Book Review: Mamluks Trilogy sheds light on their last decades and the Ottoman invasion
Hesham Taha, Tuesday 14 Jul 2020

Awlad Al-Nas – Thulatiyat Al-Mamalik (Sons of the People: The Mamluks Trilogy), Reem Bassiouney, Nahdat Masr Publishing, Cairo 2018. pp.759

This historical novel consists of three unequal parts, or three stories as the author Reem Bassiouney has preferred to call them. It can be described as a novel within a novel; starting with an old Egyptian architect giving his daughter, from an estranged Italian wife who was visiting him in Cairo, the manuscript of this novel. After years, his granddaughter Josephine began to read the manuscript in preparation for publishing it. Although the whole trilogy is based on the Sultan Hassan Mosque, its presence fades gradually upon reaching the third story.

The first story opens with an incident where Zeinab is waiting to be wed to her cousin, who was arrested along with her brother over a quarrel between her brother and a Mamluk soldier. Mamluk Prince Mohammed was captivated by Zeinab’s beauty, offering to marry her in return for setting her brother and cousin free. Zeinab possessed a reasonable intellect and learned Fiqh, arithmetic and Algebra, and her father, being one of the wealthiest cloth merchants in Cairo, relied on her for bookkeeping. Abdel-Kareem Al-Manaty, a prominent Azharite Sheikh, persuades her of the marriage to the prince on the grounds that he would make him divorce her after her brother and cousin are released.

Derided by the Mamluk ruling elite and their wives, the marriage was the beginning of a long, arduous mental and emotional battle between the two. Zeinab was astounded that her body, which she gave to the prince without emotions, betrayed her when it responded to him, and more than that, she began to feel jealous of his numerous female slaves. On her exit from Prince Mohammed’s private prison, Zeinab was determined to submerge the prince in her flood of emotions, succeeding brilliantly, to the extent that he set free Sarah, his most beautiful Turkish female slave. Zeinab’s plot was built on the deal, “I would give you myself fully, and in return you are mine entirely.” It can be read as a metaphor for Egypt acting under an oppressive power and reaching a kind of a political concession. This is consolidated by Bassiouney’s use of the metaphor of fortresses and cities, defences and attacks in Zeinab’s mind in dealing with Prince Mohamed.

They had a number of children, the last of whom was Prince Mohammed, the architect of the Sultan Hassan Mosque. This prince convinced Sultan Hassan ibn Muhammad ibn Qalawun in the 1350s of building a mosque that has no parallel in the whole Islamic world in order to attain immortality. After its inauguration, the mosque’s minaret, which was the tallest in Egypt, fell and killed three hundred worshippers. Rival Mamluk princes toppled the sultan, killed him and threw his corpse in the Nile.

Sheikh Abdel-Kareem Al-Manaty was incarcerated twice; once during his youth because of his outspoken opposition to a ruling sultan, and the other time when he was elderly as a punishment for being an ally to a deposed sultan. He remained incarcerated until he went insane and died.

Many a time, Prince Mohammed mentioned that girls should not be taught so as not to argue with men. Baybars Al-Jashankir, Sultan of Egypt, memorably said, “The people of Egypt aren’t satisfied except with the warrior coming out in full regalia and able body, with force is emanating from his limbs,” and “Mamluks are God’s blessing on Egypt, if we weren’t there the country would have been like Baghdad.”

Bassiouney explained the term Awlad Al-Nas, as sons of Mamluks, who were brought up without any military training, unlike the Mamluks who were kidnapped as children from Central Asia and trained to fight and to be loyal only to their master and religion.

Famines and epidemics like the Black Death feature prominently in the trilogy, coinciding with injustices throughout the Mamluks’ rule.

The second story revolves around a mad love story in Qus, Upper Egypt, between Sheikh Amr, grandson of Sheikh Abdel-Kareem Al-Manaty, and Daifa, the seventeen-year-old daughter of a cruel merchant, who was brought up along with her mother by two mysterious women. The women were Zubaida, a Yemeni Muslim woman who ran away from after her husband married a fifteen-year-old, and Maryam, an Abyssinian Christian widow, who came to Egypt with hyena cubs in tow. Qus’ inhabitants circulated rumours that they were sorceresses who dealt with jinn, which remained a persistent question in the mind of Sheikh Amr almost until his death. The story unfolds when a female salt trader asks Sheikh Amr, being the Qus judge, to bring to justice the rapist and murderer of her child, none other than the son of the governor of the city. The murderer was executed when Sultan Barquq sided with Sheikh Amr’s fatwa. Consequently, rival Mamluks became infuriated, allied with influential merchants and launched a smear campaign against Sultan Barquq and toppled him. In this section, the author provides the most enchanting paragraphs in the entire novel.

