Book Review - 'The Slaves’ Prayers: Tracing history of bondage in 19th century Egypt

Hesham Taha, Monday 9 Nov 2020

The novel’s title is interpreted by this quote: 'So, these were the slaves’ prayers throughout time . . . parting, meeting, peregrinations, travel, soliloquy, crying, yearning, and tears'

book cover

Salawat Al-‘Abeed (The Slaves’ Prayers) by Abdel-Aziz Al-Samahy, Supreme Council of Culture, Cairo 2017. pp. 283

Abdel-Aziz Al-Samahy, author of this historical novel, has based it on masters who exercise a sweeping will on one hand with slaves, both male and female, brought from Africa and elsewhere, along with helpless enslaved Egyptians on the other.

Sennar, the well-known Sudanese town, and Cairo constitute the novel’s settings; from which two of the most prominent characters hail from, namely, Eissa El-Gallab, a slave merchant, and Idris bin Jaffar, the novel’s slave protagonist. This dichotomy summarises a lot of what the author, who is also a painter, short story-writer, and poet, wants to deliver. The novel starts with the victorious return of Ibrahim Pasha, Muhammad Ali's - Egypt's Governor at the time - eldest son, from the Hejaz Campaign in 1818 while ordinary Cairenes waited eagerly for the celebration in the Citadel area of the triumphant troops although their lives could not be more miserable.

Fatma, the female protagonist, was a Cairene girl crushed by poverty very early on, then she suffered oppression in the form of being tricked by her father to be a slave in the palace of Gamal El-Deen El-Qusi, one of the wealthiest Egyptians at the time. She used to repeatedly say among slaves that she was a free woman in her own country, in contrast to other female slaves in the palace.

Idris was a Sudanese young boy living peacefully with his family, only to be ensnared as well as his mother and father by the Egyptian Army at the time. Then they were sold separately. During the voyage from Sennar to Cairo, many boys and young men died out of thirst and arduous conditions. Divine Providence saved Idris from castration when he was assigned to replace the palace gardener who had just died. Strictly confined to the garden, he became a prisoner within its walls, knowing nothing outside it.

Then Fatma saw Idris and got attracted to him and a fiery romance blossomed between the two. She was assisted by Durra El-Shamiyya (i.e. Levantine), the palace’s harem mistress, in order to expiate herself of the guilt of tricking Fatma into bondage. Durra also helped Fatma to escape from the palace so that she may marry Idris and live in a basement. Idris fathered a son whom he named Jaffar, after his father.

Gamal El-Deen El-Qusi went on an Islamic pilgrimage, taking with him Idris who was extremely astounded when his father called him while circling the Holy Kabaa in a very moving scene. El-Qusi returned with a pure heart, setting free the outstandingly beautiful Armenian slave Fairouz, whom he bought from a brothel. He kept making the pilgrimage every year until his death.

There is an irony where Othman, Jaffar’s - Idris's father - brother, had a very bright son, Mahgoub, who pursued education in Sudan, then in Egypt, followed by France and became a prominent engineer, and eventually bought El-Qusi’s palace. Unbeknownst to him that he was his cousin, he offered to set Idris free.    

As for Eissa El-Gallab, his wealth grew as well as his fame as a slave trader from the Sudan to Hejaz, and from the Levant to Greece, and Hungary. Since he was adept in satisfying princes’ and princesses’, ladies’, and pashas’ specifications in procuring female slaves as well as male, he gained influence and impunity. He divulged to Toucan, his assistant, his life’s secret which was no matter the wealth he accumulated, he wasn’t a happy man, for he forsook his only true love that was for Sudaf, his neighbour in Sennar thirty years ago. After marrying her for two months, he left her thinking that he will forget her. Tragedy struck him when he realised that his men killed his wife and captured his son, whom he himself sold as a slave, not knowing of the relation. He tried to find him, but in vain, until he grew blind and died in the desert between Libya and Egypt in a striking irony of fate!

Representing the Egyptian intelligentsia, Makram Effendi El-Dalgamoni used to enlighten his students surrounding him on a café close to the Citadel. In addition to speaking at length, he used to tackle foreign issues which were next to impossible for any Egyptian to know, e.g. the history of American slavery, the exploitation of Africans and how their descendants were still slaves after building American bridges and factories etc,.

Al-Samahy made a powerful metaphor in which Eissa saw a nightmare while he was awake aboard his slave ship, where hundreds of his victims appeared to him within the waves of the sea, their hands elongated trying to grab him by the neck. 

The novel’s title is interpreted by this quote: “So, these were the slaves’ prayers throughout time . . . parting, meeting, peregrinations, travel, soliloquy, crying, yearning and tears”. 

There were instances of mercy throughout the novel carried out by Wedad, a brothel’s madam, towards Sutuhi; the dervish and Fouad, Gamal El-Deen El-Qusi’s son towards Idris.  

Muhammad Ali was portrayed as a historic figure only concerned with his military projects and anything that may serve them. To exemplify this, Al-Samahy showed how Lutfi’s - the grocer - sole son was forcefully conscripted only to die wastefully in Sudan after suffering from a fever.

Undoubtedly, Al-Samahy employed his talent for painting; depicting natural scenes such as the coming of night and day, sunrise and sunset.

The novel was riddled with repetition, especially with how Lutfi’s, Idris’ and Fatma’s tears wetted the walls, and how the universe dimmed due to this. There were also moments of dramatic irony, such as the transformation of Fairouz from a slave to a lady served by a female slave and a castrated male slave.

Al-Samahy presented an accurate description of the slave caravans’ routes from Sudan to Egypt; how they were snatched in the markets then castrated, and how they were whipped for the slightest mistake!

Throughout the novel, the author interspersed mentions of  Muhammad Ali and his dynasty’s history in order to keep the reader aware of Egypt’s rulers, and keep track of time passing.

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