The girl who would 'never miss out on the dawn'

Hala Halim , Friday 25 Jan 2019

Marking the fourth anniversary of the assassination of the activist Shaimaa El-Sabbagh, Hala Halim revisits Haggag Hassan Oddoul’s novel dedicated to her

Shaimaa El-Sabbagh
Shaimaa El-Sabbagh at El-Tabia, Alexandria, winter 2014. (Photo: Haggag Oddoul)

“The flower-bearing martyr” and Hypatia: two of the appellations that Shaimaa El-Sabbagh (1983-2015), the Alexandrian socialist activist, poet, and folklorist, acquired after she was assassinated in Cairo in 2015, on the eve of the anniversary of the 2011 Revolution, while bearing roses in tribute to that event’s martyrs.

A new epithet would attach itself to El-Sabbagh with the publication of Egyptian Nubian writer Haggag Hassan Oddoul’s Kadisa. The dedication of this novel reads:
“To our daughter, friend and colleague Shaimaa El-Sabbagh, who considered us a father and a mother to her, so we gave her the name kadisa, meaning cat in Nubian. We consider you a martyr of God.
Haggag and Hoda Oddoul”

Shaimaa El-Sabbagh
The cover of Haggag Oddoul's novel Kadisa

Years earlier, El-Sabbagh had dedicated her collection of poems to various friends, family members, and friends who had become family. The collection, ‘Ala Dahr al-Tazkara (On the Back of the Ticket; an expanded edition was reprinted posthumously by her friends in 2015), is written entirely in Egyptian colloquial Arabic. El-Sabbagh’s series of dedications puns on the collection’s imagery of public transport--tram, metro and train. Thus her dedication to Oddoul and Oddoula (the Nubian novelist’s moniker for his wife):
“Papa Haggag and Mama Hoda
Oddoula and Oddoul, your home is my heart’s garage.”

Beyond the dedication, Oddoul (b. 1944) pays homage to El-Sabbagh through a female character loosely modelled on her, Kadisa, who gives this panoramic novel its title. More significantly, Kadisa thematically dialogues with certain preoccupations of El-Sabbagh’s: the vernacular--used here to cover both her decision to write in Egyptian colloquial and her work on folklore--as well as an anti-sectarian strain in some of her poems that thematize interfaith relations.

A multi-generational historical novel in 288 pages, Kadisa (Dar El-Ein, 2015) unfolds primarily between Marseille and Alexandria. The two locales are apt for the novel’s theme of a cosmopolitanism between the South and North of the Mediterranean with a broadly humanist resonance, in contradistinction to religious fanaticism. Kadisa opens with the Seventh Crusade led by Louis IX in the thirteenth century. An unlikely era in which to encounter cosmopolitanism, it is, in the context of Alexandria specifically, particularly original.

Shaimaa El-Sabbagh
Shaimaa El-Sabbagh and Haggag Oddoul. (Photo: courtesy of Haggag Oddoul)

The choice of the era flies in the face of what I have elsewhere critiqued as the dominant account of Alexandrian cosmopolitanism that favors all things European in the city by aligning the heterogeneity of modern colonial Alexandria with the city’s Hellenistic period seen as a Golden Age. That long-standing account, in the process, overlooks the centuries from the Arab conquest all the way to the arrival of Napoleon, as well as the post-Suez city. An extensive summary of Kadisa is due here as it has not yet available in English, although it is hoped that a translation would be undertaken soon.

The first protagonist, Claude de Victor, or Claude I, a scion of one of Marseille’s aristocratic families whose fortune comes from vineyards and a commercial fleet, joins the Crusade with fervor. When the Crusade is defeated in Egypt, Claude I, suffering mainly from a blow to the right cheek that leaves a permanent mark, tries to escape by swimming towards a boat. He senses the presence of female marine maidens he had first encountered while frolicking in the sea off Marseille. Back then, his mother had warned him against them, but Claude I finds the creatures benign. And indeed, off the Egyptian shore they send him messages encouraging him to fight for dear life and intimating that he has a mission to fulfil.

