The Arabic Novel’s Contribution to Global Storytelling Styles: ‘Rama and the Dragon’

From our special section, edited and translated by Chihab El Khachab, on Edwar al-Kharrat and his library:

By Ferial Ghazoul

[originally published in Abdel Moneim Telima (ed.) (1986). Fil-Adab al-Arabi: Ta‘birahu ‘an al-Wihda wal-Tanawwu‘[On Arabic Literature: Its Expression of Unity and Diversity]. Beirut: Markaz Dirasat al-Wihda al-Arabiyya, pp. 169-194; revised and reprinted in Ferial Ghazoul. (2018). Al-Riyada fil-Riwaya: Thulathiyyat Edwar al-Kharrat[Pioneering the Novel: Edwar al-Kharrat’s Trilogy]. Cairo: General Organization for Cultural Palaces]

There is an open and continuous debate about the modern Arabic novel: is it a continuation of traditional narrative styles, or is it a naturalization of a literary genre known as “the novel” (le roman) in Europe? This debate presumes that there is an Arabic literariness opposing, conflicting with, distinct from European literariness. This encounter between two kinds of literariness in turn assumes, first, the existence of an aesthetic model governing each culture despite the changes and developments that their literatures have undergone, which is difficult to believe and impossible to prove. Second, this claim assumes that there were no cultural connections or literary relationships between both cultures, assuming that both were isolated from one another intellectually. This is an illusion that any student of comparative literature can refute. European culture, and specifically European literature, and even more specifically European narratives, have been clearly and demonstrably influenced by stories of Arabic origin.[1]

The debate seems sterile in light of the above, since literary forms and artistic compositions do not belong to a given nation that monopolizes it, exports it, or imposes it on others to oppress them culturally and conquer them literarily. Rather, they are formulations available on the street and emerging from human nature: whosoever wishes can pick them up and use them as they please. Thus, when the “Oriental story” became widespread in Europe, for example, this did not mean that Europe had bowed down to the Orient. Rather, a common type of story in the East was instrumentalized to specific literary ends.[2]And when a number of American poets started using the haiku, a common poetic form in Japan, their work did not genuflect to a Japanese model or yield to Oriental aesthetics, but rather instrumentalized an unfamiliar model to fight against foggy symbolism and to present specific minute illustrations of the flimsiness of the then-widespread poetic images that preceded them.[3]

We often find similar formulations and analogous forms within the arts and literatures of distant civilizations with distinct contexts, which demonstrates the possibility that a certain form of creation can appear in more than one place or time, without inevitably calling for the existence of a single origin that is copied or imported. Scholars of popular literature have proven this to us in their comparative studies of folk stories. No writer has expressed the possibility of artistic and intellectual coincidences between different peoples and contrasting nations so much as the Argentinian writer Jorge Luís Borges in his stories and his aesthetic philosophy.[4]

I do not wish to be misunderstood. I will not deny the specificity associated with a given people or a given nation in a given historical period. For instance, magical realism prevails in contemporary Latin American writing, just as regionalism and local colour do in the art of short-story writing in North America in the twentieth century, or political theatre in contemporary English dramaturgy. Yet to make of this specificity, which is associated with a specific historical era and specific circumstances, a distinctive nature and an exemplary bond is what the history of literature calls into question and rejects. There might be some common traits and similar features imposed by the logic of the language in use, going beyond the specific historical period, but these traits and features cannot constitute in themselves a finalized aesthetic or stable literatures.

For this reason, I am not interested in classifying the respectively Arabic and European artistic components in the modern Arabic novel in this study, but I am instead interested in what the modern Arabic novel has added on a worldwide scale. In other words, what can others learn from our literary production in the domain of the novel? There is no doubt that there are magnificent novels in different languages and great novelists from different nationalities, but their additions to the worldwide novelistic balance is still structurally, technically, and intellectually insignificant; just as there are novels which, despite straying from novelistic characteristics and missing conventional artistic elements, have added something new to the stock of novelistic experience and, therefore, their discovery constitutes a worthy subject of study and analysis. These novels include, for instance, the works of the Irish writer Jonathan Swift (1668-1735), the English writer Lawrence Sterne (1713-1768), the Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881), and the contemporary Tunisian writer Mahmoud Messadi.[5]The novel Rama and the Dragon by Egyptian writer Edwar al-Kharrat is among these unrivaled works: transforming the usual, resisting classification, deviating from the familiar. The novel was published in Beirut in 1980 and sold out as soon as it was published.[6] It was continuously reprinted in Egypt, Lebanon, and the United Arab Emirates. It was translated into English by myself and John Verlenden, and published by the American University in Cairo Press in 2002. This novel was a literary event, which some treated through commentary, study, and conferences. There is a common denominator to these commentaries: we were faced with an amazing new work, as mentioned by avant-garde novelists themselves.

About the novel, the Egyptian novelist Badr al-Deeb said:

I truly believe that this work will force us to revisit a lot of our assessments of Arabic writing, because I believe that it has no “tradition”. The book has no “precedents”.[7]

In an interview about his writing and his avant-garde novel Warda lil-Waqt al-Maghribi [A Flower for Moroccan Time], the novelist Ahmed al-Madini said:

Warda lil-Waqt al-Maghribi, from another viewpoint, is an attempt to insist that narrative is not the only tool in novelistic communication, and that the language of poetry can lead to this end. I can refer you to the novel Rama and the Dragonby the Egyptian writer Edwar al-Kharrat, which is truly a miraculous novel (…) that managed through Edwar al-Kharrat’s own poetic sharpness to constitute a new, unprecedented, creative novelistic formation, demonstrating that narrative – in the traditional sense in which the realistic novel takes it – can be surpassed and used in different styles and manners.[8]

What critics say reaffirms the newness of the novel. As Sami Khashaba said:

It is a new kind of novel for Arabic literature, not just as a new genre of expression, of weaving, of constructing in our fictional literature. Rather, it is “entirely” new in the genre of experiment that drives the reader to confront it.[9]

Sabry Hafez said:

I agree with a number of critics who said that Rama and the Dragon has no tradition in the Arabic novel, yet these rules and traditions had to be set before it could come to light. It would have been very difficult for James Joyce to write his novel Ulyssesbefore the Western novel had gone through its long journey. As I see it, Rama and the Dragon begins with an attempt to negate all the traditions that have been set in the Arabic novel.[10]

Maher Shafik said:

Rama and the Dragon is a work with numerous horizons, multiple levels needing the cooperation of a team of critics to show its lush facets and the richness of its world (…)[11]

What I wish to present and deal with, here, are the unique aspects of this work, which offers a contribution not only to the Arabic novel, but also to world literature. I would specify these contributions as follows:

  1. Generative myths
  2. Sensual realism
  3. Epic modernity

I ought to add, here, that I focus on one work to avoid the impressionism, superficiality, and gratuitous generalizations that would be imposed by dealing with multiple novels in such a tight context. Yet this choice does not negate the existence of other Arabic novels that contributed to literary openings. I have briefly alluded to Messadi, and there is no use in dropping other names without documented studies that cannot be satisfied with mere statements.

Generative myths

Any creative work, however complex or flourishing, carries a simple, pure, penetrating essence. This essence or extract, which the poet might spell out in a poem, or the Sufi devotee in an aphorism, or the child in a question, is what the critic seeks through the labyrinth of narration. Arriving at this source or this focal point, where novelistic layers and narrative angles intersect in all their difference and diversity, is the challenge that the Arabic and international contemporary novel has put ahead of us. There are novels founded on mythical grounds,[12] others on popular wisdom, yet others on a poetic image. This myth, this wisdom, or this image might hide itself in the text, in which case it is impossible to reach except through deduction and abstraction, or it might be evident in it, making us anticipate the novel’s pages in some way. In Rama and the Dragon, we find the text’s main generative myth in the novel’s title and in the concluding citation of Hallaj:

My intimate companion, not known for betrayal,

Invited me to drink as a host would his guest.

As the cup went round,

He called for the execution mat and sword.

Such is the lot of him who drinks wine

In midsummer with the dragon.

There are many references to this myth at several points in the novel. This myth is a story of struggle between humans and a fantastical beast: the dragon. It represents the essence of the novel and its prime mover. It is present in the text as a sign and as an intertext, made to function in an obscure, polysemic, transcendent, satirical way. For the novel presents the myth, but it does not define the dragon: Is it one of the faces of Rama, the loved one? Is it one of the faces of Mikhail, the lover? Is the dragon another creature or another force? The novel leaves this question open so that every reader can answer it.[13] This is not to mention that it does not even present us the result of this struggle: did the protagonist Mikhail slay the dragon or did he not? As is referred to on more than one occasion in the text:

She said to him: (…) Do you know… you have slain the dragon.

He was somewhat startled and said: What?

She said: You slew the dragon. You know in the old legends, in the tales of courtly and uncourtly love, the knight demonstrates his devotion by slaying the dragon. He goes out to the desolate woods after he gives his beloved a handkerchief or a token. Then he departs alone, surmounts all difficulties, overcomes all trials. And endures the hardship… Until he slays the dragon; and you have slain the dragon…. She quickly emended: And this is neither satirical or humorous… I mean what I say.

