Al-Ahram Ueekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
8 - 14 June 2000
Issue No. 485
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Of birds and men

Reviewed by Mona Anis

Malik Al-Hazin Asafir Al-Nil
Malik Al-Hazin (Heron), Ibrahim Aslan, Cairo: Al-Kahira publications, 1983. pp150
Asafir Al-Nil (Nile Sparrows), Ibrahim Aslan, Cairo: General Organization for Cultural Palaces Publications, 2000. pp226

I do not know if others felt the way I felt when I heard, some weeks ago, that the Egyptian writer Ibrahim Aslan had been summoned to the Office of the Prosecutor General to be interrogated in connection with the by now much-publicised events that accompanied the publication in Egypt of the novel A Banquet for Seaweed by the Syrian writer Haydar Haydar. Aslan is the general editor of the Ministry of Culture's series of classic modern Arabic fiction, in which the novel appeared.

My immediate response to this rather Kafkaesque situation, in which a writer had been accused of an alleged offence figuring in a work he himself did not write, was that such a situation was more fitting for Aslan's fellow Egyptian novelist Son'allah Ibrahim. It was Ibrahim, after all, who, having spent several years as a political prisoner in the 1950s and 60s, had set himself the task of investigating to the full the sense of the Kafkaesque in Arab reality.

And it might, perhaps, be amusing to see the transcript of Aslan's night-time interrogation which, we are told, lasted some eight hours, from 10pm to 6am on 10 and 11 May. That text, one feels, could lend itself to the kind of sinister parody in which Ibrahim has specialised, and it would be given an extra edge if both Ibrahim and Aslan could be persuaded to combine their talents on it. The former could bring his skill at rendering the full menace of interrogation and the menacingly ambiguous questions that are posed there to law-abiding citizens unaware of having committed the slightest offence, while the latter, Aslan, could contribute his brief, meticulous and wonderfully understated prose, which never loses sight of the comic in the everyday lives of ordinary people that he so masterfully depicts.

For, in many ways, Aslan is himself a quintessential Egyptian citizen, if ever such a thing existed. He is a witty, tactful, law-abiding person, and one capable of taking almost anything in his stride without losing his sense of humour or of irony.

An autodidact who rose from a Cairo working-class background to become one of the most distinguished Arab fiction writers, Ibrahim Aslan is not exactly a prolific writer. Following the appearance of his first collection of short stories, Buhayrat al-Masaa (Evening Lake), some 30 years ago, readers and critics eagerly awaited a follow-up, as, indeed, did his fellow writers. All were impressed by this new voice on the fiction scene. However, apart from the occasional short story published in some fringe literary magazine or journal, they had to wait 12 years, until 1983, for Aslan to publish his second work, this time a novel, Malik Al-Hazin, which took the literary establishment by storm. In the words of the Lebanese novelist Elias Khouri "this was a novel that would make any Arab novelist green with envy."

illustration: Gamil Shafiq

Following the appearance of Malik Al-Hazin, Yusuf Wa al-Ridaa (Youssef and the Robe), a collection of short stories, was published in 1987. Following that Wardiyat layl (Night Shift), a novella built from a series of short scenes (see Review, p.3), appeared in 1992. Finally, Asafir Al-Nil (Nile Sparrows) was published in late 1999. The first edition appeared out of Beirut, while an Egyptian edition appeared last month, one day after Aslan had been summoned to the Prosecutor General's Office.

Like Malik Al-Hazin, Nile Sparrows takes as its protagonist a character who grew up in the working-class district of Imbaba, and more specifically in that part of the district close to the Nile known as Al-Kit-Kat after a famous night club of the same name that has long since disappeared. In both novels the two protagonists watched the changes that life brings, and the closing of horizons that seems to go with it, with the same kind of resigned melancholy that we recognise in all Aslan's work, which is, indeed, a feature of the author himself.

Nile Sparrows can, at least in part, be read as a kind of sequel to Malik Al-Hazin, despite the almost three decades that separate the writing of the two works. We recognise, in the new novel's story of the aging character Abdullah Ibn-Osman, that this man is, in fact, an older, more experienced and less defiant version of the young Youssef El-Naggar of the 1960s and 70s, the protagonist of Malik Al-Hazin.

Malik Al-Hazin, which translated literally means 'Malik the sad', is also the Egyptian Arabic for heron, and the epigraph that Aslan put at the beginning of his 1983 novel sets the tone for identifying this bird with Youssef El-Naggar. "They claimed," it reads, "that you sit near waterways and streams, and that once they become dry or shallow, grief overwhelms you, rendering you silent and sad."

However, unlike the life of Youssef El-Naggar, staged in the Cairo of the 1960s and 1970s in which a young, aspiring writer lives out a detached and socially alienated life -- the novel containing very little by way of information on his family connections -- Abdullah's life in Asafir Al-Nil is bogged down and grounded in familial relations, which are now the novel's focus. Youssef had had only one concern: what, and how, to write (see extract below). Abdullah, on the other hand, has put his pen to one side.

The novel begins with Abdullah's being informed that his maternal grandmother, now over a hundred years old and senile, is nowhere to be found in her house in Al-Kit -Kat, and that consequently Abdullah will have to go to the village in which he was born, a village that he has hardly seen since his family moved to Cairo when he was very young, in order to see if his grandmother has by some chance arrived there. The novel ends without Abdullah having made the trip and with his grandmother sitting under the tree on the riverbank, where she had spent the past few nights, shouting at the donkey-carts that come into the city at dawn carrying vegetables from the countryside "So, you think you could take me back with you to the village."

Between the opening scene and the closing one, numerous anecdotes are remembered by Abdullah, most of them having to do with the members of his extended family and the circumstances of their arrival in the city. Much is made of the process of their acculturation to city life, and to their retention of various aspects of their peasant roots. There are some hilarious anecdotes, such as, for example, the story of Abdullah's uncle who, when he first arrived in the city, had gone to fish in the Nile much to the embarrassment of his more sophisticated young nephew Abdullah and had ended up by catching a sparrow on the hook of his fishing line.

Anyone who is familiar with the work of Ibrahim Aslan will not fail to recognise that the author knows something about fishing, and indeed Aslan has a lifelong devotion to fishing. All that perching on stones for hour after hour on the banks of the Nile must have sharpened his senses to such an extent that he can keep them at full alert with ease. It must have trained him, too, in the art of seeing and of finely judging what he sees. "Nile Sparrows", a cunningly woven narrative that casts backwards to youth and forwards to old age, from inherited preoccupations to contemporary angst, and which has all of Aslan's trademark exploration of innocence and experience at its heart, will be welcomed by those who waited, long and impatiently, for Aslan's earlier works.

It is a novel to make any writer green with envy.

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