Al-Ahram Weekly Online   18 - 24 August 2005
Issue No. 756
Books Supplement
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

At a glance

Compiled by Iman Hamam and Mahmoud El-Wardani

FICTION

Malamih al-shawati' al-ba'ida (Features of Distant Shores), Ramsis Labib, Alexandria: New Culture Library, 2005. pp250

This book contains the collected works of Ramsis Labib, comprising three previously published short-story collections as well as a fourth made up of stories published in various magazines following the appearance of a third collection in 1988. It also includes a study by critic Mahmoud Abdel-Wahab dealing with Labib's work in general and with some of the influences that have informed it.

Abdel-Wahab writes that "Labib resorted to writing fiction as a means of mobilising the masses, which he believed were sunk in trivia and not engaged in changing their miserable conditions of life. He was keen, however, to produce art and not political manifestoes." Yet, Labib succeeds in this only to varying degrees: while some of the pieces collected here are very much in the tradition of unsophisticated "socialist realism," others are more various and artistically refined. In a story entitled "The White and the Quiet", for example, Labib writes: "we encounter the body of a dead man outside a hospital. People pass by, glance at the body and continue walking in their lazy, routine manner. The garbage man approaches and carries the corpse to the nearest rubbish bin. The street is clean again, and the hospital building stands proud."

Torok mutaqati'ah (Crossroads), Sayed al-Bahrawi, Cairo: Dar Sharqiyat, 2005. pp80

Creative works by critic Sayed al-Bahrawi are few and far between. His first novel, Madrid Nights, appeared a few years ago, following numerous works of literary criticism. It was a surprise by any standards, since it seemed more like a further work of criticism than a novel. The present book, Torok mutaqati'ah, the author's second collection of short stories, has many of the characteristics that took readers and critics by surprise when the novel appeared, though naturally the short- story form allows al-Bahrawi to articulate his ideas in more condensed form.

The collection contains some 40 short stories, some no more than a few lines long, many of which present brief meetings, fleeting glances, surrender, defeat, unfulfilled promises, death, or unrequited love. The author uses a minimum of words, which, perhaps because of their simplicity, enter the heart like piercing arrows. In a piece entitled "Love Story," for example, al-Bahrawi writes: "they told me she loved me, but I didn't believe it. But one night I touched her bare arm unintentionally and found her whole body trembling. Since then, whenever we exchange words our voices tremble."

Ayam Baris (Paris Days), René Hayiq, Beirut & Casablanca: Markaz al-thaqafi al-arabi, 2005. pp256

René Hayiq is a prolific novelist with seven novels to her name produced over a period of ten years. This, her latest, is divided into three main sections, all narrated in the first person. The first part is narrated by Randa the mother of Mira, the second by Mahdi, a friend of Randa's, who knew her when she was a student in Paris in the 1970s, and the third by Mira, Randa's daughter, herself now a student in Paris. Thus, the novel exhibits a certain heteroglossia, or plurality of voices, and details of tone or style distinguishing each makes the differences between them apparent.

In fact, Ayam Baris is a novel of details, in which simple, ordinary descriptions accumulate, causing the reader to experience an intense feeling for the events described. While Randa's Paris days coincided with the civil war in Lebanon, those of her daughter are distant from those years, though still deeply marked by the trauma of war. A feature of contemporary Lebanese novels is their being marked, in one way or another, by those 15 long years of the civil war. From Randa to Mira via Mahdi, the three women presented here are obsessed with living ordinary lives, either despite the war still raging in their country or in protest at its after-shocks.

For all of them Paris seems a shelter, a dream and a potential future. They try to draw closer to others in order to enjoy an intimate moment and draw courage from that intimacy, but all of them finally lead lonely and isolated lives, haunted by demons they cannot exorcise.