He screams within himself: (…) I have not slain the dragon. I am living with him. His teeth are piercing my heart in an embrace until death. (pp. 69-70)

Here we find once again two different ideas about the dragon’s destiny, one from the protagonist Rama’s viewpoint and another from Mikhail’s viewpoint:

After six days, she told him: You slew the dragon. (…)

From the dragon’s teeth planted in my heart, bushy dark-green twigs of reed flourish and sway. (pp. 206-207)

In this mythical struggle, we can say that Mikhail both slew and did not slay the dragon, just as we can say about any event in the novel itself: it happened and did not happen. The narrator in the first chapter (Mikhail) says after a lengthy description of a trip he made with Rama and their stay in a hotel: “None of that happened” (21). He adds at the end of the chapter, “All of this really happened” (22). This reminds us of the formulaic beginnings of popular stories: “There was or there was not… [Kan ya ma kan].” This may seem absurd to the commonplace reader, who wants to know what happened and what did not happen, but the novel laughs at this reader, because the novel is ultimately an imaginary representation uncovering several faces of our internal or external world to us, not a report on events. This novel in particular seems to insist that what did not happen is just as important as what did, and what was said is just as important as what was not said. The novel’s style confirms this by using forms of address to the other and the self both positively and negatively, as this succession indicates:

He said to himself: (…) Where does the disease come from? Childhood? Or is it in the dreariness we impose upon ourselves because we are children no more?

But this was no relapse to an old disease. It was nothing but life.

He didn’t laugh at himself. Not this time.

He said to her: I don’t know how to say it. I don’t know what to say.

She said: That is why I love you.

He had never told her that every time he met her, he arrived expecting to find not her but another woman saying. Who are you?

He never told her: Don’t you feel the weight of prison bars pressing on the open exposed flesh? Don’t you feel oppression taking hold of the heart, taking hold of the horizon? Don’t you feel the unvoiced scream?

Pride, he realized. He believed the truly significant things were not to be said, were unspeakable. But were there any truly significant things?

He mused aloud to her: What can one say about death, truth, or love? Everything has been said.

Words – no matter how passionate and gushing – embodied treason.

He had told himself once that he was wrong to believe such things. The blight was not in the adolescence of the heart alone. Maturity meant accepting half-solutions, compromises, acknowledging what was your lot, your task, accepting what the world makes possible for you. Maturity meant, as was often said, preserving the freshness of delicate hopefulness even though it could be preserved only through salty waters in the heart of the dry rock of despair.

Such wisdom seemed cheap. Very unconvincing.

He said to himself: It is not a matter of relapse into the adolescent. Rather it is the passionate yearning for life, a passion that cannot be extinguished. It is the solid conviction that a man cannot stay alone, that love is not a lie – a conviction denying all fact, challenging all reality.

Wasn’t this exactly adolescence?

He became silent, as yet unconvinced either way. (5-6)

In the context of the novel, what the protagonist says becomes just as important as what he does not say, just as speech itself becomes a communicative and a prohibitive tool, both truth and falsehood, trustworthiness and treachery. This emphasis on the act of speech and the ambivalence over the possibility of speech and its impossibility only represent the novel’s own retreat. For the novelistic work itself, which can be summed up by the myth, reflects the problem of expression, just as the true or false novel/myth is both an illusion and a truth, forgery and discovery, imagination and reality. This is ultimately what is specific about literature. This specificity is never as apparent as it is in myth, understood as a lie or an allegory.

In the same manner, we find that the novel revolves structurally and rhetorically around the union of opposites. We find this binary at the level of the plot: the dragon’s slaying or non-slaying. We find this binary reflected in the act of speech and its negation, just as we find it at the level of the character. Rama is of the breed of divine prostitutes (282). She is the Virgin Mary in her affection (92), Salome in her cruelty (251). Likewise, we find this creative work open to interpretation, even as the interpretation of the novel and what happens in it multiplies. This comes back, above all, to the fact that the novel is formulated in the shape of a question or a questioning, not in the form of a report or a solution.

The use of myth in a polysemic manner is not new,[14] nor is the contradictory or contemporary instrumentalization of myth.[15] What is entirely new is the use of myth in a way that creates other myths; such that the myth of the girl and the dragon, of the princess and the monster, becomes generative of other myths; such that we see how Edwar al-Kharrat achieves this generative mythopoetics, which could not have been materialized except after encountering the open interpretative environment prepared by the author, using political myth in both a parallel and a contrary way to the original, making the reader gaze in a curious and contemplative manner at the rest of the mythical intertextuality and references in the novel.

In the history of fictional narrative, we sometimes encounter narrative frames that gather multiple stories or different myths, such as those of the Panchatantra, the Arabian Nights, Boccaccio’s Decameron, or Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

In these works, the frame is used to generate stories. Al-Kharrat’s narrative accomplishment is different, insofar as the generating occurs through a mythical correspondence emerging from the way in which the myth is presented. The main myth to which the title refers, as well as the concluding citation, surface in the pages of the novel from time to time, in the form of disarrayed references and fragments, as if the myth became distributed limbs and scattered organs that the reader needs to bring together.[16] The presentation of the myth itself evokes another myth, Isis and Osiris’ myth, where Isis gathers Osiris’ limbs to resurrect him. This mental evocation for the reader is woven with the explicit and implicit reference to this myth in the novel.[17] And since the Pharaonic myth seeks to revive the god-hero and resurrect him after his death, it necessarily evokes the phoenix, the bird coming back to life after burning and dying.[18] The central idea of martyrdom in the phoenix myth calls to mind all martyrs, including al-Hussein bin Mansour al-Hallaj, who in turn talks about the dragon (as quoted at the end of the novel). Here, we find that the mythical loop is completed and turns on itself.

If we review the technique of generating myths, we will find it is different and distinctive in al-Kharrat’s novel from what the Roman poet Ovid did in his famous Metamorphoses, a cumulative collection of legends around metamorphosis and transformation. The production of stories in those collections with a narrative framework mentioned earlier occurs likewise through a novelistic tool that involves the possibility of proliferation and diversification. In Rama and the Dragon, generating occurs through an interpretive correspondence. One can divide this correspondence into two types:

  • A representational correspondence, that is, the myth evokes its analogues and its homologues.
  • An intersecting correspondence, that is, the myth evokes a myth that does not correspond to it but touches upon it.

The representational correspondence is tied with the principle of metaphor, while the intersectional correspondence is tied with the principle of metonymy.

Examples are numerous in the novel and I will just present some of them. When Rama is described as a “morning Scheherazade” (81) as she narrates events from her life, this link is built on an intersecting correspondence, but when she is described as a phoenix, the link is built on a representational one. When Rama tells stories, specifically in this context, she evokes another narrator (Scheherazade). Yet Rama in her essence and substance evokes the phoenix. In her own words, “I am like the phoenix that they talk about” (265). There are passages describing Rama that combine representational and intersecting correspondence. Among them is this amazing excerpt in which Rama embodies the soul in its Latin meaning (anima) and the symbol of the universe in Buddhist thought (mandala, which means “circle” in the original Sanskrit). She is the Virgin Mary as Christians and Muslims know her, and Demeter the goddess of agriculture and fertility as the Greeks and Romans have known her. In short, she is the symbol of life and creation, which is why the mythical character represents the religious one, and the Sanskrit symbol represents the Latin signifier. Rama’s names follow at the end of the excerpt by virtue of an intersecting correspondence: Mother of the Falcon, Mother of Patience…Mother of Jasmine. The way in which the expression “mother” is tied to the Virgin Mary, the mother of Christ, and with Demeter, the mother of Persephone, can easily be detected by the reader. The lines describing Rama flow like a prayer, with an alliteration adding musicality to the excerpt using the letter “m” shared by “Rama”, “mother” (umm), and “woman” (imra’a).

I am still calling on you: Rama… Anima…Mandala… My woman… My haven… My cave… My Kemi… My dream… O, merciful Ment, O Mut wife of Amon… O Ma’at, my mirror… My integrity… Maryam full of grace… Buried Demeter, her moist mouth rains manna and mercy… Her womb greedy for semen and destined by the circle of death and the joys of consummation… O mother of the falcon… Mother of patience… Mother of the swaying golden jasmine on the water… Rama… (92)

This is the mythical encyclopedism that Giambattista Vico dreamt about in his outstanding book, The New Science. We can uncover through it the obverse of a given myth within another one. This is what James Fraser investigated in The Golden Bough, where he proved this inversion using thematic comparison. Vladimir Propp proved it using morphological comparison in his Morphology of the Folktale. Claude Lévi-Strauss did it using structural comparison in his Mythologiques. There seems to be a human dream to which critics have come close, seeking to unite different myths (although Propp’s book is restricted to the Russian fairy tale, and Lévi-Strauss’ book is restricted to New World myths). On the literary front, we find this mythical quality in al-Kharrat’s novel through its openness, just as we find it in James Joyce’s novel, Finnegan’s Wake, through its closure. We can summarize this impulse and its openness to the reader in the following citation from the novel:

Even the ancient Egyptian gods are the saints of yesteryear and the holy figures of today. (…) Horus might be called Mar Girgis or Sayyidna al-Husayn. (155)

This simplicity in presentation is different from the Joycean complexity with which any reader who read or tried to read Finnegan’s Wake will be familiar. If Joyce wrote in hieroglyphic manner on the unity of myth, al-Kharrat did it through the demotic.

