Reem Bassiouney is an Oxford-educated professor of linguistics at the American University in Cairo. She is also the winner of the 2010 Sawiris Foundation Award for Young Novelists, and the author of The Mamluk Trilogy, which was on the bestseller lists of both the 2019 and 2020 Cairo Book Fairs:
By Yasmine Motawy
I imagine that you’re aware of the extremely politically incorrect behavior of your female protagonists, who are not typically rebellious, empowered, or liberated role models.
Reem Bassiouney: It’s important to me to be completely honest with my readers, and of course I am aware of how my female protagonists are not typical feminists by contemporary standards, and how horrified some are by this. I have done my homework and researched the historical period well, and I could have easily written a book where the women were emancipated and revolutionary and pushed contemporary criteria for this emancipation. In the trilogy, I depicted how people really lived; medieval society was somewhat cruel, executions were not kept outside of daily life, offenders were often publicly decapitated and impaled, and the Mamluks had a very different idea of what human rights meant.
Women, however, did have many rights that are not exercised today. For instance, they could, and often did include six or seven pages worth of stipulations in their marriage contracts, outlining what their husband could or could not do. On the other hand, in times of war, princesses would be captured and enslaved. There was one princess who changed hands during two coups and was married to three successive sultans. She was never asked about her preferences, but one imagines she may have liked one of them, maybe none of them. But she did manage to survive, the question is: how?
I find some historical fiction that caters to this political correctness rather infuriating and disrespectful of the reader. So for instance, in medieval England, a man would inherit a house with all of its enslaved people, so for a novel set in that period to present this master asking an enslaved person’s permission if he may kiss her, and for her to express distaste is completely fake, although, I imagine it might make for more politically correct writing.
YM: So how do your female protagonists push boundaries? With the first story, I feel the protagonist was sexually overcome by the prince and that this was the beginning of her “taming.” Was it?
RB: Well, first, I find it important that my women force the men they encounter to respect them. I find that women being liberated means nothing if men do not respect it, respect them, and listen to them. The women in my stories fought until they were listened to as equals, and, in many contexts, consulted as intellectual superiors. They are Egyptian women; persistent fighters, who may be neglected or subjected to great injustices, but who also have great inner strength. It does both the medieval and the modern Egyptian woman a great disservice to demand that she fight back in the same way that others do.
I would not say that the character Zeinab surrendered at the point where Prince Mohamed awakened her sexuality, because for me it is still about respect; the man being in a position to take a woman seriously, and give her care and in turn being responded to with appreciation and maybe love.
YM: The prince’s marriage to an Egyptian defies what we think about the separation of the Mamluks and the people they ruled over. Was it realistic?
RB: Historically, many Mamluks married Egyptian women. In fact, during a spell of peace, Sultan Barquq sent his bored soldiers to sit in the markets and cafes and mingle with the Egyptians, and many of them ended up marrying into the local population.
YM: I have read all but two of your novels at this point, and I’m starting to see patterns. You have a way of throwing characters at the reader, who in the early chapters are not well developed, and whose features become more defined as the reader progresses with the novel. This is quite unlike other writers who invest a great deal in making the reader very clear about the character from the beginning.
RB: No one has ever asked me that! Yes, it is a deliberate thing that I do in the interest of maintaining realism. When you meet someone for the first time, you do not know anything about them, but as you get to know them, they unfold before you and become clearer. I wanted to make the reader’s journey realistic, and to allow the characters to also discover themselves as life changes them.
YM: Tell us about the special status of ‘welad el nas’, the children of these captive slaves from Circassian countries who would grow up with privilege but who would not inherit their fathers’ positions. I am particularly interested in a storyline that you introduced but did not pursue further in your book; when you intimated that some Mamluks travelled back to Europe to locate and bring their biological families to Egypt. I am also interested in the brevity of the lives of the Mamluks, and the contemporary usage of the term ‘welad el nas’ in Egypt.