Ra'ihat al-bahr (The Smell of the Sea), Reem Bassiouni, Cairo: Dar al-Bustani, 2005. pp240

Reem Bassiouni is a native of Alexandria, and after graduating from Alexandria University she traveled to England where she obtained a Ph.D. in linguistics from Oxford. No wonder, then, that the young husband and wife who are the protagonists of Ra'ihat al-bahr, her first novel, feel divided between braving the harsh realities of a corrupt academic and professional life in their native city and the pull of more permanent northern migration to England.

Ala'a, the husband, is a young physician embroiled in a corruption case in the hospital in which he is working following his return from studies in Britain. While struggling against this he contemplates leaving the country, hoping that he will be found innocent. He is supported by his wife Rania in his fight, and despite the many problems the two young people face, both professionally and in their private lives, their love for each other and for their native city with its "smell of sea" wins the day. Both decide to stay, and the novel ends on an optimistic note. This is a promising first novel, though a rather simple one. It is to be hoped that Bassiouni will be able to overcome any shortcomings it displays in future work.

POETRY

Maqal fi ma'ana al-reeh (An Article on the Meaning of the Wind), Bassem Al-Nabris, Ramallah: Ugarit Cultural Centre, 2005. pp153

Bassem Al-Nabris is a Palestinian poet of the younger generation who has chosen to express himself in prose poetry. Like many poets of his generation, he avoids any hint of sentimentality or lyricism, and his diction is bare, even coarse, befitting a poetry that has declared its desire to sever relations with "the national poem." Indeed, most young Palestinian poets have declared themselves to be sceptical of "homeland poetry" in the grand sense of the term, since, they apparently feel that the homeland is simply a place to live with a minimum of fuss.

In earlier collections, al-Nabris tried his hand at free verse, but now he seems to have decided that this form does not allow him to say what he wishes to express, and he has chosen prose poetry instead. Perhaps this, his latest collection, can be said to crown a quest for a poetry free from constraints. In a poem collected here entitled "I myself don't know why" he writes: "I am not a fascist. I am not a Nazi. I am not a Zionist. / I am not a chauvinist. I am not a sadist. I am not a fundamentalist. / I am Bassem Al-Nabris. An artist as gentle as the breeze, who / feels ashamed of his fellows or his brother for not being able / to hate (really hate) even his enemy. I want you / to forgive this whim of mine. I want to slap / the human race. (Believe me, / I myself don't know why)."

Tamaam al-gaheem (The Completeness of Hell), Kamal Abdel-Halim, Cairo: Al-Maktab al-masri lil-matboat, 2005. pp99

Though 25 years or so have passed since Arab poets first began to experiment with prose poetry, the genre is still ill-defined, lacking rules other than those used by individual writers in an eclectic way. Perhaps it is just this eclecticism that has tempted many writers to experiment with the genre, since it seems to offer a field without prescribed limits.

Tamaam al-gaheem is poet Kamal Abdel-Halim's first collection, and it has many of the virtues and the faults of a young poet just finding his way. The poems are full of elevated, resounding words, and Abdel-Halim does not fight shy of the large question of existence, even as one suspects that he is too young to appreciate them. There are too many "impossible women" and "illusory salvations" in this collection. Yet, Abdel-Halim writes, "My name is Kamal Abdel-Halim. / I have no surname. / I have not died, as people die. / I have not seen a far fruit tree. / I never had a father, or a mother, / or siblings. / No one cried farewell to me / when I was murdered / on the eleventh floor. / I myself weep outside my corpse. / I hallucinate in the seventh hell."

GENERAL

Kuluna fidak: Al-Bahrain wal-qadiya al-filastiniyya 1917-1948 (To Die for: Bahrain and the Palestinian Question, 1917-1948) Khaled el-Bassam, Beirut: Arab Institute for Studies and Publication, 2005. pp238

The author's research on Bahrain's involvement in the Palestinian issue has taken him to Bahrain, London and Amman in search of documents and records. Among his discoveries is the fact that the people of Bahrain displayed solidarity with the Palestinians long before the famous donation campaign triggered by the 1948 nakba. Indeed, it began as early as the British Government's Balfour Declaration in 1917, which is why the author has chosen to concentrate his research on the period 1917-1948.

