Reading Novels, Reading History: The Loneliness of the Sadat Era

At the nudging of @TheObserveress, I have been compiling a list of beautifully formed, fun, and/or interesting historical novels that comment on various significant times, from the pharaonic era to not-quite-now:

imagesOne that I’ve enjoyed recently is Ibrahim Abdelmeguid’s The House of Jasmine (1986, Eng 2012), which is set during Anwar Sadat-era Egypt, 1970-1981. Its protagonist, Shagara, has virtually the same unusual name as the protagonist of Radwa Ashour’s Sadat-era Specters. (Ashour’s protagonist, a woman, is Shagar.) More on that later, probably.

Abdelmeguid’s novel, shaped as a message from the narrator to his son, is more modestly structured than Ashour’s. House of Jasmine is enjoyably quiet, and while politics roar around the edges — Nixon’s visit, Camp David, the 1977 “bread riots” — Shagara and his friends remain outside the swirl, choosing not to take up with any particular ideology.

Shagara does participate in one of the “bread riot” protests of ’77, and is arrested, but he didn’t actively decide to protest: He simply finds himself there among the crowds. He understands it was the right thing to do, but he doesn’t continue down this path after his arrest and release. He is largely lost in a fog, unable to decide how to move forward. He’s also often exceptionally lonely, focusing only on petty work and petty corruptions, even when the means of easing his loneliness are easily at his disposal.

Abdelmeguid’s Shagara is a tall, handsome man who works as an administrator in an Alexandria ship-building factory (Ashour’s Shagar, as you might remember, is a Cairo university professor with a bad leg), where he siphons off small amounts of money for his personal use. He thus saves money and rises in the workplace and in the union. He realizes that his path isn’t right, and recognizes the integrity of his friends, but doesn’t quite have the power to stop himself as he bobs among the bigger Sadat-era sharks.

Many of the scenes — such as in the election tent of Hagg Luqman, who is “running” for office — are beautifully rendered, but the book’s real accomplishment is to escape Shagara’s fog in a few clear moments, when he finds absolute joy in sea air, the promise of impending parenthood, and in hot tea on a rainy Alexandria day. And, more than that, his moments of clarity while narrating the novel itself.

One could say, of House of Jasmine, that “it predicts the January 25 uprising” although most works of social realism set in Egypt, done well, should show these seeds. It’s more than that: a work of humanity, in which any reader can find his fogs, indecisions and lonelinesses, as well as those moments of beautiful clarity.

However, from a “predictive” point of view, I did particularly enjoy a minor character’s take on climate change. A shipyard employee goes from office to office repeating his theories on the environment, spending most of his day in the cafeteria. It is a somewhat funnily framed doomsday-eco-philosophy, and yet he says:

“‘God created the world at an equilibrium which Man alone has disturbed, and the High Dam is a prime example of that,’ he added. ‘The dam has caused the erosion of the Egyptian coast on the Mediterranean  giving the sea the upper hand over the land. … Now the sea freely beats against the coast and in less than five years, both Damietta and Rosetta will disappear from the map.'”

Okay, scientists say it’s about 50 years before Alexandria will be flooded (and we’ll forget the part where he particularly blames Moammar Ghaddafi). And of Cairo:

“Now the agricultural lands of the valley are being eroded, invaded by sand, and with no silt to counter its effects, it will be less than a hundred years before the Nile Valley disappears and Egypt becomes all desert again.”

Here as elsewhere, the narrator is much like many of us, “At times I thought he was right, and I was afraid.” But he is able to compartmentalize this fear: “…I didn’t care what happened to the whole country in a hundred years, because I wasn’t going to live that long, unless God challenged me, and I didn’t think that he would do that to an orphan like me.”