The Muslim fisherman who rescues Claude I in full knowledge that he is a Crusader, explains that his act is the duty of humans towards fellow-humans. When asked about his name, he offers only, “Human.” Taken as prisoner of war and then released, Claude I returns to Marseille repentant for the Muslim blood he has shed and comes to realize that “his mission is to instill love and peace between the two shores of the Mediterranean, between Christians, Muslims and Jews.”

Claude I inscribes “Human” on a portrait of the Egyptian fisherman he paints, and places it beside the portrait of himself he had commissioned before his departure on the Crusade. He converses with the Maghrebi Muslims of Marseille, from whom he picks up Arabic, and with the Jews of the city, learning from both communities about their religious beliefs. When his behavior raises eyebrows, Claude I responds that, “God created us different,” and that the origins of Marseille itself are multiethnic. He dies after writing a memoir in which he attests that good and evil exist equally among the three monotheistic communities and that the enemy of the Mediterranean is “the hate-mongers on either shore.” He calls on “the good on both sides to cooperate” and wills his family to “exploit its fortune in consolidating love and mutual interests among the sides of the Mediterranean.”

Generations later, a descendant of Claude I’s is so identical to his ancestor--down to a birthmark on the right cheek--that he is named Claude II. A humorist and womanizer, he acquires the name Claude the Corpulent on account of his gourmandize. Yet he imbibes the message in Claude I’s memoir, and accordingly invites Arabs and Jews into his chateau in a Marseille, now riven with commercial competition, that has marginalized these communities. He goes on an exploratory trip to Barcelona and Ceuta, during which he bears letters from Arabs and Jews living in Marseille to relatives in both countries.

Following the example of St. Francis of Assisi and having spent a spell studying Arabo-Islamic thought and the history of ancient Alexandria, the figure of Hypatia capturing his imagination, Claude the Corpulent decides to visit Egypt. He occupies an old house with frescoes, one of which depicts the Mediterranean and the Pharos, at the main intersection of Ptolemaic Alexandria. Mixing with all classes and befriending Greeks, Copts and Jews, he heeds the two latter communities’ complaints about growing intolerance.

Claude the Corpulent’s sketching of the ruins and consorting with the almehs might at first sight appear to be stock Orientalist pursuits. On the other hand, his love affair with the “coppery” dancer Basbousa shows up the objectification in Gustave Flaubert’s (in)famous encounter with Kuchuk Hanem and marks a shift in Claude the Corpulent’s perception of intercultural relations.

Granted, it is Claude who narrates to Basbousa, who is illiterate, the history of her city, the story of Hypatia moving her to tears. But their relationship is depicted as one of mutual exchange of sensual pleasure; the marine maidens even reappear to signal their approval when the couple go for an early morning swim. And the novel does give voice to Basbousa’s subjectivity when she explains to Claude the Corpulent that dance is the language through which she expresses her emotions and understands herself. Basbousa chooses not to inform Claude of her pregnancy when he decides to return to his wife in Marseille, and the almehs give her blue-eyed daughter the name Faranja (derived from Frank). Now replete with her “grand passion,” Basbousa retires from public performances, dancing only in private with her daughter.

Back in Marseille, Claude the Corpulent, much like his ancestor, sets about creating a cosmopolitan project. He begins to pen a memoir and proposes to the city's intellectuals, including a Jew and an Arab, the formation of a group called Knowledge and Peace, tasked with dispelling the mutual ignorance of each side of the Mediterranean about the other. Alexandria, “in its enlightened Golden Age,” would be a model. In something of a nascent cosmopolitan curriculum, three figures would be emblematic of the pursuit of “rationality, love and compassion”: Ibn Rushd (Averroes), Rabelais, and Maimonides. As he is dying, he regrets his ignorance of “Buddhism, Hinduism and the religions of Black peoples.”

Claude the Corpulent has his final meal on the rooftop of his chateau, overlooking the Mediterranean. He dies while a female servant to his right reads Galileo to him in French, a male servant to his left reading out Ibn Rushd in Arabic. His funeral cortege is accompanied by people “of every color and kind” and all classes of society, in a celebration of his life.

