At one level it is the story of three women from different times and different worlds who cross paths against all odds and go through a taxing journey of self-searching that opens the door towards revision, for themselves as for others. On another level it is perhaps the story many women of different backgrounds have been living in pursuit of elusive self-fulfillment.
In all events, Sahar El-Mougy’s recent novel Misk El-Tal (The Hill’s Musk) is about giving a second chance to women whom she has known, in an emotional and literary sense, for close to 30 years, and to women she believes must have been there even though they never met.
Amina, the fictional submissive early 20th century Egyptian middle class mother of the trilogy of Naguib Mahfouz, Catherine Earnshaw, the indomitable protagonist of Emile Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, and Mariam a clinically depressed psychiatrist who is always standing between two worlds of sobriety and bewilderedness, or maybe even between life and death, are the protagonists.
They are joined in the course of El-Mougy’s novel with other women, some fictional and some not, and they stand face to face, or side by side with men, from Amina’s misogynist husband Si ElSayyed and tender son Kamal to Cathy’s Heathcliff and later Youssef or Mariam’s Raouf.
“The novel is really about these women. I mean when I started writing I started more with the characters rather than with the plot. I said let us follow these characters and see where they go, how they would meet and what they would be doing,” El-Mougysaid in interview with Ahram Online.
El-Mougy was speaking not long after successful launch late June of her novel, which topped a widely welcomed thread of literary production that started with a short stories collection Sayedat El-Manam (The Lady of the Dreams), followed by Aleiha Sagheira (Little Deities), also a short stories collection, and then her first novel Daryah, followed by her most celebrated novel Noun (She) that came out in 2008 with publisher Dar El-Shorouk.
“It was an intense experience to follow these women beyond the worlds we knew them to be; to see what they would do if given another chance with life; to explore the unvisited elements of their characters and the choices they would have made should they come back to the world of today – especially if they do so together and in the company of women of today’s world,” El-Mougy said.
“It started as a playful take on fiction but it developed into an intense labour as the novel was being constructed of layers over layers and as the characters wondered about many worlds liberated from time and space as if endowed with the bliss of eternity almost,” El-Mougy added.
El-Mougy "saw" Cathy with her first encounter with Brontë’s Wuthering Heights at school. She added, “I guess I developed an early affinity to this character who might not have necessarily been so inherently strong but who was always willing to try.”
It was later, in her twenties as she ventured from one Mahfouz volume to the other, that she read of Amina. As intended by the author of the trilogy, she saw her as many others saw her – and maybe as Mahfouz himself put her across – a submissive wife and loving mother.
In a sense, through her early youth, El-Mougy herself was both Cathy and Amina. She conformed through adulthood and early marriage. But she was willing to explore and to push the boundaries of what could have led to deep depression.
In reality, for El-Mougy, writing was an unintentional exercise of psychotherapy. It helped this English literature professor, who has forever been immersed in endless volumes of fiction and poetry, to assemble the many pieces of the world around her as of herself.
Having painstakingly grown out of her own submissiveness, El-Mougy has been on the path of challenging the norms women are expected to comply with.
This is a thread that runs uninterrupted in all her works, and particularly so in her Misk Al-Tal.
El-Mougy’s Amina is very different from that of Mahfouz. “Or at least we get to see her through a different lens, because after all Mahfouz did not have – due the norms of the time and to his way of living – a close up on the lives of housewives, as opposed to his easy access to the women of the night in early 20th century middle class Cairo. And this is why in his trilogy the women who actually have a determining role in the path of events are essentially those coming from the corners of entertainment saloons frequented by his main male protagonist, Si El-Sayyed,” she argued.
But when Amina comes to the world of El-Mougy she is not coming from the male dominated house of her aggressive and self-loving husband. She is coming to 21st century Cairo from the house of the Sirens where she has been along with Cathy Aernshaw, Virginia Woolf, Lady Macbeth and Laila from Latifa El-Zayyat’s novel The Open Door.
El-Mougy’s women in Misk Al-Tal have truly capturing voices, even in the case of Mariam, who is more living in her trauma and nightmares than in the world around her. In the hands of El-Mougy, Amina is the one taking the lead and making advances.
“I just wanted to challenge this collective consciousness about the role of women as underlined in the much celebrated archetype of Amina and Si El-Sayyed,” El-Mougy said.
Perhaps, El-Mougy said, Amina was not meant by Mahfouz to be as submissive as she was made to be in the cinema production of the trilogy directed by Hassan Imam. “She came across as a more influencing character in a drama production where she was seen to have a role in providing refuge for the young men who were challenging the British occupation of Egypt – friends of her son Fahmy who died in the demonstrations of 1919."
In El-Mougy’s novel, Cathy is also making a transformation, although not as strong as the one Amina made and maybe even not as strong as the one Mariam made when she actually managed to hang on to life rather than to slip towards death. Cathy does manage to slowly find her path away from her past life.
“I think I could say that what I was following when I was writing Misk Al-Tal were the moments of transformation as they came along with the characters,” El-Mougy said.
"Moments of transformation" are essential to the works of El-Mougy as are deep thoughts on feminism that cannot be missed in any of her works, particularly in Darya and Misk Al-Tal.
El-Mougy settled on “The Hill’s Musk” as a translation of her perplexing title. Musk is a strong and sweet odor that is hard to ignore, just as the charm of the Sirens. It was there in the Siren's house, in that unknown sphere of time and space, and it was there in the house where Amina, Cathy and Mariam lived together in 20th century crowded Cairo.
“The smell of musk kept coming through and the hill is where the Sirens house was,” El-Mougy said.
From the "Sirenum" that hangs somewhere in the world of eternity come the women of El-Mougy’s Misk Al-Tal. They search for serenity, one ultimately elusive.