9 - 15 March 2000
Issue No. 472
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
"Set, like The Alexandria Quartet, during the Second World War, Abdel-Meguid's ,No One Sleeps in Alexandria re-inscribes into the literary city,in the same historical period, Egyptian Alexandrians whom Durrell had more or less reduced to the Coptic, aristocratic figures of Nessim and his family, and Hamid, Darley's sufragi. In reinstating the Egyptian voice into the Alexandrian experience of the 1940s,it is the quotidian experience of the rural or Upper Egyptian migrant and the urban poor that interests Abdel-Meguid"
No One Sleeps in Alexandria, Ibrahim Abdel-Meguid, tr. Farouk Abdel-Wahab, The American University in Cairo Press, 1999. pp409
The Crusades through Muslim eyes
The Crusades -- Islamic Perspectives, Carole Hillenbrand, Edinburgh University Press, 1999. pp648
Economic schizophrenia, global style
Misr wa Riyah Al-'awlama (Egypt and the Winds of Globalisation), Mahmoud Abdel-Fadil, Cairo: Dar Al-Hilal, 1999. pp264
Darourat Al-Kalb fil Masrahiya (The Need for the Dog in the Play), Girgis Shukri, Cairo: General Egyptian Book Organisation, 2000. pp101
History and parallel history
Tumanbay: Al-Sultan Al-Shahid (Tumanbay: The Martyred Sultan), Emad Abu Ghazi, Cairo: Mirette, 1999. pp96
Sun Dancer speaks his sorrow
Prison Writings: My Life is my Sun Dance, Leonard Peltier, St. Martin's Press, New York, 1999. pp243
Novel of novels
Al-Bashmouri II, Salwa Bakr, Cairo: Supreme Council of Culture. 2000, pp151
Chagall's Arabian Nights: Four Tales from The Thousand and One Nights with lithographs by Marc Chagall, Prestel Verlag, 1999. pp163 Read caption
To the editor
At a glance
A shorthand guide to the month compiled by Mahmoud El-Wardani
Magazines & Periodicals
* Al-Kotob: Wughat Nazar (Books: Viewpoints), a Monthly Review of Books, issue No. 14, March, 2000, Cairo: The Egyptian Company for Arab and International Publishing
* Aafaq Ifriqiya (African Horizons), quaretrly, Cairo: State Information Service, issue no. 1
* Al-Thaqafa Al-Alamiya (World Culture), bimonthly cultural magazine, Kuwait, no.99
* Al-Riwaya fi Nihayat Al-Qarn (The Novel at the End of the Century), Ali El-Ra'i, Cairo: Dar Al-Mustaqbal, 2000, pp371
* Al-Himaya wal-Iqab: Al-Gharb wal-Mas'ala Al-Diniya fil-Sharq Al-Awsat (Protection and Punishment: The West and the Religious Question in the Middle East), Samir Morqos, Cairo: Miret, 2000, pp210
* Al-Wataniya Al-Misriya fil-Asr Al-Hadith (Egyptian Nationalism in Modern Times), Amina Higazi, Cairo: General Egyptian Book Organisation, 2000, pp555
* Khamriya, Amin El-Ayyouti, Cairo: Al-Hilal, 2000, pp121
* Awlamat Al-Faqr (The Globalisation of Poverty), Michael Chossudovsky trans. Mohamed Mostagir, Cairo: Sotour, 2000, pp328
* Hal Intahat Ostourat Ibn-Khaldoun? (Is the Myth of Ibn-Khaldoun over?), Mahmoud Ismail, Cairo: Dar Qibaa, 2000, pp333
Books is a monthly supplement of Al-Ahram Weekly appearing every second Thursday of the month. We welcome contributions and letters on subjects raised in this supplement. Material may be edited for length and clarity; and should be addressed to Mona Anis, Books Editor, Al-Ahram Weekly, Galaa St., Cairo, Arab Republic of Egypt; Faz: +202 578 6089; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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Illustrations courtesy of International Commitee of the Red Cross
"Folk drawings and tales", Cairo, 1996
No One Sleeps in Alexandria, Ibrahim Abdel-Meguid, tr. Farouk Abdel-Wahab, The American University in Cairo Press, 1999. pp409
Reviewed by Hala Halim
Must one begin a review of a novel on Alexandria with a nod towards Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet? No, it is not written that one should pay such (unwarranted) homage; and indeed this beginning is not meant as homage. Nor is it the fact that Ibrahim Abdel-Meguid frequently invokes Durrell, not least in the epigraph on the first page, as well as in two of the epigraphs to the chapters, that makes a nod towards Durrell necessary. Rather, it is the manner in which Abdel-Meguid's novel "dialogues" with Durrell's. Set, like The Alexandria Quartet, during the Second World War, Abdel-Meguid's No One Sleeps in Alexandria re-inscribes into the literary city, in the same historical period, Egyptian Alexandrians whom Durrell had more or less reduced to the Coptic, aristocratic figures of Nessim and his family, and Hamid, Darley's sufragi. In reinstating the Egyptian voice into the Alexandrian experience of the 1940s, it is the quotidian experience of the rural or Upper Egyptian migrant and the urban poor that interests Abdel-Meguid; and in this he greatly overlaps with Edwar El-Kharrat. Topographically, too, Abdel-Meguid and El-Kharrat, despite the stylistic and thematic differences that separate them, both map in districts that lie outside Western texts, quarters on the other side of the Mahmoudieh Canal, and on the other side of the railway tracks -- whether literally or metaphorically. Be they on this or that side of the literal topographical divide, quarters with semi-rural names like Kafr Ashri and Gheit El-Enab, whose inhabitants in the past earned their living through cattle-breeding and dairy production or as workers in dockyards and warehouses, do not even figure in E M Forster's Alexandria: A History and a Guide.
