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Book Review: Oriental dance at a distance

Khaled El-Barri’s latest novel shortlisted for Arabic Booker prize creates a new impression of the life of Egyptians living abroad

Mary Mourad , Thursday 16 Dec 2010
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Raksat Sharkeya (An Oriental Dance), Khaled El-Barri, Cairo: Dar El-Ein, 2010. pp 593

Khaled El-Barri’s latest novel creates a new impression of the life of Egyptians living abroad. The novel, published by Dar El-Ein, reached the spotlight when it made the Arabic Booker shortlist last Thursday. Together with Miral El-Tahawy’s Brooklyn Heights, these are the two books chosen from Egypt this year.

In a setting that mixes reality with illusion, Ibrahim, the narrator, recites his story along with those of Hussein and Yasser, all coming from a small village near Assiut in Upper Egypt and reunited in London. By way of the life each man leads, the challenges and conquests of a life in voluntary exile are highlighted.

El-Barry chooses to reveal his stories non-sequentially, starting somewhere in London and then flashing back every few pages, or sometimes chapters, into the background of his characters’ lives in Egypt. The stories hold the reader in suspense, wondering what is coming next and how all the threads will come together.

Yasser, son of a wealthy doctor, is effectively banished in London. We are told at various intervals about his past: his late father’s heroic life, how it ended abruptly and how he was mourned only by a few (common in Egypt if death is suspected to be suicide). In between Yasser’s loss and his mysterious and hopeless love for an Egyptian Christian girl (Egyptian social mores render inter-religious marriages unacceptable), he finds solace with the Muslim Brotherhood. His harsh life with the “Brothers” keeps him busy and his brain numb in between prayer and studying. Two letters change his life when he believes his Christian lover, Marian, is pregnant. But we are never sure what is reality versus delusion until the end. London allows him to forget and be lost in an average life.

Hussein is a scholar sent to complete his PhD in London. A cripple, he finds it difficult to get a job and his allowance doesn’t allow him to sustain his wife and three children in London. Instead, he sends them back to Egypt and seeks to satisfy his hunger for adventure, only to get entangled with Katia, the ex-wife of a colleague. The dream of returning to Egypt as a respectable and rich man is quickly replaced by his desire to continue living in London with more desirable women. He can no longer imagine returning to Egypt after eight years of failing to complete his degree.

Ibrahim, the narrator, comes from a poor family that claims a “honourable” ancestry in the village. He made his way to England through marriage to a British woman in her fifties who stumbled across him while he was working as a kheraty, selling cheap accommodation and trips and trying to ensnare tourists. Ibrahim is never able to find a stable job in London, with both his poor English and his lust for women constantly dragging him down. From one odd job to the next, his dreams of making a decent living in Europe evade him.

The three meet first because messages were sent to one through another from the village. On the one hand, there is the call to support each other, but we see reluctance to do so. They’re constantly keeping one eye on each other, betraying, fearful and even aggressive at some points, but coming together as friends whenever convenience demands!

Marian, Margaret and Katia are the female figures living in the shade of the protagonists. Marian —later called Maria —is Yasser’s old lover and the cause of the guilt that chases him. Believing her pregnancy is the cause of his father’s possible suicide, Marian is the reason Yasser lives outside Egypt and is the main cause for his misery. Margaret, Ibrahim’s wife, controls him and demands that he runs after her every wish, until eventually she divorces him. Katia is Hussein’s Lebanese “girl” whom he eventually loses to her own dreams of becoming a belly dancer.

The three women are interlinked in their own aims, for which they harness their male counterparts. El-Barri never gives them the same vitality and presence as the men; they act as reflections of the men’s carnal desires and weaknesses.

The book takes an unexpected turn when Hussein suddenly gets involved with British intelligence and we discover the heroes travelling from one side of Europe to the other, meeting with strangers and encountering enemies and friends together in a final scene that takes place on New Year’s Eve in Italy.

Now and then, Ibrahim seems to step into the minds of his friends, describing their intentions, feelings and many intimate details that are not always warranted by his closeness to them, giving the impression that he not watching but authoring their lives.

El-Barri’s writing style and language is both accessible and captivating. Yet it is difficult to keep track on what is actually happening and what is only taking place in Ibrahim’s mind. Possibly in an attempt to mix reality with fantasy, the book jumps from the past to the present unexpectedly, setting a fast pace and rush of events only to land on the next page in a slow, hot morning on a long trip from Cairo to Assiut.

Sexual themes run throughout the book from beginning to end. Ibrahim and Hussein have an obsession with women and attempt —it appears —to sleep with every woman they meet. The portrayal of the failure of dreams in the liberal West set against the delusions of a conservative Egypt pushing them away leaves the reader bewildered as to whether location and country is ultimately of consequence to the characters.

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