The Quail King: An Alexandrian Odyssey is a novel by Egyptian author Ahmed Fakharani. Nancy Roberts’ translation is part of the Sawiris Culture award for emerging writers launched by Sawiris Foundation in 2020, for Best Novel by an emerging writer.
By Nancy Roberts
Rich with allusions to both local history and sacred texts—from the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, to the wisdom of Hermes, to the Qur’an and the Bible—and saturated with the alternating charm and frightening power of mystical experience, Ahmed Fakharani’s novel The Quail King is a complex, multilayered work in which the mundane mingles with the mythical, the real with the imaginary, the literal with the symbolic and the legendary, the erotic with the spiritual. Its characters appear in all their virtues and vices—indeed, in the full range of their human dimensions: the mind with its incessant questions, the spirit with its longings and confusions, emotion with its headstrong waywardness and unpredictability, and the body with its cravings, sufferings, and ecstasies.
The text might be thought of as the account of an inner struggle embodied in the form of a labyrinth, both spatial and verbal. It tells of a journey of ascent, an attempt to reach perfection over the crumbling bridge of imperfection and failure, fickleness, and frailty. By kneading all these phenomena together with the stuff of art and beauty, Fakharani ushers us into an experience as aesthetic as it is wrenchingly spiritual.
It is noteworthy that Fakharani has taken the novel’s title from a real place: a popular restaurant known as Malik al-Summān (the Quail King), which is located in a district called Bayāṣat al-Shawāmm (Syrians’ Square) inAlexandria’s historic Attarine neighborhood. For not only is Alexandria the site of Fakharani’s birth and childhood, it is also an ancient and venerable city whose history is intricately entwined with numerous (and conflicting) traditions of religious, spiritual, and philosophical reflection and belief, not to mention the movements and mingling of the people associated with these traditions. However, reality is reconstructed in the novel in such a way that we are transported to horizons vast enough to hold all the trials and challenges faced by the main character, Saeed.
At the heart of the novel’s content and form alike lies the dialectic of the real and the imaginary, the concrete and the abstract. Saeed’s questions are the questions of human beings in every time and place: about body and spirit, ignorance and knowledge, sin and purification, guilt and absolution, good and evil, misery and happiness, earthly loss and humiliation, and closeness to the Divine.
The novel presents people as they are, with all their imperfections. At the same time, it is an ode of love to the most precious treasure human beings possess: the ability to question, the craving for beauty, the capacity for artistic expression—indeed, even the capacity to experience madness. All of these are manifestations of humans’ longing for knowledge, which begins from concrete, material realities in all their details before ascending spiritward. In fact, knowledge alone is the means by which we can make the ascent so that imperfect human beings can be restored to their heavenly origin.
After bringing the questions posed by its protagonist—and its author—to readers, The Quail King smelts them in the crucible of experience, awakens them to their heavenly origins, draws their attention to their decadent will, resurrects them like a phoenix out of the ashes of guilt and sin, and shatters their egos to make their spirits whole. It takes them from the agony of self-discipline to the bliss of renunciation, and from the dark labyrinth of ignorance into the light of gnosis.
As often happens, trauma proves itself to be a powerful catalyst of spiritual growth and even deliverance.
Nancy Roberts is a freelance Arabic-to-English translator and editor with experience in the areas of modern Arabic literature, politics and education; international development; Arab women’s economic and political empowerment; Islamic jurisprudence and theology; Islamist thought and movements; and interreligious dialogue. Literary translations include works by Ghada Samman, Ahlem Mostaghanemi, Naguib Mahjouz, Ibrahim Nasrallah, Ibrahim al-Koni, Salman al-Farsi, Laila Al Johani, and Haji Jabir, among others. Her translation of Ghada Samman’s Beirut ’75 won the 1994 Arkansas Arabic Translation Award; her rendition of Salwa Bakr’s The Man From Bashmour (Cairo: AUC Press, 2007) was awarded a commendation in the 2008 Saif Ghobash-Banipal Prize for Translation, while her English translations of Ibrahim Nasrallah’s Gaza Weddings (Cairo: Hoopoe Press, 2017), Lanterns of the King of Galilee (AUC Press, 2015) and Time of White Horses (Cairo: Hoopoe Reprint, 2016) won her the 2018 Sheikh Hamad Prize for Translation and International Understanding. She is based in Wheaton, Illinois.