More generations pass before Claude III is born, bearing the birthmark of his two ancestors. Like them attuned to interfaith/interethnic relations, which raises eyebrows among fanatic clergy, he is vain of his looks and given to carousing on the town. When he and a friend are attacked on one such evening, Claude III kills the gang’s leader who turns out to be a Muslim. Consumed by remorse, he tries to drown himself, amid the concerned marine maidens who urge him to live to fulfil his mission. Claude III is saved by a fisherman, Piaf, whose wife identifies herself as insna (feminine for human). He then travels to Alexandria, where he finds that interfaith tolerance has receded since his two ancestors’ sojourns, and the city, including the almehs’ quarter, is less radiant.

Things look up when, during a stroll in the market, Claude III meets a young, tomboyish, daredevil fishmonger, whom a Nubian woman gave the name Kadisa. She dubs him al-Faransisi (the Frenchman), and they instantly fall in love. Against resistance to their inter-religious alliance, the couple marry after Claude III’s conversion to Islam, although Kadisa respects his undiminished faith in Christianity and accompanies him to mass. Various plot twists and turns ensue, involving a jealous rich young woman in love with Claude III and Islamist fanatics who disclose that he is uncircumcised and then attack his house. Kadisa’s milk brother Hamido, a fisherman and fishmonger, is murdered as he defends the besieged couple who flee to Damietta. There they have twins, Hamido (II) and Safiyya, before Claude III has to flee to Marseille with his infant daughter who looks European.

Hamido II, who bears the birthmark on his right cheek, is likewise visited by the marine maidens. When, on reaching the age of reason, he travels to Marseille to meet his father and sister, now renamed Sophie, he is saved from drowning by the son of Piaf the fisherman who’d rescued his ancestor. Hamido falls in love with his sister’s best friend, Yvonne, whose family is strongly prejudiced against Muslims and Jews. Mirroring his parents’ romance, Hamido’s rouses the ire of Christian fanatics and violence follows, so that he and Yvonne marry in secret and, eluding a siege, flee to Alexandria. Their voyage is accompanied by the approving marine maidens.

The novel’s most extended metaphor for Mediterranean cosmopolitanism are the marine maidens. Generally referred to as “huriyyat al-bahr,” they are perceived by Claude I and his descendants as “tayyibat” (kindly; benign); these “‘azrawat” (virgins) instill in those who witness them “a vocation/mission” (“risala”) to carry out; sense that Claude II will play a “humanist role”; and bless the unions across the South and North of the Mediterranean understood as “a sea of love, not a sea of hatred.”

As such, they would be the equivalent of Greek mythology’s nereids, in contradistinction to sirens. The Arabic text uses different terms to render evil female water spirits: jinniyat al-bahr, whom Claude I’s mother suspects will call, bewitch and either abduct or drown her son, are clearly sirens. When Hamido II recognizes the goodness of these huriyyat he contrasts them with “naddahat al-bahr,” that is, the evil female spirit of the sea--the malevolent naddaha being part of Egyptian folklore--which he says resembles “naddahat al-nahr,” meaning the evil female spirit of the river, the latter being the only one recognizable to his Upper Egyptian stepfather.

The reference to the river may be a submerged nod towards Nubian myths about the inhabitants of the river who are divided into evil and good spirits, as represented in some of Oddoul’s other literary texts. These include Layali al-Misk al-‘Atiqa (translated into English under the title Nights of Musk: Stories from Old Nubia) and the related play “Nas al-Nahr” (The People of the River).

In tacitly appealing to the Nubian lore in his other texts, Oddoul adds a layer to the interweaving of North and South that Kadisa performs, aligning marine (Mediterranean) with riverine (Nilotic) mythologies.

Let me note that Nivin El Asdoudi, professor of English literature at Alexandria University and an expert on Nubian literature, gave a presentation titled “The Cosmopolitan Nereids: The Nereid Myths and Haggag Oddoul's Kadisa” at the American Comparative Literature Association 2017 Meeting in the Netherlands, although I unfortunately missed it.

