Book Review - The Just Dictator: A Curse or Blessing?

Ossama Lotfy Fateem , Thursday 7 Jan 2021

Rohayem takes us back to the fourth decade of the last century

Ayam la Tonsa (Unforgettable Days), Kamal Rohayem, El-Ain Publishing, Cairo, 2018
Writers have a historical duty towards their societies, documenting the lifestyle and social history before it becomes part of history books is part of that duty. That is exactly what Kamal Rohayem did in his latest novel “Unforgettable Days”. He took us back to the fourth decade of the last century to give a detailed account on how life was under the rule of mayors in Egyptian villages.
The narrator is the mayor’s grandson; Aly. He takes the reader into a past that was seen only in black and white movies. The narration was done skillfully to keep the reader interested in an informative novel that not only has no mystery but even has a predictable ending. The writer did not specify the village geographically; this was an intelligent way of stating that life was almost identical in all Egyptian villages at that time. 
Aly was a young child who dared explore his grandfather’s quarter of the house, hence becoming more familliar with the grandfather who did not seem to care much about contributing to raising the young ones. He became the favorite grandson falling under the mayor’s direct supervision. Aly’s status also allowed him to become his grandmother’s “friend", although his grandmother was paralysed and bedridden, visiting and listening to her stories became a favorite part of his childhood.
The main character is the grandfather Mayor Haroon, a tyrant whose mere presence brings admiration, respect and fright. He is the one to decide everything in his large household, from the food cooked to who is in charge of the day-to-day matters if not himself, his sons have pale personalities and follow his orders while he manages all the village affairs with fairness and severity. Here we have an intelligent man who was able throughout his life to manipulate the circumstances in to establishing his status and gaining the loyalty and respect of all his “subjects”. No one dared say his name; he was always to be referred to as “hadret el omda” or Mr. mayor accompanied with the necessary respect that is expected for a man with the responsibility that he carries.
The whole novel emphasises the old idea of “the just dictator”, an awful idea built into the political thought of a society. From time to time such a person exists and brings forth nostalgia and maybe the hopes to live under the reign of such a person. In the case of the mayor, his judgment in various disputes makes him seem just and fair. He took care of his business and the responsibility of the village by himself until he passed down the business and the land's responsibility to his sons. When their mother died they all figured that he would re-marry, but no one dared oppose him or even discuss the matter with him, although deep down they did not want another child to join them in their father’s inheritance, a malicious idea that exists in all families, the less beneficiaries the more benefit for the existing ones.  
The just dictator was faced with a dilemma early in life when he took over his twin brother's inheritance with his father's accord. His brother Sheikh Abdel-Latif was an odd man despite his high education, and he would have spent all his inheritance in only a few years. He had a weak body since childhood and was easily fooled by his acquaintances. From a neutral point of view the younger brother was ripped out of his rightful fortune, yet we can find logic in that unjust act, keeping the family wealth while taking care of the weak branch seemed to be the right thing to do regardless of its unfairness.
The same can be said about his grandson. Aly wanted to go to art school but his grandfather decided that he will go to law school and his grandfather’s will prevailed as usual, Aly's father and Aly's wishes were simply ignored and they ended up accepting the wisdom of the old man. The novel did not go as far as showing us how the grandson turned out to be whether a lawyer happy with his career or not, but the character in the novel appears to come to terms with his grandfather’s decision that completely ignored his desire for the life he wanted for himself.
The Grandfather’s house is the novel’s pivotal point, it projects a place where discussions take place, decisions are made, problems are solved and it manifests the grandfather’s power and dominance. The narration shows how this house is run behind closed doors through the women’s community; it tells the stories of the fueds between the brothers and the unusual behavior of the younger brother; it shows how the reception of the mayor’s second wife is organised and planned and even when the decision about preventing her from taking charge of the house is executed. The head woman in the house is the grandson’s mother, the elder son’s wife, a woman with a much stronger personality than her husband. She was the one to implement the rules set by the Mayor. This strong woman exists in nearly every family, the one whose opinion is an order under the umbrella of the family head.
Overall Rohayem was able to produce an interesting novel that can be used as a reference for life in the countryside in the 1940’s.
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