Last year, novelist Reem Bassiouney became the first woman to win Egypt’s most prestigious prize, the Naguib Mahfouz Award for Best Egyptian Novel*, sponsored by the Egyptian Ministry of Culture, for Awlad al-Nas (2018), her seventh novel:
By Arwa A. Alhinai
Awlad al-Nas (literally Children of the People) offers insight into Egyptians’ lives during the Mamluk period (1250–1517), which played a key role in Egypt’s history. Despite their long reign, much of the Mamluks’ lives has remained an enigma, particularly as they kept themselves out of the public eye, adamant to maintain a certain demeanour in front of the world.
Who the Mamluks were as rulers and as a people has long been a point of interest for many Egyptians, especially as they were foreign occupants initially brought as slave soldiers, only to seize power over Egypt. Resentment and bitterness toward the Mamluks were to be expected. But in this 759-page epic, the author exposes a hidden side to the Mamluks and their children – who were called children of the people – in a captivating manner. In several interviews, when asked about her inspiration behind writing this novel, Bassiouney said it was her fascination with the Sultan Hasan Mosque, and the rich history it held within its walls. For three years, she studied the mosque and the era in which it was constructed. And in the novel, she manages to shed light on both the ruthlessness and the human side of these intriguing individuals who rose from being enslaved soldiers to powerful rulers.
The novel is made up of three parts: “Awlad Al Nas” (Children of The People), “Qadi Qus” (The Judge of Qus), and “Hadithat Al Layali” (Encounter of Nights). Each of these embraces actual events and people from the last two centuries before the Mamluks were defeated by the Ottomans in 1517. The novel builds on work done by historians such as Ibn al-Amid (1202 – 1273), al-Nuwairi (1278 – 1333), Ibn Khaldun (1336 – 1446), al-Maqrizi (1356 – 1441), Ibn Taghri-Birdi (1410 – 1470), al-Sakhawi (1427 – 1505), and most notably Ibn Iyas (1448 – 1524), who is mentioned in the third part of the novel.
It is safe to say that Dr. Bassiouney has managed to match each of the characters to a social category during the Mamluk rule over Egypt. She carefully knitted fiction with reality and masterfully displayed the good and evil sides of mankind through her characters. Her ability to create descriptions that are almost visual enables the reader to love and despise the characters and experience their every thought and feeling. The internal monologues, especially in the third story, only serves to further convey the hidden side of the characters. Awlad al Nas is a novel that tells the story of the people, as well as teaching the reader about an era not many have delved into. The Mamluks have always maintained their enigmatic, yet somewhat bewitching nature and in this novel, Dr Bassioney takes us on a journey through the eyes of the Mamluks and Egyptians in a way that has never been done before. Reading this novel will not only change how the Mamluks are viewed; it transforms the way Egypt will be viewed.
ArabLit: Why else is it a particularly interesting period?
Arwa A. Alhinai: There are numerous reasons, and in my opinion, the reason that stands out the most is how the first elected Mamluk ruler was a woman, Shajar Al Durr, who was a concubine bought by the Ayyubid Sultan Najm Al Din Ayoub, who would eventually be emancipated by the Sultan and become the wife of two Sultans, the first being Sultan Najm Al Din and the second being Sultan Al Mu’ez Aybak. The same woman would then be beaten to death by clogs and brutally murdered by the order of the second Sultan’s first wife, while she distributed sweets as Shajar Al Durr drowned in her blood.
I believe this fact can draw the attention of many who might have never heard about this incident which was the beginning of more than two and a half centuries of Mamluk rule. Having said that, the Mamluks were brought in as slaves then rose to power and ruled a vast area extending to France and India. They were looked at as the protectors of Egypt from the Mongols and the Crusaders. Their age is described as the Golden Age. They left a legacy which traces their presence in many places such as Egypt, especially in the architecture all over Cairo. One would walk in Cairo and cannot but notice the architectural wonders that were built during the Mamluk reign over Egypt.
Are many Mamluk-era novels popular?
Arwa A. Alhinai: Apart from the last novel mentioned, none are as widely read and popular as Awlad Al Nas.
There are a few novels that focus on the Mamluks such as:
– Dam Al Mamalik – Mamluk Blood (2016) – by Walid Fikri
– Al Sa’eroon Neyaman – The Sleepwalkers (1963) – by Saad Makawi
– Istibdad Al Mamalik – Mamluk Tyranny (1893) – by Georgy Zaydan
– Wa Islamah – Oh Islam (1944) – by Ali Thabet, which is a canonical work when it comes to the literary portrayal of the Mamluks.
Why do you think this particular novel achieved a bestseller status?
Arwa A. Alhinai: Awlad Al Nas portrays a critical historical period of Egyptian history. Dr Bassiouney sheds the light on the historical aspect as well as the human aspect of the Mamluks of Egypt, who are quite enigmatic. Delving into the psychological depths of the Mamluks allowed the readers to see them as people, rather than ruthless invaders. This enabled the readers to sympathize and empathize with them as it is evident in the many reviews that were written about the novel. In addition, the novel has a very symbolic nature, which made it open to many forms of interpretation. And most importantly, the love stories between the Mamluks and the Egyptians seem to have appealed to the readers.
Novels like Awlad Al Nas make the unlawful lawful, by portraying medieval Egyptian love stories in comparison to the contemporary love stories that people have become accustomed to, and it is an authentic portrayal of these love stories, and not the way they are sometimes misrepresented. Incorporating love stories is a form of resistance and fighting back against any attempt to distort the national identity.
Are there ways in which this history particularly reflects on contemporary struggles?
Arwa A. Alhinai: Although I am an Omani who isn’t very familiar with Egyptian history, it is known that one of the attempts of the Egyptian revolution of 1952 was to end the feudal system that existed in Egypt for centuries, it failed to achieve total eradication of feudalism. It is still present in Egypt and our world today, even if indirectly. People are looked down on and considered inferior for many reasons, wealth being a clearly visible factor.
Why is the social stratification so important to the novel?
Arwa A. Alhinai: In accordance with the novel, the mention of the different layers of the Egyptian society during the Mamluk rule reflects the identity of the people during Medieval Islam. The struggle between the powerful and the powerless is clearly displayed though these social categories, and how classes fluctuate based on the events of the plot. Social stratification builds up events, which in turn contribute to the climactic events of any plot. Stratification leads to tension, which in turn leads to conflict. That conflict leads to the climax, which sequentially, leads to the resolution. It can prevent a storyline from being monotonous. In addition, the conflict between the social classes, as portrayed in the novel, reveal the national identity of the people of Egypt during that era.
Social stratification is a shapeshifting matter and has always been relevant and an integral part of the reality of the world we live in. Even though nations and governments have been claiming to fight against any form of discrimination and claiming to strive to advocate quality and human rights, this class struggle continues to exist.
Arwa A. Alhinai is a lecturer in Humanities and Social Sciences at the Modern College of Business and Science in Oman and a PhD Candidate at the University of Glasgow in the UK.
*Editor’s note: This is a different prize from the AUC-sponsored Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature, which has gone to many women writers.