Amr Khaled — perhaps the best-known Muslim television preacher in the world — has now stepped into the world of literature with a debut YA novel that is already a best-seller:
By Mona Elnamoury
Rafi Barakat is Amr Khaled’s first YA novel. It was launched in a giant event on Jan 10 at the Marriot Hotel, published by Nahdet Masr.
Even before the novel was available, the literary and cultural milieu in Egypt was on the attack, especially Al-Qahira newspaper, which not only announced that the novel was a “threatening” rival to legendary Harry Potter but nominated it as a winner of Qatar’s new Katara prize. The newspaper also predicted it was going to be a best-seller. Some accomplished novelists, such as Ziad Hamour, said that Amr Khaled would perhaps send Alaa Al-Aswany home, ending his writing career.
Indeed, the novel was in the third spot on bookseller Al-Shorouk’s best-seller list in its first week, preceded only by TV commentator Yousry Fouda’s book (On the Way of Harm) and Mohamed Sadek’s Hepatia. Al-Qahira was prophetic enough: It only remains for us to wait for the rest of the prophecy!
On the other hand, Professor Ahmed Okasha, the acclaimed international psychologist, said — in a letter read at the book-signing party — that Rafi Barakat should be taught as a national school curriculum. Okasha suggested it should be abridged and simplified for the primary stages and left as it is at secondary school level.
The question is: Can a religious preacher turn into a novelist? And an acclaimed one?
First, a look at Amr Khaled’s biography: He is one of the most famous Islamic preachers and social reformers in the Middle East and worldwide. He has launched “Life Makers” ( Sona’a Alhayah), an initiative that may be one of the biggest civil-society foundations in the Arab world. Moreover, he has launched other initiatives calling for co-existence, emphasizing his PhD degree from Wales University, and his work on “Islam and Co-existence with the Other.”
Time magazine chose Khaled as one of the hundred most influential men in the world. In 2007, he came number six in Foreign Policy magazine’s most famous intellectuals list. He is legendarily famous on social media sites: fourteen million followers on Facebook and three million on Twitter.
Politically, Amr Khaled was not a favorite in Mubarak’s regime because of his great popularity. At a time, he was denied access to official media and perhaps was probably forced by that very unwelcome atmosphere to study for some time in England and obtain his PhD. His political coming-out was in 2011 when he shared in establishing the Egypt Party and was elected as its president. But he resigned that position in July 2013.
Silent for a time, Amr Khaled returned with his controversial novel Rafi Barakat.
Rafi comes from the root “rafa” (رفى), which in Arabic means to mend, reform. So Rafi, as a character and role model, is a young reformer. Apparently Rafi Barakat is Amro Khaled’s new approach to the youth, at a younger age than he used to address. The author’s son Ali is now almost at the age of Rafi Barakat, and Khaled made it no secret that he had his own kids in mind when he was writing Rafi Barakat.
Khaled wanted to create a superman, not in the Western sense, but springing from our culture, having our features and belonging to us.
Khaled wanted to create a superman, not in the Western sense, but springing from our culture, having our features and belonging to us. Bestowing his protagonist with special powers like telepathy, photographic memory, and the sixth sense is at first puzzling: They are neither fantasy nor exactly science fiction.
The emphasis is on scientific phenomena. The real figures he brings into the book, like Stephen Hawking, come from real life. Deep contemplation, meditation, and sometimes hearty prayers are tools Rafi and his friends use to sharpen their mental and psychic faculties and consequently change the world around them. Amazingly, Amr Khaled and his huge team seek to back up the book’s educational elements: There is a whole educational website (rafibarakat.com) documenting every piece of information in the book.
In brief, the story is this: A noble couple die in a suspicious accident, leaving a lonely child who is now fourteen: Rafi. Before they die, they discover his strange and extraordinary abilities. However, the boy is left to his cruel, greedy, and illiterate uncle who tries to steal the boy’s inheritance. Challenging his uncle’s cruelty, Rafi studies without going to school and starts solving the secret of the magical sandy land in the middle of his village. We know that these lands have drawn the attention of scientists around the world, who have come and taken samples in return for money that was supposed to be used to build a big school and job prospects for the villagers.
In solving the mystery, Rafi not only discovers the murderers of his parents but also saves Taj Mahal in India from destruction. It turns out that everything is connected at the end: his parents’ murder, the sandy lands, and saving the world.
So, it is a story of adventure, and a well-told one. The novel captures your attention from beginning to end and forces you to take it with you to read on your way to work, or while waiting at a physician’s. The novel is also filled with technological, scientific, and travel information. These are all reasons to make it a good YA novel.
