Historical novels are always a challenge Assy took and excelled in. She did the historical research, built the fictional characters around the real ones and inserted her ideas and philosophy onto her character’s words and thoughts in a tight, well-structured novel. The writer took the controversial historical figure of Yaacoob or General Jacob (he was given the rank by Napoleon himself) and presented him in a new light.
A patriot instead of the traitor most history books describe, he built an army of the oppressed Coptic minority, taught them with the help of French instructors how to become warriors instead of accepting being treated as second or third class citizens by the Mamelukes who were also an occupying force ruling in the name of the Ottoman Empire; an empire that looked down upon and oppressed Egyptians for centuries.
The conclusion the reader draws from the novel is that Yacoub was an ambitious Egyptian leader who decided to side with the French against the Mamelukes and Ottoman forces in the hope of some sort of an autonomous rule for Egypt. After the French defeat and retreat of their army, a clause in the withdrawal treaty was added, granting pardon to the Copts who cooperated with the French forces and offering to take those who chose to leave with the retreating French forces to live in France; an option that Yacoub snatched with many members of the Coptic corps, who also had Muslims among them. The general never saw France; he died at sea, had a military funeral and was buried in France. His tomb is still there.
The writer explained the reasoning of those who took the French side against the Turks through several of her characters. Both were invaders, the Turks were the authority and they oppressed their subjects from both religions, discriminated against them and stole the wealth of Egypt and enslaved its people. On the other hand, the French promised the unknown, which could be better than the existing condition that was awful for all Egyptians.
The historical part is the novelty in the narrative. It showed the cruelty of the invading French army when their enemies surrendered; they simply killed them all in Java; it was Napoleon’s decision, not enough food or soldiers to guard the prisoners. Killing unarmed people was easy for the ambitious French general. Jumping to the future, we see Emperor Napoleon leading his armies into Russia; refusing peace when it was profitable for his armies but his vanity stood in the way and decided to push into the Russian land.
The Russian people were somehow indifferent to the French forces in the beginning, and the villagers traded with the French army with no problems. Soon this picture changed after seeing the cruelty of the emperor and his men they defended their lands; in spite of losing many battles against the better equipped imperial forces.
The Russian resistance swore to bury the French in the cold and they did. Even when the defeat was clear and Napoleon’s army was retreating, the Russians kept attacking them, killing scores of French soldiers in revenge. If anyone had any admiration for Napoleon and his achievements or his philosophy in trying to build an empire, all these delusions were lost. He was a killer, a warmonger who brought nothing but misery to innocent people wherever his armies went. Those who paid the price were normal people struggling to live.
The writer dug into the documents and discovered that there was a group of Egyptians who formed a secret delegation that contacted the French government asking for help to free Egypt from the Ottoman control. The novel tried to explore and discover who its members were, what their action plan was, and whether they actually did anything to reach their goals. There were only hints that Mansour, General Yacoub’s assistant, might have been the secret leader of that group. The fact that such group existed at all was a discovery in itself. This shows the writer’s perseverance in her novel.
The novel starts in the last year of the French expedition in Egypt (1798-1801). There are several narrators, from a devoted Christian woman, Mahbouba, symbolising purity and devotion, who insisted on staying in Egypt instead of taking the opportunity to leave with the Coptic corps, to her husband Fadl Allah, a carpenter who joined the Coptic corps and discovered his talents in the military field. He left with the French and was promoted to general in Napoleon's army. His dilemma was refusing to live as an oppressed Christian after being treated with dignity as a soldier – something Egyptians were forbidden to become, be they Muslims or Christians, under the Ottoman rule.
The striking quote from his thoughts was that “a battlefield is the only place that fear would be afraid to enter,” a mantra of a courageous soldier. Another narrator was priest Abdel-Malek, a carpenter as well, who took the side of the French despite a clear warning from the Church. “It is not in the best interest of Copts to stand by the invaders even if they were Christians,” he was told by another priest. He took the French's side anyways and travelled with them to France when they retreated.
The details are countless and the characters are numerous with interesting stories, fates and events. A female slave in the palaces of the Mamelukes discovers her French roots and ancestors and ended up joining women groups demanding women’s rights. There is also Mansour Henin, General Yacoub’s assistant who helped the scientists of the expedition in translating the documents they took from Egypt, and many more.
The novel has one erotic scene where Fadl Allah meets a French aristocratic woman who seduced him into her bed. The scene was well written in a romantic seductive language. Being a woman, the author wrote from Fadl’s perspective and was again successful in describing a man’s feeling when touching a woman as if he had never touched one before.
The various narrators and the events that kept changing their lives showed the writer’s skill in impersonating each of her characters. Each of them had a style in narration, each had his or her way in telling their story and the distinction between each of them was easy for the reader, which is testimony of Assy’s talent in writing. The events keep the reader running through the pages with curiosity to reach a conclusion, hoping at the same time that the novel does not end.