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Book Review - Sabil of the Drowned

Reem Bassiouney in her latest historical novel has produced another pioneering female character struggling with the strictures of her times, reflecting the late 19th century experience in Egypt

Hesham Taha, Sunday 29 Nov 2020
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Sabil Al-Ghareq – Altareeq wa Al-Bahr (Sabil of the Drowned – The Way and the Sea), Reem Bassiouney, Nahdat Masr Publishing, Cairo 2018. pp. 453

Sabil of the Drowned, another historical novel by Reem Bassiouney, tries to interpret the Mamluks’ maritime defeat prior to their terrestrial vanquishment at the hands of Ottoman Turks a few years later, a topic tackled in her previous novel The Mamluks Trilogy. The British invasion of Egypt in 1882 serves as a backdrop.

Reem Bassiouney chose an almost impossible love story between a lady and her servant to be the linchpin of the novel. The protagonists are Hassan, an illiterate son of a female slave, and the subject of his love, Galila. He was the only male servant whom her father could trust to accompany her wherever she went, always carrying an umbrella to shade her while keeping her out of harm’s way.

The novel starts with a visit by the wife of Galila’s maternal uncle, who persuades Buthaina, Galila’s mother, to send her daughter to a school. This had been unthinkable for Egyptian ladies in the last quarter of the 19th century. Girls of wealthy families were home educated. The maternal uncle’s wife succeeded in convincing Buthaina by saying that this was the Khedive Ismail wife’s wish, so as to encourage other Egyptian families to do likewise.

At the age of 13, Galila enters a school and almost immediately her ostracisation began. Her chances of finding a husband dwindled along with her educational progress. The real catastrophe took place when she graduated and became a teacher in the same school, teaching orphans and prostitutes. Thus, the rumour mill grew wild to the extent that she was injured when children threw stones at her. Another era commenced, Khedive Ismail was dethroned and his son Khedive Tawfiq succeeded him, and all the promises of the maternal uncle’s wife evaporated and ignominy remained.

While Galila’s family was vacationing in Alexandria, she carried messages from and to an Italian man named Alfonso on behalf of Ahmed Orabi’s revolutionaries whilst British warships were a stone’s throw from Alexandrian shores. In what seems to be stretching suspension of disbelief a bit too far, Alfonso was drawn to Hassan immediately after seeing him, feeling that he reminds him of an old historical figure and insisting that they meet again.

On a fateful day, British warships began bombarding the city when Galila accompanied by Hassan were in Alfonso’s shop, Hassan saving Galila’s life while her younger sisters were killed and her father died a horrific death in their home. Hassan tried to soothe Galila amid her distress and took her to live for some time in a benevolent woman’s home. He joined Orabi in his final battle, Tel El-Kebir. Before taking Galila back to Cairo, Hassan returned to Alexandria to search for and meet Alfonso, who gave him old manuscripts written by a Venetian merchant.

Said, Galila’s only paternal uncle, seized her house and treated her and Buthaina in a despicable manner and almost deprived them of their inheritance while the husbands of Galila’s elder sisters’ feigned helplessness. Hassan proposes to marry Galila secretly to confront the avaricious uncle.

In doing this, he revealed that Galila’s father, Ahmed Bek, made him the sole benefactor of his wealth so as to protect his daughters from his obnoxious brother, who also deprived him long ago of his rightful inheritance. Hassan kicks out the uncle with his family, but not until he returns almost all the jewellery they snatched from Buthaina.

Another thread is used in parallel with the main events — the folk tale of Clever Hassan, the ordinary boy who married the Sultan’s daughter, detailing his travails and the ancient Sabil (Arabic for public fountain) where Ahmed and servant Hassan used to frequent seeking solace of the mind and soul. In the Sabil, they usually met Sheikh Al-Zamzami, a Sufi ascetic, who noticed Hassan’s spiritual power as well being the carrier of historical burdens from bygone centuries.

This intertwinement between the real Hassan, Hassan of the fairy tale and Hassan who married the Sultan Qansuh Al-Ghuri’s daughter is elucidated by Galila’s reading of the manuscripts of the Venetian merchant, Francisco Teldi, who met Sultan Qansuh Al-Ghuri, second-to-last of the Mamluk Sultans in 1509.