This period has been seriously under-researched, and the author's effort to reconstruct Bahraini-Palestinian solidarity in it has been further complicated by the loss or disappearance of numerous important documents. However, those that the author has been able to unearth bear witness to the solidarity displayed by Bahrainis with the Palestinians and many of them are published here for the first time. They include donor lists to the Palestinian cause as these appeared in Bahrain's newspapers in 1939; documents relating to the contributions of Bahraini women; the text of an address given by Sheikh Abdel-Hussein El-Helli at the Palestinian Solidarity Conference in Manama in the same year; petitions appearing in Bahraini newspapers in support of the Palestinians throughout the 1920s, and records of the Palestinian Solidarity Committees formed throughout the first half of the twentieth century, as well as the contributions these made.

Fouad al-awal: al-maloum wal-majhoul (Fouad I, the Known and Unknown) Yunan Labib Rizk, Cairo: Dar El Shorouk, 2005. pp214

Over the last few years, the Cairo publishing house El Shorouk has built up an impressive history list. Having published the memoirs of a number of top officials at the Palace during the last days of the Egyptian monarchy, it has now turned its attention to the monarchs themselves, though this book by the well-known Egyptian historian Yunan Labib Rizk has been attacked in the popular press, allegedly for pandering to nostalgia for the monarchy. Unfair though this accusation is, Rizk undoubtedly provides a sentimental image of King Fouad I in this book, a man who became sultan of Egypt in 1917 and king in 1922. Though most historians agree that Fouad was a shrewd operator, there is no consensus on any other merit he may have possessed: before being picked by the British for the throne following the death of Sultan Hussein Kamel, Fouad was best known for being a wild boy and a gambler.

This being so, it is surprising that Fouad managed to maintain so tight a grip on the throne for 20 years, especially given the rivalries within the Muhammad Ali family, most of whose members did not like him, and his general unpopularity among his subjects. Rizk says that Fouad suffered from a "dual personality disorder", one part of him being an autocrat and the other aspiring to reform. "The man who issued the 1923 Constitution is the same man who wanted to be Caliph after the institution of the Caliphate was abolished in Turkey," Rizk writes, adding that "the man who was behind the establishment of a secular, state-run university in 1925 was the self same man who entered into alliance with Al-Azhar, the oldest religious university in the country, using its sheikhs and students to combat demonstrations by the students of the Egyptian university."

However, unfortunately Rizk does not go beyond pointing to such contradictions in his subject, and the book as a whole gives too favourable a picture of Fouad, the first king of Egypt and the father of the last.

Farouk: min al-milad ila al-rahil (Farouk: from Beginning to End), Latifa Salem, Cairo: Dar El Shorouk, 2005. pp837

This seminal work by Latifa Salem, a professor of history at Benha University, was first published in 1989 and no historian writing on the Egyptian monarchy since has been able to ignore it. Indeed, so popular has the book been, with historians as well as with the general public, that when a second edition appeared in 1996 it was swiftly sold out, explaining the appearance of this third edition produced by El Shorouk, which also includes new material and many pictures of the last king of Egypt.

Salem's work on the subject and the fact that she has undertaken much original archival research both in the Egyptian National Archives and in the British Public Record Office makes the book a must read for any one interested in Egypt's contemporary history. Farouk, who ruled Egypt for 15 years, and was the last of the country's rulers from the Muhammad Ali dynasty, began his rule in 1937 with many hopes pinned on to him. However, by the time he left Egypt in July 1952, never to return, he had managed to earn the hostility of most of his subjects. Salem's book brings to life episodes in the rise and fall of Farouk, charting his course from a young boy to a middle-aged man, who, "after the fall," as one of Salem's chapter's has it, spent the last 13 years of his life in exile in Italy. The book's 11 chapters deal extensively with Farouk's education and the preparation he undertook before assuming the throne of Egypt, as well as the conflicts between the Palace and the majority party, the Wafd, during Farouk's time as king, the activities of the various ideological groups active in Egypt during his reign, including the Muslim Brothers, his role as supreme commander of the army, and, finally, his notorious private life and fall from grace.

