Rehlet Bastet Elakhira (Bastet’s Last Trip) by: Hamed Abdel Samad (Cairo: Merit Publishing House), 2019.
Cat lovers will tell you that the soft animal is a superior being. The paintings on Ancient Egyptian temples prove that they were worshipped. The cat goddess Bastet had her temples and followers, and was worshipped as early as the second dynasty. Her domain was healing, joy, fertility and warfare, among others. She was both feared and loved by her flocks.
Writer and researcher Hamed Abdel-Samad decided to explore the cat goddess in his second novel 'Bastet's Last Trip'.
The story is simple, a house cat named Bastet escapes from her foster family and goes into the streets to see the real world and mix it up with the street cats in a journey to discover history and her previous seven lives. On the other hand, the young girl Nora, who owned the cat, goes on a parallel trip to find the feline accompanied by her father Ashraf, a rich and famous plastic surgeon coming from humble origins and who had worked his way up the social ladder. He had already cut ties with his old neighbourhood (where the cat was lost), yet has immense nostalgia for the days of his youth.
The writer was captivated by a seductively intuitive idea, making the cat explain human life after attentive observation of humans. Her newfound friend, a street cat named Koshari after the famous traditional dish, was her guide into the city and had insights on human behaviour that he passed along to the cat/ goddess. The writer gave the cats voices, wisdom and deep knowledge of Egyptian history.
Both journeys have stimulating dialogues; one between Bastet and Koshari, the other between young Nora and her father Ashraf. The two dialogues are like a competition between two teams eager to explain to the writer’s philosophy on life.
Among the themes explored are the happiness that humans pursue without ever reaching, the notion of reincarnation and how each being understands its purpose, and the reason for being.
The cat Koshari clarifies that the number seven here is symbolic, reaching the final stage might take much more lives than seven, it is the process of maturity of each life that counts, from thinking that life is not worth living to being happy to be created and realising that there is light at the end of the tunnel.
The seventh life remains a beautiful mystery because no one was really able to describe it; it is simply enlightenment and salvation. In a brilliant explanation, the writer, through Koshari, addresses the question of reincarnation; it takes a long time to understand the universe and its history, to understand ourselves, and eventually the secret of existence.
This process would take more than one life to complete for each soul. In each life the role has to be different; rich and poor, man and woman, powerful and oppressed, adult and child, and so on. Seeing life from different positions and views will lead to the sought-after understanding of the universe.
The father-daughter dialogue, on the other hand, deals with religion and how that each religion has a portion of the truth but none has enough to lead to salvation. Completeness comes from all of them together plus intuition and a transparency of the soul. The pursuit of happiness is another issue that was addressed in detail in the novel. It is a continuous quest, never a permanent state, and no one can really grasp it in spite of the tremendous efforts spent to reach it.
Throughout the novel’s timeline, where the writer masterfully applies the flashback and flash forward techniques, we discover that both the doctor and Bastet have deep, dark secrets that made their lives miserable. Once these secrets were revealed, we realise the reason for the heavy, sad feeling that we see in their personalities. The writer is able to maintain the reader’s interest until the end and the secrets were surprising in both cases. They had committed sins for which they could not forgive themselves, and in the case of Bastet, she found the appropriate punishment for herself. The writer does not reveal what the doctor had done until later, his sin was not a correctable one; so the logical punishment was maybe left for another life, an open end for the reader.
The novel’s structure is a tight one, compelling the reader to read on until the end. It moves from one phase to a more complicated one in a smooth transition that can hardly be felt; shifting from the narrative to information about history, old and new religions, the novel's characters and their history, and finally revealing the dark secrets of Bastet and Ashraf. The simple style adopted by the writer makes it a memorable read. The fact that the writer was able to maintain the reader’s interest until the climax shows his talent.
‘Bastet's Last Trip’ gives a daring explanation of how the universe works; the inconvenient truth is that it might bring a storm of criticism since it challenges some strongly held beliefs, but this is what Abdel-Samad has been doing courageously since his first novel 'Farewell to Heaven.'