On the Redemptive Power of Madness

Mohammad Rabie’s Tareekh Alehat Misr (History of the Gods of Egypt) weaves together religious, political and personal trauma into a heartbreaking narrative about family and the redeeming role of madness in overcoming the transgenerational burden of oppression:

By Manal Shalaby

Mohammad Rabie’s fourth and latest novel comes not as a sequel, but as a follow-up to his nightmarish sociopolitical dystopia Otared (2016), in which he turns the narrative’s three main timelines into Dante-ishcircles of hell that his foredoomed characters struggle to escape to no avail. It is little wonder that both novels were published after the Arab Spring, both attempts to mirror the overwhelming despair Egyptians have experienced as a result of the revolution’s failure. Yet History of the Gods of Egypt seems to break free from Otared’s sweeping morbidity and delves into the psychology of oppression while manifesting the strong ties between the political and the familial. 

The novel opens with a long segment that reads like a historical account written by an Egyptian monarch who believes himself a god, relating the details of how Egyptians have once and for all revoked the democracy of a bygone era—our present—to embrace the deification of rulers. The absurdity of that account, along with the ludicrous description of the self-proclaimed god’s eccentricities, culminates in the revelation that the deity’s historical account is a book written by Ismael Noah, an Egyptian history professor who has been an inmate in a mental institution for twenty years. The reader is then introduced to Ismael’s past, and the circumstances that led to his admission to the mental hospital as the protagonist embarks on a post-recovery journey to make sense of his present reality.

History of the Gods of Egypt is a metaficitional narrative that not only addresses the transgenerational political and social trauma in an unsettling near-future Egypt but also ponders the nature of madness as a powerful creative force and as a tool of resistance against the inescapability of guilt. Rabie’s characters are all tormented by past traumas; they reel under the enormous weight of invisible sins that they carry around their necks like the necklace of Harmonia. (According to Greek mythology, the ill-favored yet cunning god Hephaestus punishes his wife Aphrodite for her infidelity by gifting her daughter, Harmonia, a cursed necklace that would bring nothing but misfortune and tragedy to Aphrodite’s hapless lineage.)

And just as Aphrodite bequeathed the punishment of her sin to her children and grandchildren, parents often plague their sons and daughters with their own fears and frustrations – an inheritance that may take the gruesome form of direct physical or emotional abuse, or the subtle, enduring presence of postmemories. Marianne Hirsch, author of The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture After the Holocaust, describes “postmemory” as the experiences, usually traumatic, transferred from one generation to another by means of collective behaviors, shared memories and communal stories. This means that, although some generations might be subjected to immediate traumatic experiences at the hands of their parents or as a result of the parents’ personal trauma, others often feel the psychological toll of traumatic experiences through inherited memories and intergenerational narratives without having direct contact with the trauma itself. Postmemory is symbolically encapsulated in Hephaestus’s necklace, which lives on and agonizes Aphrodite’s descendants due to an earlier trauma they have no part in – except that they carry the infinite burden of their distant ancestor’s sin. 

This is the same horizontal and vertical connection that Rabie uses to bring his characters together across time, space, and experience. The concept of postmemory, explained as such, urges us to revisit our understanding of the quintessential story of original sin and how we are all led to believe we have a proclivity to fall into sin because humanity’s forefather once defied the orders of God. Adam’s fall from grace did not end with him settling on earth and filling it with his spawn; his children, grandchildren, and billions of human beings since have continued to fall, carrying the heavy baggage of guilt and the irremovable stigma of sin all along – a postmemory of trauma that faith simultaneously invokes and promises to alleviate. Possibly, our desire to believe in religious narratives of inheriting sin is a faint shadow of the emotional burden we are forced to carry as children and adults by our parents, and despite most parents’ attempts to make their children’s lives better, they unintentionally end up passing on the unspoken exasperations of their existence. In his seminal poem “This Be the Verse,” Philip Larkin aptly drops his famous disconcerting lines, in which he admits the vicious inevitability of transgenerational trauma:

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.   

    They may not mean to, but they do.   

They fill you with the faults they had

    And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn

    By fools in old-style hats and coats,   

Who half the time were soppy-stern

    And half at one another’s throats.

