Al-Ahram Weekly Online   30 March - 5 April 2006
Issue No. 788
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Bucolic horror

Youssef Abu Raya's novel Laylat 'Urs, which will appear in an English translation later this year after winning the American University in Cairo's 2005 Naguib Mahfouz medal, depicts a suffocating reality through the prism of village life, writes Ibrahim Fathi

Youssef Abu Raya

Youssef Abu Raya's novel Laylat 'Urs (Wedding Night) is set in a rural town, a microcosm of Egypt, that begins as a village and eventually becomes a large, modern city. It is the site of the confluence of many stories from Arab countries and beyond. The events take place sometime between the defeat of 1967 and the October War of 1973. The novel contains echoes of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Chronicle of a Death Foretold, certainly in the manner in which an entire town colludes to rid itself of a symbol of sexual vitality, though Raya's town, in the end, is perhaps closer to that in the Steinbeck story "Johnny Bear". Houda, the deaf and dumb protagonist of Laylat 'Urs, resembles Steinbeck's eponymous hero: both excel in expressing themselves through gestures. Houda may be deaf and dumb, but he clutches all the secrets of the town to his bosom. Like Johnny Bear, and his Egyptian incarnation in Youssef Idris's "Al-Sheikh Sheikha", it is the fear that Houda will upset the secret symbols of decorum that leads to the conspiracy against him.

Yet of Al-Sheikh Sheikha and Johnny Bear, Houda is closer to the latter. He is a talented actor and mimic who, despite being unable to speak, is probably cleverer than any of the town's other residents, the secrets of whose beds and hearts he knows. It is in that knowledge that danger resides. He mimics the gestures of a teacher as he seduces a young female pupil, the moves a driver makes towards his female passenger, and those of the doctor examining a patient.

Through running errands he comes to know the gossips of the town, who accepts bribes, who is conducting an affair with whom. He knows which of his fellow residents is enamoured of young boys and girls, knows those godless fellow citizens who engage in bestiality.

This mute man is the most eloquent person in town when he speaks of politics. Israel is one-eyed Dayan, the government a prayer mark on the forehead, two hands in shackles and a stealthy informant with roving eyes. He warns strangers of the dangers of talking about politics with a gesture indicating that they will disappear behind the sun. He knows everyone better than he should, a knowledge that provides fertile ground for the sowing of vendettas.

How does the town in Laylat 'Urs exact its revenge on Houda? In describing that revenge Youssef Abu Raya draws on Al-Tahir Wattar's 'Urs Baghl (A Donkey's Wedding), a satirical tale that replicates the rituals of marriage but in an imaginary wedding. In Laylat 'Urs Sheikh Sa'dun El-Husari panders to the desire of Houda's boss, the breast of whose wife Houda has grabbed, and indeed of the entire town, to humiliate him by announcing Houda's marriage to an effeminate boy without his knowledge, and then going through all the rituals of this imaginary wedding.

How does the novel depict Houda's crime and his redemption from the conspiracy to disgrace him? Sex is central to the character of Houda, and to his relationships with others. Part of him is drowning in repressed desire of the most primitive kind: early in the novel he is portrayed glancing lasciviously at the woman who, by the novel's end, will save him by making love to him at a real wedding, releasing him from delusions and his flight from the sinful town. His eyes undress her body and ravage it. Before that, desire overpowers his will and his hands as he craves to hold the beautiful, well- proportioned body that the narrator describes as divine. The woman resists his sudden attack, though she is not immune to his desire for her beauty. She is not a woman who conforms to a customary public modesty.

Houda will attack. He grabs the small breasts of a young girl leading her blind sister along the path to the cemetery simply because he is aroused by the sight of her buttocks. The sudden surge of desire is stronger than his will. Indeed, it seems that Houda has reduced women solely to their breasts and buttocks, objects to which he reacts with mechanical reflex. His female neighbours toy with Houda when he flirts with them. He probes and pinches, and with a fleeting gesture places his hand onto the breast of one of them. He mimics the actions of their men and, on one occasion, carrying a suckling baby back to its mother, slyly places his hand between her breasts.

Sex, faith and morality fuse in a spontaneous inclination that acknowledges only the innateness of desire, a tendency within the narrative that may be a response to the monstrously repressive values obtaining in society. Yet the biological determinism of the narrative is contained by a language redolent with a naive Sufism and emotional involvement that lifts the sentimental to the level of the moral.

Houda's sexual fantasies are aesthetic -- it is the geometry of the body and its effect when covered in clothes that appeals to him. His fantasies are tied to a hoped-for marriage, and the conscientious work and independent home that will ensue. For Houda there is a non-corporeal halo that surrounds the body. Encountering the body shorn of that halo, as is the case with Aziza, who is sexually available to all, Houda feels only the urge to be sick after his mechanical arousal.

