Emirati author and columnist Eman Al Yousuf has published two short-story collections and two novels, the latter of which, Guardian of the Sun, was co-winner of first prize at the 2016 Emirates Novel Awards in 2016. A review and an excerpt:
Guardian of the Sun: The Wish for Survival
By Hend Saeed
Emirati writer Eman Al Yousuf’s Guardian of the Sun was co-winner of the 2016 Emirati Novel Award, which she shared with author Saeed Al Badi for his Cities and Women.
Al Yousuf has penned six books, both fiction and nonfiction, and she also writes a weekly column in Al Roeya newspaper. This novel was written under the mentorship of acclaimed Lebanese novelist Najwa Barakat, as part of the Dubai International Writing Program.
Guardian of the Sun is a story of a city and its people — Mosul and Mosulis — a city that has lost much of its historical, religious, and beautiful architecture, as well as much of its people and spirit.
The author takes us on a journey inside the city of Mosul, climbing the one hundred and eighty steps of the Nabi Younis Mosque. As the central character Hussein Mansour describes it, the heart will beat and the knees will bend one hundred and eighty times before the visitor’s sins are washed away.
In the book, we take a trip around Mosul’s bridges and hear stories about its history from the grieving Hajj Hussein, from the community leader Abu Thamer, and from the young Yahya and Malika. We also travel to look for Hussein’s missing wife, Dilja.
While Hussein Mansour is the main character, each plays a big role in shaping the lives of the others, and each places their hopes in “the land,” which represents home, the lost country, the lost people, and the ultimate dream.
‘No Son No Luck’
Hussein Mansour, or Haji Hussein, was “No Son No Luck,” as his mother said. He was born the ninth child, after the previous eight had all died as babies. He survived after his mother cheated the night visitor by keeping him hungry all night, the light of death in his eyes.
Hajj Hussein works at Nabi Younis Mosque — a job his father chose for him, but which also provides respect as he walks around with his amber beads in his hands, dressed like a hajj. He lives in a small dark room beside the mosque and starts his day with sunset and ends with sunrise.
He was happy once, when he met and married Dijla, but she left home one day and never came back.
Now, Hussien saves money to achieve his dream, which is to own a land and grow sunflowers, a dream from his childhood when he used to visit the land with his father, and his father taught him about sunflowers. The dream is so important that, when his brother Yassin tells him their mother needs surgery and they’ll need money, he doesn’t offer to help with the expenses. Instead, his brother has to borrow the money from Abu Thamer. And while Hussein is tortured about this, the land is more important to him.
It seems to him that God punishes him for this choice, as an old lady comes with news about his wife Dijla, which re-opens his wounds as well as his hopes of finding her.
Dreams and danger
Yassin, Hussein’s younger brother, struggles to provide for his family and take care of their sick mother. He works in a taxi and drives Abu Thamer between Mosul and Baghdad – a dangerous trip that his wife is not happy about. But Abu Thamer jokes about the danger of these trips. Yassin doesn’t think it’s a joke: every time he takes this trip, he says his goodbye to his children and hugs them for long time. All the way, he thinks about how they’ll tell his family about his death.
Abu Thamer, who is Dean of the College of Mass Media, is passionate about his city and proudly takes his young nephew Yahya and his wife Malika on a tour of the city when they visit Mosul for the first time.
Yahya and Malika are newlyweds who came to Mosul to help them start their new life. Malika, who was preparing her Master’s in Islamic architecture, takes the reader around the city, discovering all the historical places in detail, from Nabi Younis Mosque to the al-Hadba’ Minaret.
Um Jawad, meanwhile, moved to Mosul with her husband for a better life. She lives there now with one son and two daughters, as her eldest son never came back from the Iraq-Iran war, and her husband died the same day they captured Saddam Hussien in 2013. Um Jawad and her family live on Yahya’s father’s land, but she believes it’s her land left by her husband — even though she doesn’t have any documents to prove it. She and her eldest daughter work as tailors while her son sells vegetables in the market. They live a simple life as they wait for her son Jawad to come back and get married.
There are many sharply realized moments, as when Yassin follows his young son to the roof and tries to take a photo of him with the beautiful Mosuli houses and the Nabi Younis Mosque in the background – and then the photo has no background, as a loud explosion destroys it. There is the moment that Hussein finds out that Um Jawad has left the land, after she was threatened by the gang he hired to buy the land from Yahya and Malika, who want to sell the land to start their new life.
In the end, everyone loses, even the people who have sold their souls to achieve their goals. Yahya and Malika have to leave the country, and Yassin has to pay his debt. Hussein loses his money to the gang. And Um Jawad, who fights them all, loses her battle after the gang kidnaps her young daughter for hours and threatens that next time, they will not bring her back. So Um Jawad leaves the land, the only thing she had in her life.