As the war escalates, as the air raids on the city intensify, we follow the friendship between Sheikh Magd al-Din, a devout Muslim who has been forced to leave his village in the Delta ostensibly due to an old vendetta, and Dimyan, a Copt originally from Upper Egypt. We witness Magd al-Din and Dimyan's search for jobs, their occasional wanderings in the city, and their networks of relationships, and we overhear their chats about the war and about religion. Religious tolerance being one of the novel's main thematic investments, Coptic-Muslim pairings provide variations on it: Magd al-Din and his Coptic landlord Dimitri, Magd al-Din's wife Zahra and Dimitri's wife Sitt Maryam, Dimitri's daughter Camilla and her chaste love affair with the Muslim schoolboy Rushdi, and finally, Dimyan's unlikely crush on the young Bedouin girl Brika.
True, the novel does not gloss over elements that make for a distance between Christian and Muslim (both sets of parents consider Rushdi and Camilla's involvement to be a calamity and an inter-religious marriage out of the question, and the street-vendor Umm Hamidu's frequent questions to Zahra as to why "her husband Magd al-Din... was always seen in the company of Dimyan, the Christian" being but two among other examples of this). However, the overriding "message" -- and message it certainly is -- of the novel is that Muslims and Copts can and should co-exist not only peacefully, but also displaying the values of neighbourliness, amity and mutual support that they have generally shown in their relations.
In and of itself, this is certainly a valid message, well-worth putting across. It is just that, in its missionary zeal, the novel reiterates the message once too often. For one thing, various characters, on various occasions, decry religious prejudice and hold forth on the solid national unity that overrides religious differences -- most pointedly Dimitri in conversation with Magd al-Din: "I know you're a good man and don't treat Copts any differently from Muslims. This country, Sheikh Magd, has a slogan that goes back to the days of Saad Pasha Zaghloul: 'Religion belongs to God, and the country belongs to everyone,' but there are some bastards who like to kindle the fires of discord, especially in poor neighborhoods like ours."
World War II Alexandria
Apart from epigraphs taken from Coptic prayers, innumerable details bear out the sense of national unity: the coincidence of Muslim and Coptic feast days being interpreted as a "divine blessing", the alternation and commingling of verses from the Qur'an and from Christian prayers in the shelters during air raids, Magd al-Din's piety leading Dimyan both to re-discover his own religion and to keep his Muslim friend company by fasting during Ramadan, as well as to achieve a sainthood of sorts at the end of the novel. However for interest in such a forcefully rehearsed message not to wane, one would have needed compensation in the form of character complexity, perhaps, or at least a sense of the characters having some interiority; episodes that seem to be merely concocted to bear out a point or force a crescendo are not enough. It is a pity that such compensation is not at hand. The characters seem to land, out of the blue, into their own development, rather than grow into it. Camilla, whisked off by her parents to a convent in Upper Egypt, takes to performing miracles; Rushdi, who undertakes an arduous journey on foot to bid her farewell in the convent, realises, somehow, that he has finally become a poet: "both had attained prophethood". There is also the fact that characters are hedged in by drawn-out documentary-like chunks of text.
Granted, generic divisions between history, ethnography and the novel have long since been contested. However, not only does the novel often misplace all of its characters for pages on end as it goes into documentary, historical-sociological-ethnographic overkill, it would have helped if there had been some sense of an authorial selectiveness within the documentary portions. The lengthy documentary chunks -- which sometimes occupy as many as four pages at the beginning of a chapter, or in the middle, or both -- can be a press-review-like pastiche of international and local headlines or a guidebook-like mix of Alexandrian local history, sociology and ethnography. This is not to mention the autoethnography performed by the characters: Dimyan on Coptic fasts, the belly-dancer Lulu on the lingo used in dance troupes, and so on. Perhaps more crossovers between character and documentary, and more urban myths in place of guidebook-speak, would have alleviated the density.