The ‘faults’ of our parents, as Larkin calls them, are spun into a narrative we have to carry as we journey through life. But it is decidedly our choice as to how we approach this narrative. Rabie’s characters make different choices to attenuate their traumas and postmemories; Ismael’s choice of creative depersonalization, however, stands out as both narratively and psychologically remarkable.

The way Rabie structures his novel plays a role in cementing Ismael’s delusional vision of the world by foregrounding “History of the Gods of Egypt,” the book the latter has written during his stay at the mental institution. It is the narrative’s de facto exposition and thus lures the reader into living inside Ismael’s aberrant imagination in spite of the defamiliarizing effect of its humorous absurdity. Beyond its seeming inanity, and between the lines of its tongue-in-cheek satire, Ismael’s book cunningly divulges the reasons that led to its author’s descent into madness. On the political level, the desperation prevalent after the Egyptian revolution of 2011 coupled with the deterioration of social and ethical values have left Ismael with an unshakable guilt that resulted from his active role before and during the revolution, in addition to a sense of futility that has probably traveled down the collective memory of Egyptians due to the nation’s perpetual relapses into despotic regimes. Still, the most salient reason behind Ismael’s eventual insanity is the religious and personal trauma inherited from his father, a struggling mediocre artist who suddenly turns to Islamic fanaticism in response to the continuous failure of his artistic enterprises. Ismael’s madness may seem like a loss of control as he fails to deal with the heavy burden of oppression he has to carry and pass on as a citizen, a son, and a father; nevertheless, by recording his delusions in his so-called history book, he actually reclaims control and reshapes the reality that first led to his unhinging.

Rabie’s novel is a contentious narrative study on the relationship between madness and creativity. We humans have long used our imaginative prowess to create stories that help us make sense of a meaningless universe; myths, religions, social connections, and political systems are all narratives intended to help us regulate a haphazard existence constantly spinning out of control – and all, if taken out of context and examined objectively, will be deemed utterly nonsensical, just like Ismael’s para-history/reality.

Yet although we, as readers, might think the line between madness and sanity is drawn when Ismael’s fictional book ends and his actual reality starts, Rabie keeps blurring the lines between the two. It is hard to miss the fact that nearly all people in Ismael’s life, including Ismael himself, carry names that are directly borrowed from the Old and New Testaments and the Quran: Noah, Dalila (Delilah), Mariam (Mary), Sarah, Yousef (Joseph), Yaqoub (Jacob), Mikhaeel (Michael)… etc. This conspicuous narrative detail corresponds with Ismael’s earlier interest in the Abrahamic religious texts as a kid – an interest that was both instilled and maimed by his father – which leaves us wondering whether the entirety of Ismael’s presumed reality, and hence Rabie’s novel, is another chapter in the former’s history book, another attempt at softening the sharp edges of reality. By toppling systems of reference that we label as “real,” Rabie allows us to share his protagonist’s madness while enabling our own. Interestingly, the only two characters whose names evade the invasive religious allusions are Kareem, Ismael’s son, and Manal, Ismael’s sister-in-law. Despite being victims of trauma themselves, both Kareem and Manal are third-generation characters who Ismael, in his creative madness, tries to save from the transgenerational burden by excluding them from the religious and personal oppression inside and outside his mind – a narrative act of kindness and absolution.

Mohammad Rabie’s History of the Gods of Egypt is a story that subverts our preconceived notion of what madness is; whereas, it is near-universally believed to be an absolute loss of control, the novel invites us to see madness as a prodigious creative force in the face of an abject reality. Philip K. Dick tells us that “it is sometimes an appropriate response to reality to go insane.” Perhaps Ismael’s alternative reality is the madness he needs to redeem himself. Perhaps the 2011 revolution was the moment of madness Egyptians needed to resist the unalterable political reality. Perhaps blasphemy is the madness one needs to understand faith. Perhaps imagination is the madness we need to unload our burden and to regain our divine power of forgiveness.

Manal Shalaby is an Assistant Professor of English Literature at Ain Shams University in Cairo, Egypt. 


Read an excerpt, translated by Ben Koerber, at Mada Masr. Also at the Mada Masr mirror site, for readers in Egypt.

A discussion between Rabie and Ahmed Naji on History of the Gods of Egypt and other topics.