In every generation, the novel represents both fundamentalist and tolerant characters in each of the two cities. As Kadisa unfolds, the mirroring of these dualities in the South and North of the Mediterranean is accompanied by an increasing ethnic intermingling between the two shores. This is seen particularly in kinship lines: half-siblings whose blood in one line of descent mingles South and North (Hamido II and his siblings Kadisa bears when she marries an Upper Egyptian man after Claude III leaves for France); and the illegitimate female offspring of Claude the Corpulent and Basbousa, called either Faranja or Faransa.

Another figuration of interethnic relations the novel uses forcefully is the birthmark that some descendants of the de Victor family are born with in contradistinction to circumcision. Kadisa puts up a vigorous fight when the midwife visits to perform female genital mutilation (FGM) on her as a young girl. She wins the day and is taunted about it by disgruntled members of her community when she falls for Claude al-Faransisi. He, in turn, though he converts to Islam to marry her, only pretends to have undergone circumcision. Whereas circumcision and FGM are mandated marks of ethnic belonging and closed community boundaries, the birthmark on the right cheek of the three Claudes, as well as Hamido, is nonnormative. Even though it may allude to the Gospels’ “whosever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also,” it skips generations to serve as a signifier of an interethnic calling, the assumption of agency in a cosmopolitan vocation.

The portion of the narrative on Kadisa is arguably the most vibrant: it breathes life into the fictionalized Shaimaa; simultaneously, Shaimaa as channeled here charges the novel with her vitality. The novel is written in a quite accessible Modern Standard Arabic, in keeping perhaps with its marked didacticism. With Kadisa’s entry, the dialogue shifts to Egyptian colloquial, as if giving voice to El-Sabbagh’s devotion to it in creative writing and folkloric documentation. What is more, Kadisa, whose winsome coltishness bears a physical resemblance to El-Sabbagh, displays the gift of the gab, racy idioms and folksy wit that her activist model attested in many a rousing slogan she coined at rallies.

If to me the 2011 Revolution had seemed to appeal to the "much-frayed reservoir of syncretic folk practices" by reproducing “a politicized moulid”--or nativity festival for a saint or religious figure--El-Sabbagh similarly identified “Forms of Folklore in the 25th of January Revolution.” In a presentation by that title at a Ministry of Culture conference in 2012, El-Sabbagh adduced the communal spirit of the revolution as “part of our popular/folk culture,” and specifically cited the zaar (exorcism ritual) performed, semi-mockingly, by the revolutionaries and the slogans adapting traditional lyrics “despite the difference in cultures between these [cities], but this is folklore, with its flexibility and simple capacity for accessibility.” She went on to address a specific aspect of “our literary folklore”--on which she had done much ethnographic work--namely the lament (‘adid). In this context, she took issue briefly with the assumption that the lament is confined to women, and quoted verses in this mode on such themes as ill-fate and imprisonment.

El-Sabbagh was to critically revisit gender in relation to the lament in what seems to be the final article she wrote before her assassination, titled “The oppression of woman in heritage between birth and death.” Extricating the misogyny in a series of quotations from folklore--proverbs, lullabies, ballads, and laments--she astutely remarks that even in instances where daughters are valued for the laments and dirges they perform for their parents, this is based on an understanding of masculinity that prohibits sons from weeping, an activity seen as natural to women. She concludes that “socio-economic conditions” determine “woman’s position and status,” constituting “unwritten laws” that can only change with the “development, maturity and consciousness raising of society.”

El-Sabbagh had obtained a diploma from the Higher Institute for Folk Arts in Cairo and had done some research towards a MA thesis, according to her colleague Ali Dawoud. Kadisa gives fictional flesh to a local aspect of El-Sabbagh’s turn to the vernacular, her folkloric research in Alexandria.

