Book Review: The cruise of the dreams, love in a place without a place

Ahram Online , Thursday 14 Apr 2022

Safinat Al-Ahlam (“The Cruise of the Dreams”), by Eman El-Emary, (Cairo: Dar Tweeta), 2022.

The cruise of the dreams, by Eman El-Emary
The cruise of the dreams, by Eman El-Emary

Set aboard a Nile cruise, novelist Eman El-Emary’s Safinat Al-Ahlam draws a well-crafted story of passionate courtship between the characters of Gharam and Yusef in a timeless setting before the eyes of the two rival Gods, Sobek and Horus, on a rich and complex canvas that serves as a microcosm of modern Egyptian society.

The novel is an accomplished and mature work of fiction telling a realistic love story against the backdrop of intersecting stories of different social classes.

The story unfolds on a Nile cruise called “Safinat Al-Ahlam” sailing between Luxor and Aswan for 15 days. A wealthy businessman invites a group of friends on a hired ship to celebrate the birthday of his wife, an aspiring young actress. On deck, he meets his old university mate, Yusef who is the son of the captain and owner of the cruise. While we witness a classic encounter between nouveaux riches values and old money values, a bigger plot unfolds.

The cruise, a place without a place

Set against the backdrop of the eternal fight between Good and Evil, the story of Safinat Al-Ahlam takes place in a confined location in a specific duration of time.

On the back cover of the book, we read this excerpt: “(...) A girl in her twenties was standing far a part, her appearance shows that she doesn’t belong to this group of friends, yet the Cruise ship of the Dreams was also her destination…”

This sailing ship setting seems to have been borrowed by the heterotypic spaces as initially defined by Michel Foucault in 1966 in Les mots et les choses (“The order of things”).

Foucault denotes the cruise ship, a floating extravaganza of desire and indulgence, as the ultimate example of heterotopic space. For Foucault, “the boat is a floating piece of space, a place without a place, that exists by itself, that is self-enclosed and at the same time is given over to the infinity of the sea.”

One could argue that the cruise of dreams is a microcosm of a certain contemporary Egyptian society where different classes are put together in a luxurious setting around a plot full of twists and intriguing characters. 

After all, the author has been working as a journalist for almost 30 years since her graduation from Mass Communication school, Cairo University. Character studies and social-economic background readings are part of her business as usual and day to day work.

When the mystery unfolds and while passengers are visiting the old prestigious hotel and Pharaonic temples, the influence of Agatha Christie cannot be missed. In her novels, modes of transport serve as a microsome of Christie’s own society at the time. Either in her novel Mystery of the Blue Train (1928), Murder of the Orient Express (1934) or more particularly relevant here Death on the Nile (1937) where the murder took place on a Nile cruise as well.

But in the middle of those tides, Gharam captures the broken heart of Yusef. Gharam whose name means love, is the successful social media officer of the cruise. Seeing passengers competing to hire her online services definitely gives the story a contemporary edge that many readers would identify with.

Journalism and fiction crossover

The writer Eman El-Emary demonstrates a crossover of her experiences and writing style in both journalism and fiction. This interrelation is most visible in the knowledgeable details described in the novel when it comes to the relationship between power, old style media, social media and money. She also gives a lot of insider details on the profession. For example, whether the social media officer could take extra paid work while being on a contract with a client.

The journalistic influence is also obvious in El-Emary's economical and understated writing style. She is quite austere in physical description and the narration of action are sort of summarised. This journalistic influence has also been shown – if not invented – by Ernest Hemmingway, who was also a journalist turned novelist. Hemmingway was awarded the Nobel Prize of Literature in 1954 for his mastery of the art of narrative, demonstrated in his novel The Old Man and the Sea and for the influence that he has exerted on contemporary writing style. There is even a language editing mobile App named after him.

Nonetheless, Safinat Al-Ahlam is also the author's own private space where she is free from journalistic code of practice and language restrictions. We see El-Emary alternating different language registers not allowed by many press publishing standards. She employs colloquial Arabic for her characters' dialogues and kept to the classical language for the narrative lines.

This choice of colloquial dialect is supported by many in Egypt and around the Middle East, as it is a choice of realism and authenticity. Although still rejected by many language purists, this solution was pioneered by the author Yusef Idris in 1954 in his first novel Arkhas Al-Layali (“The Cheapest Nights”).

Dual point of view romance

On this Nile trip, El-Emary gives free rein to her imagination. For example, when she describes how Gharam had felt the kiss of Youssef on her lips. She also goes on to describe how Yusef had a sleepless night afterwards. (p.222-225).

Getting inside the head of each character as they fall in love is mesmerising for the reader yet challenging for the author. Novelists needs to make sure that both points of view are not redundant and distinct from one another.

In her previous published work, like The Jasmine Tree’ or Love Always Wins, for example, El-Emary has always excelled in telling what goes into the male protagonist's head. She has a talent of gazing into the male protagonist and inviting the readers into his bedroom and letting them hear his dialogue within his heart.

In Safinet El-Ahlam, El-Emary extended the gaze to the female main character too, peaking into both Yusef’s and Gharam’s separate cabins and listening to the monologues inside their head separately after the kiss.

In a recent interview, the author explained how she is a strong believer in the power of love to overcome obstacles and achieve all sorts of goals, either on a personal level or even wider national and patriotic ones. 

The Pharaonic setting was also part of the story itself, the gods and their temples are used for timing the plot as it unfolds. The Nile and the Sun, both referred to as Pharaohs deities, were also the only witnesses to their last kiss on deck.

Some would see this novel as the perfect book to read during a cruise trip in Upper Egypt, others would see it through the social study lens. But above all, Safinat Al-Ahlam is a moving and uplifting story about love.

El-Emary has previously published romantic writings among others You Are My Captive, We Won’t Be Separated, New Year Eve’, The Jasmine Tree, The Battle Of Love, My Love and The Heart Always Wins. She also won the prestigious award of Akhbar El-Adab  for her short story Al-Miqqd Al-Khaly (“The Empty Seat”) in 1994

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