Egyptian novelist Mohamed Mansi Qandil was, like many Egyptian authors, trained as a doctor. In 2006, he came to prominence after publishing the fantastically multilayered Moon Over Samarqand, trans. Jennifer Peterson (2009) and discussed here by Margaret Litvin. In 2010, he was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction for his next novel, Cloudy Day on the West Side. Now, in 2012, he has out a new novel from Dar al Shorouk: Ana ‘Ashiqt (I Fell in Love). Poet, scholar, and critic Mohga Hassib discusses the new novel below.
A true romantic at heart – Muḥammad al-Mansī Qandīl’s most recent work, published in 2012 by Dar El Shorouk, ius titled Ana ʿAshiqt (I Fell in Love). But this love is not just your typical boy-girl story: The novel is about the love of one’s country – specifically of Egypt at the height of its corruption.
Ana ʿAshiqt has two narratives: The first is that of the love story between the beautiful Ward (flowers), a small town girl, and her estranged lover Hassan. Ward parts with Hassan, a disgruntled TA at Cairo University’s Engineering faculty, who has no home or hope in the future, at the train station. She remains frozen in her spot with a melancholic expression on her face – half alive, with only her heart beating. But Ward proves to be stronger that the force exacted by the paramedics and the police officer’s attempts to remove her from her location – leaving everyone baffled by her state and story.
Ali, a student in his last year at medical school, infatuated by Ward’s beauty and consumed by her status, sets out to search for Hassan hoping that he will revive the blood flow in Ward’s veins by his return. Through his search journey for Hassan, Ali — the narrator — recounts a political and social satire of his country.
Qandīl’s novel was published one year after the revolution, opening the question of whether at the time of writing it he was contemplating or predicting the occurrence of the revolution in view of the state of the corruption the country has reached. Or it is a study of the factors leading to the occurrence of the revolution?
The novel is an accurate portrayal of the country through the main characters: the narrator, the heroine, and her absent lover. In my opinion, the girl represents Egypt in the last stages before the revolution in being frozen in time and ambiguous to the public. The country was like a zombie, and as a reader you anticipate whether it will return to life or wither away and die. It is through the search for Hassan that the readers are exposed to or discover the various types of corruption across all the social classes in the country – from the police officers to the working class, from educated university students to normal citizens. It is a journey that takes you to show you the level of corruption that crept to the endless core while Ward is in a critical state. The readers hold their breath while reading to see if the girl will breathe again or is this her final hour.
The political arena is portraye through the police force, and through how it abused its power with the citizens, especially the ones below the middle class through the practices of oppression and torture. Also, social status is represented through the extreme poverty and the severe depression all the people suffer whether in Cairo or other marginalized governorates. The instable economy caused civilians to be plunged into extreme poverty; this is portrayed through the ferocious dogs that are starved to point that they attack the people in the streets and repeatedly attempt to devour Ward. The dogs’ attack also symbolizes the dogs of the country in attempting to take any bite away and sucking the life out of their country. The dogs are attacking in front of people; the corruption was everywhere that no one cared to stand up to it.
This brings to mind Miramar by Naguib Mahfouz, where Zohra is a representative of Egypt after the toppling of the monarchy and withstands the various attacks of the different political parties. Qandīl draws on real-life stories in his portrayal of the atrocities committed by the government to their people.
One happens when ‘Ali reaches a place called Qal’at al-Kabsh. Here, there is an implication that the government has burnt down the place deliberately to force the poor people out of their homes. This scheme is due to the government’s selling the land to foreign investors without having to compensate the land’s locals. The place is described as a den for all the dealers, murderers and thieves and the government could not even leave this place to the poor people, making them homeless.
‘Ali continues to encounter various people and places is his search for Hassan, and the novel lays great emphasis on the fact that nothing is what it appears to be. This includes Hassan himself — who contrived to create a dual identity.
Ana ‘Ashiqt is an emotionally stirring novel that captures the deepest desires of the human self. Muḥammad al-Mansī Qandīl is a contemporary novelist who has the talent of captivating his readers. He contrives to capture the gradual loss of innocence of the protagonist in the bustling political capital with its abrasiveness. Will ‘Ali lose direction in his search journey to save Ward? Will Ward return to life and bloom to have a full life in a falling country? The novel ends on morbid note where the good is not recognized and goes unrewarded. This novel is worth seeing on the shortlist of an award.