Book Review: ‘Nights of Plague’: Accounts of demise

Dina Ezzat , Monday 29 Jan 2024

On the occasion of the 55th Cairo International Book Fair, Ahram Online offers its selected list of the best books – fiction and nonfiction – published in 2023, among which is Orhan Pamuk’s “Nights of Plague” (Laiali Al-Waba in Arabic).

Nights of Plague


In 1923, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk founded the independent republic of Turkey, after the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1922. Historians roughly assess that it was in the first decade of the 20th century that the empire started its path toward incremental demise.

In some ways, Pamuk’s most recent novel, “Nights of Plague,” could be seen as a story about the beginning of the end of the Ottoman Empire – not just in the political sense with a view to the declining efficiency of governance and rampant corruption but more significantly perhaps in the sense of the aspiration of nations under the reign of the empire to pursue liberation and, above all, modernity.

In 2016, Pamuk started his manuscript that depicts a 1901 attack of plague in Mingheria, a fictional island that is supposedly located between Crete and Greece with a population consisting of half Turkish Muslims and half Creek Christians. The story follows the spread of the epidemic, the response of the population – with its diverse ethnic composition, and the reactions of the Sultan and the big European powers at the time.

From the first to the last page, Pamuk is weaving a historical but also intriguing novel that is bound to come across as highly political – exactly like “The Plague” of Albert Camus that came out in the second half of the 1940s as an allegory to the Nazi occupation of France during World War II.

Prophetically, Pamuk’s novel came out, in its original Turkish language, in 2021 as the world was being tested by the pandemic of the 21st century, COVID-19. “Nights of Plague” got translated, as many of Pamuk’s works, in several languages – with the Arabic version, translated by Jihad Al-Atassi, being printed by Dar Al-Shorouk in 2023.

While the association of the two pandemics of the 20th and 21st centuries dominated, the many accounts of demise and departures that this novel offers are much more than the stories of shared consecutive deaths that hit when the plague hit. There are also conflicts – not just between life and death but also between ethnic coexistence and ethnic feud, religious tolerance and intolerance, nationalism and association with the wider Islamic nation, and above all fatalism and modernity.

The accounts of the imposition of quarantine to avert the spiral spread of the plague, the need to observe specific hygiene protocols, and the apprehension about the role of medical teams are detailed and telling of the slow embrace of modernity.

They recall full texts from the remarkable research of historian Khaled Fahmy from his “In Quest of Justice: Islamic Law and Forensic Medicine in Egypt,” which was published first in English, before being translated by Hossam Fakhr into Arabic and published by Dar Al-Shorouk in 2022. 

Although the story of Mingheria’s days and nights under the plague is told in Pamuk’s text in the letters of the Sultan’s niece Pakiza, who landed on the island with her epidemiologist, Dr. Nuri, to her sister back in Istanbul, Pakiza is far from dominating the narrative. Almost every single character of Pamuk’s novel is in control of the narrative at some point in the lengthy text.

Typically, Pamuk’s novel skillfully shrouds politics and history with many thin and soft layers of love, passion, crime, and intrigue.

 “Night of Plague” is a delightful and inspiring read. 

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