Al-Ahram Weekly Online   7 - 13 June 2007
Issue No. 848
Culture
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

All those genies

Reading Ibrahim Farghali, Rania Khallaf thinks gentle sex

Jinniyah fi Qarora (Genie in a bottle)

Jinniyah fi Qarora (Genie in a bottle), Ibrahim Farghali's latest novel, published last week with Dar Al-Ain, follows in a direct line from Kahf Al-Farashat (Butterfly cave, 1998) and Ibtisamat Al-Qiddissin (Saints' Smiles, 2004) -- mixing realism with myth making to the extent of being labelled his generation's magic realist. It is an idea Farghali shrugs off with remarkable poise, emphasising his interest in both peope and fiction.

The 119-page volume may indeed be read as the second, more accessible installment of Ibtisamat Al-Qiddissin, in which Haneen, the heroine -- the daughter of a Christian mother and a Muslim father -- provides a kind of guage of religious tolerance. In Jinniyah fi Qarora, rather, it is Haneen's personal life that comes to the fore, and she provides a guage of identity. "A whore," the novel opens, punching the reader into engagement. "No, I am not a whore." Born to Egyptian parents, Haneen was born and grew up in France, and her sense of self is caught up in the contradiction. Sex is persasive throughout, and it falls in with the central image of a (female) genie in a bottle. At one point during love making Patrique, one of Haneen's numerous lovers, appears to be regrouping to haul himself out of the bottle in which he is trapped, "burned in his own lust". Haneen's own escape from the bottle is a metaphor for finding love, true love -- a lover who will rescue and liberate her.

The issue of religion resurfaces within the framework of identity when David, a religious Jew who though raised in France has decided to settle in Israel, appears to be that person. This is a somewhat naïve expression of the issue of integration between Arabs and Israelis, but Farghali insists the relationship "only reflects the chaos that controls her sex life". Such chaos, reflected in group sex among other "perversions", raises questions about female liberation as a pretext for legitimising the traditional sins and in so doing further controlling the female body. To be, in her own words, a whore is a destiny cannot escape: a poignant moment occurs when she imagines stripping with her girlfriend Nataly before an audience of men. They are confused, indiscriminate, gaping, and in so being the embody the chaos of which Farghali speaks -- a chaos that, in its deeper guise, emanates from the core of her identity.

It is well possible to enjoy Jinniyah fi Qarora having not read Ibtisamat Al-Qiddissin, but the disembodied voice of the dead young man Emad, whose autobiographical notes his friend Rami has kept, maintains a sense of continuity. Emad is Farghali's most overt attempt at magic realism to date, and his presence reflects that of death in the lives of the living -- a fascinating, unknown realm of whose existence Farghali's characters are unfailingly aware. Thus a metaphysical monologue in which Emad sepaks of his existence in another, more progressive world based on the sublime value of knowledge occupies a huge portion of the second half of the book; and when Haneen comes back to Egypt on a scholarly visit, Emad's spirit reappears to guide the way to her mother, who had unaacountably disappeared on giving birth to her. This has the effect of slowing down the reading, following Haneen's vivid and brilliant sexual narrative, but it serves as a reminder -- something Farghali is keen on asserting -- that the book is an exercise in "theoretical" imagination.

The central image of a genie in a bottle finds theoretical expression in the idea of people living in glass buildings, something Haneen things of with longing: then, besides the maximum transparency that would save her so much trouble, she could find out where her mother is. Not that Farghali is unaware of the effect of this on the reading: "It's a way of impeding the flow of the narrative in an attempt at that difficult mix between theory and fiction. My target," he says, "is language. What I'm trying to do is create a new language that can speak of the odd, the unreal, in perfectly realistic tones." Does he have a personal connection with "the other world", howeve? "It has to do with my growing up in Dubai and especially Oman, where the culture is saturated with stories of phantoms and djinn -- to be found in the desert, which makes up most of the city, indeed -- and elements of witchcraft are just part of everyday life. It was perfectly normal, for example, to talk about encountering a man with a goat's legs while crossing the street. And it is something that evidently stayed with me."

In the second part of the novel, Haneen returns to Egypt to research a PhD on the norms of sexual relations in the Egyptian society. Peeping out of the window of her hotel room, she is astonished by the number of veiled women on the street, and wonders whether they enjoy full penetration or make do with oral sex to preserve their virginity. Eventually her research yields a clearer vision of her country, unavailable to her prior to it -- insight.

One thing the second section does not suggest is an answer to the questions raised at the end of each of the first part's seven chapters, voiced by Haneen. Is it Farghali's intention that they should play an artistic role in the progress of the narrative? Does he mean to reinstate the role of the author in society by directly raising issues? "They are mere questions suggesting certain themes," he says. "They start out being part of Haneen's quest for truth." A Western, liberal woman, Haneen shows all the contradictions of the Egyptian middle class. In fact, whether or not Farghali is aware of this, the novel is a massive step forward in the arena of portraying women's sexual life and her relations with men in Arabic literature. The most brilliant part of the novel is Haneen's conversation with Ali, a young Egyptian man whom she has met in Egypt and fallen in love with. To her he embodied the strength and charm, as well as the duplicity, of the Eastern male. A witty, humorous conversation reveals the differences between West and East -- irreconcilable contradictions. Eventually Haneen finds solace in the monasteries of Wadi Al-Natrun, where she sees the face of her mother reflected in the eye of a nun. At last she goes back to France, deciding never to look back.

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