If we go back to the myth moving the novel and flowing through its veins, the myth of the heroic struggle against the dragon, we will find that its first recounting predates the references to it in the Bible. It is in fact one of many episodes in the Gilgamesh epic.[19] The hero enters in a gigantic battle with a fantastical creature called Humbaba and prevails over it.[20] The Greeks had a version of this myth, where Perseus fights a dragon to liberate his betrothed Andromeda, and ends up killing him. As for the Bible, it pictures St Michael killing the dragon and the image moved from him to Mar Girgis (St George). This story is well known in the popular Arabic tradition.[21] It is widespread in Upper Egypt in particular, where the dragon is called such names as Iblis, Devil, Beast, Serpent, etc.[22] The dragon was also recorded in books from the Islamic tradition.[23] Thus, the author chose a popular myth with impact and influence on the elites and the masses, recurrent and going back to Ancient Mesopotamia uninterruptedly to this very day, with an equivalent in holy books and divine myths.

Just like the beast, the hero fighting it comes in numerous names and shapes. Choosing Mikhail instead of Girgis as the protagonist’s name has its artistic justification. Mikhail is not only a saint but an angel, and his name “Mikal” is mentioned in the Qur’an as well as in the Bible.[24] Mikal is also connected to the Prophet Muhammad.[25] If we go back to the name’s etymological meaning in Hebrew, it means “the one who is like God,” and this hidden meaning represents to us the hero’s ambitions and his desire to go beyond himself and his capabilities. All these characteristics of Mikhail make him more complete than Girgis or George, because of his stature in the eyes of Muslims and Jews,[26] even though he is presented using his Judeo-Christian name and its Coptic-Egyptian meaning in the novel:

He said to her: Dear love, St. Michael is my patron, my guardian angel. Did you know I was named after him, the archangel? I was told the Nile wouldn’t flood unless Michael descended on his name day to the Land of Egypt and wept. (…)

When I was little, they used to make fatircakes on my birthday, the day of St. Michael, leader of God’s soldiers with his two-pointed sword. When I ate the oiled, glimmering cakes decorated with ancient Coptic inscriptions. I saw him – my angel, my guardian, my brother – attacking all the lies with his silvery armor and long lance, all the devils crowded in the dark. (11-12)

This image of the dragon slayer has inspired many artists, from Ancient Iraq to the Byzantine civilization and the European Renaissance, all the way till now, as it remains a subject for the popular artist.[27] Each civilization painted the battle’s setting with its own colour. With the spread of chivalry in Europe, we find representations of the warring hero wearing the conquering knight’s attire, with the armour and the lance – as Mikhail says in the novel, and as Gothic miniatures represent him. This iconic representation of the hero in the guise of a medieval knight is put forward and summoned only to be satirized in the novel, by gesturing to the knight fighting illusory enemies who was made timeless by the Spanish writer Cervantes’ literary masterpiece. The novel refers to him on more than one occasion, connecting the hero Mikhail to the hero Don Quixote:

She had said to him: My heart goes to Don Quixote. I love him, I love everything in him. The old man who does not want to let go of a lance placed in his hand by an extinct age.

She collected Don Quixote paintings, wooden and iron statuettes, metallic insignia etched with his distinctive figure. She also collected his personifications, his wasted dreams. He asked himself anxiously: Do I fight, too, the windmills? Yes, justice is impossible; love is impossible. Can I, then, give up? Can I resign myself?” (109)

We find that the attitude towards Don Quixote is marked, at once, by affection and mockery, amicability and denigration:

She had said to him: No one captivates me more than Don Quixote. I just love him! He stumbles, stutters, fails, sets forth all solemn, without an inkling that he’s a washed-up has-been, that his values and manners have long been gone. Perhaps you didn’t know that I follow the Quixotic creed and its eternal rituals. (…)

She said: Incompetence, no. But Don Quixote, I die for him. I have various first editions of Don Quixote. I am learning Spanish to communicate with him in the original. I also collect paintings and statues of him in all their variations. Have you noticed my small iron statue, hollow with longish limbs? Quixote’s ancient nag Rosinante has protruding bones. His towering lance has fallen beside him, gratuitously and pointlessly. His pale, sunken, metallic face hangs in dry hopelessness. I just love my darling Don Quixote. (245-246)

Thus, we see how the novel elicits admiration and mockery of the hero at the same time, by summoning the formula of the hero and anti-hero. We may find the reader, for instance, empathizing or mocking the hero of Émile Habibi’s outstanding novel The Secret Life of Saeed: The Pessoptimist,[28] except Saeed has the traits of the anti-hero who becomes a hero. There is a revolutionary change in his personality, and we can pity him and mock him at the same time. Yet with Mikhail, we like him and mock him throughout the whole novel. This is something that makes Rama and the Dragon unique, since the reader’s reaction is characterized by the union of opposites, not the alternation between opposites.

In this manner, it seems clear that the use of Mikhail and the dragon in the novel is instrumentalized to activate the reader’s mythical memory, to pierce through the different and diverse civilizational layers. Yet Rama, who is the girl, the virgin, the princess or the belle who the hero saves, has an invented name in the myth, even though there is a village called Rama. Rama is also the name of the hero in the Indian epic, the Ramayana, but this coincidence is no more than an accident, and the novel’s semantics do not highlight it. The name, despite the fact that its strangeness has confused critics and made them unable to interpret it, is derived from the verb “to claim” (r-a-m), which is mentioned in the novel when Rama says “all’s well that ends well” [kull shay’ ‘ala ma yuram itha ma intaha ‘ala ma yuram] (291). Rama means what is desired and what is hoped for. The name carries in its structure a word formation for the name of a woman in Arabic, on the pattern of Hala and Ghada. Rama is filled with femininity, in meaning and in form. If we examine the name Rama, we will find it is an anagram for the word “woman” (mar’a).[29] It seems like the novel that revolves around Rama, the woman adored under all her names, “swan Circe enchantress phoenix cat Amazon Isis” (300), “Circe, Seraph, Siren” (44), in addition to her code name “Fatma” (169), ultimately talks about Woman in all her images, incarnations, and masks, from the beginning of time till now.

These three characters – the beloved, the lover, and the beast; or the princess, the knight, and the dragon – can represent different things. The dragon can be the symbol of evil, chaos, death, power, the father, the Other, the enemy or the demonic forces. On this basis, the myth becomes a struggle to overcome obstacles for the sake of self-realization, unity, and wholeness. From this standpoint, we see that the myth of Isis and Osiris reflects the same concerns. Isis tries to overcome the disintegration and scattering in search of self-realization, unity, and wholeness. Thus, the myth of Isis and her struggle with the forces of chaos becomes the other face of the struggle against the dragon. In her myth, the destructive force is not represented by a creature, but by a state. We can, on this basis, call the myth of Isis and Osiris the feminine formulation of a single struggle, whereas the myth of the knight and the dragon is its masculine formulation.

Herein lies the philosophy of this novel. All myths are one; oppression, however many causes it has, is one; the struggle, however many paths it follows, is one; the beloved, however many names s/he has, is one. There are no variations except on one axis, no formulations except of a single essence. This constant struggle is nothing if not humankind’s engagement – intellectually, emotionally, politically, etc.

(…) All the gods and the systems; all the beasts and the preys; all the heroes and the sites, all the epochs and the masks; all the victims and the freaks. The lists do not and cannot end, and the dragon is one, unslain. The lance of St. Michael is blunted, but it is still brandished among the stars. (252)

Sensual realism

Rama and the Dragon is distinctive for its realism in spite of the interweaving and overlapping of myths in it. When we read it, we feel that the novel presents us – in literary form – a familiar fabric through its details and components. The concept of realism is an elastic one. In Erich Auerbach’s famous Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, there are contrasting literary examples starting with Homer’s works and ending with Virginia Woolf’s works, going through Dante, Boccaccio, Shakespeare, Rabelais, Cervantes, Montaigne, and so on. The Marxist critic Georg Lukács used the term in a way that made it include the works of the German writer Hoffman, with all its supernatural content, and the works of the Czech writer Kafka, with all its irrationalities; putting them both under the banner of realism.[30]

Lukács distinguished between two types of realism: critical realism and socialist realism. He coined the term critical realism for bourgeois realism with a progressive dimension. Socialist realism is that which portrays class struggle, in a Marxist sense, as a prime mover of history and relationships.[31] In The Rise of the Novel, Ian Watt writes a chapter called “Realism and the Novel Form,” in which he discusses works by eighteenth-century British writers – Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson, and Henry Fielding – even though the realist school is mentally associated with nineteenth-century writers – Honoré de Balzac, Georges Eliot, and others.[32] Léo Bersani, in turn, chooses their nineteenth-century counterparts in an essay entitled “Le Réalisme et la peur du désir” [Realism and the Fear of Desire] – Stendhal, Leo Tolstoy, and Henry James.[33] As for Roland Barthes, he defines realism as a literary style founded on artistic and technical conventions giving the reader the impression that it presents a slice of reality.[34] Michael Riffaterre (implicitly) supported Barthes in his study of poetry and referential reality.[35] The critic Abdel Mohsen Taha Badr also brought together Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Gorky as realist writers in a chapter called “Al-Adib wal-Waqe‘” [The Writer and Reality] in his book, Al-Riwa’i wal-Ard[The Novelist and the Land],[36] which suggests that realism encompasses more than one perspective and one model of writing. The critic Abdel Moneim Telima detailed this relationship between reality and art in what follows:

