‘Sharp Turn’: Egyptian Stories Linked by Demon or Prophet

The International Prize for Arabic Fiction shortlist will be announced at 10:50 a.m. GMT on Friday, February 13 (apparently, no triskaidekaphobes on staff). In anticipation, we look at Ashraf al-Khamaisi’s longlisted Sharp Turn:

By Raphael Cormack

Sharp turning -smaller (1)Ashraf al-Khamaisi’s last book, God’s Lands of Exile, a meditative but often witty novel exploring an old man’s reaction to his impending death set in a small Bedouin village, was longlisted for last year’s IPAF. This year he is back on it again with his new novel, Sharp Turn.

Ostensibly set in 1980 on a microbus travelling from Cairo to Assiut, this book explores many of the same questions about faith and death but adds several to them. The bus, loaded up with characters in the novel whose connections begin to become apparent as it continues, is speeding down the road to Upper Egypt when it comes up against a lorry careering the other way. The driver resigns himself to a violent death until a mysterious figure, bearing a strange resemblance to one of the passengers and riding, inexplicably, on the front of the lorry, directs him out of the path of the upcoming vehicle. The driver makes the sharp turn of the book’s title and the bus is spared along with its charges.

Al-Khamaysi then goes on to tell the interwoven stories of the characters in the bus: the driver, the priest, the Azhari sheikh, the petty criminal, the betrayed husband who has murdered his wife, the soldier on the run from the military, the young poet, the girl living on the streets, the mother and her child, and the man who lost his daughter when she was young. I said that is ostensibly set in 1980 but, in fact, it is not quite set in our world at all.

The boundaries between the seen and the unseen, reality and fiction, life and death are not drawn as they are in our world.

This is a world where a father can look his daughter in the face and not recognise her — a world full of dreams and visions. The boundaries between the seen and the unseen, reality and fiction, life and death are not drawn as they are in our world. This is clearest in the case of Sonallah, the final passenger in the bus who, we come to learn, links almost all the other characters. He remains a supernatural, controlling presence through the whole book. Speaking in refined classical Arabic, to some he is an ageless prophet to other a threatening demon or efreet, but he is always there as an enigmatic presence behind the action.

As in the author’s previous novel, the plot is told by a series of overlapping narratives, leaping around in place and time and switching focus between characters at a consistently high rate. At times it is hard work, like trying to simultaneously watch five different programmes on television, but the effort is frequently repaid. The complex layering and deft construction can lead the reader to interesting places.

Let us take one example from three successive chapters in middle of the book. In the first (chapter 37) we see Khamis plotting to take his wife to the desert and kill her, ending by deciding to wait a little and uttering the phrase “It needs patience.” In the next chapter, we see a soldier about to be brought before a military tribunal after an argument with a superior officer being told to flee the desert to escape the camp. Then, in the third chapter, we see a priest riding in the desert in search of a monastic life.

It is particularly telling, in this case, that retreating to the desert to retreat into religion is implicitly compared to killing a wife.

It is nice, first, to note that al-Khamaysi has neatly told the narrative of a retreat into the desert, from planning to accomplishment, across the course of three different chapter and three different characters. But more than this, the wider narratives of these three different figures interact interestingly. For instance, without giving too much away, the narrative of the army officer later turns out to play an important part in beginning the narrative of Khamis and his unfaithful wife. Also the juxtaposition of narratives can raise wider points. It is particularly telling, in this case, that retreating to the desert to retreat into religion is implicitly compared to killing a wife. Al-Khamaysi does not appear to approve of the divorce from life and society that is involved in monasticism and so these two narratives and can be connected, amongst other things, by their place in a wider narrative.

Ashraf al-Khamaisi. Photo credit: Raphael Cormack.

Ashraf al-Khamaisi. Photo credit: Raphael Cormack.

It is a result of the way action, scenes, and ideas have been set against each other and between each other that the book is fertile ground for interpretation. The style, despite the difficulty it presents following the plentiful and diverse stories, manages many successes. In part this success is due to the writer’s unquestionable skill in constructing a dramatic scene. His writing is deeply theatrical. For a book that is relies on an agglomeration of diverse scenes, it is important that those vignettes thrive individually. From the lost girl at the Hussein Mosque in Cairo to the soldier randomly dialling numbers in the middle of the night from his desert base, via the mysterious man deep in concentration on his incessant writings outside the Strand building in downtown Cairo, the writing evokes clear images from the page. The divergent, sometimes rather antagonistic, scenes that the reader must negotiate are done well.

