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.


Comments are disabled for this article.

....

The Zafarani Files
By Gamal al-Ghitani
Translated by Farouk Abdel Wahab
Reviewed by Chad W. Post
335 pages, Hardcover
ISBN: 9789774161902
$27.95
One of Us Is Sleeping
One of Us Is Sleeping by Josefine Klougart
Reviewed by Jeremy Garber

We know so very little; so little that what we think to be knowledge is hardly worth reckoning with at all; instead we ought to settle for being pleasantly surprised if, on the edge of things, against all expectations, our. . .

Read More >

Bye Bye Blondie
Bye Bye Blondie by Virginie Despentes
Reviewed by Emma Ramadan

Many of Virginie Despentes’s books revolve around the same central idea: “To be born a woman [is] the worst fate in practically every society.” But this message is nearly always packaged in easy-to-read books that fill you with the pleasure. . .

Read More >

La Superba
La Superba by Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer
Reviewed by Anna Alden

Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer’s La Superba is appropriately titled after the Italian city of Genoa, where, after escaping the pressures of fame in his own country, the semi-autobiographical narrator finds himself cataloguing the experiences of its mesmerizing inhabitants with the intention. . .

Read More >

Intervenir/Intervene
Intervenir/Intervene by Dolores Dorantes; Rodrigo Flores Sánchez
Reviewed by Vincent Francone

It took reading 44 pages of Intervenir/Intervene before I began to get a sense of what Dolores Dorantes and Rodrigo Flores Sánchez were up to. Recurring throughout these 44 pages—throughout the entire book—are shovels, shovel smacks to the face, lobelias—aha!. . .

Read More >

All Days Are Night
All Days Are Night by Peter Stamm
Reviewed by Lori Feathers

As presaged by its title, contradiction is the theme of Peter Stamm’s novel, All Days Are Night. Gillian, a well-known television personality, remains unknowable to herself. And Hubert, a frustrated artist and Gillian’s lover, creates art through the process of. . .

Read More >

The Seven Good Years
The Seven Good Years by Etgar Keret
Reviewed by Vincent Francone

It’s a rare and wonderful book that begins and ends with violence and humor. At the start of Etgar Keret’s The Seven Good Years, Keret is in a hospital waiting for the birth of his first child while nurses, in. . .

Read More >

Human Acts
Human Acts by Han Kang
Reviewed by J.C. Sutcliffe

Last year, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian was an unexpected critical hit. Now, it’s just been published in the U.S. and has already received a great deal of positive critical attention. The Vegetarian was a bold book to attempt as an. . .

Read More >