Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Sunset Oasis

Sunset Oasis / Bahaa Taher; translated from the Arabic by Humphrey Davies.
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2009, c2007.
311 p.

I love stories of Egypt in the period between about 1890 and 1920 -- whether nonfiction or novels, serious or delightfully silly like the Amelia Peabody series by Elizabeth Peters.

So I picked this book up with great interest -- it's an Arabic novel written by an Egyptian, focused on the life of a fictional, though historically inspired, governor and his Irish wife, sent to rule a fractious oasis at Siwa in the last years of the 19th century. This book was also the winner of the first International Prize for Arabic Fiction (the "Arabic Booker") in 2008.

Mahmoud Abd el Zahir is a low-level official who hates British rule. He's been implicated in a minor rebellion and as punishment, is being sent to govern Siwa. This is a true punishment, because the Siwans hate Egyptian rule as much Abd el Zahir hates British. The previous two governors have both been killed in the line of duty.

To this unsettled new position, Abd el Zahir brings along his Irish wife Catherine. They have an affinity because they both despise British rule over their own countries, and because Catherine is completely in thrall to ancient Egyptian history, including the travels of Alexander the Great, who, as it happens, stopped in Siwa. Each of these characters, including Alexander the Great, take their turns as first-person narrators, which shapes the book in a slightly different manner than I'd first expected, but is really quite wonderful.

There are also a number of secondary characters -- Catherine's sister Fiona who visits them hoping to cure her TB; local healer Sheikh Yahya, who wishes for peace between rival clans of Siwans and between all the rulers of such; and local widow Maleeka who is rebelling against restrictive tradition. The story unfolds through the interaction of these characters, and the bigger issues that they represent. Of course, the effect of European and foreign meddling in Siwa is predictably and emphatically not helpful.

I really enjoyed this story; the tone and style of writing is in itself suited to the era, sounding rather reserved or formal at times. We don't always see the internal process of a character, sometimes they are just acting according to type.  Abd el Zahir is the most complex -- he questions his character, he believes he should be all good or all evil, he needs to be a hero in a time when that will never be possible for him. The novel revolves around bigger questions, not simply character, so the formal ideas behind the book come to life through the motion of the plot, which seems at times to be an inescapable fate for all involved. The story moves in its predetermined groove, and even the most rebellious character can not escape. 

Nevertheless, I thought this was an excellent read and a new vantage point on Egypt in this era. Definitely worth rereading to figure out all the small elements that shape the fate of each person -- the construction of the book is so careful, I am sure that there were deliberate hints and inclusions that I missed on the first time through. Definitely a satisfying read for anyone at all intrigued by Egyptian life in the 19th century, or even in the effects of history and economics and tradition on daily life and gender issues. Lots to think about here.


  1. I've just read Naguib Mahfouz's novel' Palace Walk' which is set in Egypt during and just after the First World War. It was superb and if you haven't read it then I can heartily recommend it. I'm definitely up for another in the same setting so I shall be looking out for this, thank you.

    1. I haven't read Palace Walk, thanks for the recommendation. I hope that if you do read this one you'll enjoy it too.


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