Al-Ahram Weekly Online   16 - 22 June 2005
Issue No. 747
Books Supplement
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

At a glance

By Mahmoud El-Wardani

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The Looting of the Iraq Museum, Baghdad: The Lost Legacy of Ancient Mesopotamia, Edited by Milbury Polk and Angela M. H. Schuster, New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, 2005. pp242

FICTION

Hikayti sharhuha yatul (My Story is a Long One), Hanan Al-Shaykh, Beirut: Dar al-Adab, 2005. pp384

In this, the latest work by Lebanese novelist Hanan Al-Shaykh, the author shares "the complete story" of her mother with the reader, a woman forced to marry at an early age while still dreaming of other possibilities. The story begins in the 1930s with Al-Shaykh's mother leaving her native south Lebanon for the capital Beirut, and the geographical scope of the narrative, taking in much of the Lebanese national space, underlines the fact that this book is not just the biography of a single woman, but rather aspires to be the biography of Lebanon as a whole. It recounts various important events in Lebanon's history, from the Ottoman period, through the French mandate and independence in 1943, to the 1948 Arab- Israeli war, the June 1967 defeat and the 15 long years of civil war, which ended in 1990. Unlike Al-Shaykh's previous novels, Hikayti Sharhuha Yatul is written in simple language, the character representing the novelist's mother dictating her story to her daughter. Above all, in this novel al-Shaykh continues the process of self-examination for which she is known as a novelist, building on her reputation as both a witness to, and a provocative commentator on, some of the most turbulent years of contemporary Lebanese and Arab history.

Nithar al-mahou: dafatir al-tadween, al-daftar al-khamis (Fragments of Erasure: Chronicle Notebooks, Fifth Notebook), Gamal Al-Ghitani, Cairo: Dar el-Shorouq, 2005. pp397

The internationally famous Egyptian novelist Gamal Al-Ghitani has been working on his Dafatir Al-Tadween, or "chronicle notebooks", for many years now, periodically publishing the results. Thus far, four of the notebooks have appeared, and now a fifth installment has appeared from Dar el-Shrouq that shares Ghitani's main preoccupation: like Proust, he is à la recherche du temps perdu. Unlike the previous notebooks, however, this new installment does not limit itself to the search for just one theme, and different memories are examined from different viewpoints, including those of a child, of a young man, or of an old man. Yet, all the memories combine in a narrative threaded through the work as a whole. In the novel, if that is what it is, Ghitani seems uninterested in producing a tight structure, memories appearing and subsiding without obvious reference to their original time or place. Instead, the narrator asks himself questions such as "does time have a beginning?" or "where will I go at the end of time?" finally ending with a self- questioning that goes to the heart of his present and past identity: "I look at my face in the mirror. These are my features. I master them. I recognise them. These bear the marks of all my longings, my braving of the abyss, my defeats, the glimmering of my hopes and the difficulties of my yearnings. Here are the marks of the death of my abilities, the leaps of my ecstasies and the directions of my tenderness. All this gazes back at me in my image: who sees whom?"

Ashiq al-hay (The County's Lover), Youssef Abu Raya, Cairo: Dar al-Hilal, 2005. pp191

In his latest novel Ashiq al-Hay, Egyptian writer Youssef Abu Raya introduces us to the legendary world of the cat-goddess Bastet, the deity worshipped by the priests of the Eastern Delta in Ancient Egypt. However, Abu Raya brings back this figure not as a goddess, but as a male lover disguised and who eventually succeeds in kidnapping a woman from her husband: "The story, in short, begins like this: Dessouki was having lunch with his wife Samira when a strange black cat entered the room. This cat was not one of those that usually came to the house. The cat jumped gently onto the table and stared into the young wife's black eyes. Her husband was surprised, but said ironically to the cat: 'Do you like her? Well, take her then.' Immediately, the woman disappeared, and so did the black cat."

Asrar Abdallah (Abdallah's Secrets), Al-Habib Al-Salmy, Beirut: Dar al-Adab, 2005. pp272

This is the seventh novel by Al-Habib Al-Salmy, a Tunisian Paris-based journalist and fiction writer. Set in a Tunisian village, the novel records the experience of a main character, Abdallah Al-Darki, a retired man who marries a young girl, and it touches on themes including the fear of death and of physical weakness, as well as the complex web of relationships that go to make up the life of the village. In spite of the book's somewhat slow rhythm, Al-Salmy has managed convincingly to portray the character of the book's protagonist, well describing his fear of aging and of death and his relationship with the young girl who has just become his wife.

