The Sawiris Award winner reviewed: The Saraswas' Epic

Mahmoud El-Wardani, Monday 10 Jan 2011

Ahmed Abul-Futuh's epic novel wins the Sawiris Cultural Award 2011. Reviewed by El-Wardani, winner of the Sawiris short stories collection award

Malhamat Al-Saraswa (The Saraswas’ Epic) 3 volumes, Ahmed Sabry Abul-Futuh, Cairo: Dar Merit, 2009-2010.

The debate surrounding the topic of the Egyptian and Arabic novel is unending, not only because of the variations in visions, forms and styles, and continued experimentations, but also – and this is where the ‘newness’ comes in – due to the non-traditional revival of classics which add to the modern works of fiction a whole new, interesting dimension.

 In The Saraswas’ Epic by Ahmed Sabry Abul-Futuh, the reader enjoys many aspects of classical literature: the language is proper but filled with common, yet highly artistic, idioms. The use of traditional chronology starting with the old and moving to the new gives the book a realistic quality, while the all-knowing narrator defends traditional values of honour.

Yet despite these traditional features, this piece is rare in the manner in which the author uses the best of the classics – both adding to it and enriching his writing through it. The first volume focuses on creating the characters, defining them and sympathizing with them, while giving similar attention to developing the geographic set in northern of Egypt – the stage of the unknown labyrinth in which this epic travels.

The overall theme revolves around the Saraswas, who come from the town of Sers El-Leyan. The Epic not only tells their story, but also the stories of the surrounding villages and towns, through which the author relates the history of the nation (without too much explanation or exaggeration). The story starts at a time before Mohamed Ali ruled Egypt (early 19th century), revealing the family’s saga as it was passed on from mother-to-son until it reaching the narrator. The Epic thus begins with Sheikh Moussa Al-Sersy, who was one of the 10 men who created the Egyptian representative body upon Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt. 

And so the writer sinks into history, taking upon himself the responsibility for recreating this complex historical moment, with all its details and shades, despite two centuries separating it from the present. Abul-Futuh, however, does not claim this to be a “historic” novel, in contrast to the many who borrow from history more than create around it. Yet, he is similarly successful in his use of the all-knowing narrator throughout, as befitting a generational epic par excellence. 

The Epic is the tale of Sheikh Moussa Al-Sersy and his grandchildren who leave their town and successfully kill the Turkish kashaf (the Ottomans’ appointee who collected taxes and was considered the local authority) who wanted Mariam, the most beautiful of Al-Sersy’s granddaughters. The family flees at night, escaping the search of the wali, (ruler of Egypt appointed by the Ottomans) hiding in the no-man’s-lands and pretending to be different people with different professions.

Abul-Futuh successfully uses the proper traditional language to express this world with much precision and imagination, creating memorable characters, especially among the female lineage. He is able to control the vast space and time used leading up to the death of the great grandmother, when the second volume starts.

This book continues to confirm that it matters little what form the writer chooses for his work, be it traditional, modern or classic. What truly makes the difference is how the writer represents his own vision, with all due respect to the experimentation taking place in other writings. The Sarswas’ Epic proves that classical writing is still open for modern, sustainable productions, particularly for a writer such as Abul-Futuh.

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