Sectarian Strife in Sonallah Ibrahim’s 1992 Novel, Zaat

Zaat is a novel by maverick Egyptian author Sonallah Ibrahim, published in 1992.

The book is classic Ibrahim in that it uses a pastiche of headlines, captions, factoids, and advertisements as well as the life of the titular character, Zaat. The novel provides social criticism of the Egypt under Egypt’s three post-colonial presidents: Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak. Capitalism and corruption are core themes; sectarianism can also be found.

The news items that Zaat collects include attacks by the Jamaa al-Islamiyya on Christian citizens. But more interestingly, this moment of office politics, which calls to mind Hani Shukrallah’s “J’accuse“:

She applied herself eagerly to this task, for she found in Nadia a submissive and patient receiver for replays of old transmission tapes, and she failed to notice the real boycott that her new friend had been subjected to. Zaat only discovered this when Nadia did not come into work one day and she went to sign her name in the attendance register, as was the custom and spirit of solidarity among the workers. All of a sudden there was Rabbit Face, exploding at her with penciled eyebrows raised: “Have we no one but this Christian to sign in for now?”

Kind generous Zaat was a loyal daughter of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s revolution, brought up on the principle that all people are equal regardless of religion or sex or wealth or rank or position. For this reason she had omitted to inquire after Nadia’s family name in order to ascertain her true identity, a fact that had not been ignored by the vigilant machines. In order to atone for her mistake she began to reassess her convictions, going over in her mind the different Christians she had known: their outer appearances, their clothes, their accents, their kinds of food and drink, their behavior, looking for the secret of this strange consensus against them. All she could find was the green crucifix that swung between the breasts of one of the editors, and a bronze statue of hte Virgin that Aminophis used to protect the papers of his encyclopedia, but she was a coward and she stopped visiting Aminophis in his office and she avoided Nadia.

The machines, so it seemed, did not accept the Christian offering, and Zaat, who failed to understand the real reason for the persecution to which she was being subjected, was overwhelmed with despair.

Also: For a first-person perspective on sectarian strife and the Jamaa al-Islamiyya, I recommend Life is More Beautiful than Paradise, the memoir of IPAF-shortlisted Egyptian novelist Khaled al-Berry.