Reality seems richer in art than in actual truth, because art does not stop at reality in its direct external givens, but it goes beyond these givens to a new perception of them. Reality therefore seems to have a new image: its artistic image.[37]

Realism as a literary term does not seem to have been exhausted. The term “magical realism” or “imaginary realism,” which brings together realistic and surrealistic elements, has been given to contemporary Latin American literature such as the works of Borges, García Márquez, and others. By analogy, we can call Rama and the Dragon’s realism a “sensual realism”.[38] In the novel, we come across events that look almost like a political registry: there is the Suez war and the struggle accompanying it, as Rama narrates it in chapter 8, “The Amazon on White Sand” (167-188). There are the protests happening in the middle of Cairo, as Mikhail describes them in chapter 5, “A Crack in the Old Marble” (95-120). There are the horrors of the Lebanese Civil War, as a Palestinian from Beirut recounts in chapter 11, “Diocletian’s Column” (233-256). Moreover, the novel transports us from well-known cities to familiar neighbourhoods. One time we are in Fayum, another in Cairo or Alexandria, at Sayyidna al-Hussein, on the Imbaba Bridge, and on Saad Zaghloul Street. In addition to this political and spatial “reality,” constituting a ground for the literary work, there is a description of the meetings and conversations being held, each with its own compelling character. The stalling discussion between Mikhail, Rama, and the Finnish man in a hotel in Rome in chapter 7, “Isis in a Strange Land” (121-142); the rural welcome with all its spontaneity and intimacy when Rama stays over with ‘Amm Fanus in Edfu in chapter 13, “Death and the Fly” (281-302); the intimacy of communication in the lovers’ secret conversations and their gentle reproofs; all this makes us closer not only to the space and time of reality, but also to its language. There is an amazing portrayal of secondary characters and general atmospheres in the novel, which makes us recall similar settings:

Salwa was round and small like a mischievous duck, jolly with a trembling voice. Following the story, she sang Fairuz’s song about Jerusalem in a low, warm, and sensuous voice. Nura, with her oval face and loose blonde hair, spontaneous in her popular dialect, having forgotten the inflections of a voice trained to be delicate and sophisticated, told joke after joke with obscene hints and just that appropriate measure of audacity, without an embarrassing cheapness or cumbersome reserve. Samir recited the radical songs of Sheikh Imam, and said that he had heard them and memorized them in Israel. ‘Abd al-Jalil, having become completely drunk, spoke about al-Numairi, ‘Abd al-Khaliq Mahjub, and ‘Abd al-Shafi. It was clear that he had not visited Khartoum since he was a schoolboy in elementary school. Mahmud spoke of the intrigues among the personnel in the wings of the UN and the corruption of politicians. (273-274)

 This does not mean that the novel is restricted to the familiar, the ordinary, or the daily throughout its whole journey. A ritual crime is represented by the killing of a swan in the first chapter, while the associations of Mikhail and his internal monologues are formulated in a poetic manner, far from the spontaneity of stream-of-consciousness writing. Realism, as we have said previously, does not present raw reality, but it presents us with an image of that reality, making us feel like we are entering in its mist. It presents us with human concerns, ambitions, disappointments, achievements, and impotence as situated in 1970s Egypt. What distinguishes these concerns – about which other writers have written – is their sensual description. Egyptian literature has presented us distinguished models for dealing with reality: Gamal al-Ghitani wrote about Egypt by using intertextuality, Youssef al-Qa‘id wrote about Egyptian concerns using news documents. Edwar al-Kharrat, on his part, chose to describe the details of this reality in a sensuous way, charged with the warmth of direct touch, making us feel as if we could see the quotidian and the familiar in a new light.[39] Consider the description of Lake Qarun in the opening chapter:

For the first time we go to the window and open it for the air of the salty lake, for its still waters with their silvery glitter shining like dark steel plates. The waters’ strong smell drifts in upon hot midday air. The call of a gull in the midst of the void [fi qalb al-farāgh] sounds warm, sweet – like the wound of knife in tender flesh. The call falls down from above then goes up again. (20)

In this excerpt, we find the author using the senses of taste (salty), sight (silvery), smell (strong smell), touch (hot), and sound (call). Through this description, it is impossible to conceive of the lake without mobilizing the five senses. What is most sensual about this excerpt are not these sensorial references, but bestowing a sensual entity to a nothingness that completely lacks any sensual component: the void. By giving flesh to the emptiness through the expression “the heart of the void” [qalb al-farāgh], which implicitly relies on the fact that the void is a body with a core and a heart, the author transforms the abstract into the sensual. To document the sensuality of this void, the author uses another analogy: the call of a gull in the midst of the void is like the wound of a knife through flesh in its warmth and sweetness. We find here in the smile a correspondence between void and body. And we find another thing: we find the link between the cry (the world of sound) linked to the wound (the world of touch) through warmth and sweetness (the world of taste and touch). Likewise, we find an imbricated network of semiotic relationships on numerous sensorial levels.

As for the body itself, the body of the beloved, the novel describes it in a sensual manner reaching the heights of libidinous lyricism and mystical intoxication:

Your limpid virginal rounded bosom – its sweetness eclipses all ecstasy, warm, soft, intoxicating [khamriyyan]. Your successive hot breathing contains the taste of sweet nectar. This light-headedness, where all things lose their weight, leads us once again to our first steps toward radiant skies illuminated by the sun of your eyes. Then we fall down like predators to the depths, moist with love’s dew where wild flowers grow in wilderness gushing with dense fertility and fierce ripening. (20)

In this excerpt, we find the sensual description of the beloved’s bust: it is soft (touch-wise), warm (touch- and taste-wise), and intoxicating like wine (in colour, taste, and metaphor). There is a fusion of senses in these attributes – touch, taste, and sight – as well as a reference to the impact of this bosom on the lover in the word “intoxicating” (khamriyyan), which is mentally associated with the impact of wine on the drinker. The author not only describes the bust (in its totality) using sensual adjectives, but he also describes its form sensually. For sweetness is not the bosom’s sweetness touch-wise, taste-wise, and so on, but it is the sweetness of its form and roundedness. It is not a sweetness that can be defined and compared to others: it is a miraculous sweetness, going over and beyond all other sweetness – “its sweetness eclipses all ecstasy.” The linguistic connection between ecstasy and wine is the same as the one between limpidity and sweetness: the author uses them to move between an adjective and the next. There remains only drunkenness afterwards, which we encounter in the expression “light-headedness,” leading to the “radiant skies” (the sublimity of their passion) and “moist dew” (the eroticism of their love). The mutual acceptance and coexistence between the violence of carnal desire and the delicateness of spiritual love is clear in this passage. There is no doubt that words such as “ecstasy,” “intoxication,” and “skies” elicit mystical associations, as they are common in the lexicon of divine love.[40]

Although we encounter throbbing, elaborate, graphic characterizations of physical union with the beloved in the novel, it is far from being about obscenity and cannot be considered pornographic.[41] I will cite to this effect a scene of sexual intercourse, as the union of the lovers occurs in a passage dominated by a tone of affection at its beginnings and images of sacrifice at its conclusion, such that the sexual act loses its instinctual value and its vulgar meanings to become unified in an affectionate sentiment and a desire to sacrifice oneself:

Rama… I want to put my two arms on your shoulders, to hug your neck. The tenderness I have for you in my heart fills the world. I want its still, delicate waves – which drown everything – to carry you. I want to bend and kiss your soft forehead, to hold your weeping face to my chest, to get you to relax or a moment between my arms, to erase the pain from your wounded smile. I want you to find with me freedom from perplexity and search, so there are no more questions, my darling. My cheeks open, exposed to the sun of silent dream, the dream of despair, to wallow on the softness of your cheeks. My arms – hanging on the emptiness of tense ribs, thirsting for the suppleness of your breast – demand you. The hard column, taut with the will to plunge into the warm, quivering, moist darkness. Pitch-black waters of the rough waves of tenderness and passion hit bedrock. Multiplied and amplified in their incarceration, the waters inundate and stumble in the enclosed hold of darkness. My lips have suffered dryness for too long. Salt draws lines upon them… The torturing yearning for the dew of your lips and the honey of your tongue. My eyes witness a vision that has never taken place and will never take place, like the splendour of raving: Your eyes kissing me without questioning, without probing, without perplexity, without rejection, without freezing, without despair. A vision not of this world: in your eyes my one and only knowledge. My lips squeezing the taut grapes vibrating with the fullness of their juice, of soft dough. The columns of glory lying on the brown earth under my stretching fingers, containing the whole world. My eyes closed, buried in the supple, round domes. I inhale the scent of elemental fertility. I know by the tip of my electrified tongue the sweet spicy taste. My face in the jungles of your plants wet by the river waters. Their savage scent attacks me. My lips acquire a primitive life in the forests of the body, inquiring, backing then advancing, nibbling and sucking the creamy waters, surrounded by the roughness of the wet herbage, crying in response to escaping cries in the ecstasy of chase and clinging to life. Then the unbearable tension comes and pushes to the last absence, the stab in the open, tender wound of the world, a dance of the last offering where there is no more hunter and prey, sacrificer and sacrifice. Only the flaring flow amid dazzling music of fulfilment, certainty, cosmic explosion, gushing of astral falls, slumping of burning suns into the heart of the skies’ darkness. And I, kissing the sheared-off neck with pleased and pained lips. I hold my slaughtered head between my hands – blood and wine dripping from my mouth. I wipe my lips in streams of hanging, shaking branches of her hair falling on my eyes. (66-67)

What applies to this passage also applies to other scenes of intimacy, connection, and union. We often find a sensual condensation and an erotic practice mixed with existential questions, encouraging philosophical inquiry. Consider what follows:

Still, my love, what is separating us? Why this open abyss between our bodies entwined by the sweat of our early-morning cravings? Why this estrangement annulling our very embrace, when your chest is pressing and buried in my arms and your thighs encircling my legs? Your eyes – two round glittering gems – under closed eyelids, where waters of passion and rapturous quests run. Our bodies not yet merged are hot, moist elements, still separate in their tight embrace.