RB: Yes, the Mamluks rarely lived beyond the age of fifty, and were usually killed in palace intrigues meant to overthrow them, or in battle, and this is probably why I wrote the scene with Prince Mohamed dying so early on in my drafting process; because it was so clear in my mind as an inevitable event. Welad el nas were indeed in an enviable position; they had excellent resources at their disposal: the best teachers, no imperative to work for a living, and no pressure to become soldiers with hard, short lives. Some of the finest historians and writers of the period such as Muhammad ibn Iyas were “welad nas,” and he and others like him spent their days engaged in research and knowledge production.
I researched why the Egyptians referred to them like this, and it was never clear whether it was with admiration or to indicate: “the children of those whose names we do not dare speak.” Since the contemporary usage evokes fair European features, good breeding, and not necessarily wealth or power, then I tend to think that it was a positive reference.
The storyline you liked could not have been played out with the Bahari (early) Mamluks that I write about in this trilogy. The Mamluks at this time were kidnapped at the ages of six or eight and brought to Egypt to be trained as Muslim soldiers, and so their loyalties were absolutely to the palace where they were raised, and to the protection of Egypt that was their charge. With time, during the Burji (later) Mamluk period, Circassian boys of around fifteen and sometimes even in their early twenties would sell themselves into Mamluk slavery, as this seemed to promise lucrative prospects of military advancement. They remained connected to their families and their villages, and as such were not as attached to Egypt. Understandably, this new kind of Mamluk contributed to the demise of Mamluk Egypt altogether.
YM: What do you make of the current Mamluk fascination? Television series imported from Turkey, a renewed interest in walking tours of Mamluk Cairo, even a Azza Fahmy collection centered around the period?
RB: I think there has been a steady interest in understanding our history more; maybe with the revolution, we felt that we wanted to know more about how we got here. It is very important not to confuse the Mamluks with the Turks; most of the Turkish soaps depict the Ottomans, whereas the Mamluks came from countries such as Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan and were a very different proposition to the Ottomans. I feel strongly about this distinction because I argue that the Mamluks represent the last golden age of Islam in terms of art, architecture, science, and literature. Almost three centuries of independent Mamluk rule ended in 1517 when Selim I entered Egypt and we entered the Ottoman period. The Ottomans, unlike the Mamluks, were not affiliated to Egypt, and the center of their power was Istanbul, not Cairo.
YM: Pandemics feature heavily in the book; you talk of them being interpreted by the Egyptians as a miasmatic response to the injustice of the ruler, how many fled to the desert to escape the urban areas where the pandemic spread, and how the Mamluks, expecting to possibly perish in a pandemic, felt their true immortality came from the beautiful buildings they left behind. Tell us more about this timely connection.
RB: In a video I made this month to respond to my readers’ questions during this time of social distancing, I said that the Mamluks respected the views of the ulama because they felt they held the hearts of the Egyptian people. And so, when they considered fleeing the city to escape various pandemics, they would consult with the ulama, who always expressly forbade them from leaving Cairo because their behavior would encourage a mass exodus, and the ultimate spread of the disease. Their religious ruling was a form of pandemic control.
YM: My last question: You’ve been doing something very unusual for over a year now—your social media accounts are used to manage weekly book reading and talks with your readers at rotating locales where the book’s events are set.
RB: As I was in the early stages of writing the novel, I told my late father, who was always my first reader, that I would have to take my readers to the fifteen places the book was set in because of the prominence of place in the text. This has been extremely rewarding for me, as I learn something new every time I go on one of these visits. For example, one reader, who is also a specialist in architecture, pointed out a sign close to the entrance to the Sultan Hassan mosque that said “enter in peace,” and she showed me how this sign was angled in a way that it was best viewed when one was leaving the spiritual space of the mosque and entering the busy world outside, in peace, replenished after time spent in retreat outside the world. This small detail gave me some new perspective on how the Mamluks saw life.
Yasmine Motawy is an educator and a children and young adult literature scholar, translator, editor, consultant. She is a senior instructor at the American University in Cairo.