Laylat 'Urs 's omniscient narrator not only describes things and events, he delineates depths within the characters with an objective, authorial voice. The depth of the soul does not reveal itself through interior monologues but, rather, through what critics term free indirect discourse. The internal, private conversations of characters are rhetorical, and reveal more than their speech, for dialogue is always connected to quotidian activity.

Another of Laylat 'Urs 's tributaries is Al-Balad (The Town) by Abbas Ahmed, and its concern with the disappearance of traditional crafts and their practitioners -- the ironsmith, the carpenter, the potter, mat-maker and barber who would collect their fees annually. Then there is Abdel-Fattah El-Gamal's Al-Khawf ( Fear), which focuses on what has befallen these crafts and craftmen. But the village periphery of Youssef Abu Raya's town differs significantly from the villages of Mohamed Hussein Heikal and Abdel-Halim Abdullah, and even of Abdel-Rahman El-Sharqawi's Al-Ard (translated into English under the title Egyptian Earth ) and Youssef Idris's Al-Haram (Taboo). The struggle of Abdel-Hadi in Al-Ard is no longer possible in the view of Abu Raya, who appears not to have heard of the number of those killed and imprisoned following for resisting the land rent law.

"Wedding Night" has its own currents and structure. The town in which it is set has been paralysed by the ebb and flow of history. The novel begins and ends with the same lines, a device that serves to close the circle. A blind man climbs the minaret of the mosque in the market, glorifying God before the call to dawn prayer. We then move from the blind man to the deaf and dumb man, to the student of the religious institute with his paralysed leg, to the blind beggar, to one-eyed Aziza in the coffeehouse, to the bouza -seller with her glass eye and a son who chose to be female -- a catalogue of human ailments that ends with the impotent Sheikh Sa'dun, who finds no relief from his condition in ointments, and the disease- ridden husband of Houda's sweetheart.

The social order within the town is unbalanced. Houda's boss who pays for the wedding began his life working for his father, gathering offal from outside the abattoir and collecting the carcasses of animals that die before they are slaughtered, swindling in the name of God. Following the death of his father and the defeat of 1967, this man remembers nothing of the sacrifices made by army conscripts from the town, recalling only the sudden influx of army units to the locale and his fortuitous meeting with an officer in a drug den. He uses a piece of meat as bait for the officer, and is soon supplying the entire unit, a profitable enterprise that in the six years between the defeat of 1967 and the 1973 crossing of the Suez Canal allows him to acquire buildings and livestock barns.

Romantic interludes play a larger role in the novel than is absolutely necessary. In his youth the boss loved a beautiful girl from the upper classes who married an engineer. He remains infatuated with this woman following her marriage and his own fathering of children who all go on to take graduate degrees. When her husband is killed by a car he more or less purchases her from her family by signing one of his buildings over to her. Even at this stage he continues to view her as a paradisial virgin: in the words of the author, she continued to shine with the same calm, angelic light even after he glanced through the transparency of her soft, white robe to the deep darkness of her underwear.

Sheikh Sa'dun El-Husari who, after losing his job, follows a vague call as a dervish, travelling to moulids though he has no connection with any specific Sufi order and who gives the mu'allim -- out of love for God's Prophet -- a mixture that makes believers forget their prayers with all the urgency of coitus, believes it is also for the sake of the Prophet that he is planning the imaginary wedding, exacting revenge on Houda who once, when the sheikh was praying, threw a brick at his raised posterior. When he approaches the effeminate boy to strike a deal, he is, significantly, fingering his prayer beads.

The townspeople distinguish between bouza sessions, which are forbidden, and hashish sessions, which are permissible. Clients for the former are practitioners of trades that have been hard hit: they curse the passing of time and recall former glories. One becomes mad, setting himself alight, screaming "Fire! Be coolness and safety on Kaka!" Sessions at which hashish is smoked, by contrast, involve far more than getting stoned. Intoxication with the drug supposedly mirrors an intoxication with the beauty of the beloved, the Prophet. The smoking of hashish becomes a way of life, a pathway to beauty, companionship, release and sexual potency. It is replete with ritual, rolling up, passing around, with smells and textures, and coded phrases such as "night of nightingale." Participants do not sink into introversion as do those at the bouza. Rather, they are integrated within the group, sharing a state of mind and an imaginary life.

The novel's depiction of the smoking of hashish is far removed from the tendency of Cairene based intellectuals to turn such sessions into a kind of underground counter culture. Rather, it is the prerogative of the religious conservative, and one which people from across the social spectrum enjoy. The law simply turns a blind eye.

The narrative's main register of playful irony dominates both the preparation for the wedding and the wedding day itself. The first part shifts from Houda to the boss, Osman, and his household, then on to Sheikh Sa'dun and his world before returning to Houda. The second part follows the revenge conspiracy by tracking Houda's movements and recording his internal discussions, imaginings and preparations for the wedding, before moving on to the effeminate boy and his memories, Houda's hapless brother and eventually Houda's own salvation.

The symbolism of the novel is not abstract. It is immersed in a suffocating reality, from which the individual can always flee. The question is to where?

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