Qamar 'ala Samarqand (Moon over Samarcand), Mohamed Al-Mansy Qandil, Al-Hilal Novels, No. 672, December 2004, Cairo: Dar al-Hilal. pp272

Egyptian novelist Mohamed Al-Mansy Qandil, a long-term resident of Kuwait and an editor at the well-known Kuwaiti monthly Al-Arabi, has clearly benefited from his journalistic work in writing this new novel. Having traveled widely in search of features for the magazine, Qandil has drawn on this experience by setting his novel in Central Asia, using it as a locale for a narrative that mixes present times with a distant, half-legendary past. Mohamed Al-Makhzangi, an Egyptian contemporary of Qandil's and himself a gifted writer of fiction, has written of the novel: "When I read the manuscript of Qamar 'Ala Samarqand, I found myself carried away by the lyricism of this astonishing work of fiction, which weaves past with present in a manner resembling that of the cinema. Nurallah, the novel's protagonist, in particular is unforgettable, dealing in extreme emotions but showing a wisdom that comes from the heart. This novel is written with real distinction."

Rehlet as-siman (The Quail's Journey), Sahar Tawfiq, Cairo: Merit, 2005. pp234

Egyptian fiction writer Sahar Tawfiq's books have been rather few and far between: having produced a novel and a collection of short stories in the early 1970s, it took her almost 20 years to complete a second novel, which appeared in the 1990s. This is all the more reason, then, to be grateful for this new novel, which nevertheless seems to have been written against the grain. The novel breathes an atmosphere of disillusionment, recounting the fates of its characters as they move through the changes of almost a quarter of a century. A typical passage is as follows: "'What are you going to do with all these things?' He looked at me for a while, and then he said: 'I'm not going to sell them. But this is not only a matter of not selling them. Beautiful things must be treasured. I'll keep this at the house: perhaps I'll use it as a vase. As for the frog, I'll keep in the drawer of my desk'"

Hadiqat al-raml (Sand Garden), Gazi Hussein Al-Ali, Damascus: Dar al-Tali'a al-Jadida, 2005. pp117

Hadiqat al-raml is Syrian novelist Gazi Al-Ali's third novel. In it, he examines the relationship between the author and the characters of his novel, as well as investigating the links between the writer's written text and the oral accounts coming from the surrounding community. As such, the novel shows considerable self-consciousness, taking as its theme the link between the real and the imaginary and offering the reader a role in the fiction in the process, as if the reader were at once witnessing and participating in a work in progress.

POETRY

Wad' mohreg (Critical Situation), Omar Taher, Cairo: Merit, 2005. pp87

Omar Taher is a noted writer of prose poetry in the vernacular, but he is also an accomplished writer of short stories, having published three collections between 1998 and 2003 all of which are characterised by a desire for experiment and a fresh and genuine vision. Taher's new collection of poems, Wad'a Mohreg, includes both prose poetry and poetry written in the more traditional idiom. Among them is Taher's striking poem Safar (Travel), a piece made up of passing road signs and achieving a strange poignancy: "Alexandria 200 km / Dangerous / Remember God / U Turn / Turn Right / Slow Down / Radar is Watching You / Get Home Safe."

Be-kadma zarqa' min 'addat al-nadam (Blue Bruise from the Bite of Regret), Emad Fuad, Cairo: Dar Sharqiat, 2005. pp106

This is the young Egyptian poet Emad Fuad's third collection of poems, including pieces written last year in Europe. In it, one sees an impressive development in his powers since the earlier books, Ashbah garahatha ala'da'a (Ghosts hurt by the Light, 1998) and Taqa'ud Zir Nesa'a Agouz (An Aging Paramour's Retirement, 2002). Fuad has a distinctive language and a selective and intelligent eye, discovering what all too often passes unnoticed, including the quality of urban solitude: "He escapes the crowd. / He closes the door of his room. / For hours his neighbours hear him / Pleading with others / And begging them to leave. / They were sure he was alone, / And that he knew no one. / Minutes later, / They hear footsteps / Going down the stairs."

Dhil shagarah fi al-maqabir (The Shadow of a Tree in the Cemetary), Mahmoud Khairallah, Cairo: Dar al-Bustani, 2005. pp91

This, Mahmoud Khairallah's fourth collection of poems, continues the author's proselytizing in favour of prose poetry, the collection ending with a 12-page manifesto in defence of the genre. Here, Khairallah writes that "Arab poetry has for too long been oblivious of the humanity and human rights of Arab citizens, whose wealth had been squandered by thieves," continuing that poetry should draw closer to the common man, "patting on the shoulder," as he puts it, "the mother who sells vegetables at five o'clock in the morning to make ends meet, and the Egyptian poorest of the poor, who have long suffered from starvation and persecution." Reading this, one cannot help but wonder if poets need to indulge in this kind of rhetoric: if these are statements about the role and purpose of poetry, should they not be better expressed as poetry?

