The Zafarani Files

The Zafarani Files, a book with a misleadingly objective-sounding title, is, in short, a book full of all the deliciously taboo restrictions of traditional Arabic society, namely sex and lust. Despite having firsthand experience with Arabic culture, this reader, for one, was certainly surprised with the sheer lack of restraint in shamelessly allowing the reader to know everything—absolutely everything—about the novel’s characters. However, throughout his career, the author, Gamal al-Ghitani, has never shied away from taboo topics, and indeed seems to embrace them: these topics range from politics and cen¬sorship to the content of this sexually-charged (and ultimately utterly frustrated) novel.

The book is playful and utterly merciless in its content, immersing the reader into a world of both the tame and illicit that can and does happen between two (and sometimes more!) people under the bedsheets. The novel opens with Usta Abdu going to Zafarani alley’s local sheikh, informing him of and hoping for a cure for his sudden impotence. The language is wicked in its description of the issue:

When [Usta Abdu] was engaged to be married, but before signing the contract, his fiancee, as she then was, had asked him specifically, “Can you water the soil, daily?” Refusing to believe his nod of affirmation, she had tested him thoroughly. For many years, apart from the days of her period, he had not ceased. She would fall ill and lose weight if he failed to mount her each and every day. This passing of a dry, unproductive week had been terrible, especially since his condition was showing no signs of improvement. He was getting so tense and his nerves were so bad that he now thought twice about going home.

It soon comes out that all the men in Zafarani have fallen under the same spell cast by the sheikh him-self. No man in Zafarani has the ability to please his woman, much to the shame of the men and the lamentation of the women in the alley. Any man who sets foot in the alley is likewise doomed, thus isolating the inhabitants. Not until later is it revealed that the sheikh has cast the spell upon its mem¬bers to “shock” the world and force it into a less “primitive” phase of existence. The sheikh promises that Zafarani is only the beginning, and soon the whole world will feel the effects of his magic.

All the happy and tragic sides of relationships are explored in the pages of this novel. From the old married couple, to the old man named Radish-head married to a fourteen-year-old white girl, to the man whose lover left him for his best friend, to the university student who cannot find herself a mate, to the abused divorcee who finds contentment outside of sex, no facet is left unexamined. More than that: even homosexuality, in the baker and the voice of the sheikh, is explored, if hastily. Interesting also are the reactions of those in the alley to the affliction that has come over the men. Some disobey the sheikh’s orders and leave; one woman, the sex-addicted woman referenced above, takes to the streets to escape death; one man loses his mind and believes he is a general on par with Hitler and Rommel; and another woman finds she does just well enough without it, asking her lover only to sit with her in the sun in a park. Al-Ghitani spares nothing and exposes his characters and readers to all, offering a spectrum of reactions, thus challenging the reader to guess what his own would be.

If anything, it is truly the voice of the narrative that is the most captivating part of this novel. It seamlessly weaves the stories into each other while not allowing the reader to be overly confused by the multitude of names, shifting from one story to the other. The unnamed narrator, the collector of these frustrations, has a chameleon-esque way of moving from voice to voice. Whether it’s making in¬timate observations about how Radish-head’s “breathing would get heavier as he made love to [Farida, his young green-eyed wife], while she would amuse herself by sucking a piece of candy…”, or posing thoughtful suppositions that the sheikh “was born with a full beard and that before coming out of his mother’s womb, he had recited verses from the Qur’an”, or assuming the formal police attendee’s voice writing up the reports that take up the majority of the book—the writing is sleek and smooth as the old cafe-owner’s hookah smoke. This indeed is much of what makes the humour viable in the book: even in the “serious” policeman-voice sections, it is littered with alluded reports from the “Supreme Depart¬ment of Eavesdropping”, the “Supreme Legitimately-Elected Assembly”, and the “Supreme Authority for the Collection of Jokes and Rumours”, being mischievous tongue-in-cheek references to the multi¬tudes of councils and authorities in Egypt at the time.

Concerning the translation of the book, Farouk Abdel Wahab weaves in the references to Arab culture, difficult for a completely foreign audience to understand, smoothly and coherently—almost imperceptively. Simply the direct translations of people’s greetings of “God is great!” and the praising of God in many instances does much to allow the American reader into the text. The translator also made a masterful decision to allow many of the idioms to remain the same between the languages: for example, there is no need to find an English equivalent of the Arab saying that translates to, “The bullet that misses you can still give you a headache”. It’s self-explanatory within the context of one of the men of Zafarani worrying that, though he may have temporarily been spared by the sheik, he still ought to see him. The choice to leave it is advantageous in any event, as the role of a gun is prominent with another Zafarani man later in the book (and that a gun is a symbol of manhood does not hurt the case either!). The voicing reads cleverly and smoothly in English, and Wahab surely deserves commenda¬tion for his feat of weaving these voices and happenings together in a way which retains the playful humour of the original author.

It is a shame that it took until 2008 to get this book, published in 1979, translated into English. In our current time it is becoming fashionable to read books with Arab authors, given the political situ-ation in our world. And while al-Ghitani is in fact a political writer, it would do him an unjustice not to remember that his politics when he wrote the novel are quite different than ours today. His sheikh spoke of uniting a world and shocking it into a less primitive, sex-driven state, something fairly universal; however, his characters reference East and West Germany, the crisis of the U.S. in Vietnam, among other timely world issues. The world has changed since then, countries have united and fallen, and politics, while still volatile, revolve on different axes than when al-Ghitani wrote The Zafarani Files. Ultimately, this is a book for those who have some political interest, but are more interested in the humanity of common people—those who are poor and those who are not—and what happens to them when one of the most basic human drives, the drive to reproduce and enjoy doing it, is taken away, as the characters, in their ensuing madnesses, betrayals, and coming-togethers, are mirrors for the reader to hold up to himself.

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