Book Review: Embaby explores the gates to heaven and hell

Hesham Taha, Sunday 21 Dec 2014

Author Fathy Embaby tackles Egypt's early African Empire, launched by Muhammad Ali Pasha and extended and enlarged by his offspring, in a rich novel that blurs the boundary between fiction and history

'Atbat Al-Ganna: Ostourat Al-Ithna Ashr (Heaven's Gates: The Legend of the Twelve) by Fathy Embaby, General Egyptian Book Organisation, 2014. pp.412

In his latest novel, Fathy Embaby tackles an unprecedented topic in Egyptian fiction; namely, the Egyptian African Empire that was launched during the era of Muhammad Ali Pasha and was extended and enlarged by his offspring. This main topic is revealed slowly through the protagonist, Captain Al-Husseiny Abd-Al-Ghaffar, who along with 11 Orabist (siding with Orabi's Revolution) officers and two regiments were sent intentionally on a deadly expedition to explore the Upper Nile River. Hence the novel's subtitle "The Legend of the Twelve," of whom only one returned alive to Egypt. 

Embaby starts his seventh novel with the disbandment of the Egyptian Army after the defeat and surrender of Orabi to British occupation troops in 1882 and the imprisonment and torture of his followers. Then Captain Al-Husseiny Abd-Al-Ghaffar is assigned to head a group of officers on the mission of measuring the River Nile's depth in the heart of Africa, which they executed with the utmost precision in a harsh and unforgiving terrain.  

The novel is comprised of nine chapters, which Embaby chose to name numerically, as the first gate, then the second, until the seventh, while the eighth and the ninth chapters are devoted to paradise. In choosing the title "Heaven's Gates," the novelist alludes to one of the Prophet Mohammad's sayings that the River Nile is one of four rivers running in heaven.   

Heaven's Gates is Embaby's second historical novel. The first was River from Heaven, which also tackles the River Nile, just before the French invasion of Egypt in 1798.

The true achievement in this novel is shedding light on the legendary Major Hawwash Muntasir, who deserves a book in his own right. This tall sturdy man was a man of action as well as a strategist, especially with the African tribes with whom he made alliances through blood brotherhood ceremonies. He reached the Equator and the north eastern side of the Congo River and established a station there with his name on it. An Italian captain, Rodolfo Cazatti, was the first to recognise the danger this man posed for imperialist European countries and did his best to stop him by notifying his superior, and even the Pope in Rome! The Orabist officers were fascinated by his martial prowess and wished in their correspondence that he was in charge of the revolution instead of those bombastic figures who were and who knew nothing about battlefields and military engagements.

The novel reminds the reader of Joseph's Conrad's Heart of Darkness on many levels. First, going deep into the jungles of Africa, upstream of the Congo River, in Conrad's novel corresponds with reaching this same river's north-eastern part in Embaby's. Second, the effect of the jungle's utter beauty and extreme bestiality on humans, both from within and from without, is detailed in the two novels. For instance, the episode of Aly Shamroukh, who was a model in military discipline, refusing to leave an Egyptian station since he didn't receive orders to do so for months on end. He lost the ability to talk and when he met with his colleagues eventually he couldn't express himself, except in writing. While Conrad records the insatiable voraciousness among European colonists, Embaby registers the real glories of the Egyptian Army in those same parts. This is obvious on a number of occasions, where it was the first to fight the slavery trade in Africa and liberated those enslaved; it didn't impose Islam on those it conquered and most importantly it didn't compel local tribes to provide them with food. On the contrary, it reclaimed lands, introducing new crops in those parts, and relied on itself. 

The novelist deals with a number of historical figures: governors, commanders, slave traders, religious scholars, tribal chiefs, wives and lovers. He also puts on display a diverse ethnic ensemble, for in addition to Egyptians there are the Sudanese, of course, the French, Italians, Germans, Jews and a variety of African tribes, among them cannibals.

He traces the early echoes of the Zionist movement in Africa through a number of Jews who occupied influential positions through the treasonous Khedive Tawfiq bureaucracy. The most prominent of them is Mehmed Emin Pasha, governor of Equatorial province, an Austrian Jew with shady links with imperial European representatives and whose original name was Eduard Schnitzer.

One of the main points the novel emphasises is the strategic significance of the Egyptian presence in Nile Basin countries, whether in a military form in old eras, or cooperative form in later times.

Spending seven years to write this novel, Embaby inserted maps, images of historical figures and animals, and even navigational signal flags, to the extent of somewhat overdoing it. Many a time he mentions places or people's names, then after a few pages he begins to insert footnotes explaining them. The novelist presents discussion about the legality of the slave trade and the revolt against the Khedive from the Orabists, on the one hand, and official Islamic scholars on the other. Some sentences are anachronistic, for instance mentioning the description of a religious state and civil state uttered by one Orabist officer.

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