 At the center of this universe, in the trembling giddy heart, at a point on the throbbing, profound circumference, there is an ever-wakeful eye – desolate, and in flames – calling but receiving no answer. It is not death – you will never die – that separates us. And it is not love. You will always love. You are what I love. Is it, then, indulgence? Is a wicked sword – dripping blood, semen, and curdled milk – snipping what’s between us? Your gorgeous tongue licks the sword’s scorching cutting edge. Your concealed scream is a moan of fulfilment, of pleasure and pain. My tongue – an enflamed parched skin – shrinks like an old parchment and falls. I can find no reviving word after dying from rapturous stabbing. All my body is wilted by dry wind.

 Her last quiver was a wave coming from afar. His heart melted, then froze. Her smile between one slumber and another seemed absent, content, self-sufficient. (97)

Sabry Hafez summarized the role of eroticism in the novel with critical acuity:

There is an attempt to elevate organic and sensual encounters to the level of poetry, to the level of mysticism, to the level of philosophy.[42]

 Among the forms of sensual realism in the novel, there is the sensual detail of a political protest. The city is portrayed as a body in which we hear small explosions, we smell repulsive shoe leather, and we see the shimmer of police helmets:

Baffled heart-shaken groups become separated from the city-body as they wait and anticipate with anxious but controlled curiosity. In the thin, fatigued faces confronting the wind and sun with their inner concerns, and under the films of somber eyes – swollen from lack of sleep – veiled dreams and defiance glitter. The sun is like an open eye with a fixed gaze, neither scorching nor responding. The metallic faded helmets glitter in the sun. The poorly-dressed, agitated, yellowish rows are falling from the freight wagons with discreet thumps over slender legs supported by the effulgent, coarse, new shoe-leather. A commanding yell, faint, abruptly cut off: “Go back. Go back.” The huge rubber tires running then coming to a halt, loom high. In their grubby blackness is a beastly determination. In front of white clouds from low-voiced explosions, groups disperse with uncontrollable fear. The horses’ hooves plunge into the soft asphalt. (115-116)

This is not about sensually describing an event. This description hints at the fact that oppression may well be able to crush the masses, but some seeds remain to renew the struggle. The description of the protest continues for several pages, but it is enough to come back to the last one, where Mikhail returns to a description of the horses:

The hooves of the horses slam the black basalt rhythmically, emitting repeated echoes in the street emptied of traffic and familiar noise. In the swaying body of the city new and solid, obstinate knots are formed that soon dissolve and melt in mists of tear gas. In front of slim phalanxes of armors, clubs, and helmets, other small knots are formed. They bulge slowly, with outcries like the eruptions of an old painful disease. An outpouring of stagnant water, confined by oppression, by suffering, by daily toils that have neither explanation nor solution. The howling of the Tommy guns with their intermittent echoes, seemingly insignificant, leaves in front of it small bodies that fall suddenly as if they were insignificant piles of sorrow and worn-out clothes. They get transported quickly by hand to the sidewalk in the hope of a mercy that may or may not come. Slender-figured plants bend beneath the blows and collapse. These flowers that bloomed only for the course of a day and then were smashed, will they leave behind them regenerating seeds? The fiery and bitter flowers are quickly put out. (117)

We ought to add that the sensual stylistics make a constant appearance in the novel, without being restricted to a few scenes.

Epic modernity 

The modern novel is characterized, in terms of plotline, by a rebellion against the organization of the narrative as a report, and in terms of characters, by the presentation of the anti-hero. We have encountered the question of the hero in Rama and the Dragon, and how he combines heroism with anti-heroism. Now we may examine the structure of the novelistic sequence, exposing the faces of modernity in it. The modern novel has no single form or mould: if it is characterized by one thing, it is the absence of traditional sequence. Most novels abuse the structure of narrative sequence or hide it by taking inspiration in the structure of dreams or memory. From Kafka to Proust down through Joyce’s works, we find these two modes: dreams and memory predominate. We also find them in Mahmoud al-Massadi’s works.[43]

We come across numerous visions in Rama and the Dragon: sleeping dreams and waking ones, internal monologues and fantastic illusions. Yet the narrative structure is not a dream structure with all its irrationality: it is a remembering structure, in which one recalls past events with a warmth lacking in the present, selectively joining between both times, moodily going forward, and, through all this, refusing to abide by a chronological sequence or a spatial definition. While we find an unconscious confusion in the dream, we find a conscious one in remembrance. The dream masks repressed desires; memory is a reiteration of freed desires: it is one thread among many in revelation.

Mikhail says in the novel’s last passage:

As for me, I am surrendering myself to the last of what I have – as far as I know, to the last of what exists. I’ll confront this ache until the last day with no armor, with no camouflage, and with no vindication. (327)

This does not mean that memory bears no additions or fruits, but that it voluntarily adds and bears fruit, even though it cannot ultimately distinguish between what was and what was not, or as the novel says:

He doesn’t know what she said to him, what she did not say. He doesn’t know what has happened, what he fancies has happened. Is it an act of recollection to save the scene from the void of oblivion? Or is it an illusion extracted from the claws of reality. (238)

Memory is a strange mixture of reality and illusion, of reason and dream, or as Mikhail goes on to say to himself:

Knowing this strange geography where dream and reason intermingle is not a comfortable thing. (238)

Although the mechanisms and rules of dreaming have been studied, analysed, and standardized, the mechanisms and logic of memory have not had such a fortune in terms of study and analysis. It seems to me that the flow of memory in Rama and the Dragon cannot be determined through time and space – i.e., by asking when and where – but by asking how and why? Memory historicizes in terms of quality not quantity; it is interested in the type of event, not its location; it searches for its meaning not its time. Memory brings together “objectivity” and “subjectivity,” “history” and “literature,” “what was” and “what was not”. This structure of memory in the novel brings us back once again to the union of opposites.

It seems to me that Rama and the Dragonis planned on a basis that does not allow for the rearrangement of events temporally or spatially. It is not a traditional novel that can be re-presented through a successive sequence, even a masked one. The flashbacks in the novel are not retrospective digressions on a syntagmatic axis, but narrative episodes on a paradigmatic axis. There is an artistic intent behind the forfeiture of architecture in this novelistic work, for remembering is by nature selective and arbitrary, interested in quality not quantity, in impact not in magnitude. Thus, casting events temporally and geographically is an absurd matter, in the sense that if we tried to determine Rama and Mikhail’s path and their journey between Fayum, Cairo, Alexandria, Rome, etc., it would be impossible. Meanwhile, we can determine down to the minute the path taken by Leopold Bloom in Ulysses, and we can trace a map of the neighbourhoods that he traversed in Dublin. This is precisely what is impossible to do with Mikhail, for a simple reason: this translation, if it were possible, would only be a betrayal of the original. Transferring this novelistic work from its ground (remembering) to another ground (reporting) is but a distortion of its artistry. Just as poetry becomes distorted when we reformulate it in prose, for example, the same goes in this novel. If we recast it to present a sequence of events, we would be defacing it. No wonder that the novel resists this defacement through a composition that hinders its recasting in a traditional mould.

Then how does the move between a chapter and the next happen? Is it a haphazard move or one governed by context, even if not through a chronological succession? My sense and conjecture drive me to say that the novel is written in a way allowing each chapter to be read on its own, first, just as they can be read together as it happens to have been ordered in the novel or as the reader may wish to order it (futuristic poets have written poems of this kind). They are successions and interwoven episodes. We can start with any chapter in reading it, although we must end with the last chapter.[44] What is important in the novel is not succession, but crystallization. Each chapter presents a new aspect of the central relationship in the novel, deepening our awareness of the relationship. Thus, we find no difficulty in saying that the novel does not end, but it stops. And we will not be surprised to read subsequent chapters returning to this relationship, as the author has done, after he had finished the novel.[45] This does not mean that there is no beginning nor end to the central relationship, but it means that in recalling the relationship, there is no beginning preceding the end. This also does not mean that each chapter is split from the other, but each chapter is independent on its own: it is a meander flowing through the novel. What brings these chapters together, in addition to the central relationship between Rama and Mikhail, are repeated motifs and expressions coming to a common underlying problem between chapters, but which does not determine what comes first or last. For instance, we find the title of chapters woven into the fabric of other chapters, including but not limited to the title of chapter 5, “A Crack in the Old Marble”, woven into chapter 6, as Mikhail “knew for the first time how the old marble cracks.” (123) Likewise, the title of chapter 4, “Rama: Asleep Beneath the Moon,” can be found in a page of chapter 10 as “Rama sleeps beneath the moon with her marvellous, plump (…) body.” (217) The novel often recalls an event from another chapter using a parallel idiom. This passage from chapter 9 elicits in our minds the description of the lake cited earlier from the first chapter:

Visible through the window, placid Qarun Lake felt heavy, distilling some of its presence into the silent room. Its salty breath blew from behind the wood; the piercing cry of the gull reached them from its distant niche in the secluded sky. (203)

It seems to me that what Edwar al-Kharrat has achieved in Rama and the Dragon is a felicitous harmony between two techniques. One is related to point of view, which presents a single character or a set of events from different and contrasting angles to us, as Lawrence Durrell does in the Alexandria Quartet. The second relates to cycle, in which the author takes up a character or a family to present them through various stories gathering and adding to the initial image, as Katherine Mansfield has done in her stories about the Burnell family and as William Faulkner has also done.[46] In Rama and the Dragon, we read about contrasting and condensed aspects of Rama’s traits.