The weakness is haste. The writer is hasty enough to teach Rafi everything there is in the first book, at fourteen! So, he makes Rafi ask all the existential questions that an intelligent person may ask and lets one of the characters answer them. Those didactic characters include the village sheikh, the priest, his sweet aunt, and even his parents in a dream.
Okay, he is a special boy, but what is there for him to do in the next thirty years?
Consequently, at the age of fourteen, Rafi knows about important values like friendship, work, hope, trust in God, forgiveness, perseverance, freedom of choice, keeping prayer times, motherland, religious tolerance, together with his own special capacities. At fourteen, Rafi does not make one mistake, and does not surrender to one conflict. Okay, he is a special boy, but what is there for him to do in the next thirty years?
Amr Khaled’s team stresses that the novel has been well-received and bought not just by Muslims, but by Christians as well. Although there’s no data on Christian book-buying in Egypt, the novel does contain Safi, the protagonist’s Coptic friend, as well as Anba Bakhoum, a priest and spiritual mentor. In a scene that should be impressive, we see both Sheikh Salem, Rafi’s mentor, and Anba Bakhoum, Safi’s mentor, advising the boys from their Holy Books and, oddly enough, conveying the same meanings. Safi and Rafi are thus “the two elements” of the nation, as Muslims and Copts are often called by the Egyptian media.
Anba Bakhoum: “Love made Christ say of his plotters: ‘Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.'”
Sheikh Salem: “Love made Prophet Mohamed say of the people who hurt him at the battle of Uhud: ‘God, forgive them for they do not know.'”
Anba Bakhoum: “Love made Jesus say of a woman who committed a great sin: ‘She loved the Lord dearly, so He forgave her truly.'”
Sheikh Salem: “Love made Prophet Mohamed say of the drunk man: ‘Do not curse him, for he loved God and His Prophet.'”
Anba Bakhoum: “God is love.”
Sheikh Salem: Mohamed says “ No one can believe till he can love for others what he loves for himself.”
From these eternal meanings, Rafi and Safi realize that religion has never been the reason for conflict among humans. The real reasons for human conflicts, they learn, are greed and corruption. Religion is innocent of that, according to Jesus and Mohamed.
Rafi is a superhero indeed. This is exactly what throws Rafi Barakat to the category of The Impossible Man, “Ragul Almustaheel,” and Adham Sabry: great and popular scientific adventure books for teenagers in the Arab world — no more and no less. This is what detracts from the book’s great potential.
To be a stronger book, we would’ve needed to see more of Rafi’s complicated inner life: To see him as a troubled orphan moving from the sublime to the ridiculous — from his parents’ utmost care to being a second-degree citizen in his coarse uncle’s house. Despite being special and enjoying extraordinary mental and psychic powers, Rafi is still human. Part of his credibility as a role model is to show his human weakness and confusion, then his bravery in facing them. Aren’t these parts of every human’s life? More importantly, these are parts of every adolescent’s life.
It would have been useful to see Rafi learn to control his unique talents, because they are perhaps his real threat. I would have loved to see less relation to the Holy Scriptures, not that they are not valid, but that the wisdom in them cannot be fully grasped except in a life-time journey. I would have loved to see an open end to this story. After Rafi uncovers the secret of the magical sands and saves Taj Mahal and avenges his parents’ murder, he returns to the village and manages to grab the unemployed youth from the café, providing them with jobs!
An open end with a new challenge would have been more credible.
…in his short talk at the book-signing party, Khaled said that he would always be what he was. For him, writing had been a dream — to do it, he knew he would face opposition. But what he knew and taught Rafi to do was to eliminate “the impossible,” God willing.
Answering the earlier question: Can a religious preacher and a social reformer like Amr Khaled turn into a novelist? Well, in his short talk at the book-signing party, Khaled said that he would always be what he was. For him, writing had been a dream — to do it, he knew he would face opposition. But what he knew and taught Rafi to do was to eliminate “the impossible,” God willing.
Rafi Barakat is modeled as more than a novel. Rafi is a star whose maker hopes to make him a role model for a younger generation. I would not be surprised to see the novel turn into a movie, a series, a cartoon, or to see souvenirs of Rafi everywhere. Whether you agree with Amr Khaled or not, Rafi Barakat could be his new project to preach to a promising generation that has not yet been severally defeated.
All translations Mona Elnamoury.
Dr. Mona Elnamoury is a lecturer at the faculty of Arts, English Dept., Tanta University. She also teaches at the MSA in the faculty of Languages and Translation, and has translated Ursula LeGuin into Arabic and is part of the Seshat continous creative writing workshop and storytelling project. She also writes.