servant or military caste, at the age of 10, changing masters until he reached the court of Soliman Pasha Al-Kabir, who was impressed by the boy's intelligence and love of the sciences. At a fairly early age Dawoud had mastered Arabic, Turkish and Persian and excelled at mathematics and, in recognition of his labours, Soliman duly appointed him court treasurer (khazindar).

Dawoud went on to marry the youngest of Soliman's daughters. In 1817 he became wali of Baghdad, but was defeated by the forces of the Ottoman Sultan Mahmoud II in 1831 and subsequently expelled from the city. Quite uncharacteristically, given the usual Ottoman practice, he was pardoned and held smaller governorships in the Ottoman Empire, including that of Bosnia (1833-35) and Ankara (1839-1840). In 1840 Dawoud retired to Medina, where he stayed until his death in 1850, being buried in the vicinity of the Prophet's shrine in that city.

Such is a thumbnail sketch of the life of Dawoud Pasha. As far as the wider historical context of the period is concerned, much of this can be gleaned from the work of the historian Abdel-Aziz Nawar and from Iraq and its History, an encyclopaedic Arabic work of synthesis published in 1983 by the Iraqi Academy in Baghdad. In order to understand the significance of Dawoud Pasha's career, one needs to remember that the period 1775-1831 witnessed the relative breakdown of central authority in the Ottoman system, meaning that the administration in Constantinople lost effective control over many provincial governors, especially in the Fertile Crescent. This led to the rise to power of various local rulers, in many cases only nominally recognising the sultan's authority, in Iraq and elsewhere, and foremost among these as far as the north-eastern part of Ottoman territories were concerned were the Mamelukes who gained power in Baghdad and, by extension, in Basra, which, then and now, was Iraq's main port and the outlet of its trade to the outside world. The Mamelukes settled their affairs among themselves by force or by conspiracy, often leaving Constantinople with little choice other than to give its seal of approval to whomever had successfully seized power.

It is against this background of the deterioration in Ottoman power and the rising influence of the Western imperialist powers in the region that the events of the novel unfold. This backdrop, the properly historical part of the novel, must continuously be borne in mind when reading its narrative of events, which, with the exception of an introductory Prelude of a few, highly charged pages and occasional flashbacks, deal only with the first four years of Dawoud's period in office in Baghdad. Its final chapter ends in the year 1821 with the departure from Baghdad of the British Consul-General Claudius James Ritch, following a period of bitter strife between him and Dawoud Pasha, a strife emanating from the latter's eagerness to check the growing influence of the rising foreign powers over the political life of the country.

In the novel's Prelude, however, Mounif maps out for us the events that have taken place between 1802 and 1817, and from this map we know of the death of Soliman Pasha Al-Kabir (1780-1802), during whose reign Dawoud's star had begun to rise, and the subsequent internal strife and conspiracy within the ruling elite, which led to the succession of four rulers before Dawoud himself successfully obtained the necessary firman (decree) from the Sublime Porte appointing him wali. It is testimony to Mounif's brilliance as a novelist that such an eventful period can be so vividly conjured up in only a few introductory pages, leaving most of the approximately 1,500 pages of the novel that follow for the masterly portrayal of a short period of time. By so doing, the author is able to examine in detail the lives of ordinary people and to juxtapose events at this micro-level with those taking place at the macro-level of state policy and the intense political strife, internal as well as external, which the country was then witnessing.

One of the main features of Ard Al-Sawad, in fact, and one that is likely to stick in the mind of any sensitive reader of the novel, is the meticulous care with which the details of the lives of ordinary people living at the time have been rendered. One leaves the novel with an abiding impression of these people's daily struggles, and this impression transcends the boundaries of the historical period and lends the novel a universal significance. It is these ordinary people, the people of Iraq then and now, who occupy centre stage in Mounif's narrative. Mamelukes, walis and the representatives of foreign powers may crisscross the historical stage, mostly wielding knives ready to stab into each others' backs, but Mounif's "love-song" to Iraq, as the novelist describes his work, is dedicated to these ordinary Iraqi people. The book perhaps may best be understood in these terms, for its true subject is the people of Iraq and the stern, yet all-embracing, natural environment in which they live: the overflowing Tigris drowning all about it; the clear springs of the north of the country flowing through the mountains; the burning sun of the desert, appeased only by torrential rains; the bewildering accumulation of the country's smells and textures. These features are equally characteristic of the Iraqi national character; underneath the gravity and apparent grimness which beset the Iraqi people, there flow the tender springs of emotion.

