Ahd Demiana (Demiana’s Testament), Osama Abdel-Raouf El-Shazli, Dar Al-Ruwaq Publishing, Cairo 2023 pp.398
The novel’s setting is distributed between Qus, Alexandria and Al-Fustat and is written in a flashback style, which was a bit confusing.
The novel, which almost all its characters are Christians, revolves around Wasen, the young Upper Egyptian Copt girl, who wants to be a nun. However, her kismet was for something totally different. During a round of Tahteeb (stick-fencing), Mina, her rich honey merchant father accuses the Muslim player of cheating and a brawl ensues in which this player is killed. Mina was accused of inciting strife between Muslims and Christians and the Qus governor orders Mina to be disgraced (riding a donkey in a reversed position) for drinking wine in public and whipped one hundred lashes. By seventy lashes, Mina dies. El-Shazli describes Mina, who had refused to set a foot in a church in protest of the church fathers’ decision to welcome Arabs into Egypt and who were interested only in gaining money, as a “Messiah without a message.”
One of the governor’s soldiers hit Wasen so violently breaking one of her ribs so she becomes unconscious. She seeks reguse in a nearby home, but falls unconscious when the door opens. The house is occupied by a masked man, who treats her broken rib, but conceals his identity and her whereabouts to her by making her consume cannabis. In the meantime, her cousin, Butrus, searches for her. Eventually, he finds her and insists on marrying her when he learns that she neither knows where she was kept and nor the man who saved her. However, Wasen refuses. Later, after languishing in prison, Butrus breaks into Wasen’s house and attacks her, only to meet his end when she kicks him from the rooftop.
In a parallel story line, the story of a young girl, Ward, unfolds. She had been seized forcibly from her parents by the Turk Kipchaks and sold to Ali Ibn Al-Sallar, the Alexandria Governor. Ward confronts Ibn Al-Sallar and informs him that she is a free Christian girl, prompting him to free her and allocate an allowance to her and her offspring until his death. She is obliged to live in his palace after she discovers that her parents are dead. She marries an old man named Sadaqa although he belongs to another denomination, and gives birth to Yusuf, the masked man who saved Wasen. It transpires that Yusuf has been on a secret mission to obtain petrol bombs (the Arabs were the first to use petroleum as such a weapon), hence why he is masked.
He is a bookworm and becomes a penman. While writing a copy of the Letters of the Brethren of Purity, Friends of Loyalty (a secret Islamic society) over a year, he begins to be influenced immensely by their ideas, which were considered subversive at the time.
This novel’s women are strong-willed as shown in a number of situations; the aforementioned confrontation between Ward and Ibn Al-Sallar, Ward paying a cart driver ten times the fare value to transport her from Alexandria to Al-Fustat to meet Ibn Al-Sallar to revoke the execution verdict of her son. In another situation, Wasen decides to buy an entire grain convoy in order to feed the Abu-Hennis monastery priests and the surrounding inhabitants after Arab Bedouins attacked the monastery and emptied it of grains.
The poisonous atmosphere in palaces where plots, counterplots, betrayals, double-crosses and triple-crosses is the order of the day in the novel. Yusuf gets involved in politics with Egyptian Muslims, intending to drive away European ships besieging Damietta from the sea. Consequently, Yusuf is engaged in a plot aimed at overthrowing the Fatimid Dynasty and joins the assassination of Abbas Ibn Abu-Al-Futuh, who slaughtered his father-in-law Ibn Al-Sallar in order to become the vizier of the Fatimid caliph. Yusuf’s participation was an act of revenge for the man who freed his mother and saved his own head, despite his later claims that was was only setting things right.Yusuf was crucified for three days and was about to be hanged for committing adultery with Yustina, the governor’s son’s female slave and mother of his son Al-Hussein.
The novel is full of many strange things. One of these is that, Ward, who was most devout, does not instil in Yusuf either her creed nor her denomination. Another was her reaction towards her son’s adultery. She did not even reprove him in the slightest, just telling him to ask for God’s forgiveness!
Yusuf keeps receiving letters from Yustina, who ran away to her birthplace in northern Syria, informing him that she gave birth to his daughter, naming her Demiana. In her final letter, she tells him that she is dying from the plague and has sent Demiana to Yusuf with a slave seller. She asks Yusuf to rear Demiana and her brother Al-Hussein. Yusuf takes Demiana and leaves her with Wasen, who did not tell him that she loved him with all her heart, to bring her up.
Due to this participation, he is arrested for trying to smuggle Al-Hussein from the palace and is hit with an arrow in his chest. An unbelievable episode starts between Yusuf and the jailer who was called Ahraman (“Satan” in Persian) for his cruelty. This very jailer cauterises Yusuf’s chest wound, thus saving his life. When Ahraman is ordered to kill Yusuf, he bathes him and shaves his head like Pharaonic priests. Then Ahraman decides not to behead Yusuf as all his predecessors, but to bestow on him immortality through mummification. Yet, the reader does not know how Yusuf is killed in the first place! Ahraman puts Yusuf body in a Pharaonic sarcophagus that he brought all the way to Cairo after his father found it while searching for antiquities to sell.
Finally, Yusuf’s funeral is arranged. Tens of Christians attend along with Sheikh Ibn Al-Kizani, a Sufi figurehead at the time, and his followers in an unconvincingly surreal scene. Yusuf insists that Al-Kizani was the one who baptised him when he was boy. However, it might be interpreted that the Pharaonic symbol (sarcophagus) led the procession with two wings; one Christian the other is Muslim epitomising Egypt.
In the eponymous testament, which Yusuf has left in a casket with Wasen to give to Demiana, it transpires that his religious belief transcended all organised religions. He advises her to make all her choices out of her free will and never to leave her brother Al-Hussein for they complement each other.
Unfortunately, the author falls in the trap of anachronism that marks many historical novels. Mawhoob, one of the “revolutionary” leaders against Fatimid rule, tells Yusuf about the necessity of Egypt having an army of its own to defend it. Yet, this only takes place seven centuries later at the hands of an Ottoman ruler, Muhammad Ali! When Yusuf’s jailer asks him about what he stole, he replies that he stole love, justice, dignity and loyalty. And when asked from whom he replied from those spreading hatred and being strengthened through injustice and terrorising through humiliation and breathing treason. Uttering such profound words was so poetic, so unrealistic for a person’s perception living in this era.
Early on, the novel mentions the injustices befalling Christians at the hands of Muslims. The Shia-Sunni conflict is always present in the background, manifesting itself between the Shia Fatimid rulers of Egypt and their Sunni opponents from within and from without. Roses and herbs have a prominent presence throughout the novel’s ninety-one chapters. It would be unfair to compare this novel with El-Shazli’s little gem The Papers of Shimon the Egyptian (reviewed here).