Trapped in 1300
The Time-Travels of the Man Who Sold Pickles and Sweets (2010) by Khairy Shalaby. Translated by Michael Cooperson. The American University in Cairo Press, Cairo, New York.
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'Tuquzdamour, Qawsun, Ibn Taghri, and the young sultan were all gone, leaving only the servants, who were still looking after me tirelessly ... I had the feeling that something unpleasant was likely to happen in the not-too-distant future'
His name is a mouthful. God's Neediest Creature, The Knowing but Unlearned, The Tutored but Unwise Son of Shalaby, the Hanafy and Egyptian Seller of Pickles and Sweets. This name wasn't one he ever heard. Rather, it is a presumptuous and honorific title he bestows upon himself. He had discovered the true secret of timelessness, that once he breached the periphery of his wanderlust, he had quite a future ahead of him -- a figment of his furtive imagination. This he perfected with a minimalist reading of Cairo's rich history. The luck that the landloper depended on for descending into the mysterious world of medieval Cairo is always about to run out.
He tells a spooky tale from a curious corner of Cairo going back to his own contemporary beloved city. He did good business on that trip. He is able to draw on the Gothic restlessness of the Fatimids, at the precise historical moment when the unorthodox doctrines of the Ismailis had penetrated deep into Persia and the Fertile Crescent. But our improbable hero stands perfectly still before the Moquattam Mountain of Cairo where he comes face to face with the medieval Cairene Islamic preacher, scholar and historian Al-Maqrizi (1364-1442), author of the celebrated Topography. "I stood there smiling to him like an imbecile and let the Moroccan soothsayer drag me away. A chamberlain, dragging the train of the best-grade baize gown, came in with several rolls of paper under his arm. He came up to Gohar and unrolled the papers, which turned out to be plans for palaces, minarets, gates, colonnades and balconies."
Gohar, Gowhar or Jawhar the Sicilian, of course, is the military commander of the Fatimid armies that swept down the Mediterranean coast of North Africa to found the city of Cairo. "Columns of North African soldiers stretched as far as the eye could see. There at the end of his legion I could make out Gohar the Sicilian. He was kissing the ground before a man who seemed to have appeared out of nowhere."
We recognize in his voice the spirit of the adventurer living among revolutionaries in medieval Cairo. Shalaby presents us with the manners of the overlords as rare pieces of performance art. The princes played their part with great dignity and aplomb. Other aristocrats had a less compelling composure and presence.
"Whether the man was on foot or on horseback I could not tell, but he was surrounded by a ring of white flags and wrapped in an awe-inspiring dignity. I saw him smile gratefully and say something I couldn't make out."
Shalaby, the narrator in the novel, represents the authenticity of Egypt, the autochthonous voice of the author's native land. "Accosting two soldiers who were coming toward me hand in hand, I put on a friendly face and asked what was going on. They waved me off rudely but I understood enough to realise that the Fatimid Caliph Mu'izz had just arrived in Egypt and was seeing, for the first time, the palace that his general Gohar had built for him. After taking a good long look at Al-Azhar, Mu'izz gestured toward the caravan. There were almost five hundred camels laden with querns and he ordered them all to kneel. Boys scrambled up, untied the ropes that held the querns, and pulled them open, releasing a stream of some golden substance that flowed like liquid."
The irony with historical novels such as Shalaby's is that the indigenous Egyptians pursued a line of least resistance to alien invaders. The very Egyptian society that was terrified of outsiders had learned to nurture them and had paradoxically bestowed on the foreigners in their midst the very Egyptian identity they coveted.
"A Moroccan soldier leaned back and surveyed me over his shoulder. 'It's gold. Never heard of it before?' The Moroccan grinned at me again and made a menacing gesture to warn me off before the guards got a hold of me. But instead of leaving, I tried to get closer to the great gate and catch up with Mu'izz and his retinue. But the closer I thought I was getting, the more details I noticed that made it look as distant as ever." Once within the very confines of the Nile Valley and its Delta, once the foreign conquerors sniffed their own power, and they instantly made themselves at home.