That Kadisa is a fishmonger in Anfoushi--one of Alexandria’s oldest neighborhoods associated with fishermen and dockyards, in Bahari to the West--is not an arbitrary setting, nor is the fact that she lives in the nearby El-Tabia area of that neighborhood (incidentally, where Basbousa had lived). These aspects cue us in to El-Sabbagh’s fieldwork on the folklore of fishing communities. In a short ethnographic study titled “Marriage in Bahari Area in Former Times”--graciously shared with me by her friend the Human Rights lawyer Sayyed Abou El-Ela-- El-Sabbagh uncovered virtually dead traditions to neutralize black magic as in sprinkling seawater in the room where the bride is decked out for the wedding, and in men from the bridegroom’s party wrapping a fishing net under their clothes in hopes that it will catch evil spells.

El-Sabbagh was fascinated by the Tabia area, of which she took many photos, on one occasion in the company of Oddoul, who himself had served as an informant in a different study of hers on traditional alcoholic beverages. The novelist serves up further ethnographic detailing, as in folk martial arts--“fighting Alexandrian-style”--or, for that matter, Hamido whose name alludes, if slightly anachronistically, to a local urban myth about a fitiwwa (strongman; sometimes a thug).

More pertinently, Oddoul refracts the nautical theme towards contemporary concerns, within the novel’s broader riposte to ethnocentrism and fanaticism in our times. The omniscient narrator remarks about Hamido II’s voyage to Marseille on an unseaworthy boat:

“He headed for Marseille in a wintry, cold and rainy December. The boat carried twenty young men whose goal was not trade but work in Marseille and other cities of the Frankish North. Poverty and unemployment have risen in in the countries of the South ruled by despots who have corrupted, impoverished and visited destitution on them. Marseille and other Frankish ports have become the refuge and salvation for these desperate men.... They flock to Marseille although they are aware that it no longer desires more Arabs or non-Arabs, and that the Arabs who work there often complain about their unjust treatment by the French of Marseille.”

The passage is a projection on today’s crisis of refugees and migrants on whom European policies are “just building a cemetery in the Mediterranean,” as the Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat once put it. The migrant crisis was not beyond El-Sabbagh’s ken either: she had done solidarity work with Syrian refugees in Alexandria, according to Abou El-Ela. Yet, Oddoul’s nautical theme is of a liberal hue somewhat different from El-Sabbagh’s socialist, internationalist orientation.

The South-North mirroring of the fishermen--the Egyptian who rescues Claude I and the Piaf family who rescue his descendants--and their self-designation as “human” spell Mediterranean humanism. The redemptive potentiality of nautical hospitality here speaks to the explanation that Pietro Bartolo, a medical doctor who treats migrants on Lampedusa, offers for the support that the Italian islanders have given: “fishermen accept always, anything that comes from the sea.”

If Kadisa’s cardinal theme of Mediterranean cosmopolitanism focuses primarily on religious tolerance, interfaith relations are also a theme present in El-Sabbagh’s poetry collection. The opening poem, “Tram ticket” (2005), closes with the following stanza:

“When the tram passed in front of the church
he remembered his beloved, Mariam
and recited the opening chapter of the Qur’an for her.”

In a poem titled “Quddas al-Duhr” (Midday Mass), El-Sabbagh appeals to Christian imagery to figure social oppression:

“I am the girl forbidden
from attending Christian religion classes
and the Sunday mass
although I witnessed Jesus’ crucifixion
in the Alexandria railway station
in broad daylight
so that even the windows were open
as the blood raced the cars on the asphalt”

In this poem written in 2008, the speaker, “the girl forbidden from love / in the squares,” stands “in the middle of the street” and gathers up “all the stars in the sky one by one / the sweat of vendors / the voice of beggars” cursing those who condoned “the crucifixion of Jesus naked / in the thronged square.” The poem closes with: “I, the girl forbidden from saying no / will never miss out on the dawn.”

Hala Halim, an Associate Professor of Comparative Literature and Middle Eastern Studies at New York University, is the author of Alexandrian Cosmopolitanism: An Archive (Fordham University Press, 2013)

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