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Monday, 21 September 2020

Book Review - A Tribe Scattered: When heroes fall, history forgets

In a vibrant and thought-provoking historical novel, Ahmed Gad El-Karim revives to memory one of Egypt’s long-forgotten heroes of the national struggle

Ossama Lotfy Fateem , Monday 27 Jul 2020
A Tribe Scattered book cover
A Tribe Scattered book cover
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Taghribet Bani Hamam (Hamam’s Tribe Scattering) by Ahmed Gad El-Karim, (Ibiidi Book Data Publishing Services), 2019.

Sheikh El-Arab Hamam is a name many Egyptians had not heard of until 2010 when a TV show with the same name was screened. At that time, the whole country discovered one of its forgotten heroes — someone who pushed for autonomous rule for Upper Egypt under the Ottoman Empire.

He actually succeeded in ruling a vast area of Egypt with the assent of the Ottoman Sultan over nearly a decade. Eventually his state was destroyed by the Mamelukes who were ruling the northern part of Egypt, also in the name of the Sultan.

Hamam was betrayed by his cousin, but managed to escape a painful death at the hands of his enemies. He died naturally from sadness and hopelessness after seeing his dream dismantled.

Ahmed Gad El-Karim in his novel Taghribet Bani Haman, or “Hamam’s Tribe Scattering”, pursues what happened to Hamam’s children and grandchildren after the defeat and death of their patriarch, the Upper Egypt strongman, as he was called by the Ottoman palace.

Sometimes the genetic pool carries doom in its folds. Hamam’s grandson – also carrying the same name – had his destiny written for him. The grandson had no ambition to revive his grandfather “state,” or heroism or dreams of an autonomous Egypt. His career was to study in Al-Azhar to become a sheikh, teaching religion to the youth of his area after finishing his studies. He was sent to Cairo, or “El-Mahroussa,” as it was called at that time.

Just his name and lineage raised the hope of Egyptians for independence and dreams of a just ruler like his grandfather, especially that the grandson lived in the time of the French campaign in Egypt (1798-1801). Hamam found his way to lead a group of men and found support from Egyptians to rise and fight for the country.

But the grandson did not have the experience of his grandfather, or the loyalty the latter enjoyed based on his reputation as a wise, fair and strong ruler. His story, rather, was one of very few successes; only narrowly escaping death in nearly every battle he entered. But his existence combined with the great injustices commoners suffered under the French spread the spirit of rebellion in Cairo and other areas in Egypt. Egyptians had two choices: rebel or live in poverty, despair and agony.

There were three forces at the time: the French; the Mamelukes (who were rulers in the name of the Ottoman Empire); and eventually the Ottoman army, who joined the fray after a period of continuous battles. Set against them were poor and immiserated Egyptians who suffered the violence and humiliation of all forces combined and separately.

The author chose to write his novel on two parallel lines. The famous historian Abdel Rahman El-Gabarti, who wrote the chronicles of the French campaign, narrates one line. The other records the events that occurred in Hamam’s journey.

Both lines describe rebellions and waves of suppression under both the French and the Mamelukes. They describe life for common Egyptians; the changes in attitude in face of the French way of life (the opening of perfume shops, the establishment of taverns and pubs, the teaching of the French language; the founding of a scientific complex and modern methods of documentation.

Yet the description of the numerous massacres the French committed — their cruelty when collecting taxes, the complete destruction of neighbourhoods with their houses and palaces — gives the real image of the ugly French invasion of Egypt.

Rich and poor alike suffered under French rule. Meanwhile, the stories of the Mamelukes, their brutal way of ruling Egypt and how they despised Egyptians, gives pain to the reader’s soul. In spite of being rivals, all forces (the French, the Ottomans and the Mamelukes) combined to defeat and capture Hamam, in a poetic end for the grandson that the reader cannot predict.

The book is filled with allusions to the notion that the Turks (both Ottomans and Mamelukes) cannot stand the idea that an Arab — meaning an Egyptian — rules the country. The tremendous amount of hatred that both carried for the common Egyptian is unimaginable — as if part of their bodies and souls.

They actually preferred that the French with their canons and cruelty win, rather than letting a poor soul like Hamam continue his path. The grudge that the Mamelukes held against Hamam is explained by the revenge that they couldn’t take on his grandfather; they simply could not forgive that he held a partial victory over them a couple of decades earlier, in spite of his defeat in the end.

Due to choosing a famous historian as one of the main characters of the novel, the writer complicated the language a little into old Arabic, to give the impression that it was Al-Gabarti himself narrating for the French invasion and life in Egypt. It showed talent on behalf of Ahmed Gad El-Karim and helped the reader get into the ambience of the eighteenth century.

The novel’s structure and changing the writing style between Hamam’s journey and El-Gabarti’s account managed to form a mosaic that ended up forming a painting that might need a second read to get the full impact of the novel and the viewpoint that the writer intended to pass on to the reader.

The book takes the reader back in time, like all historical novels. It is not just about a forgotten hero, or another attempt for an Egyptian to rule his own country. It is about the spirit of rebellion that injustice feeds. It carries the eternal message of being more tolerant towards each other.

The novel’s last page presents the essence of the epic persona of Hamam and those like him — those frustrated by defeat and left with the feeling that they were born at the wrong time. When the spirit is bigger than the body's capacities, the person carrying that soul prefers to close his life in on himself, without leaving an imprint on humanity. They would rather that people leave them alone in their eternal isolation.

They are simply crucified without a cross. A hard notion to accept or understand, but in the novel’s concept it makes sense.  

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