What applies to temporal succession applies to geographical delimitation, as it is impossible to specify place. In chapter 7 of the novel, “Isis in a Strange Land” (143-166), we find the label “strange land” and allusions to it throughout the chapter, including to St Peter’s Cathedral: “carefully folded, frail, paper table mats of light brown colour with a sketch of the Coliseum, the restaurant’s logo”, espresso coffee and Campari, and “huge columns around which so many signs were glued that no vacant space on the flesh of the curving black marble was visible in the dusk.” (145) All this brings us back to Rome, except Rama talks to Mikhail about her romantic adventures as a teenager as she walks through the city: “When I went to boarding school [here] in Alexandria, the three of them used to send me letters (…)” (146). In the logic of memory, what matters is that the event occurred, not where it is located.[47]

How can we connect a modernity built on breaks and fragmentation to the epic character emerging from a civilization built on unity and totality, as Lukács has shown in his Theory of the Novel? This is precisely Rama and the Dragon’s ambition, as shown in the myth of Isis and Osiris: bringing together these novelistic organs to constitute a complete and organic unity. Mikhail, whose “body is torn in fourteen fragments” (176), is like the novel divided in fourteen chapters. It is possible to substitute any of the nine days with the other except “the ninth and last day” (the last chapter in the novel), when failure announces its birth. It is a day when the novel is generated in opposite manner and what happened is recalled. Rama grabs our attention in this inverted structure, the warp and weft of memory, speaking about herself:

I went back to the sofa in my room and lay on it, motionless and speechless, for the totality of nine months, as if it were a period of inverted pregnancy, after which I did not deliver, but arrived at a new death, another one at the heart of life. (307)

These hidden, recurrent references constitute the organic fabric bringing the novel into a total unity, lacking in structure and architecture, characterized by frailty and fluidity, but constituting little by little a unity, even if it is a unity of absence not presence.

The epic as a narrative genre has three characteristics: first, it deals with what is refined and essential, not what is popular and accidental; second, the style’s poetry and lyricism; third, long-windedness, narrative extension, and an encyclopaedic dimension.[48]

There is no doubt that any reader who consults Rama and the Dragon feels its concern with acute existential matters and cosmic questions. The meaning of existence, the place of human beings in the universe, the possibility of communication, love, death, dreams, violence – all these matters are presented in insistent manner throughout the novel:

He said to her: Not on the bread of dreams does man live, but rather, with it he dies.

He said to himself: Man? What arrogance! Not on the bread of dreams do I live myself. That is all. In fact, with it I neither live nor die. (152)

The novel distinguishes between two types of human characters:

She is, contrary to you, seeking multiplicity from within her unargued unity. As for you, you are searching for a divided, fragmented, lost unity. (185)

The novel also often links, in different formulations, love and knowledge:

He said: Not that. I do care about knowing people. I’m fascinated by them and I yearn to know them. Their ideas, dreams, calculations fascinate me. But who can claim to know people genuinely in this confused marketplace which has nothing but buying and selling? There are no people in it, only instruments. They have turned themselves into instruments. How do we know them? (…) To know is not to possess or to dominate. Knowledge, alone, is Truth; it is love. (183)

The novel does not always present these existential topics in a philosophical style, but it moves between a presentation of issues, as seen above, to dealing with them through objective equations, as in the following passage, which describes in detail the tyranny of death and the frailty of human beings:

She remembers only a tiny black fly that keeps buzzing in the stifling room. It is taken aback by night, light, and death. It moves in quick gyrations straining the nerves, then descends suddenly and alights on his fair, wrinkle-free forehead. It settles there, and no one shoos it away. An ugly fly with a sticky round small body moving its wings and its many minute hairy legs; secure, turning its head on the sole sun that had not set and will not set. Standing on his forehead, he who burst with fire and blood, who could not bear ugliness in the slightest of things. It moves slowly on his forehead and he leaves it alone. He does not shudder in anger with his husky voice that makes the four corners of the world shake. Her eyes are glued to the fly. She falls into the grip of unconscious and misty fascination, yet very alert, awaiting some miracle, but nothing happens.

At the bottom of this fixed, dark enchantment that does not partake of time, neither night nor day, she said she knew in a definitive way that he had died. She was shattered from within, soundlessly and without tears. (291)

Although the language of Rama and the Dragon is not poetry in a traditional sense, it is poetic to the point where we can call each of its chapters a “prose poem” or a “narrative poem” if our distinction between poetry and prose is built on ontological factors not accidental ones, as the critic Michel Beaujour did with his definition of the prose poem in the sense of using poetic language (filled with metaphorical and literal images) in a conscious manner.[49] The novel’s poetry is sometimes condensed in passages where a certain voice predominates, constituting a phonetic alliteration as we see with the letter “ḥa” in this passage:

He stood, restlessly, anxiously, in the queue, and recalled a dream (ḥilm) similarly crowded (muzdaḥim), though with love (ḥubb) and triumph. After exactly an hour, he was talking with her (yuḥaddithuha) in contrived calmness, joking with her for having obtained (ḥasal) the seat next to her in the Diesel train. He sensed she concealed a stubborn (ḥarounan) feeling (ḥessan) of anger (ḥanaq) and tension (‘adam al-raḥa), as if he had swept away (iktasaḥ) from underneath (taḥt) her feet a small piece of land that she had meant (taḥris) to keep (taḥtawiha) for herself (waḥdiha). (73)

We also see it in a more condensed and concentrated – if more contrived – manner in the following passage:

A heat heating a headstrong humor, either hushed when it happens, or hastening in hot whisks and hissing whirls. I am harassed by a hoodoo, hankering for holding it off, hewing the hedonistic heart. Vehement exhortations to hostilities with hesitant hatchets amid the inhospitable horse huddles. Vehement hugging. Hysterical horrors. Whetting the whims and overwhelming the households, with whooping and hurting hooves. The havoc of a harrowing Sahara at home. Downhill through hellish hours… Hurdles hovering around me heedlessly. The hurdles lose cohesiveness, behaving like holed hearts. Hoarse humming of helpless whispers. I hover under the hedges of my hazardous house where my hazel whims are halting and hobbling. Horus hovers and halts, hovers and heads down unto the heaths of horticulture whet. Heaving with honeyed hemlock. Hailing is my haven and harness. Hurling the homesteads, hammering off the handcuffs with horrible whiffs. I hug the hounds in the heat of a horrid hurricane. Hawk-eyed horizons behold me. My heart hollowed by humming whispers. My innermost burns with the scorching howl: Freedom, my only truth; my love for freedom sets me on fire. (88)

Although phonetic alliteration has well-known precedents in the Arabic storytelling tradition, such as in Hariri’s Maqamat, Edwar al-Kharrat has added what might be called semantic alliteration, or the predominance of a certain meaning over a mass of words, as the idea of oppression predominates in this passage:

Mikhail said to himself: Tall al-Za‘tar and Abu Za‘bal, the arenas of the Colosseum, the graveyard of Caracalla, the dungeons of the Inquisition, and the helmets of the Vikings. The hounds trained to mangle the blacks in Rhodesia, the power of the papal bulls, the instructions of political bureaus and central committees. (251)

Phonetic alliteration often intersects with semantic alliteration in the novel, as a certain sound or meaning can predominate over a certain passage, as in the previous passage and the one beginning as follows:

            Rama… Anima… Mandala… My woman… My haven… My cave… (92)

As for long-windedness, narrative extension, and the encyclopaedic dimension, all are present and clear. The novel is long; it is formulated with style in each of its segments; and its encyclopaedic character makes us look upon it beyond the level of myths and stories. There is a hidden encyclopaedic impulse demanding a reader who can understand signs, and another plain impulse presenting the reference. The novel refers in passing, for instance, to the Gorgon, one of three sisters in Greek mythology who would turn anyone who looked at them into stone:

I wanted my love – our love – to be a desperate gamble, the torment of gazing with our open, determined eyes at the Gorgon’s distorted face that kills whoever gazes at her. But after gazing I wanted it to go beyond killing into the heart of blazing darkness. (38)

Likewise, Mikhail compares himself to John the Baptist implicitly when he says:

In the midst of his rush for her – in a restaurant, in a café, in a movie theatre, at home – he offers her his severed head on a burning solar tray. (259)

In some cases, the reference is clear:

Is it the struggle of Jacob with the angel on the staircase that does not reach heaven? Is it a stumbling, awkward Hamlet without tragedy, and no stage? (124-125)

This encyclopaedic character is not reduced to the literary or the political, but reaches the types of food and drink, when the novel describes the table in a party:

There were two bottles of Vat 69, a bottle of cognac shining with a precious, clear amber, and the reddish, highly suggestive liquor of Bisquit. The glasses were of different shapes: elongated ones made of the usual thin glass and crystal ones refracting light. At a glance, he could see the crowded plates, one next to the other, large and small. Slices of qarishcheese: a dewy, ribbed, and pressed curd. The deep red thin strips of basturma: jerked meat with white fatty veins. The boiled, reddish, and rounded sausage. The splendour of tender green, comely lettuce. The delicacy of mint leaves like spicy, dark green flowers. (271-272)

Lastly, the reader may find precedents to some traits in this novel in embryonic form in the Arabic or European tradition, but what characterizes Rama and the Dragon is its elevation of specific attributes such as generative mythopoetics, sensual realism, and epic modernity to the rank of literary phenomena. A lot of Edwar al-Kharrat’s achievement in this novel can be considered a harmonization between two contrasting lines: the physical and the metaphysical, the local and the global, the immediate and the absolute.