Mounif has dedicated his novel to his mother, an Iraqi woman married to a Saudi citizen, who later went to live with her children in Amman. His mother, Mounif writes, "in nursing me, nourished me on the love of Iraq." The novel's dialogue is written in the Arabic dialect of Baghdad, which is the dialect spoken by the novelist's mother and maternal grandmother. Mounif describes it as a dialect full of shadows and density, and pleads with his reader to exert the effort necessary to understand and enjoy it. We know from his moving autobiography, Biography of a City: Amman in the 1940s (1994) that Mounif moved to Baghdad at the end of the 1940s to pursue his university education, and that he returned to the city again after obtaining his doctorate in the 1970s, staying for a further decade. Anyone who has read Biography of a City will remember the vivid character of Mounif's grandmother, who left her native Baghdad to live for a time with her daughter in Amman. During her stay in Jordan she continued to wear Iraqi dress and to leave her face uncovered; in response to the questioning looks of those Arab women who failed to understand her, she would say, in her strong Baghdad accent, "Yes, my dear, I am an Iraqi from Baghdad, from the Karkh side of the river [the Tigris], from the Al-Dahdawanah neighbourhood. Is that enough, or do you need to know anything more?" It is on the Karkh side of the river that the novel's Al-Shat Café is located, and here most of the drama of the disenfranchised and the poor unfolds.

There we listen to the distinctive mannerisms of speech, the sayings and aphorisms, the proverbial and vernacular dynamism of the Iraqi people across the centuries, and it is this interplay, and often tension, between the people of the poorer districts and their administrators and rulers that provides the work with its distinctive voice, one which is a constant source of wonder. As opposed to the technique Mounif employed in his acclaimed quintet, Cities of Salt (1984-89), whose events extend across three-quarters of the 20th century and move across continents from the Arabian Peninsula to Europe and North America and include hundreds of different characters, Ard Al-Sawad remains firmly rooted in one place, with events restricted to those occurring within a four-year frame. However these constraints, far from impoverishing the work, allow Mounif to focus his still vast array of different characters, and these, in the richness of the contrasts between them, are the most precious aspect of the novel.

Regarding Mounif's depiction of character, he proceeds by composing miniatures that capture in minute detail the idiosyncrasies of each personage and reveal his or her depths and obsessions. These are then framed by a single, penetrating truth, a vital idea about this or that individual, that springs suddenly to mind and stays there and will not budge. The great virtue of the method is that even the most minor of characters has a legitimate right to self-expression; each has his or her own narrative, and the skill of the novelist is most apparent in the elaboration of the complex web of relations that join these together. There is something of an epic ambition at work here, with Mounif's method being comparable to certain synoptic writers of the European 19th century, in whose circumstances the historical novel as a form was forged. Mounif, one feels, would not rest content with anything less than an holistic view of life, even if it is one paradoxically built up from a process of unremitting analysis. Though he has chosen to write an historical novel, the way he deals with history, and his choice of events, allows his work an equal footing in the present.

On finishing the novel, many of the voices of the work's real heroes, the ordinary people of Iraq, remain with one, especially that of the Baghdad barber. "This is the way our Baghdad had always been," this character says. "Hundreds of thousands of floods, of foreigners and oppressors have come and gone. Only it remains. If any of us have ever felt at some dark moment that this was the end of the world, then he would be gravely mistaken. For in so doing he may have lost sight of the future, and that would be the greatest loss."

Reviewed by Farouq Abdel-Qadir

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