Al-Hurriya wal-muraogha: mosahama fi al-islah wa naqd al-dawla wal-solta (Freedom and its Avoidance: A Contribution to the Critique of the State and of Political Power), Nabil Abdel-Fatah, Cairo: Dar Merit, 2005. pp344

Nabil Abdel-Fatah, a noted political commentator who is no stranger to polemic, is a well-known sociologist and assistant director of the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. He first came to public attention in 1984 with the publication of his study of Political Islam, subtitled "the Struggle between Religion and the State in Egypt". Since then, Abdel-Fatah has produced many other works on the contemporary Islamist groups, including a series of articles which appeared in this newspaper and were collected in 1994 in a book entitled "Veiled Violence". He also edits the "Report on the State of Religion in Egypt," which has appeared annually from Al-Ahram since 1996.

Well versed in the subject of the Islamist groups, over the last few years Abdel-Fatah has shifted his attention to oppositional writing in general, turning his gaze on the state rather than on those wanting to bring it down. Thus, he has now become one of the best-known advocates of radical reform, to the point that most of his writings now appear in the opposition press. This stimulating book includes some 30 articles of this type published in different newspapers and journals during 2003 and 2004. In an article on the "priorities for reform," for example, the last in the book, Abdel-Fatah not only questions the priorities for reform as these have been stated by the government, but also the concept of reform itself, asking "reform for whose benefit?"

Da'wat al-ihiya' al-islami (The Call for Islamic Revival), Gamal al-Banna, Cairo: Dar al-fikr al-islami, 2005. pp85

Gamal al-Banna, youngest brother of Hassan al-Banna the founder and leader of the Society of Muslim Brothers, the Arab world's foremost Islamist organisation, has long shown himself to be perhaps surprisingly ecumenical given such a pedigree. Indeed, al-Banna's work over the last 20 years has revealed a broader view of Islam than most would expect from the brother of the leader of the Brotherhood. In 1995, for example, al-Banna established the "Islamic Culture and Media Foundation," whose manifesto stated that it aimed to "hold religion supreme, [which] means safeguarding man first and foremost, allowing him to use his intellect, and combating all forms of terrorism and accusations of apostasy."

In Da'wat al-ihiya' al-islami, his most recent book, al-Banna deals with the nature of advocacy for Islamic revival and its distinguishing features. He argues that advocating revival need not come from an Islamist party, or from any organisation for that matter. Rather, he says, "the study of religions has shown that the worst thing about them are the 'religious institutions' that try to monopolise what cannot by is very nature be monopolised, namely faith." However, though al-Banna shows himself to be not in principle opposed to religious pluralism, his premise is still an Islamic one, and he argues that in the Arab world Islam is the banner under which all Arabs can fight imperialism and western hegemony.

Al-nizam al-qawi wal-dawla al-daifa: idarat al-azma al-maliya wa- taghir al-siyasi fi ahd mubarak (Strong Regime and Weak State: the Management of Financial Crisis and Political Change under Mubarak), Samir Soliman, Cairo: Dar Merit, 2005. pp306

This book is an edited and translated version of the author's Ph.D. thesis, submitted to the Institute of Political Science in Paris. In it, Samir Soliman studies the effects of decreasing rentier revenues on the state and on political life in Egypt under Mubarak. By rentier revenues the author means those accrued especially from foreign aid, oil, and Suez Canal receipts. The constant decrease in such revenues since the 1990s has made the state more dependent on taxation, something which the author says has in turn affected the relationship between state and society.

