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Tuesday, 01 December 2020

Book Review - Maha’s Bible: A new version of Egypt’s modern history

Hassan Hend’s latest novel gives interesting insight into Egypt in the early 20th century, but falls flat when it comes to contemporary comparisons

Ossama Lotfy Fateem , Friday 30 Oct 2020
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Ingeel Maha (Maha’s Bible) by Hassan Hend, (Ibn Rushd Publishing House), 2020.

In his newest novel, “Maha’s Bible”, Hassan Hend, a judge and novelist, decided to explore an era in the modern legal and political history of Egypt. He brought to life historical figures like Abdel Razek El-Sanhouri, the most famous constitutional expert in Egypt in the first half of the 20th century, as well as Hassan El-Hodeibi, a judge but also historical high advisor of the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1950s.

The author either imagines or dug deep into history to discover the friendship between the two men, something that the average reader would not know about. The friendship itself was a peculiar one; it was more of a continuous civil argument between two important individuals in Egyptian modern history.

The author follows a trend that has been quite popular among Egyptian writers in the past decade. Two parallel stories, one occurring in the third and fourth decades of the 20th century, and another taking place in the first and second decade of the 21st: the tie between them is an aristocratic family.

The father, Helmy Pasha Elsanhouti, a legal mind who worked closely with Talaat Pasha Harb — the famous economic figure — in his various companies, among them the first Egyptian bank, Banque Misr. Hend explains the battle of control over the bank between Abood Pasha, another economic figure who worked for the king and the Wafd Party, and Talaat Harb, who wanted a strong independent Egyptian economy against the elite, who wanted the oligarchy to retain control of the economy under the patronage of British occupation.

Elsanhouti Pasha, a fictional figure, was the messenger between El-Sanhouri and El-Hodeibi. They were worried about the surveillance of the secret service, and he was trusted by both men. His story was titled “Old Era” by the author. The “New Era”, on the other hand, is the story of the modern descendent of Elsanhouti Pasha, his granddaughter Maha, who in her twenties decided to take off her aristocratic robe and join the rebels in the January 2011 revolution. Over the various chapters of her story we see a romantic and idealistic girl who believes in justice and at the same time feels guilt due to belonging to the upper class.

The strong points of the novel are the historical facts the writer mentions. Among them an idea that the main character believed in, derived from Saad Zaghlool and Mohamed Farid. Zaghlool and Farid were never in the same party; they did not cooperate politically, and their shining moments in Egypt’s history were about a decade apart. But Helmy Elsanhouti saw that Zaghlool's ideas about independence and those of Farid about the civil state, and refusing being a part of the Ottoman Empire, were the correct way to reach Egypt’s best interests.

This was never mentioned in the political literature of the era, meaning there was never a political movement carrying these ideas. But reading it in the novel made a lot of sense, and the reader would wish such a movement existed. In rewriting an imaginary history, such a political party might have brought independence to Egypt much earlier. This is but one point of originality in the novel.

The details and the personalities emerging up in the novel in two eras are drawn in a simplistic and flat way. There is no dramatic change or development in any of them. Maha’s father is described in the same way from beginning to end: a crook that was able to marry her mother and eventually took over the family wealth. The mother Soraya, daughter of Elsanhouti Pasha, was a weak woman who allowed her much older husband to take advantage of her, marginalising her.

The same goes for the brother, Hassan, who in spite of belonging to the upper class lacked any business intelligence that would qualify him to run the family business or properties. Instead, he became an employee for his brother-in-law, an unremarkable person that can hardly be remembered within the numerous characters of the novel. In general, the writer failed to give any depth to his characters.

The novel's narration is interesting in the “Old Era” section, due to historical details, but the “New Era" is dull and uneventful. The writer tried to build a love story between Maha and Ahmed, a young man who worked on her family's land when he was a young boy and grew up to be part of an extremist Salafist group. She was daring in admitting her love to him, but it lacked the romance that might stimulate the reader’s imagination.

To get the novel to be more interesting, the writer inserted the character of a police officer from the secret service whose mission it was to follow the second and third generation of that family. Another detail that added very little to the novel; the family had no significant political activities, and their lives were not that interesting to the point of being followed by the secret service.

The novel’s daring title was not found in the detail. The writer probably meant the diary of Elsanhouti Pasha, where the narration of the old era was found. With that title the writer want to establish in the reader’s mind that the historical information was true, whether about events or historical figures. 

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