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Tuesday, 01 December 2020

Book Review: Re-released novella The Days of Blue Windows hasn’t lost its charm

The novella weaves a dreamlike story about a family shattered by the effects of the 1967 war

Hesham Taha, Saturday 15 Aug 2020
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Ayaam Al-Nawafez Al-Zarqaa (“The Days of Blue Windows”) by Adel Esmat, Al-Kotob Khan Publishing, Cairo, 2020. 134 pp.

In this re-released novella, first published in 2009, author Adel Esmat weaves a story about an Egyptian family in Tanta, Gharbiya, infused with imagery and dreams.

The novella’s events are seen through the eyes of an orphaned boy, having flashbacks as an adult in a Gulf country where he now lives. The boy, along with his elder brother, Mohamed, and sister, Afrah, are brought up in their maternal grandmother’s house. The novella’s structure rests upon the central character of the grandmother, whose death causes everything to crumble.

The death of the protagonist’s uncle, Fouad, after Egypt’s 1967 defeat, is what first shatters the family. It is preceded by the departure of Nabil, another uncle, who pursues a scholarship to study engineering in Germany.    

The eponymous blue windows are a reference to the practice of painting windows blue in order to hide any light inside during Israeli air raids. It was a memory that was shared by all those in Egypt who survived the 1967 war.

The novella consists of nine chapters, in which Esmat portrays a provincial, middle class family that collapsed in the years following the 1967 war, with most of its members migrating. The protagonist’s brother and sister keep asking him to join them in Canada, but he refuses.

After Fouad’s death, the grandmother retreats from life and prefers to spend her time mending clothes, her sewing box becoming her raison d’être.

It is telling that the grandmother dies in the winter of 1973, and thus after the October War, but the victory didn’t assuage her pain at Fouad’s loss. The harm was done and could not be remedied.

Mamdouh, the protagonist’s father, was a teacher living in the remote Matrouh governorate, having left his children with his mother-in-law after his wife’s premature death. The children therefore lack a father figure, or even the sense of a normal family. When he returns and asked that the children live under his roof, his mother-in-law insists they stay with her.

He remarries, and the children finally go to live with him, although he remains emotionally absent, focusing instead on his extramarital affairs.

Sami, the protagonist’s neighbour, appears on the balcony in his pyjamas, with long hair, yelling and calling people the wrong names. He is viewed as inciting fear and is somewhere between heroism and madness.

During the 1967 defeat, Sami, who was a soldier, comes back on foot, having to eat dry desert plants to survive.

Once, he sees a clean and tidy man who tells him his name is Azer (the Arabic rendering of the name Lazarus) who says that he will guide him, if he agrees to come to this place no more -- an allusion to Sinai. Sami is lost and is about to die when he hears the sounds of birds, and a Bedouin comes and takes him to an Egyptian military centre in Port Said. He believed that the bird sounds saved his life.

On his return, he builds a pigeon coop in gratitude. However, his feet are badly scarred, giving them a monstrous, scaley appearance.

One of the novella’s main characters is Mahmoud, the uncle closest to the protagonist. He is a cultured nihilist who prefers not to burden himself with any responsibility whatsoever. He dresses in the fashion of the seventies, leaving his sideburns long well through the new millennium.

The security police interrogate and torture him many times, giving him an excuse to break off his engagement, which his aunt Mounira insisted upon finalising before her death, keeping a promise to his mother. In one memorable quote, he asks: “Since they are unable to fight, why do they do it?” in reference to presidents Nasser and Sadat.

The novella raises a number of unanswered questions, such as why the protagonist -- a wealthy and successful engineer -- never married.

He himself says that he doesn’t know the answer, and felt the absurdity of accumulating money. He goes 15 years without visiting Egypt. Another question raised is whether Mahmoud’s arrests and interrogation were because he yielded to a close friend and hid leftist pamphlets in his house, or for some other reason. A third question mark hangs over Afrah; the author has not given us any details about her character, except the image of her playing with her aunt Samira’s makeup.

Due to being visually impaired, the protagonist is overwhelmed with the fear of going blind throughout his childhood and a good part of his adolescence. This in turn drives him to memorise puzzles as much as he can, in order to entertain himself during blindness. When he grows up, he has laser eye surgery.

Ironically, he begins to suffer from unusual clarity in vision, to the extent that he feels that his life so far has been a dream and that he has exited from a cave.

On the very first pages, the protagonist’s grandmother has a dreamlike vision of a white bird breaking a blue window, flying into the house, and picking up the glass shards as if they were wheat grains. She wakes up shuddering at the image.

The grandmother tells him afterwards that that bird was the angel of death, coming to take the soul of Fouad. He couldn’t understand how this sign didn’t actually take place until in April 1970, after the passage of a number of years. At the end of the novella, with him living in Sharjah, the grandmother keeps coming to him in his dreams, asking him about the bird or asking him to help her in collecting the glass shards so as to prevent it from returning.

In the final pages, the protagonist dreams that his grandmother flies into his apartment. He feels very cold and rain begins to fall. He hears clamorous pecking and peers at the window only to see snow crystals accumulating, and when he narrows his eyes, he sees blue glass shards, symbolising that his life is about to end.

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