In the book's first chapter, Soliman discusses what has historically been an expansion in Egypt of the role of the state, followed by a shrinking of that role in the wake of shrinking revenues. Later, he looks in detail at how state resources are allocated, writing that his research has shown that a significant proportion of the state's resources are allocated to the ministries of the Interior, Information and Awqaf, the reason for this being to counter the contemporary rise of Political Islam. The author's conclusion is that the 25 years of Mubarak's presidency have witnessed "the success of the political regime and the failure of the State." The backdrop of economic recession against which this has taken place has impacted the state apparatus, keeping it in a stagnant state and largely hiding the true nature of state failure.

Hewarat al-yawm al-akher fil-qur'an wal-sunna (Dialogues of Doomsday in the Qur'an and the Sunna), Sayed Mahmoud Said, Cairo: Al-Maktab al-masri, 2005. pp312

This book deals with concepts such as Doomsday, judgment, resurrection, paradise and hell, the author, Sayed Mahmoud Said, attempting to explain them in the light of the Qur'an and the Sunna, or the sayings of the Prophet Mohamed. The book's publisher writes that it is a "compendium different from other books on the topic in that it provides sourced information for those who want to know what the Qur'an and the Sunna have to say on what happens from the moment of death onwards." The author claims that knowing in advance what might happen on the Day of Judgment will help each individual to ensure that he or she is not led astray.

Books of this type are becoming more and more popular, perhaps because of the contemporary climate of uncertainty, leading people to reject their faith in rational judgment and to prefer superstitious recipes for salvation. Indeed, recipes abound in this book, including an elaborate one on how to enter paradise and what sort of new life one might enjoy in it. Though the book is a rather grim one, it does have some virtues, notably its footnotes, which provide references for the author's discussion to the primary sources, as well as to the many theologians who have dealt with such topics, including Al-Qurtubi ibn Taymiya, Mohamed Abdu and Sayed Qutb.

Mo'anath al-ruwaya: al-zat, al-sura, al-kitab (The Feminine of the Novel: Ego, Image, Book), Yousra Muqaddam, Beirut: Dar al-Jedid, 2005. pp174

Surprisingly, critic Yousra Muqaddam argues in her new book that the male reader of literature by women is a kind of voyeur, misplaced in a world of women. In her discussion of important novels written by Arab women, she argues that women's writing, for the male reader, constitutes a kind of extension of the woman's body and is, therefore, the object both of male fear and desire. This seems a rather far- fetched view, since male critics generally evaluate writing by women according to the same criteria used for writing in general, looking at it from a technical or aesthetic point of view.

Muqaddam's choice of texts is also questionable, since she chooses those marked by political rhetoric and feminist discourse, rather than texts that are more representative of women's writing as a whole. The texts discussed in the book include: yawm eddin (Day of Religion) by Rasha El-Amir; heina kunt rajulan (When I was a Man) and ana, hiyya, anta (I, She, You) by Ilham Mansour; soqut al-imam (The Fall of the Imam) by Nawaal El-Saadawi; abir sabil (Passerby) by Ahlam Mustaghami; mariam al-hakaya (Mary of the Stories) by Ulwiya Sobh; Inaha London ya azizi (Only in London) by Hanan el-Shaykh; and li'ani wa ka'ani wa lastu (Because as if I am) by Sabah Zuwayl.

Athr al-fann al-islami 'ala al-tasweer fi asr al-nahda (The Impact of Islamic Art on Painting during the Renaissance), Inas Hosny, Beirut: Dar al-Jeel, 2005. pp264

This book represents an important contribution to the debate on the impact of Islamic art on painting in Europe starting from the Renaissance onwards, and it includes 40 pages of illustrations of Islamic miniatures, illuminations and other forms of artistic production deemed by the author, Inas Hosny, as having had an influence on European painting. In the book's four chapters, the author deals with the origins of Islamic art and its development, the different schools of Islamic art, the means by which this art reached Europe, and finally with the impact it had on the European arts. Most of the classical Arabic writings on Islamic art did not care to provide biographies of the artists. For her part, Hosny says that there are no classical books on the subject she has chosen to deal with, apart from one mentioned in the Khitat al-maqrizi, a late encyclopedia, and this has been lost.

