Droub Waera (Bumping Alleys) by Suad Fateem, (General Egyptian Book Organization GEBO), 2020
History has always had rich material for novelists. The history in question here is the social history, not the political one. Suad Fateem in her second novel decided to track the history of an Egyptian family at the turn of the twentieth century. Through research, the writer became a storyteller of the period.
The melting pot of the Egyptian nation is a strange one. The visitors who became part of the Egyptian society came from all over old-world Europe, Turkey, Africa, Arabia and the North African desert. The reasons to travel to Egypt varied from commerce to business, studies, or simply just to live in a relatively safe society.
With this background in mind, the writer chose two brothers sent to Egypt by their father to study Islam at Al-Azhar University. One was a dedicated student with a strict personality who ended up being a professor in Islamic studies at Al-Azhar. The second was more of a joyful personality who decided to leave his studies and work in the spice business in Alexandria after a few months of living in Cairo. He just vanished and later sent a letter to his brother to update him that he was doing well in Alexandria, without giving him an address, and the communication between the brothers ceased for decades.
The question that comes to the reader’s mind is: why didn’t the brothers try to keep contact, especially since the younger brother knew where the older one was? Business travels could have brought the merchant to Cairo. Even when the younger brother became a prosperous trader and eventually got married to a girl from Alexandria, he could have tried to find his brother to attend such an important occasion in any man’s life.
The elder brother, when he eventually sought to get married to an Egyptian girl from a good family, members of the family refused him under the reasoning that this person does not have a family or known ancestors that can match their position in society. However, the opposition to the marriage was suppressed by the head of the family, who valued the elder brother’s religious knowledge and his PhD in Islamic affairs from the most prestigious religious university on earth at the time.
Coming from a matching family with known ancestors was an important factor in any marriage among the upper class in Egypt. They considered themselves a noble class (and until now they do in some circles), and the writer intelligently shed light on the class society that existed in Egypt without getting involved in the details or analysis of this concept.
Another parallel line takes place in Bosnia, where the father Artoghl, who send his kids to Egypt, has a secret. His roots are unknown and even his wife could not get him to speak about his past. The writer intelligently keeps the reader’s curiosity until the last possible moment in the novel.
He was connected to the Ottoman palace. His mother helped him escape Istanbul when the political turmoil was a hint to the massacres that occurred in the empire in its last days. Living in Bosnia was a hideout from the Turkish secret services. The details of Artoghl’s life are revealed towards the end, and reuniting with his children becomes wishful thinking in the reader’s mind. The writer skilfully wrapped up the story’s various lines in a semi action/adventure novel, and the end was a surprise.
The novel mentions each of the characters by name (the brothers, their wives their children and even the grandchildren), all except one, El-Gazawy (meaning from the city of Gaza in Palestine). This person was a student at Al-Azhar who became close to the older brother and became a sort of go-to man. The constantly reference to the man as “from Gaza” is a reminder to the reader that Gaza, therefore Palestine, was always present in Egyptian society, and the mere presence of this man in the novel is a political position taken by the writer; Palestine and Egypt are tied.
The narration style is simple and direct; a few years can be explained and handled in one paragraph. When one young character in Alexandria decided that he would not join his father’s business, he went to Austria and studied various types of arts, then returning to open his own gallery and workshop. This was explained in less than one page.
The writer adopted this style throughout the novel, which makes it an easy read that leaves the reader with curiosity to know more about the Ottoman Empire in its last days, the old relations between Bosnians and Egyptians, Al-Azhar and its influence, and many other issues that were mentioned but not explored in detail.