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.

Comments are disabled for this article.


The Zafarani Files
By Gamal al-Ghitani
Translated by Farouk Abdel Wahab
Reviewed by Rachael Daum
340 pages, hardcover
ISBN: 9789774161902
The Odyssey
The Odyssey by Homer
Reviewed by Peter Constantine

Now goddess, child of Zeus,
tell the old story for our modern times.

–(The Odyssey, Book I, line 10. Emily Wilson)

In literary translation of works from other eras, there are always two basic tasks that a translator needs. . .

Read More >

I Remember Nightfall
I Remember Nightfall by Marosa di Giorgio
Reviewed by Talia Franks

I Remember Nightfall by Marosa di Giorgio (trans. From the Spanish by Jeannine Marie Pitas) is a bilingual poetry volume in four parts, consisting of the poems “The History of Violets,” “Magnolia,” “The War of the Orchards,” and “The Native. . .

Read More >

Joyce y las gallinas
Joyce y las gallinas by Anna Ballbona
Reviewed by Brendan Riley

This review was originally published as a report on the book at New Spanish Books, and has been reprinted here with permission of the reviewer. The book was originally published in the Catalan by Anagrama as Joyce i les. . .

Read More >

Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World
Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World by Ella Frances Sanders
Reviewed by Kaija Straumanis

Hello and greetings in the 2017 holiday season!

For those of you still looking for something to gift a friend or family member this winter season, or if you’re on the lookout for something to gift in the. . .

Read More >

The Size of the World
The Size of the World by Branko Anđić
Reviewed by Jaimie Lau

Three generations of men—a storyteller, his father and his son—encompass this book’s world. . . . it is a world of historical confusion, illusion, and hope of three generations of Belgraders.

The first and last sentences of the first. . .

Read More >

Island of Point Nemo
Island of Point Nemo by Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès
Reviewed by Katherine Rucker

The Island of Point Nemo is a novel tour by plane, train, automobile, blimp, horse, and submarine through a world that I can only hope is what Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès’s psyche looks like, giant squids and all.

What. . .

Read More >

The Truce
The Truce by Mario Benedetti
Reviewed by Adrianne Aron

Mario Benedetti (1920-2009), Uruguay’s most beloved writer, was a man who loved to bend the rules. He gave his haikus as many syllables as fit his mood, and wrote a play divided into sections instead of acts. In his country,. . .

Read More >