Raphael Cormack (@RaphaelCormack) reviews Ashraf al-Khamaysi’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF)-longlisted God’s Land of Exile. This timeless-feeling novel, he says, has earned its place on the longlist.
By Raphael Cormack
“I’m not afraid of dying, I’m afraid of being buried.” So declares Hijazi, the main character in Ashraf al-Khamaysi’s IPAF-longlisted God’s Land of Exile. The novel starts with a dream in which a monk informs Hajizi that he has just three days left to live, which rather rattles our protagonist. It is not the act of interment itself that frightens him but that of ceasing to be. The prospect of being left out to be eaten by dogs and vultures is just as bad and no doubt he would feel the same about any other form of corporeal disposal.
Hajizi, at the age of at least 100 years, just wants to keep on living with in his village with his family and small group of close friends. He contemplates how he can stay around even after he’s dead, perhaps just propping up his body in front of his house. “If I can’t live with them alive, I’ll just have to live with them as a dead man.”
The philosopher Lucretius tried to rid people of the fear of death by telling us that when you die your atoms merely assimilate back into the universe as your consciousness disappears. But he did not seem to understand that this is the very thing that people are afraid of. Hijazi, having heard that Christ was resurrected after death and that Christians are promised life after death, goes to visit a group of monks. But they cannot dispel his fear either. Why, he asks, if Christians rise again after death are there so many graveyards in Assiut full of Christians? Hijazi would not be the kind of man who says ‘Death is just another part of life’. The truth, for him, it is the precise opposite.
Hajizi would not be the kind of man who says ‘Death is just another part of life’. The truth, for him, it is the precise opposite.
Still, talking about death means talking about life, and al-Khamaisi’s multi-layered story allows its numerous characters ample time to expand upon their own lives. The novel is centred on the small village of al-Wa’ara, which is itself — between a drying up well and government plans to build a road which will alter their way of life entirely — a dying village. Time and narratives shift and intermingle as we hear the stories of Hijazi’s old comrades Ghanima and Sa’adun, his wife Sarira and their son and grandchildren, and the old monk Yoannis, amongst others. An ethereal atmosphere is constructed by touches of magic realism, stories repeated from several angles, and the fact that two of the main characters (Ghanima and Sa’adun) have died shortly before Hajizi’s dream.
This rarely gets confusing but the slow pace could frustrate readers more fond of strong narrative drive.
It is in this slow pace and the multiple perspectives that the greatest strength of this book lies.
It is in this slow pace and the multiple perspectives that the greatest strength of this book lies. Ample time is given to the players to say their piece: from a story about a bird trapped in a train carriage with an Englishman and his Egyptian servant, to the death of Sa’adun’s wife and child in a house-fire, via a misogynistic monk and Hajizi’s grandson carving an idol to his young lover.
Religion, love, sex, marriage, death, war, and money are all covered and the characters are allowed to expand at length. One of my particular joys of the book is listening to Ghanima’s long winded and frequently embellished anecdotes. It turns out that, despite all of Hajizi’s fear of death he is the one who has least enjoyed the pleasure of life. He is a man with so little curiosity in life that the one time he went to the sea, although he was close enough to smell it and hear the crash of the waves, he did not bother to actually see it with its own eyes. Despite the well-drawn male characters, it would have perhaps given a fuller picture if the female character were given a little more space (not that they were totally absent).
Ashraf al-Khamaysi’s book is very deserving of its place on the IPAF longlist.
Unlike many of the other IPAF nominees, this novel makes no specific references to any political situations or events. It is set in a fictional village and it is only by very peripheral references like the 60 years that have passed since al-Alamein that one can assign a date to any of the events. The frequent mystical and historical events also contribute to the sense of timelessness that pervades the narrative.
Ashraf al-Khamaysi’s book is very deserving of its place on the IPAF longlist. The novel’s delicate prose is a fine medium for both the sacred and profane stories contained within. The ending was, unfortunately, perhaps the most underwhelming part. For a novel concerned with death, though, this seems rather apt.
Raphael Cormack is a PhD student at Edinburgh University working on 19th and 20th Century Egyptian Literature. His blog is http://ergamegala.wordpress.com/