Awal al-shi'r kan israr (Poetry at first was Insistence), Ahmed Al-Qassir, Cairo: Third World Publishing, 2005. pp30

Israr (Insistence) is the title of a poetry collection by Kamal Abdel-Halim published in the 1950s. And the author of this book, Ahmed Al-Qassir, argues that Israr was the beginning of modern poetry in Egypt. The late Kamal Abdel-Halim was already recognised as a significant talent when he was not yet 20 years old. In 1946 Ismail Sedqi Pasha, then Egypt's prime minister, included lines from Abdel-Halim in an important speech at the Egyptian Parliament with the comment: "this means that revolution is nigh, and you are not paying any attention."

In the book, Ahmed Al-Qassir, a friend and colleague of Abdel-Halim's, recounts his memories of the poet and of the Democratic Movement for National Liberation (a communist group) in which both men were involved. Some of these describe events that are little-known, for example the meeting that took place a few days before the July 1952 revolution between Abdel-Halim and the army officers later to become members of the Revolutionary Command Council.

NON-FICTION

Min yahudiyat al-dawla hata Sharon (From the Jewishness of the State to Sharon), Azmi Beshara, Cairo: Dar el-Shorouq, 2005. pp390

Azmi Beshara, member of the Israeli Knesset and chairman of Al-Tajammu Al-Watani Al-Demokrati, an organisation of the Arab citizens of Israel, needs no introduction, and in this book he continues to provide his unique variety of commentary. Through its analysis of Israeli democracy and of various aspects of the Israeli state, whether economic or political, the book makes a welcome contribution to the understanding of Israeli society. It provides a stimulating evaluation of the present Israeli political map for the Arab reader, as well as of Israeli society's interaction with major world trends, among them globalisation. The contradictions within Israeli democracy since the foundation of the state in 1948 are dealt with extensively in one of the most thought-provoking chapters of the book. A further chapter deals with Israeli society's obsession with security, something Beshara traces back to the foundation of the State of Israel. In the last two chapters, the author examines the sometimes intricate details of present political life in Israel, and the significance for the society as a whole of the downfall of Labour leader Ehud Barak and the rise of the Likud led by Ariel Sharon.

Feraq al-shia: bayn al-din wa al-siyassa (Shia Groups: between Religion and Politics), Mahmoud Ismail, Cairo: Dar Al-Rou'iah, 2005. pp178

Mahmoud Ismail, is one of Egypt's most distinguished scholars of the history of the various Islamic sects. In this book, he provides a historical overview of the various sub-divisions within Shia Islam -- a subject that has gained added significance today, with the Shia of Iraq occupying centre stage in the political life of the Arab world as a whole. Ismail also offers a socio-political analysis of the genesis and development of Shia beliefs, the whole delivered with the author's usual scholarly skill. As Ismail makes clear in his introduction, the book first appeared ten years ago, but the present US-led occupation of Iraq, the rise of the Iraqi resistance movements, and other developments, have made it necessary to revisit the topic, adding new material. Thus, while the original sections of the book deal with the various historical debates on jurisprudence and other matters that led to the division of the Muslim world into Sunnis and Shias, new sections attempt to investigate the nature of these divisions in the present. However, the book's main thrust remains the same: the need for dialogue between the different Islamic sects, the author believing that the unity of Arab Muslims is the top priority for Iraq if the Iraqis are to meet the present challenges engendered as a result of the US-led occupation of their country.

Nahj al-balagha, compiled by Al-Sharif Al-Rady & introduced by Mustapha Labib Abdel-Ghani, Cairo: General Organisation for Cultural Palaces, al-Dhaka'ir Series, 2004. pp253

This edition of Nahj al-Balagha, the sayings of Imam Ali as compiled by Al-Sharif Al-Rady, has a number of advantages over other editions. The first of these is that the sayings are in this volume accompanied by glosses by Mohamed Abdou, the 19th century theologian and religious moderniser, who was, until his death in 1905, Grand Imam of Al-Azhar. The second is that this book includes all the sayings compiled by Al-Sharif Al-Radi, usually published in two volumes, and it therefore contains all the material ascribed to Imam Ali. A third great advantage of this edition is that it is designed for a popular audience and is well-produced and affordable.

Hewar al-mashriq wa al-maghreb (Mashriq-Maghreb Dialogue), Hassan Hanafi and Mohamed Abed Al-Jabari, Cairo: Dar Al-Rou'iah, 2005. pp434

The first edition of this seminal work appeared 15 years ago in Morocco and Lebanon, and in this new edition, published in Cairo, the authors have included details of the debate to which the book gave rise when it was first published. The first publication coincided with the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and its aftermath, and the liberation of Kuwait by the international coalition. Naturally, many of the issues raised in the book touch on controversies raging in the Arab world at the time, including debates about Arab unity, the issue of tradition and modernity, revisiting Nasserism, and the Palestinian question. This new edition includes contributions from nine Arab writers, including distinguished political analysts, such as the Syrian George Tarabishi, who writes on the Arab intelligentsia, and the Yemeni Abdel-Aziz al-Maqalih, who discusses the dilemma of Arab intellectuals between their "dynamic of division" and their desire to achieve unity and peaceful coexistence. The final section of the book, entitled "Right to Reply," includes two articles by Hassan Hanafi and Mohamed Abed Al-Jabari that take stock of the debate.