Ferial Ghazoul is a professor of English and comparative literature. She is the editor of Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics, an annual multi-disciplnary publication. She has participated as a judge for a number of prizes and awards, including the Naguib Mafouz Medal and Cavafy Award. She is on the advisory board of several journals and foundations, including Thaqafat, Fusul, Kitab-fi-jarida, and The Arab Fund for Arts and Culture.

 She is also the co-translator of Edwar al-Kharrat’s Rama and the Dragon.

The complete special section

The Edwar al-Kharrat Memorial Library, by Chihab El Khachab

Edwar al-Kharrat’s Library: A Hall of Magic and Wonders, by Mohamed Shoair, tr. Chihab El Khachab

Without Maps, by Montasser al-Kaffash, tr. Chihab El Khachab

Edwar al-Kharrat: On Books and Writing, by May Telmissany, tr. Chihab El Khachab

The Arabic Novel’s Contribution to Global Storytelling Styles: ‘Rama and the Dragon’, by Ferial Ghazoul, tr. Chihab El Khachab

Edwar al-Kharrat… the Storytelling Eye, by Gamal Alkassas

Chapter 3 of Rama and the Dragon, by Edwar al-Kharrat, tr. Ferial Ghazoul and John Verlenden

This special section is also available for download as e-pub or PDF.

Select works by Edwar al-Kharrat in English translation

Rama and the Dragon, translated by Ferial Ghazoul and John Verlenden

City of Saffrontranslated by Frances Liardet

Girls of Alexandria, translated by Frances Liardet

Stones of Bobellotranslated by Paul Starkey

[1]See, for instance, Franz Rosenthal. (1974) “Literature” IN Joseph Schacht & C. E. Bosworth (eds.) The Legacy of Islam(2ndedition). London: Oxford University Press, pp. 318-349; Raymond Schwab. (1950). La Renaissance orientale. Paris: Payot; Johann W. Fück. (1955). Die Arabischen Studien in Europa bis in den Afang des 20. Jahrhunderts. Leipzig: Otto Harrassowitz; Dorothee Melizki. (1975). The Matter of Araby in Medieval England. New Haven: Yale University Press; Soheir El-Kalamawy and Mahmud Ali Makky. (1977). “Arabic Literature” IN Islamic and Arab Contribution to the European Renaissance. Cairo: UNESCO, pp. 17-111; Muhsin Jassim Ali. (1981). Scheherazade in England. Washington: Three Continents Press; Mohammed Ghoneimi Hilal. (N/D). Al-Adab al-Muqaran[Comparative Literature, 5thed.]. Beirut: Dar al-Awda & Dar al-Thaqafa

[2]See Martha Pike Conant. (1966/1908). The Oriental Tale in England in the Eighteenth Century(Columbia University Studies in Comparative Literature n°9). New York: Octagon Books

[3]For more details, see the entry for “Haiku” and “Imagism” in: Alexander Preminger. (ed.) (1965). Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Princeton: Princeton University Press

[4]See, for instance, Jorge Luís Borges. (1970) The Aleph and Other Stories, 1933-1969. Together with Commentaries and an Autobiographical Essayby Norman Thomas di Giovanni in collaboration with the author. New York: Dutton

[5]See Mohammed Tarchouna. (1978). Al-Adab al-Morid fi-Mu’allafat al-Messadi[Desirous Literature in Messadi’s Works]. Tunis: Al-Dar al-Tunisiyya lil-Nashr

[6]Edwar al-Kharrat. (1980).Rama wal-Tinnin[Rama and the Dragon]. Beirut: Al-Mu’assasa al-‘Arabiyya lil-Dirasat wal-Nashr. References in this essay are made to the English edition: Edwar al-Kharrat. (2013 [2002]). Rama and the Dragon, trans. Ferial Ghazoul and John Verlenden. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press

[7]Badr al-Deeb. (1980). “Nadwa ma‘ al-Nuqqad hawla Rama wal-Tinnin” [A Colloquium with Critics about Rama and the Dragon]. Recorded and broadcast in Cairo on February 13th, 1980, then edited and appended to a special edition of the novel, p. 279

[8]Ahmed al-Madini. (1984). “Aghlab al-Riwayat al-‘Arabiyya al-Maktuba Salafan” [Most Arabic Novels Written Previously], an interview with Jihad Fadel. Al Hawadeth, April 28th, p. 67

[9]Sami Khashaba. (1981). “Rama wal-Tinnin : Ma’sah Misriyya” [Rama and the Dragon: An Egyptian Ordeal]. Fosoul, vol. 1, n°2 (January), p. 261.

[10]Sabry Hafez. (1982). “Hiwar ma‘ Edwar al-Kharrat” [An Interview with Edwar al-Kharrat]. Alif, n°2, p. 100

[11]Maher Shafik. (1981). “Riwaya ‘Azima” [A Magnificent Novel]. Al-Thaqafa, May, p. 93

[12]See, for instance, Walid Munir. (1982). “Hawl Tawthif al-‘Unsur al-Usturi fil-Riwaya al-Misriyya al-Mu‘asira” [On the Function of the Mythical Element in the Contemporary Egyptian Novel]. Fosoul, vol. 2, n°2 (January/March), pp. 31-38

[13]For a comparison with Edwar al-Kharrat’s other writings, see Ceza Kassim. (1984). “‘An Buitiqa al-‘Amal al-Maftuh: Qira’a fi “Ikhtinaqat al-‘Ishq wal-Sabah” li Edwar al-Kharrat” [On the Poetics of the Open Work: A Reading of “The Asphyxiations of Love and the Morning” by Edwar al-Kharrat”]. Fosoul, vol. 4, n°2 (January/March), pp. 228-241

[14]Thomas Aquinas has determined four levels of interpretation in the Scriptures. Dante moved and applied this interpretive direction to literary texts. See A. C. Pages (ed.) (1945). The Basic Writings of Saint Thomas AquinasNew York: Roman House; and Robert H. Haller. (1973). Literary Criticism of Dante Alighieri.Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press

[15]See Cocteau’s and O’Neil’s plays for the instrumentalization of Greek mythology.

[16]The explicit or implicit reference to the myth is found in: Al-Kharrat, Rama and the Dragon, pp. 14, 15,18, 19,58,76-77,119, 120,187, 188,206, 207,241, 242

[17]Mikhail recounts this myth in poetic manner in: Rama and the Dragon, pp. 155-158

[18]See : Rama and the Dragon, pp. 233, 266,278, 300, where the novel is woven with this interpretation through a clear reference to the phoenix, as it occupies a prominent place in the title of chapter 12: “The Phoenix Born Daily”.

[19]The Bible refers to the dragon in the Book of Psalms: “Thou shalt tread upon the lion and the adder: the young lion and the dragon shalt though trample under feet.” (Psalms 91, verse 13 – King James version). The Arabic translation uses the term “serpent” instead of “dragon”. See also the Book of Revelation, chapter 12, verses 7 to 9: “And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels // And prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven. // And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.”

[20]See Taha Baqer. (1975). Malhamit Gilgamesh[The Gilgamesh Epic]. Baghdad: Ministry of Information, 1975, pp. 75-88

[21]See Farouk Khurshid. (1980). “Wahsh al-Khayal al-Sha‘bi al-Misri” [The Beast in the Egyptian Popular Imagination]. Al-Doha, vol. 5, no. 58 (October), pp. 93-98

[22]I am indebted for this information to the researcher Elizabeth Wickett, who presented an exciting paper on the “Praise for Mar Girgis” that she recorded in Luxor in 1982, published in: the International Conference for Arabic Popular Epics n°2, Cairo, 2-6 January 1985.

