Sidi Barrani (Saint Barrani), Mohamed Salah El-Azab, Cairo: Dar Al-Shorouk, 2010. pp 203
“When my grandfather died for the first time, he owned nothing but a stick made of low-quality wood and a long galabeya”*
With these unusual words Mohamed Salah Al-Azab starts his fourth novel, Sidi Barrani. The narrator is the grandson, whose name is unknown, recounting the story to himself and his lover Maryam, a young girl who has a story of her own integrated within the main story. The grandson takes us through the different lives of his grandfather, who lived more than one life. Once he was an exceptional child, who was in fact a grown-up man in a child’s body, with exceptional sexual abilities that could transport the women he slept with back to their youth. In another life, which takes place in Paris, he studied in one of the universities to become a renowned petroleum engineer. And in a third he becomes a king in a women-only town. Finally, he even becomes a spiritual guide, believed to be a prophet.
With free-flowing narration, the grandson takes us from one story to another within the well-structured frame of narration, to the extent of losing track of which story he is telling, who is doing what, and what is the effect of the given story on the main one, which in turn impinges on the main story, bearing shades of one of the most acclaimed works of ancient Arabic literature, A Thousand and One Nights (an ancient epic of a king who must be told a different story each night by his wife to save her life).
The mention of the grandfather’s multiple consecutive reincarnations touring the world is an unusual feature that adds an element of mythology to the novel and of magical realism —a category rarely tackled in modern Arabic literature.
Several themes can be traced in the novel: the male-dominated society is very vivid throughout the story, where all the major influential characters happen to be males with strong masculine abilities, either sexual (the grandfather and the grandson) or supernatural (the grandfather). Female characters are generally minor, always in the background and mostly “spoken about” rather than speaking. We cannot hear a distinct voice for any of them, only viewing them the way the narrator —the grandson —wants us to see them, and we hear only what he wishes to be heard; a dramatic aspect of male-dominated society, of which Egypt is a prime example. The men in Sidi Barrani are doers and the women are recipients of their actions.
Sex —from a male perspective of course —is another major theme and is in fact depicted eagerly in all the stories, perhaps reflecting the sexual frustration of our age, or constituting an aspect of male dominance. We find clear and erotic language in the relationship of the young-yet-old grandfather to a woman who mistook him for a young boy and took him into her home in a village. Later on, he finds himself in a mysterious town, and much sexuality is embedded in the story when we are taken through the grandfather’s experience of legendary marriage rituals. In another instance, a well-connected homosexual in early 20th century Cairo hosts orgies of foreigners and black men. Even the narrator, the grandson, describes his relationship to his beloved Maryam, to whom he narrates the story with lots of sexual connotations. Sex plays a critical role in the novel, not just in the background but sometimes even shaping a whole story in one of the tales that make up the overall plot.
The exotic desert with its fascinating world serves as the frame within which the story and the several adjacent tales take place. Even the name of the novel, Sidi Barrani, has a story of its own. It is a real place in the very far northwest of the Egyptian desert, just over the Libyan borders. The name “Barrani” is a colloquial word for external or stranger, and “Sidi” is a title given to a miracle-man, who is regarded by the natives as a saint or a creature of supernatural powers. The grandson lived a very peculiar life in Sidi Barrani, governed by the nature of the place, the desert with its thousands of years of mythology and heritage, being brought up by Samaan, the devoted follower of his grandfather and old Tayyeba, a woman with a rich past and a lot of stories of her own. We also get to know about the love story between the grandson and little “Sabr”, which unfortunately was never allowed to reach a happy ending because of the traditions that won’t allow some love to grow.
From the Western desert to the cosmopolitan Cairo of the 20th century, from the modern European culture of Paris to the rich exotic culture of India, and in a constant journey in the past and the present, Alazab jumps marvellously from one story to another, playing skilfully on the strings of human curiosity, pressing buttons and leaving the reader curious for more.
Mohamed Salah Alazab was born in Cairo in 1981. He previously published a collection of short stories and three novels, which secured him two literary awards in Egypt and Kuwait
* Galabeya is male attire that resembles a female gown, worn traditionally by villagers.