Esmat Mohamed Hassan, Aspects of Egyptian Social Life through the Writings of Al-Jabarti, Cairo: General Egyptian Book Organisation, pp200
In his work the premiere historian of Cairo Abdul Rahman Al-Jabarti (1753-1825) demonstrates how changes in political life reshape society. Unlike most historians of his time, writing daily, Al-Jabarti paid close attention to every aspect of life: saints anniversaries, weddings and funerals, the Hajj, protests and revolutions take up as much space as major political events. He writes about the inner life of his times, and records encounters with the French scientists who came along with Napoleon Bonaparte.
In the preface to his book, Aspects of Egyptian Social Life through the Writings of Al-Jabarti – first published in 2003 – Alexandria University historian Esmat Mohamed Hassan explains, “We cannot understand our history or apprehend the present, nor can we draft a correct, successful, straightforward method to deal with the near and distant future, without both close contemplation and a broad perspective on that recent period of our history.”
Supplementing Al-Jabarti’s definitive tome Ajaib Al-Athar fil Tarajim wal Akhbar (The Marvelous Compositions of Biographies and Events) with other works from that period, Hassan provides as exhaustive a picture of Egyptian society in the late 18th century as possible. The book is divided into thematic sections. In the first the author discusses society’s demographic makeup: the rulers (divided into Turks, military leaders, Mamelukes, and religious scholars); and subjects (merchants, fellahin, members of trade guilds, non-Muslims, Bedouins and women). He deals not only with these categories roles but also with their distinct customs and costume.
In the second section of the book, Hassan deals with social functions, focusing on celebrations both religious and secular including the Flooding of the Nile and the reception of the Ottoman viceroy as well as everyday weddings and circumcision celebrations. Hassan goes on to discuss the spread of Sufism, its excesses and corruption – a topic Al-Jabarti, being a practitioner of Sufism himself, spent time elucidating – as well as the rise of religious quackery and the role it played in social and economic decline building up to and through the Ottoman era. Hassan also deals with the health conditions of the population at that time, dealing with drought, famine and plague.
Hassan dwells, as Al-Jabarti did, on smallpox, ophthalmia and bubonic plague, describing the effects of a bad crop when low water levels led to food shortages that left all but the richest hungry. He also spends time on medical practices and facilities including the country’s only hospital in Cairo, returning to the theme of quackery. He quotes one episode that Al-Jabarti cites when a sheikh gave a relatively well-off man the wrong powder for his eyes by mistake, blinding him for life.
Reviewed by Nader Habib
Omar Taher, Mann Allam Abdel-Nasser Shorb Al-Sagayer? (Who Taught Abdel-Nasser to Smoke Cigarettes?), Cairo: Al-Karma Publishing House, 2020, pp202
Mann Allam Abdel-Nasser Shorb Al-Sagayer?
This is a slim, chatty volume with the profile of the late president Gamal Abdel-Nasser and an ashtray on the cover. In it the best-selling humorist Omar Taher makes a half-hearted attempt to answer the question of the title and many similar questions. In the course of 15 chapters this leads to various digressions and confessions but also some interesting research.
Dealing with why Sadat landed at Ben-Gurion Airport at night, for example, Taher moves from the story of peace with Israel to Atef Salem’s classic film The Grandchild (1974), in which actor Abdel Moneim Madbouli is seen turning off the lights in the house to save money. Taher goes on to imagine full-blown screenplays about such topics as Fatma, the first wife of Mahmoud El-Sherif, the great singer Umm Kulthoum’s husband, how Gamal Salem, a member of the Free Officers who overthrew King Farouk, fell in love with his sister Princess Faiza, the failed attempt to employ the legendary actress Faten Hamama as a spy, or the strange phenomenon of mourners singing in Abdel-Nasser’s funeral but not in that of Umm Kulthoum or Abdel Halim Hafiz’s, both singers whose funerals were the only two to rival that of the leader.
Born in Sohag in 1975, Taher was a vernacular poet and journalist before he started writing his phenomenally popular books.
Mohamed Al-Baz, Heikal: The Hidden Diaries, Cairo: Risha Publishing and Distribution, 2020, pp600
Heikal: The Hidden Diaries
The cover of this book celebrating the late, legendary journalist and political analyst Mohamed Hassanein Heikal’s birthday on 23 September shows him comfortably seated with a cigar. A meticulously researched biography, it shows how Heikal was always close to power, articulating the ideas of the late Gamal Abdel-Nasser, of whose Arab Socialist Union he was a Central Committee member, and championing his ideology like no one else. In 1970 he was appointed information minister only to resign following Nasser’s death.
