Book Review: Things fall apart in Dungeons of Sinai

Mahmoud El-Wardani, Saturday 9 May 2015

Novelist Sami Saad portrays the Sinai Peninsula in his latest novel as a distinct, exotic place, where he constructs scenes of a Bedouin world with all its details


Al-Saradib (The Dungeons) by Sami Saad, Dar Merit Publishing, Cairo, 2015, pp.216

Novels aren't merely a mechanical reflection of reality. Nor do they spring out of a vacuum, though the events in the novel don't take place on another planet. Although the Sinai Peninsula forms almost a quarter of Egypt's total area and has witnessed a very long history dating back to Pharaonic times, it has never before been portrayed with such distinction, refinement and sweetness as in the novel "The Dungeons".

It seems that the novelist Sami Saad created a novel that will leave an indelible trace on the memory for a long time. Saad has published two poetry collections and one novel before, though unfortunately neither is currently available. Although he finished "The Dungeons" in 2008, it was only published this year. It comprises of twenty brief scenes through which Saad constructs a singular world, a Bedouin world with all its details- inhabitants, sea and land- without falling captive to folklore or contrived exoticism.

Throughout the entire twenty-four scenes, which superficially seem to be discordant, an inimitable world rises across a time span that exceeds seventy years. It begins in 1923 and finishes in the new millennium. This millennium marked the arrival of hordes of touristic investors, the madness of cranes and the lunacy of tractors and bulldozers.

The whole novel is a folk song narrated by Aunt Tamam to her grandson, Sheikh Sanad's son, over more than two hundred pages. This artistic ploy, though it is simple, enabled the author to construct a fictive world easily and smoothly. In the first scene titled "The White-haired Man", the aunt narrates to her grandson about his great grandfather, Ismail Al-Khashshab, who had ten boys and two girls. The novel flows like a river that doesn't stop in this distant, forgotten and virgin spot.

"The Dungeons" isn't only a generational novel, or a novel concerned with history, or a novel revolving only around customs, traditions, joys and defeats. It surpasses all of this and discovers the world during and through writing. If it tackled the issue of generations, for example, it fits this description excellently. In this respect there is the offspring of Ismail Al-Khashshab, who will beget fishermen, farmers, date collectors, camel riders, misers, extremely generous people, life lovers and reconcilers with death. They all defend their land to the extent of being tried before Israeli courts during the occupation, as well as after before the governor and the minister.

However, this novel isn't concerned with merely talking about generations. What it is preoccupied with is the long folk song that Aunt Tamam chants to her grandson. In this context, it is a folk story that narrates history as tales of birth, death, joys and defeats. Aunt Tamam doesn't only narrate, but also hands down the grandson his heritage represented in his grandfathers' tales, not to recount his heroics, for instance, but just their life and how they continued to defy time and swim against the tide. She narrates to him how Al-Haggan (the camel rider) died in his wife's arms one day in 1923 when they were returning from the capital that failed to cure him. She also narrates to him how when Al-Fatem felt that "the land is asking for its inhabitants" went on doing all her duties, took a bath, combed her hair and waited for death in total calmness. 

The tales of Aunt Tamam flow when the author isn't interested in using flashbacks, stream of consciousness techniques or monologues. What interests Saad is that Aunt Tamam hands over the heritage of the tribe to her grandson. However, things fall apart after the liberation of Sinai from Israeli occupation, where medals and decorations were given to traitors and resistance men alike. The government sold the land and sea to investors after which the security divisions came and slaughtered the palm trees.

This enchanting novel concludes with the paying of condolences after Aunt Tamam's death.  This was last time in which Al-Moasi (the bend between the sea and sand which the tribe uses) witnessed the tribe set up these particular rituals. After the palm tree slaughter, Sanad, the tribe's chieftain, orders that the pineapple trees be buried as if they were the family's daughters.


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