Taha Hussein bayn al-siyaj wa al-maraya (Taha Hussein between Wall and Mirrors), Abdel-Rashed Al-Sadiq Al-Mahmoudi, Cairo: 'Ain for Social and Human Research, 2005. pp203

Abdel-Rashed Al-Sadiq Al-Mahmoudi has dedicated all his publications to Taha Hussein, the Egyptian writer and intellectual often described as the dean of Arabic literature. In 1997, Al-Mahmoudi published his first book, a collection of writings by Hussein in French, following this, in 2002, with a volume examining Hussein's little-known or unpublished early writings, and, in 2003, a volume entitled Taha Hussein: from Al-Azhar to the Sorbonne. The present work includes studies of the latter's works, autobiographical pieces and his academic writings on pre-Islamic poetry. Behind the author's interest in Taha Hussein, a larger interest can be detected in the intellectual life of the generation of which Hussein was so distinguished a part.

al-Akhar, al-hewar, al-mowatana (The Other, Dialogue and Citizenship), Samir Morqos, Cairo: Dar el-Shorouq, 2005. pp203

This book is a collection of articles and studies written between 2001 and 2004, and it introduces three related issues organised in three main parts. The first is the idea of dialogue, and this section includes two studies on the concept of the Other in Egyptian culture, including a recollection of the author's own experience of dialogue, notably in the Coptic Church. The book's second section, on the concept of dialogue between civilisations, looks at the nature of this idea before reviewing various western viewpoints, while the book's third section looks at various issues in political history and culture. Some of these pieces are of particular merit and include studies of the early history of Alexandria and of Coptic arts.

al-Zahf al-moqaddas (Sacred Advance), Sherif Younis, Cairo: Merit, 2005. pp208

Historian Sherif Younis opens a l-Zahf al-Moqaddas with a description of the massive demonstrations that swept Cairo on the evening of 9 June 1967 and continued into the evening of the next day: thousands of Egyptians had taken to the streets to bring Gamal Abdel-Nasser back to power. Nasser had resigned as president after Egypt's defeat by the Israelis in the 1967 war, but Younis is interested not in Nasser's resignation but in the mass demonstrations that brought him back to power. Were the demonstrations organised by the regime, or were they spontaneous, bearing witness to the special relationship between Nasser and the Egyptian nation, even in defeat? In the author's view, neither explanation is right, Younis instead considering that these apparently spontaneous outpourings were the result of the regime's effective control of all means of expression over the previous 15 years. Thus, the people were expressed in the regime, and the regime was expressed in the person of Nasser, Nasser serving as the embodiment of the nation. Younis looks in detail at Nasser's resignation speech in this light, as well as at other contemporary documents, drawing out the ideology of the period. Nasser and the other members of the Revolutionary Command Council played an obviously formative role in the dissemination of this ideology, he says, but so too did journalists and popular writers of the period, among them Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, Mustafa Amin, Ahmed Bahaa El-Din, Mohammed El-Tabei and Ihsan Abd El-Qodos.

Saha'ib al-zikra fi al-sijn wa al-hayat (Clouds of Memory in Prison and Life), Aziz Talab, Cairo: Arab Culture Centre, 2005. pp251

Aziz Talab, a political activist in the 1970s, who lived in Switzerland and France during the 1980s and 1990s where he worked as a translator in a number of UN and international organizations, died last year, and the present volume includes a selection of his prose pieces published posthumously by his family. The pieces, taken from the full breadth of the writer's career, reflect the period he spent in prison in the 1970s, as well as his life in Europe.

Al-Siyasah al-maliyah al-israiliah (The Financial Politics of Israel), Magdy Sobhi et al, Cairo: Arabs Against Discrimination, 2005. pp94

This, the first volume in a series on discrimination and racism, examines the relationship between the financial policy of Benjamin Netanyahu, finance minister in Sharon's government, and the increase of poverty in Israel and the discrimination suffered by members of the Arab minority, women, children and the elderly in that country. According to the authors, this can be traced to the neo-liberal policies implemented by the Israeli government, restricting minority incomes while cutting health, education and social services budgets. The book depends on official Israeli figures that show 21 per cent of the Israeli population living in significant poverty in 2003, despite, in many cases, being in employment. It also links the country's political and security situation with developments in the economy, particularly since the beginning of the present Palestinian Intifada, which has significantly affected sectors of the Israeli economy including tourism, agriculture, and construction.

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