20 June 12 | Will Evans | Comments

The latest review to our Reviews Section is a piece by Rachael Daum on Gamal al-Ghitani’s The Zafarani Files, which Farouk Abdel Wahab translated from the Arabic and is available from The American University in Cairo Press.

Gamal Al-Ghitani was born in 1945 and educated in Cairo. He has written 13 novels and 6 collections of short stories. He is currently editor-in-chief of the literary review Akhbar al-adab.

Here is part of the review:

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.

Click here to read the entire review.

20 June 12 | Will Evans | Comments

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.

16 January 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the next five weeks, we’ll be highlighting a book a day from the Best Translated Book Award fiction longlist. Click here for all past write-ups.



The Zafarani Files by Gamal al-Ghitani. Translated from the Arabic by Farouk Abdel Wahab. (Egypt, American University in Cairo Press)

I came across The Zafarani Files at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair last March. At a pretty over-the-top ceremony in the Emirates Palace, Gamal al-Ghitani was awarded the Sheikh Zayed Book Award for Literature. (Which I believe is one of the wealthiest prizes in the world—certainly for Arabic writers—and comes complete with gold coin.) For ages I’d been wanting to get more AUC Press books, since, like most Americans, I hadn’t read very many works of contemporary Arabic fiction. And since the jacket copy for The Zafarani Files hit on the magical combination—“wicked humor” and “darkly comedic novel”—I thought I’d give this a try.

As mentioned in the review I wrote, I really didn’t know what to expect when I started this on the long flight from the UAE to JFK. I certainly didn’t expect an incredibly funny, inventive novel about an impotence curse . . .

The novel is made up of a number of different “Files” about the residents of Zafarani. These “Files” a written from a mysterious point of view, a cloaked observer who knows quite a bit about residents and the goings-on. And they have a sort of police file vibe, occasionally opening with a run down of a particular character’s vital characteristics:

Name: Hussein al-Haruni, also known as Radish-head [. . .]

Current Address: Number 3 Zafarani Alley

Distinguishing Marks: Height 127 cm; head elongated, curved, pointing upward, narrowing at the top like a sugar cone or radish; eyes round like marbles, pupils always cast down as if in consternation; lips parted, and sometimes visible, a very fine line of saliva threading its way from mouth to chin.

Following these brief descriptions is usually a little story about that particular character’s relation to the rest of the people in the neighborhood. About some recent developments in his/her life. Especially in his/her sexual relationships . . . See, at the start of this book, a number of men in Zafarani Alley have encountered a little problem. This bit about Usta Abdu Murad, a driver for the Cairo Transit Authority who is married to a former dancer, sets out the basic problem and puts the plot in motion:

The Usta spoke quickly and, just as his wife had instructed, came straight to the point, saying that his marital life was in jeopardy, that his home was falling apart, and that he didn’t know what to do. He was no longer able to fulfill his conjugal duties, and this had already lasted a week. When he 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.

As it turns out, all the males in the alley are impotent thanks to a curse placed on them by the sheikh that has three parts:

  • Any male whose feet touched the ground of Zafarani would be impaired.

  • Any child born from now on in Zafarani would be, a priori, a loser.

  • Any Zafarani woman who slept with any man, anywhere in the world, would make him impotent, without regard to nationality or religion.

He said that he had excluded one Zafarani man and one Zafarani woman for his own secret reasons, and that he would never reveal their names.

The ramifications of this curse—and all of the ensuing rules the sheikh imposes on the people of Zarafani with the stated goal of “bettering the world”—take on a global scale, as the curse spreads and the goings-on of the alley become more and more shrouded in mystery since no one can actually enter without suddenly becoming impotent—something no one wants.

What most intrigues me about this novel is the knitting together of the various characters and stories. Gamal al-Ghitani creates a wonderful, lively world that is more ironic, funny, and verbally dazzling than any other contemporary Arabic book that I’ve read in recent years.

13 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our review section is a piece on Gamal al-Ghitani’s The Zafarani Files. Al-Ghitani has a couple other books available in English translation from the American University of Cairo Press, including Pyramid Texts and The Mahfouz Dialogs. Based on the strength of this particular novel, I have the others on order . . .

All these reservations were washed away the second I opened this up on the flight home, and became enthralled in a very modern, very sophisticated story about life in Zafarani Alley, where a mental Sheikh wreaks havoc with the inhabitants in an attempt to better the world . . . by casting a spell of impotence over the alley.

The novel consists of a number of “Files” written by an unknown observer who is chronicling all the goings on in Zafarani. In the opening one, we’re introduced to each of the main characters, one-by-one, slowly knitting together a vision of the neighborhood as a whole.

First up is Usta Abdu Murad, a driver for the Cairo Transit Authority, who is married to a former dancer. Usta’s visit to Sheikh Atiya about a little problem he’s having sets in motion the novel’s primary plot:

“The Usta spoke quickly and, just as his wife had instructed, came straight to the point, saying that his marital life was in jeopardy, that his home was falling apart, and that he didn’t know what to do. He was no longer able to fulfill his conjugal duties, and this had already lasted a week. When he 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.”

Click here for the whole review.