The difficulty, perhaps even impossibility, for the readers of creating from these many narratives an entirely settled picture coincides with the powerful, Sufi-like religiosity that runs through the book. As in the book, so in our lives’ events, saying and texts (sacred or profane) never give us settled answers but setting us loose in a sea of confused wondering.

At the centre of this religiosity is Sonallah with his green Skullcap, flowing robes, and vatic utterances. Following him, it is no longer the preserve of priest and Sheikhs to interpret the supernatural but rather we can experience it ourselves. It is telling that for the Priest and the Sheikh seated in the front of the microbus Sonallah is a kind of devil or demon, whereas for the criminal cast out from society he is a prophet. Of course both are right in their way. He has unique access to the metaphysical which is both enchanting but also dangerous and his presence in the stories of the travellers in the Cairo-Assiut bus is often as dark and threatening as it is revelatory and guiding.

This is not to say that the book is not without its flaws. The diverse stories never really come together as a driving narrative that takes you quickly through its 400 pages, which begin to seem rather numerous by page 300. There are a couple of plot-twists but they are not especially surprising. Perhaps it is a necessary side-effect of the style the book is written in that no such strong central thread exists.

Very few of the characters seem like real, thinking people. As Khamis catches his wife in flagrante delicto and as he resolves to kill her, his thoughts and actions seem somehow unreal.

Perhaps, too, the second problem is a product of the style that prefers strong imagery and a complex weaving of disparate strands: the characterisation. Very few of the characters seem like real, thinking people. As Khamis catches his wife in flagrante delicto and as he resolves to kill her, his thoughts and actions seem somehow unreal. His wife, Nawal, never becomes more than a prop in her own story. Likewise, I never felt as if we were given a proper psychological portrait of “Susan,” a girl driven to the street and to sex with decidedly unappealing men. In the case of such an extreme situation for a girl to be in, this seeming lack of sympathy can feel uncomfortable. One explanation for it is that, as I mentioned earlier, this world we are given is not quite the “real world” that we inhabit. Realty is different there and so “real people” are not the same and should not be seen as such.

Ashraf al-Khamaysi’s writing is, I have argued, primarily theatrical. The scenes are dramatic and so the characters are, in a way, dramatic too; they are more like actors performing their scenes than internally complex individuals.

However, I would offer another interpretation. Ashraf al-Khamaysi’s writing is, I have argued, primarily theatrical. The scenes are dramatic and so the characters are, in a way, dramatic too; they are more like actors performing their scenes than internally complex individuals. This is not something we normally expect from novels, where the drama is supposed to be internal, but it does not mean the book lacks complexity. Even the characters in the book seem to think dramatically. When we learn that one of the characters has a pathological hatred of Christians, we are not presented with a view inside his thoughts to explain it, but instead a flashback to a scene of sectarian violence from his childhood.

In a more expansive way through the book, the author follows this. He does not take us inside the characters’ heads but presents us with a web of different scenes and asks the reader to fill in the internal machinations. Though, of course, this may not be to every reader’s taste, it is interesting to consider as a way of writing fiction.

And so this book a very welcome addition to the IPAF longlist. Its characterisation is not internal and rather than the plot dragging the reader through to the end, it is the reader that drags the plot. However, it is good to see that such a complex, ambitious and thoughtful book has been given recognition and that a writer with such a skill at creating powerful scenes and images is on the longlist again.

From last year:

Ashraf al-Khamaisi on Writing Bedouin Lives, Thinking Globally

‘God’s Land of Exile’: Perspectives on Death

Raphael Cormack interviews Ashraf al-Khamaisi, author of IPAF-longlisted God’s Land of Exile (Arabic)

Raphael Cormack is a PhD student at Edinburgh University working on 19th and 20th Century Egyptian Literature. His blog is http://ergamegala.wordpress.com/

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Categories: Arabic Booker, Egypt, International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF)

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