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.
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