Teldi tried in vain to convince Qansuh to dig up a canal connecting the Red Sea with the River Nile. His refusal culminated in the defeat of Mamluk’s fleet, helped secretly by the Venetians, at the hands of Portuguese in the Diu maritime battle in which Hassan fought bravely till the very end and survived with only very few of the sailors.

Many a time, Bassiouney emphasises the vague Sufi notion of choosing the unfamiliar as a way for saving oneself. In this case, Sultan Qansuh Al-Ghuri should have dug up the canal.

But due to the Egyptian Sultanate’s meagre financial resources at the time, following the Portuguese discovery of the Cape of Good Hope, this couldn’t come into being. Bassiouney links the greediness of the Portuguese with the cunningness of the British in plotting and invading Egypt. The former crushed Egypt’s supremacy over maritime routes and trade while the latter invaded to have full control over the new international waterway, namely the Suez Canal.

Galila’s marriage to Hassan was at first fraught with quarrels and a sense of superiority motivating Galila, even if not pronounced. A turning point occurred when the two elder sisters’ husbands waited in Hassan’s house to force him to divorce Galila. He was very steadfast and hit Sherif, the stronger of the two, and was about to strangle him with a whip with which he wanted to teach him manners, being the son of a slave.

From this moment onwards, Galila starts to see Hassan in a different light, especially when her mother noted that her husband is very rare to find. She remembers how he saved her from being raped and took a beating as a result. Galila outpoured her love on Hassan and went with him to the Sabil where she read to him the aforementioned manuscripts. After miscarriages that left her miserable, she gave birth to four boys consecutively. Although she was happily married, she always dreamt of being a newspaper writer. Hassan tried his outmost to relieve her of her pains and was at her bedside when she died at the age of 45 due to typhoid, which wasn’t well known at the time.

Galila was always tormented by the fact that there was an accusation against her of being partially responsible for the destruction of Alexandria by siding with the Orabists. If convicted she was to pay an exorbitant debt with mounting annual interest. After being treated as an outcast, a female slave’s son, Hassan grew very rich, especially when he secretly set up a small textile factory in Ismailia and was able to smuggle his merchandise on board British mercantile ships through bribing seamen in order to export it.

However, one of the workers betrayed him and set the factory on fire deliberately. Hassan informed his elder son Ahmed that the English deprived Egyptians from manufacturing and exporting because Egypt controlled the world’s international trade and dominated all the seas, but the Egyptians forgot this fact.

There are cameos of historical and literary figures in the novel, such as the nationalist leader Saad Zaghloul and Hind Nawfal, the first Arab woman to publish a women's magazine. Tamrhan, Hassan’s mother, is an important character, who being a slave has been subject to torture and got pregnant from her master Shady Bek. Ahmed Bek took her under his wing along with her newborn baby. She considered that what Ahmed Bek did was a debt she can’t pay back all her life, and raised Hassan with the same notion.

On the occasion of Hassan’s marriage to Galila, she opposed it, deeming that everyone should know his place, even if the Orabi Revolution upturned the scales for a while. Feelings of jealousy towards Galila got the better of her every now and then. She is employed in the novel to foreshadow that something disastrous is about to happen.

The novel, which consists of four parts and 14 chapters, contains many debates and monologues concerning marital relationships, husbands’ and wives’ mutual rights and duties, the relationship between a mistress and a servant, and the role change after Galila’s marriage. Throughout the novel, Hassan was burdened with a feeling that he, as a metaphor for Egypt or Egyptians at large, must restore what has been snatched from him — control of international trade and waterways after the Battle of Diu.

On his final visit to Sheikh Al-Zamzami, Hassan informed him that the reason behind the drowning of Majzoubor (after which the Sabil was named) was his loss mind because he loved without hope and pursued his life without certainty, and upon defeat let the defeat spread within his soul. He has also told him that to win lies in seeking the way, and not in reaching it.

The novel contains memorable sentences, such as “Were we living in peace or illusion? Was it a must that cannons sweep our existence in order to wake up? And if we woke up, what is it in our power to do?” and “The Devil enters during moments of danger and plays with the memory.”

Reem Bassiouney is keen on drawing female protagonists who are stubborn, intellectual and possess inner strength within the limits delineated by society. They are always pioneers and ahead of their times and are placed in an inferior status within compelling historical circumstances. 

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