The Man Who Sold Pickles and Sweets was Egypt personified. He pays homage to his foreign masters and ingeniously mixes pragmatism with stupidity, happily playing the fool.
The real history of this time is not the main focus of the novel. Ibn Taghribirdi is the author of a historical treatise entitled Al-Nujum Al-Zahira fi Muluk Misr wa Al-Qahira (The Flowing Stars, on the Kings of Egypt and Cairo). His long Turkic name sounds funny in Arabic and our hero Ibn Shalaby draws attention to it by inventing nicknames such as Ibn Taghri and Ibn Birdi for him.
Bribery and corruption thrived then as now. "The eunuch laughed and gave me a low five as if we had been friends for a thousand years. As my hands slipped away from his massive paw, I found that something had stuck to it -- my little hand, that is -- something that felt suspiciously like paper bills and a gemstone. I stiffened in embarrassment and my smile froze on my face." If all we had were incidents such as these we would be left thinking only that The Man Who Sold Pickles and Sweets had made a grand show of his own, and his people's, impotence in the face of foreign military prowess and economic clout.
This was a sure sign that some of the air had gone out of the bubble of preposterous riches that protected Egypt for centuries, nay since time immemorial. "So Saladin was waiting for me in the Golden Hall. How that happened, I wasn't sure. But there was nothing wrong with having him wait for me in a hall, or even in a coffeehouse. He wasn't an upright guy, and he wouldn't mind standing around on a street corner for a few minutes. But why was he waiting for me in the Golden Hall in the first place?"
Shalaby went out of his way to add his distinctive taste to the pickles and sweets he held dear. He encounters celebrities such as Gohar, the founder of Cairo. He also comes across other time travelers such as the celebrated historian Maqrizi.
Born in Kafr Al-Sheikh in the Egyptian Delta in1938, Shalaby the author as opposed to the narrator in the novel, is among the most prolific contemporary Egyptian writers churning out novels, historical tales, and a host of literary criticisms with more than 70 volumes to his name.
Shalaby's novel The Lodging House was awarded the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature in 2003, and was publiushed in English translation by the AUC Press in 2006.
The translator Michael Cooperson is professor of Arabic language and literature at the University of California, Los Angeles. The two men produced yet another marvel of AUC Press, the type of work this Cairene publishing house excels at.
The beauty of this novel is that it demonstrates how medieval, and modern, invaders employed their prowess in battlefield as the surest indication of their superior culture of leisure leaving the indigenous Egyptians like our hero the seller of pickles and sweets to suffer in silence. The indigenes longed for the wealth of the alien urban aristocrats who took advantage of the hapless peasantry of Egypt. Moreover, they cleverly manipulated their social standing mercilessly to define their own place in the successive new "Egypts" they created and recreated, not always in their own image and likeness. They indulged in theft just as the subjects they ruled over.
"Looking over my shoulder I found Khazaal looting and pillaging right along with the mob -- or more exactly, supervising those who were looting on his behalf free of charge. Oddly enough, he would pause from time to time to shout at the rioters, rebuking them for what they were doing and calling it an offense to honour and conscience. The looters would pretend to believe him and then snicker behind his back."
The Man Who Sold Pickles and Sweets dreams on. His buildings, or rather the architectural treasures he conjures up in his imagination, speak to us of him as well. Some of these buildings, mainly mosques, we know from contemporaneous reports and the work of contemporary restorers. Others we instinctively know from what the author calls "pointless tears" -- a genuine Egyptian talent.
"The pointless tears in my eyes had me seeing double. Then everything in front of me began to acquire a gloomy hue. The shining splendour faded away, to be replaced by a sticky, stuffy, musty-smelling rust."
Reviewed by Gamal Nkrumah