16 January 10 | Chad W. Post

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.

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