Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
13 - 19 May 1999
Issue No. 429
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Index of issues This week's issue

Books Monthly supplement

Food for thought
A word from the Editor-in-Chief Hosny Guindy

Time for forgiveness?
Mona Anis revels in a 1960s memoir vividly chronicling the underground life of Egypt's angry young writers

A sun which leaves no shadows
Mokhtarat (Selections), Ghaleb Halasa, Al-Ahram (Kitab fi Garida), February 1999

Mothering the populace
The Pure and the Powerful, Studies in Contemporary Muslim Society, Nadia Abu Zahra, London: Garnet Publishing,1997. pp.308

Lights, camera, chit-chat
Cairo: From Edge to Edge, essay by Sonallah Ibrahim and photographs by Jean Pierre Ribière, Cairo: AUC Press, 1998. pp21+ 70 photographs

The art of conversation
Tawfiq El-Hakim Yatathakar (Tawfiq El-Hakim Reminisces), ed Gamal El-Ghitani. Cairo: Supreme Council of Culture, 1998. pp183

Not quite another country
Alnesaeyat, Malak Hefny Nassef. Cairo: The Women and Memory Forum publications, 1998. pp246

Journey of a giraffe
Zarafa, Michael Allin, London: Headline Book Publishing, 1998. pp215

Village life from within
Denys Johnson-Davies offers insight into Mohamed El-Bisatie's work, and translates an extract from his new novel, appearing this Saturday in the Al-Hilal series
And the Train Comes

Short Reviews:

*Al-Kotob: Wughaat Nazar (Books: Viewpoints)

*Soheir El-Qalamawi, Nabila Ibrahim

*Sifr Amal Donqol (The Book of Amal Donqol), ed Abla El-Reweini

*Mithl Saif Lan Yatakarar Kathiran: Mahkiyat (Like a Summer that will Not Often Repeat Itself: Anecdotes)

*Al-Sayida allati wa'l-Rajul alathi lam... (The Lady who and the Manwho did not ...), Sabri Moussa

*Buka'iya illa Hafiz Al-Shirazi (Elegy to Hafiz Al-Shirazi), Abdel-Wahab Al-Bayati

*Deen Al-Harafeesh fi Misr Al-Mahrousa (The Religion of the Harafeesh in Egypt the Protected), Ali Fahmi

*Al-Ibna Faten (Daughter Faten), Naim Sabri

*Siwa Door: Poems 1993-1997, Tom Lamont

*Tujar Al-Tawabil fi Misr fi'l-Asr Al-Mamluki ah (Spice Merchants in Egypt in the Mameluke Period), Mohamed Abdel-Ghani El-Ashqar

*Ragul Tayeb Yukalim Nafsah (A kind man who talks to himself), Girgis Shukri

*Nizwa: A quarterly literary Journal

*Al-Tifl Al-Manbuz (Testaments Betrayed), Milan Kundera

*Arba' Masrahiyat 'Iraqiya (Four Iraqi Plays)



Illustrations courtesy of International Commitee of the Red Cross
"Folk drawings and tales", Cairo, 1996

Journey of a giraffe


Can the journey of a giraffe from the deep south of Sudan to the capital of France provide the subject matter for a book? It certainly can, and in fact makes for singularly entertaining reading.

The journey was undertaken early in the last century by boat up the Nile, then by French ship across the Mediterranean from Alexandria to Marseilles and then by foot to Paris. Captured by order of Mohamed Ali, viceroy of Egypt, from near Sennar, the giraffe was just two-months-old when her mother was killed and she was strapped to the back of a camel and persuaded to accept milk from her captors. A matter of two-and-a-half-years later Zarafa walks into Paris to the acclaim of the capital's population.

The author of the book himself makes his own journey to follow the route taken by Zarafa, stopping where he will in his story to provide us with delightful asides about matters only indirectly concerned with the strange journey formerly undertaken by the giraffe. Thus he peoples his book with a number of fascinating characters: the wily Mohamed Ali, who for political reasons decided to make the gift of a giraffe to the French monarch of the time; Bernardino Drovetti, French consul in Egypt and a highly successful middleman, 'an expert at turning royal gratitude to his own financial advantage' and described as 'the most powerful European in Egypt and the first wholesale tomb robber', who successfully organised the giraffe's journey. Then there was Drovetti's groom, Hasan, who was in charge of the welfare of Zarafa, and Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, one of France's leading scientists who, despite the fact that he was no longer a young man and was suffering from gout and rheumatism, accompanied Zarafa on her 550 mile walk from Marseilles to Paris. Other larger than life characters that feature in the book include Dominique-Vivant Denon, the man 'who first brought Egypt back to France' with his sketches that fired the imagination of the French and brought about the Egyptomania that culminated in Champollion's deciphering of the Rosetta Stone, also Colonel Seves who, after a checkered career, landed up in Egypt, converted to Islam and adopted the name Soliman Pasha and never returned to his native France.

The book contains reproductions of lithographs and paintings of some of the main characters of the book, including several of the heroine after whom the book is named.

In his derivation of the word giraffe, the author correctly attributes it to the Arabic zarafa from which all the European languages derive their words for this unusual animal. The entry in Lane's famous Lexicon says about it: "a certain beast of beautiful make, the forelegs of which are longer than its hind legs; said to be called by a name signifying "jama'a" (i.e. collection) because it has the form of an assemblage of animals". The author of the book under review, however, makes the error of stating that the Arabic itself is derived from a root meaning 'delightful or charming', not realising that Arabic has the distinction of having two letters with a 'z' sound and that Zarafa derives her name from a word with a different first root letter.

If, improbably, there is some committee in Cairo dedicated to the task of choosing books to be translated into Arabic, a space should certainly be found for Zarafa in such a list.

Reviewed by Denys Johnson-Davies

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