[23]In addition to Hallaj’s verses, there are other sources mentioned by Maher Shafiq Farid, including: Ibn al-Wardi’s Kharidat al-‘Aja’ib(Pearl of Wonders), Ibn Wasif Shah’s Mukhtasar al-‘Aja’ib(Abridged Wonders), al-Qazwini’s ‘Aja’ib al-Makhluqat(Wonders of Creation), and Ibn Iyas’ Bada’i‘ al-Zuhur fi Waqa’i‘ al-Duhur(The Choicest Blooms Concerning the Incidence of Dooms). See Farid, “A Great Novel”, op. cit., p. 94

[24]“Say: ‘Whoever is an enemy of Gabriel, indeed, he has brought it down by the permission of Allah to your heart, confirming what was before it and a guidance and glad tidings to the believers.” (The Holy Quran, Al-Baqarah 97, Qaribullah & Darwish translation).

[25]Al-Tabari and Ibn al-Athir mention him as one of the angels who opened Prophet Muhammad’s chest before the Mi’raj. Ibn Saad mentions him as an ally to the Muslims in the battle of Badr. It is said that his name is used as a prophylactic incantation like the names of the Prophet’s companions. For more details, see the entry for “Mīkāl” in theShorter Encyclopedia of Islam, edited on behalf of the Royal Netherlands Academy by H.A.R. Gibb and J.H. Kramers. (1953). Ithaca: Cornell University Press

[26]For more on Mikhail’s stature in Judeo-Christian thought, see the entry for “Michael” in Gustav Davidson. (1967). A Dictionary of Angels. New York: Free Press

[27]On the development of spatial relationships in visual art on this struggle with the dragon, see Jean Petitot-Concorda. (1979). “Saint George: Remarque sur l’espace pictorial” IN Sémiotique de l’espace. Paris: Denoël & Gonthier, pp. 95-153

[28]See Samia Mehrez. (1984). “Irony in Joyce’s Ulyssesand Habibi’s Pessoptimist”.Alif, no. 4, pp. 33-54

[29]See Saussure’s writings on the importance of anagrams in literature. See also Jean Starobinski. (1971). Les Mots sous les mots: Les Anagrammes de Ferdinand de Saussure. Paris : Gallimard

[30]See Georg Lukács. (1971). Realism in Our Time. New York: Harper Row, pp. 47-92.

[31]Id., pp. 93-135

[32]See Ian P. Watt. The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding. (London: Chatto and Windus, 1957), pp. 9-37.

[33]Léo Bersani. “Le Réalisme et la peur du désir” IN Littérature et réalité. (Paris : Seuil, 1982), pp. 47-80.

[34]Roland Barthes. “L’effet du réel” IN Littérature et réalité, pp. 81-90

[35]Michael Riffaterre. “Système d’un genre descriptif”, Poétique, vol. 9, 1972, pp. 15-30; and Michael Riffaterre. “L’Illusion référentielle” IN Littérature et réalité, pp. 91-118.

[36]Abdel Mohsen Taha Badr. (1979). Al-Riwa’i wal-Ard[The Novelist and the Land], 2nded. Cairo: Dar al-Maaref, p. 43.

[37]Abdel Moneim Telima. (1979). Muqaddima fi Naziriyya-t al-Adab[Introduction to Literary Theory], 2nded. Cairo: Dar al-Awda, p. 210

[38]The critic Badr al-Deeb used this expression in “A Colloquium with Critics on Rama and the Dragon”, p. 259. He mistakenly pointed out that it is borrowed from the novel’s text, saying: “the novel mentions ‘a direct, frank, sensual quotidian realism… with no poetic spell, no eroticism, not inducing fantasies or fancies’”. The novel’s original text says: “her body [Rama’s body] – a direct, frank, sensual quotidian event [waqe‘a] – with no poetic spell, no eroticism, not inducing fantasies or fancies”. See al-Kharrat, Rama and the Dragon, p. 86. This felicitous slip, substituting the woman’s body with the novel’s body, seems to me a definite proof of its sensuality.

[39]See the following article, which clarifies the importance of describing the familiar in order to notice it and direct it sensually: Victor Shklovsky. (1965). “Art as Technique”, translated by Lee T. Lemon & Marion J. Reis

[40]The following article clarifies how the semantic field of wine has been instrumentalized as a mystical symbol in ancient poetry: Mohammed Bariri. (1985). “The Symbol of Wine in Ancient Poetry”. Alif, n°5, pp. 73-98

[41]The term “pornographic” is constituted of two parts: the first one means debauchery (porno) and the second one means writing in Greek (graphē). The novel portrays a love relationship, or what the Greeks have called “eros,” not a debauched one. For this reason, it is better to call the novel “erographic” and not pornographic. See on this topic the Marxist critic Stephan Marowski. (1974). “Art and Obscenity” IN Inquiries into the Fundamentals of Aesthetics. Cambridge: MIT Press, pp. 362-392

[42]See “A Conference with Critics on Rama and the Dragon”, p. 287

[43]See Mahmoud al-Massadi’s Mouled al-Nesyan[The Birth of Forgetfulness]. Tunis: Al-Dar al-Tunisiyya lil-Nashr; and Haddath Abou Harira Qal…[Talk to Abou Harira, He Said…]. Tunis: Al-Dar al-Tunisiyya lil-Nashr

[44]I must mention in this context that the critic Badr al-Deeb sees something else. He portrays the arrangement of the novel as an “album” constituted of seven tapes, but each tape has two sides, in such a way that the fourteen chapters follow one another in a necessary and inevitablesequence. He argues that each chapter sets the tone in speech and in value for the subsequent one. See “A Colloquium with Critics about Rama and the Dragon”, pp. 257, 279 and 281. With all due respect to Badr al-Deeb’s keen insight, he does not clarify or analyse, but presents a metaphorical musical image of the book’s arrangement and a tempting hypothesis about succession. There is no doubt that there are recurring motifs, and we hear their echoes in more than one chapter, but this does not mean that the chapters’ sequential thread is inevitable. I have attempted to test Badr al-Deeb’s assumed thread in 1) discursive levels (actions, speech acts, thoughts), 2) topical levels (themes, motifs, chapter titles), 3) stylistic levels (narrative, description, genres). I have not found a string weaving all fourteen chapters in a specific and necessary thread on any of the levels mentioned above. Badr al-Deeb himself said about the novel’s stylistics that “with Edwar, things do not follow one another, but exist simultaneously.” See “A Colloquium with Critics about Rama and the Dragon”, p. 283. I reckon that the principle of non-succession and simultaneity applies to the ordering of chapters.

The novel’s arrangement is closer to a set of scattered images about a relationship that any reader can bring together as s/he pleases. Every new or renewed ordering is an album that does not change the essence of the relationship but diversifies the possibilities of its presentation. The novelistic structure reflects the myth of Isis and Osiris, and in such a way, the reader becomes another Mikhail. Reading becomes an embodiment of Mikhail’s efforts to bring together the parts of Rama’s image. Speaking about Rama and the Dragon, Sabry Hafez said: “As if we were presented with an inverted Osirian tale, where Osiris is in search of Isis’ members, and tries to bring together an image of her that is the image that the novel presents to the protagonist: Rama. Mikhail, the novel’s protagonist, tries to gather the parts of this image through this entire labour.” See “A Colloquium with Critics about Rama and the Dragon”, pp. 254-255. The novel’s ambition in content and style is to transform the daily into the absolute, the finite into the infinite. If we review the reading possibilities – if it is true that the sequence of the thirteen chapters can be rearranged – the novel allows for more than six billion readings, which corresponds to the mathematical formulation of “13 factorial” or what is symbolized in calculations as “13!”, whose numerical value is 6,227,020,800. This number is, in practice, close to infinity. Thus, we see how structure is used to increase the threads of the novel’s human and metaphysical ambition. Based on my own experience trying to read the novel in an order other than the one in which it was published, I have found a parallel reading to the previous ones, in which I had abided by the given order. The concept of the open-ended novel has become commonplace, but Rama and the Dragonpresents a unique thing in the history of novelistic narrative: the novel with an open beginning.

[45]See Edwar al-Kharrat. (1985). “Thell al-Shams al-Mustahil” [The Impossible Shadow of the Sun], Ibda‘, vol. 3, n°1 (January), pp. 23-32; and Edwar al-Kharrat. (1984). “Damm al-Ushshaq Mubah” [The Lovers’ Blood is Permissible],Ibda‘, vol. 2, n°11 (November), pp. 63-73

[46]In the following short stories: “Prelude,” “At the Bay,” and “The Doll’s House” IN Katherine Mansfield. (1956). Stories. Selected and with an introduction by Elizabeth Bower. New York: Vintage Books

[47]Critics have disagreed in the colloquium over whether the events of this chapter happened in Rome (Italy), Byblos (Lebanon), or Al Manshiyya al-Saghira in Alexandria. Edwar al-Kharrat has added a comment on this discussion in “A Colloquium with Critics about Rama and the Dragon”, pp. 289-290: “‘Geographical’ delimitation was not needed, and there was a hope to fuse multiple levels into ‘place’ – as with ‘time’. Thus, St. Peter’s Cathedral could be in Rome, in Byblos, or in Al Manshiyya al-Saghira in Alexandria in a single ‘place,’ at the same ‘time.’”

[48]These common divisions unite epics that have been mentioned in the following book, combining classical, early modern, and modern epics: Paul Merchant. (1971). The Epic. London: Methuen

[49]See Michel Beaujour. (1983). “Short Epiphanies: Two Contextual Approaches to the French Prose Poem” IN Mary Ann and Hermine Riffaterre (eds.) The Prose Poem in France. New York: Columbia University Press, pp. 39-59