All the characters – Hussein Mansour, Yahya and Malika, Yassin and Abu Thamer and those at the mosque – are basically good people with good intentions. Everyone wants to achieve their dreams, and they think land is the solution, yet they all lose at the end.
Still, they survive, and the book does leave open hope for their survival.
Guardian of the Sun: Chapter 1
Translated by Hend Saeed, with editing by M Lynx Qualey
“Let me sow the seeds of the sun, until a new day is born!”
So said Hussein Mansour, who dreamed of a small piece of land in a country his son couldn’t remember — even if this land were a piece of the grave. He stood amongst a line of palms, in the middle of what was once farmland, from Mosul to the whole of Iraq. Life. Now, it was stripped bare, and his shadow embraced the sand and gravel, the clay of the first creation. The light was birthing sunflowers, gold woven from a miraculous mirage, surrounded by a group of children his mother called for every dawn. Things were confused in her exhausted mind, and sometimes she called to his brother or one of the eight sons who’d been buried, still nameless, in the dirt.
Here, the last of the Mosuli land was filled with fragments of hope. Its womb was full of fresh possibilities, ready for the harvest, even after the investment in nearby houses and residential buildings, after the land all around had suffered from overcrowding and drought and neglect.
“Mr. Hussein? In the name of the prophet Yunus, I thought you’d come today.”
“Hello, Abu Zanoun.”
“Over in the east, there were olives. Here, barley and wheat…and further down, the finest fruit.” Abu Zanoun tipped his head regretfully. “This is the land as it is now. Do you still want to buy it? Can you tell me what you’re going to do with it?” Abu Zanoun spun his arm and hand in wonder.
Hussein Mansour, shoulders hunched, walked behind Abu Zanoun’s wide shoulders. Every time they met for a heavy lunch, Abu Zanoun would mention the land, in his simple yet sarcastic way, describing it as though he were talking about a cheap pet, which could be sold for a few dinars to make him happy.
Abu Zanoun thought he knew the land well. Yet, like the people who’d left or immigrated, he felt it had no value now, as the land could neither be sold nor sown. It looked like a large cemetery, full of corpses to step around as he gazed at the sky with a questioning heart and lost gaze. It was a land that had forgotten its clay was mixed with the spirits of a goddess.
“Praise God for his blessings, and bless the soup and prophet Yunus,” Abu Zanoun said, while using his right hand to brush the food out of his beard. As always, he asked about the goings-on in the mosque, blaming the Agha for being busy in his new position, and for forgetting their fathers’ and grandfathers’ sacred mission. Then back again to the land — to handing it over for a few dinars, sentencing its soil to be suffocated under the clinging weight of bricks, which filled his silent guest with nausea.
Hussein felt humiliated and miserable. Abu Zanoun was making fun of his dream — a dream of which he was still persuading himself — and Abu Zanoun had promised to help him, in exchange for a commission.
Hussein walked one street over, to get a ride to the mosque. The road was full of dangerous holes, and heavy traffic came down the sandy side streets, while traffic lights stood amidst the black exhaust. The drivers began to shout at him: “Mister! Mister!” and he chose one of them at random.
The driver complained. They all looked alike — the same face, the same loud voice. Even their coughing and grumbling was the same. They substituted a kh for the r sound as they spoke, joining themselves in language as in life’s burdens.
Hussein’s thoughts went to the amber beads between his fingers. In all his life, they’d been the most valuable gift he’d ever gotten. And since he’d received them, he’d held them between his fingers as a drowning man clutches a hunk of wood, seeking safety each time a bead dropped onto his warm palm: tick, tick.
That sound, he’d thought, was the best medicine for giving up smoking, as he’d sworn to Alaa’ and Abu Ahmed. And yet it wasn’t — he’d gone back to his addiction after four long years.
He wished the situation could change easily, that it could be like the sun’s golden sheen grazing the frozen raindrops. As he took the cigarette box from his pocket, he still felt the heaviness in his throat, which was filled with Abu Zanoun’s poisonous words.
He opened the box to find one single cigarette lying quietly at the bottom. He had carefully prepared it this morning. Now, he hesitated, then returned the box to his pocket after deciding he would postpone its burning for another few minutes, until he met with Alaa’. He put his hand over his chest, which was burning from the smoke, and from a larger fire—one that could only be burned out by yet another fire.
Eman Al Yousuf is a chemical engineer and a certified coach in graphology, as well as an Emirati writer and has published two short-story collections and two novels, the second of which was co-winner of the Emirates Novel Award in 2016. She has published a book of literary interviews with Emirati writers, Bread or Ink, and she writes a weekly column in both Al Roeya and Al Bayan newspapers.
Hend Saeed loves books and has a special interest in Arabic literature. She had published a collection of short stories and recently started “Arabic Literature in English – Australia.” She is also a translatore, life consultant, and book reviewer.