Book of the Sultan's Seal according to the author
In the canonically inspired prologue to Book of the Sultan's Seal ( khutbat al-kitab, to use the correct term), and as per Arab writerly conventions of the past, the author sets out all that his book contains: "information of what happened to the journalist Mustafa Nayif ‚orbaci between 30 March and 19 April, 2007, as chronicled by him in the weeks following that date, and addressed in the fashion of old Arab books to his friend the psychiatrist Rashid Jalal Siyouti, who has resided in the British capital since 2001."
Quoting Al-Jahiz in a similar context, the author goes on to say that his book is full of ineloquent constructions and departures from correct grammar -- it actually celebrates such language, since it aspires to evoking the voices of the people it talks about. Book of the Sultan's Seal treasures the life that the vernacular can breathe into standard Arabic, welcoming the presence of non-Arabic words in the language, which can absorb them and grow the richer, and such words are therefore not marked in any way in the typography.
As for the structure of the novel, "This text comprises one story divided into nine sections, with each section chronicling one event which took place in the course of a journey within the city of CairoÉ And while each of the nine journeys is linked to a specific event in the story, in time Mustapha begins to see each section as a treatise in one specific discipline." He then proceeds to give a list of the journeys in question -- the content of the book, their dates, and the disciplines to which they correspond:
- On 30 March, after separating from his wife, Mustafa makes the journey from his marital house in Maadi to the house of his parents in Dokky. This section, according to Rakha, is a treatise on marriage.
- In 30 March-7 April, Mustafa has a dream that seems to come true, while he recounts his daily journey from Dokky to downtown Cairo, where he goes to work, and back -- an occasion to describe the social disintegration around him -- sociology.
- On 7-8 April, Mustapha makes a journey to the mall on the Desert Road, and there -- as well as having a strange encounter that seems to be related to the dream -- he finds a ring with a calligraphic seal: psychology.
- On 9 April, while on a journey from town to the Other World, Mustafa meets and is given an assignment by the ghost of the last Ottoman sultan, whose seal the ring bears. This, Rakha describes as a treatise on the paranormal.
- On 10-12 April, following the encounter with the sultan, Mustafa makes a journey in books and on the internet, finding out about the Ottomans: history.
- On 13-14 April, Mustafa visits several quarters of Cairo, divorcing his wife and discovering what it is all about: the dream, the ring, his encounter with the sultan. The central journey is to the camel market. It is a treatise on friendship.
- Further confirming what he has discovered, on 15 April Mustafa journeys through Islamic Cairo and encounters a new lover. This is Rakha's treatise on love.
- In 16-19 April, Mustafa makes the journey from the house of his lover in Muqattam to Cairo Airport, having found the object he needs to start undertaking his assignment. This is a treatise on eroticism.
- After 19 April, Mustafa is in Beirut undertaking his assignment. This is not so much a journey as an event, and replaces the treatise with a series of parables mimicking the eight previous sections.
In the interest of variety, the author goes on to say, five sections are told by Mustafa (1, 2, 4, 5, 7) while the other three are told by an anonymous narrator (3, 6, 8); the ninth and last section is a compendium. The book ends with 40 pages of appendices on different topics, including a glossary of vernacular and unfamiliar terms and expressions.