Book Review: Ordinary Days: “Death at the tip of an eye lash”

Dina Ezzat , Thursday 1 Feb 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.

Ordinary Days

 

Ayam Adiyah (Ordinary Days) Kotob Khan, 2023…pp177

On Wednesday, 31 January, at the venue of the Cairo International Book Fair, novelist Adel Essmat shared with his passionate readers his take on writing with the launch of his most recent title “Ketabt Al-Kassas WaBena’i Al-Ashash – Tamolat fi Fan Al-Ketabh” (Writing Stories and Building Nests – Reflections on the Art of Writing).

The book is published by Al-Kotob Khan, who also published his collection of short stories “Ayam Adiyah” (Ordinary Days) last year.

Ordinary Days is the most recent literary production of Essmat’s publication journey, which goes back to 1995 when Essmat published his debut “Hages Al Mawat” (Obsession of Death) with his publisher at the time, Sharkiyyat. However, it was ten years later, in 2015, when Kotob Khan published his “Hekayat Youssef Tadros” (Tales of Youssef Tadros), that Essmat’s literary production got overdue and well-deserved attention.

From his early works to his most recent titles, Essmat shows an unfailing dedication to sharing reflections on death – not just in the loss it brings but more in the void it creates and the regret, anger, and even vengeance it precipitates.

Death is so visible and concrete in Essmat’s Ordinary days. It persists in almost all of the 55 intensely painful stories. As one of the protagonists of his stories put it: “Death is there at the tip of an eyelash.” For Essmat's protagonists, death is always a part of the ordinary, which is not always so ordinary. Death is not necessarily just an act of departure; at times, it is a choice – through suicide -- “after failing to keep indulging in dreams to resist reality” or by invoking an end. At other times, it is an act of surrender to “this always very near death” which at times allows people "to hold on to the clouds and let [their] feet off the ground.”

The protagonists of Essmat’s Ordinary Days do not necessarily see death as an end – although some do. Sometimes, the protagonists see death as a transitional moment whereby love and hatred are revealed. In other cases, some of Essmat's protagonists believe that the only solace that death provides is in the anticipation of their own death. Hassan Al-Saba’ belongs to this latter type as he anxiously yearns for death to join his newspaper seller friend, Mohamed El-Zomor, to share everything that happened “during his absence”.   

In the 55 short stories of Ordinary Days, Essmat also shares other facets of pain, including living with torture, resisting vengeance, tracing hope, surrendering to despair, living with regret, putting aside deep hidden wounds, and, above all, accepting the inevitabilities of one’s limitations.

The stories of Ordinary Days have the distinctive Delta city setting of Essmat’s work. And yet, the timeframe of the narrative is the second half of the 20th century rather than the first decade of the 21st century – which could make his work an ode to bygone days of life and people of Egypt’s Delta cities.

Essmat was born in Tanta in Egypt's Nile Delta in 1959. He got two degrees in philosophy and library science. His titles granted him several literary awards and a growing attention to his distinct style manifested in ten novels and two collections of short stories.

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