It is interesting that Heikal, having witnessed every major event from a privileged position – from the 1948 War to the 1952 Revolution and on – never published memoirs, and in this book journalist Mohamed Al-Baz takes on the task of writing Heikal’s biography – a task for which he had obtained the late journalist’s approval in Heikal’s lifetime.
Belal Alaa, Lan Nassnaa Al-Filk (We Will Not Build the Ark), Cairo: Al-Karma Publishing House, 2020, pp232
Lan Nassnaa Al-Filk
In Belal Alaa’s autobiographical book the young, provincial narrator reflects on his hopes and fears. “We fell into the wrong circles at the right time,” he writes, “then we ran back to the right circles in the overtime. We were never anything but strangers or latecomers [missing] the peak moments, obsessively scared of being fake…”
Alaa is a Facebook celebrity who has written for the press and published nonfiction on the 2011 Revolution and the 1967 defeat. He first work of fiction, a novelette entitled Ta’lam Al-Tuyour Mundhu Sighariha Ayna Satuhajir (The Birds Know from their Youth Where They Will Migrate to), appeared this year.
Mohamed Elshahed, Cairo Since 1900: An Architectural Guide, Cairo: AUC Press, 2019, pp410
Cairo Since 1900
In his introduction to this book, explaining how Cairo’s unruly development and overpopulation has perplexed him, architectural scholar Mohamed Elshahed says, “However much I appreciate the ancient world and Islamic heritage, the world into which I was born and with which I identify was shaped by the 20th century, and that is why I feel the need to document and theorise about that era.”
Written as much out of concern for architectural heritage – the laws protecting buildings over 100 years old aren’t always enforced – as love of Cairo, this book Cairobserver founder Mohamed Elshahed, who earned a PhD from New York University and an MA from MIT and works as the curator of the British Museum Modern Egypt Project, is an invaluable and visually compelling guide to over 220 modern buildings in present-day Cairo.
Mansoura Ez-Eldin, Basatin Al-Basra (The Orchards of Basra), Cairo: Al-Shorouk Publishing House, 2020, pp163
This is Mansoura Ez-Eldin’s fifth novel. One of her generations most distinct and accomplished voices, Ez-Eldin wrote Matahet Mariam (Mariam’s Maze, 2004), Waraa Al-Fardous (Beyond Paradise, 2009), Jabal Al-Zomoroud (The Emerald’s Mountain, 2014) and Akhylat Al-Dhel (Phantom of Shadows, 2017) as well as three collections of short stories: Daw’ Mohtaz (Flickering Light, 2001), Nahwa Al-Jonoun (Towards Insanity, 2013) and Maawa Al-Ghiyab (Abode of Absence, 2018). Set between Iraq in the second century of the Hijra and Egypt in 2011, Basatin Al-Basra is Ez-Eldin’s first historical novel properly so described, even though here as elsewhere her focus is more literary than anything.
Written while she was at a residency in Shanghai – something she indicates at the end of the book – the novel is made up of six chapters each in the voice of a different character, and it revolves around a victimised contemporary Egyptian who imagines himself as an eighth-century character in order to retell his experience of injustice and defeat in a story that involves the emergence of Mu’tazili thought in the city of Basra. A complex and deeply researched work of metafiction that draws heavily on the Arab-Islamic canon, this novel plays with notions of reality and reason.
Born in 1976 in the Delta, Ez-Eldin was among the 39 Arab authors chosen for the Hay Festival Beirut39 event, and her novel Beyond Paradise was on the shortlist of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2010.
Nasser Iraq, Al-Lokanda (The Inn), Cairo: The Egyptian-Lebanese Publishing House, 2020, pp279
Historic events mingled with pure fabulation produce this tale about Abbas Helmy Pasha I set in the last year of his reign (1848-1854). The pasha quarrels with a peasant, Eliwa Abu-Zahra, who ends up working for him. The pasha befriends the British physician William Brown, who treats peasants for free and whose wife, as a result, falls in love with Egyptian heritage. But it is Abu-Zahra’s girlfriend Basima who becomes the first Egyptian woman to study the principles of the three Abrahamic religions…
The Dubai-based Nasser Iraq is an Egyptian author and journalist who graduated from Cairo University’s Faculty of Fine Arts in 1984. He is the cofounder and the managing editor of Al-Thaqafiya magazine, and his books include A History of Journalistic Art in Egypt (2002), Times of Dust (2006), From Excess of Love (2008), The Green and the Damaged (2009), The Unemployed (2011), which was nominated for the Arabic Booker Award, and Al-Azbakeya (2016) which won the Katara Prize.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 1 October, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.