For a novel that offers itself up as a blend of documentary and fiction in this way, the possibilities for the hyper-ethnographically-minded translator are mind-boggling. Think of the introductions, the translator's notes, the italicised Arabic words, the footnotes, and glossaries. In Farouk Abdel-Wahab, Abdel-Meguid -- happily -- has not found such a translator. Abdel-Wahab, whose accomplished translation of Gamal Al-Ghitani's Al-Zayni Barakat (Viking Penguin, 1988) was introduced by Edward Said, has also recently translated Abdel-Meguid's award-winning The Other Place. For No One Sleeps in Alexandria, he has combined a slightly accented English -- betraying Americanisms, in recognition perhaps of a US target readership -- with the occasional deliberate carry-over from Arabic usage.
Retaining the novel's cultural specificity, the translator nevertheless has not sought to place additional markers on it. Unobtrusively interpolated phrases either precede or replace -- depending on the importance of the word -- references that would be inaccessible to a reader unfamiliar with Arab culture. While otherwise highly talented translators have gone as far as transliterating sharie, as in Sharie Fouad, and indicating in the glossary that sharie means "street" -- as if Alexandria's streets are a species apart -- the rather more culturally specific zawiya, for example, has been rendered here quite simply as "small... mosque". Explanatory phrases are neatly tucked in, as in "lunar month of" before "Shawwal", and "the Coptic month of" before "Tuba". There are instances where Abdel-Wahab has taken liberties, as in the case of a considerably bawdier rendition of a Bayram Al-Tunisi poem on the Municipal Council, but such is the zest of the translation that one cannot carp.
As with other translations from Arabic, No One Sleeps in Alexandria highlights the kind of doubling whereby the translator takes on some of the functions of the absent copy-editor. Verb tense inconsistencies that no editorial care weeded out from the original leave the translator with the task of deciding which tense to opt for and for what reason. Likewise, paragraphs that run on for a page or two, outrunning their various topics, have to be broken off, and italicisation is introduced to single out other discourses, as with poetry and accounts of dreams. Facts, historical or otherwise, have to be checked. In the specific case of No One Sleeps in Alexandria, too, Abdel-Wahab has justifiably (Durrell and Cavafy would provide anchorage for the foreign reader) chosen to place the source of a given epigraph right beneath it, whereas in the original the sources had been relegated to a note at the end of the novel, on the grounds, as the note tells us, that citing the sources within the text would have broken narrative continuity.
Given the current rapid metamorphosis in Alexandria itself -- a new Corniche, more high-rises in place of demolished villas, and much else -- there is every reason to believe that traffic in "Alexandriana", if one may call it so, will also be on the rise. No One Sleeps in Alexandria, now that it's available in English, is fresh grist to the mill of Alexandrian nostalgia.
Magd al-Din, who had been terrified only a few moments earlier, smiled as he started to walk briskly again, then all at once had the sensation that he was stumbling over many colorful, tangled rubber threads. Several balloons became caught between his legs, impeding his movement. He remembered the story of the man who went down to Mahmudiya Canal to perform his ablutions and got the rabbits caught in his underpants. His heart started pounding hard, but then the white stones of a long, low, neglected fence provided some light for him and reminded him that he was on a well-known street that led somewhere. Had it not been for that fence, fear would have completely unnerved him, and he might have started to run screaming down the street. He hurried along the fence, and Karmuz Bridge loomed closer. There were four metal lampposts, two on either side of the bridge, topped by a lamp with a shade of dark blue glass. And although they did not illuminate the place, at least he could see them, and he fixed his gaze on them until he arrived at the bridge, and there he breathed calmly for the first time. Next to the bridge, he noticed many push carts with goods left over from the day, covered with tarpaulins or cardboard. Children sleeping under the carts were covered in pieces of blanket, and he realized that he had stayed a long time at Shahin's house. He walked down the slope to the right, which would take him to Ban Street, which would take him home.
Where had he been exactly? He had a growing feeling that he had just come from hell, or nothingness. Was the boy really telling the truth, or was he just humoring him to end the meeting? In any case, Magd al-Din could not forget that sense of an ending in the boy's eyes. He belonged to an era different from ours and he won't be long for this world, Magd al-Din thought. His poor father! He walked on Ban Street -- 'Willow' Street -- thinking of that happy person who had given that and the other streets around it the names of trees and flowers. They were named Narcissus, Jasmine, Sweet Basil, Vine, and Carnation, when in fact, they were shabby, sickly streets filled with tired, lost people whom no one realized belonged to the big city, where everything moved except this place. Alexandria, the white, gay, provocative city, was oblivious to them, the refuse discarded by faraway towns and villages, When did anyone ever pause for the sake of refuse? And who ever believed that from such refuse could come lovers, poets, lunatics, and saints? Only murderers and criminals deserved to stay in this rotten southern part of the city.
"Why are you so late, Magd al-Din?"
Tuck me in, Zahra. Take my shoes off. Cover me over."
Extract from chapter 19,pp 251 - 252 of No One Sleeps in Alexandria