Daifa and her abused mother asked Sheikh Amr to help them to divorce Daifa from her husband, who left her for a prostitute in Cairo for a whole year. He fell under Daifa’s spell. Due to the closeness between Amr and Barquq, they were imprisoned together in the Levant. Daifa saved Amr by bribing the prison gaolers with all her mother’s gold jewelry. When the sultan reascended to the throne, he made Sheikh Amr chief judge. But the sheikh wanted to save Daifa from an abusive father who used to whip and burn her.

Sheikh Amr had a very complex character; possessing fierce intelligence, piety and unbridled ambition, which was shattered only upon the sheikh being fired by the sultan, who only reluctantly permitted him to give religious lectures in Sultan Hassan Mosque, which became a theatre of ferocious battles between rival Mamluk soldiers. Amr embodied the tragedy of Arab intellectuals getting too close to those in power and embracing delusions of manipulating them to achieve idealistic objectives, such as establishing justice. There is also a foreshadowing element in Sheikh Amr’s fear of the Ottomans’ invasion of Egypt and the country becoming a vilayet (one of the chief administrative divisions of the Ottoman Empire).

There are cameos by two renowned figures. The first is Ibn Khuldun, the historian and scholar, who warned Sheikh Amr of the bad consequence of getting close to those in power. The second is prominent medieval Egyptian historian Al-Maqrizi.

Bassiouney revealed that the Christian woman, who kept Sheikh Amr’s sons out of harm’s way, was unable to complain that her son was also a victim of the Qus governor’s son at the time because of her religion. On the other hand, she made Daifa’s illiterate mother endow a house as a waqf (an endowment made by a Muslim to a religious, educational, or charitable cause), for divorced women and those who ran away from their husbands in Cairo in the fourteenth century. It was a totally unbelievable contrived feminist episode. Moreover, the female salt trader used to utter wise and prescient phrases and precise analyses that can’t possibly be articulated by such an illiterate woman.

The second part ends where Josephine reaches the end of the manuscript and is determined to complete the novel with what she deemed essential to deliver a certain message. The message seems to be whatever the injustices and atrocities committed by the Mamluks, it is far better or at least bearable and acceptable by the Egyptians than those by the Ottomans. Many a time, the author alludes to the stealing of the lanterns by the Ottomans, hinting figuratively that they were leaving Egypt in total darkness.

The third story is made up of three testimonies, namely; Hend, the daughter of the famous historian Ibn Iyas, Slar, a Mamluk Prince and a calligrapher, and Mustafa Pasha, the interpreter of the Ottoman Sultan Selim I. This story unfolds with an incident in which Hend and her brother were saved by a peasant from Ottoman soldiers by paying them, only to find that he is treating her as his sex slave. Hend rebels against the peasant then succumbs to him merely as a soulless body, echoing what happened with Zeinab in the first story.

It is revealed that the peasant is Slar in disguise in order to know Ottoman spies among the Mamluks. After their defeat in the Battle of Ridaniya in 1517, the Mamluks began guerrilla warfare against the Ottomans in Cairo’s streets and alleys with the vital help of ordinary Egyptians. Slar convinces Sheikh Shehab El-Deen Al-Manaty, one of the descendents of Sheikh Abdel-Kareem Al-Manaty, to join his cause. He was killed, the mosque he used to teach in was burnt and his waqf sequestered by the Ottomans who resorted to the use of canons to crush any spark of Cairene resistance. Slar hatched a plot with two Mamluk princes to assassinate Selim I, and if one of them is captured the other two are to kill him to save him from dreadful torture. Another man was killed instead of Selim I and Slar killed his friend Inal and fled the scene with the third assassin. Slar was traumatised by the defeat and the hanging of the last Mamluk Sultan Tuman Bay, who was suspended for three days on public display. Slar proposed to Hend and her historian father refused, but she eagerly consented. Ibn Iyas saw that his son-in-law Slar must give him in return assistance as an invaluable source of information and as a calligrapher writing his chronicles. Mustafa Pasha proposed to give Ibn Iyas his testimony when he knew of his book so as to give another perspective to the events. Slar and Hend had a son named Mohamed after Mamluk Prince Mohamed. The novel ends with Slar going into a debate with Mustafa Pasha in the Sultan Hassan Mosque and being surrounded by Egyptians wanting to know the truth. Finally, Mustafa Pasha is swept up by the growing crowds as a symbol that his side of the debate is rootless.

The three stories’ female protagonists had very resilient characters and every one of them tamed her husband in her own way. One of the several themes Bassiouney tackled was the treatment of women and how being literate, as well as their characters, made them more formidable counterparts to male protagonists, whether they were Mamluk princes or an Azharite sheik. Another theme was: does the Mamluks’ role in fiercely defending Egypt and the Levant justify their rule being filled with injustices, exorbitant taxes and utter disdain of Egyptians? Ibn Khuldun said, “If justice were in conflict with stability, I wonder what the people of Egypt would choose.”

For this novel, Reem Bassiouney was awarded the 2019 Naguib Mahfouz Award for best Egyptian novel by the Egypt’s Supreme Council of Culture, becoming the first woman writer to receive the award.