Beside the scarcity of source material, writings on aesthetics by the early Islamic writers are usually difficult to sort out from larger works on philosophy more generally and on religion, such as the well-known works by al-Tawhidi and al-Ghazali. This may be due to the fact that the visual arts in early Islamic societies were marginal activities, especially in the case of painting, which was considered to be against religion, though the author takes issue with this idea and argues that it is due to a false interpretation of Islam.

Min tareekh al-ghina wal-musiqa fil-Sudan: min aqdam al-asoor hata 1940 (The History of Song and Music in the Sudan from the Earliest Times to 1940) Ma'awiya Hassan-Yassin, Khartoum: Abdel-Karim Merghani Cultural Centre, 2005. pp679

This book contains 20 years' worth of research, and it is the first serious attempt at writing the history of Sudanese music and song. The task the author has assigned himself is immensely difficult, not least because of lacunae in the historical record, particularly in that of ancient times. Not a single manuscript survives of the first written Sudanese language, for example, which was used around 2000 BC. As a result, records that could have helped reconstruct the beginnings of music in the Sudan have been lost. Despite this, the author has been undeterred, and his quest for evidence has yielded considerable knowledge of a distinct musical heritage that flourished in the ancient Christian states in the north of the Sudan and along the Blue Nile.

The author stops his historical survey in 1940, and thus in general he has had to write a history in the absence of historical records. However, the way he has done this is both ingenious and instructive, since he has reconstructed the history of music in the Sudan by looking at the development of Sudanese musical instruments or at the importing of instruments into the country from elsewhere. He also devotes chapters to individual musical virtuosos, has ransacked European museums for records and other useful materials, and has interviewed and listened carefully to the work of various contemporary Sudanese musicians who refer back to the Sudanese musical heritage.

Al-mumasthil wal-hirbaq: dirasaat wa doroos fil-tamthil (Actor and Chameleon: Studies and Drills for Acting), Sami Salah, Cairo: Academy of Arts, 2005. pp315

The Egyptian Academy of Arts under the chairmanship of Madkur Thabit has recently decided to publish selected course materials for public benefit. This is a very welcome venture, since many of the courses taught in the Academy are of general interest and could benefit intellectuals and independent artists who have not had the opportunity to pursue formal studies in such fields. This book by Sami Salah, a professor of acting, surveys the various acting schools and the different techniques actors should acquire. Divided into nine chapters, it deals with topics such as what an actor is, how the profession has developed, ideas of stereotypes and non-typical roles, body movement, voice projection, and so on. It also discusses the various theories of acting, from the classical schools to more modern techniques, such as those proselytized by Stanislavsky and Meyerhold. Any one wanting to pursue a career in acting is well-advised to read this book. That said, it is peculiar that the Academy should have started its welcome series of course materials by publishing a practical book on acting. Perhaps in future it will also publish books of more general interest.

Matbat Bulaq (Bulaq Printing Press), foreword: Ismail Serageldine, compiled by Khaled Azab and Ahmed Mansour, Alexandria: Bibliotheca Alexandrina, 2005. pp185

This quality book, produced by the prestigious Bibliotheca Alexandrina includes a detailed and illustrated history of the first printing press in Egypt, an innovation brought to the country by Napoleon. The book deals with the different lives of the Bulaq printing press from the time of the French expedition through the rule of Muhammad Ali and members of his dynasty, until the appearance of newspapers in Egypt. In his foreword Ismail Serageldine, the Director-General of the Bibliotheca explains why the choice of Matbat Bulaq as a subject for this book: "With the introduction of the press, a qualitative scientific and epistemological leap had occured. Printing democratised knowledge, making science available for all after it had been for ages the monopoly of the few."


Above: Covers of an Arabic-Italian dictionary printed at Bulaq in 1822 (top); and plan of the original location of the Bulaq press

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