13 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I picked this book up at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, the day after attending the Sheikh Zayed Book Awards, where Gamal al-Ghitani (aka Jamal Al Ghitani) won the award for Literature.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, based on the description of al-Ghitani’s work given at the event and on the above linked page:

This year the Literature Prize is awarded for a work that ventures the ancient history of Egypt in effort to revive the myths and stories through the use of sufistic parables. [. . .] The book is the 6th volume of Dafater Al- Tadween, and encompasses the spiritual journey of the writer paralleled with an actual travel he assumes from the Pyramid Plateau to the Southern parts of Egypt.

It doesn’t help—and this is literally my only complaint about the book—that American University of Cairo’s design is what it is. The look of the novel is OK, but just OK—the pages are a bit too white and heavy, the cover image not quite as attractive as it could be, the whole package feeling just a bit out of step with time . . .

All these reservations were washed away the second I opened this up on the flight home, and became enthralled in a very modern, very sophisticated story about life in Zafarani Alley, where a mental Sheikh wreaks havoc with the inhabitants in an attempt to better the world . . . by casting a spell of impotence over the alley.

The novel consists of a number of “Files” written by an unknown observer who is chronicling all the goings on in Zafarani. In the opening one, we’re introduced to each of the main characters, one-by-one, slowly knitting together a vision of the neighborhood as a whole.

First up is Usta Abdu Murad, a driver for the Cairo Transit Authority, who is married to a former dancer. Usta’s visit to Sheikh Atiya about a little problem he’s having sets in motion the novel’s primary plot:

The Usta spoke quickly and, just as his wife had instructed, came straight to the point, saying that his marital life was in jeopardy, that his home was falling apart, and that he didn’t know what to do. He was no longer able to fulfill his conjugal duties, and this had already lasted a week. When he 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.

As it turns out, all of the male characters we’re introduced to—with all their vital stats, including “Name,” “Occupation,” “Place of Birth,” “Current Address,” “Distinguishing Marks,” and “Marital Status and Some Relevant Developments”—are impotent. And at a special gathering, the sheikh explains that it’s all due to a curse he’s put on the people of Zafarani that has three parts:

  • Any male whose feet touched the ground of Zafarani would be impaired.

  • Any child born from now on in Zafarani would be, a priori, a loser.

  • Any Zafarani woman who slept with any man, anywhere in the world, would make him impotent, without regard to nationality or religion.

He said that he had excluded one Zafarani man and one Zafarani woman for his own secret reasons, and that he would never reveal their names.

As the novel progresses, the sheikh dictates other rules to follow, including when and what everyone would eat for breakfast, when everyone had to be in bed, etc. And the “Files” that make up the book start becoming more political, incorporating reports from Egyptian authorities about the “Zafarani situation.” Since no one can enter without becoming impotent—and no one wants that—what’s actually going on in the neighborhood is a bit mysterious. The sheikh eventually puts forth some statements about the “situation” and how this is the first step in his plan to better society. And when this curse starts spreading throughout the world . . .

Al-Ghitani (and by extension the translator Farouk Abdel Wahab) strikes a perfect tone in the book, weaving together numerous compelling stories about the inhabitants of Zafarani alley in a often joyful way, creating an overarching narrative about power that can be interpreted in several ways—or simply enjoyed as a great work of literature.

....
The Skin
The Skin by Curzio Malaparte
Reviewed by Peter Biello

“I preferred the war to the plague,” writes Curzio Malaparte in his 1949 novel, The Skin. He speaks of World War II and the destruction it has wrought on Italy, the city of Naples in particular. But the plague he. . .

Read More >

Love Sonnets & Elegies
Love Sonnets & Elegies by Louise Labé
Reviewed by Brandy Harrison

With the steady rise of feminist scholarship and criticism in recent decades, it is little wonder that the work of Louise Labé should be attracting, as Richard Sieburth tells us in the Afterword to his translation, a “wide and thriving”. . .

Read More >

Conversations
Conversations by César Aira
Reviewed by Tiffany Nichols

In Conversations, we find ourselves again in the protagonist’s conscious and subconscious, which is mostly likely that of Mr. César Aira and consistent with prototypical Aira style. This style never fails because each time Aira is able to develop a. . .

Read More >

Nothing Ever Happens
Nothing Ever Happens by José Ovejero
Reviewed by Juan Carlos Postigo

You are not ashamed of what you do, but of what they see you do. Without realizing it, life can be an accumulation of secrets that permeates every last minute of our routine . . .

The narrative history of. . .

Read More >

The Pendragon Legend
The Pendragon Legend by Antal Szerb
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

Literature in translation often comes with a certain pedigree. In this little corner of the world, with so few books making it into this comforting nook, it is often those of the highest quality that cross through, and attention is. . .

Read More >

Mr. Gwyn
Mr. Gwyn by Alessandro Baricco
Reviewed by Paul Doyle

Alessandro Baricco’s Mr. Gwyn is a set of two loosely interlinked novellas that play with narrative and the construction of character. Ably translated by Ann Goldstein, Mr. Gwyn plays some subtle metafictional games as Baricco delves into what it means. . .

Read More >

Bombay Stories
Bombay Stories by Saadat Hasan Manto
Reviewed by Will Eells

I must admit upfront that I went into reading Saadat Hasan Manto’s Bombay Stories almost entirely blind. I have not read Salman Rushdie. I have read, perhaps, two short stories by Jhumpa Lahiri. I might shamefully add that I really. . .

Read More >