Warathat Al El-Sheikh (El-Sheikh’s Family Heirs) Ahmed El-Qarmalawy (Cairo: Al-Dar Al-Masriah Al-Lubnaniah Publishing House), 2020
Family has always been a subject of interest for novelists. Many writers authored stories, imaginary or based on real events, about their families. The abundance of creativity and details in this subject makes the reader curious to return back in time and see how historical events affected the family members’ lives.
The narrator is normally part of the story, and this is what Ahmed El-Qarmalawy did in his latest novel, Warathet Al El-Sheikh.
The novel is intriguing from the go. The writer is being investigated by a police officer and making fun of his novel where a monkey is guarding a treasure kept by his ancestors in an unknown place, it was destined to be found by the seventh Mohamed in the family. Hence, all his cousins were named Mohamed. So far, it is a fairy tale laced with a hint of oppression that the writer might face, why else would he be in a police station? The treasure was described in the first chapter: seven containers full of gold.
The writer delves into the details about El-Sheikh, the great grandfather. He describes him as the descendent of the Prophet Mohammad, a humble man, people had the honour of kissing his hands when he appeared. The family was responsible for the cover of the Kaaba – the wholly site in Mecca. The writer described the parade briefly, the camels that carry the clothing of the Kaaba, the festivities that accompany the pilgrims’ parades. It is meant to be a documentation of a tradition that continued for nearly 500 years and a reminder that Egypt used to make and pay for the cover before Saudi Arabia became rich.
El-Qarmalawy inspects the lives of each member of the family; their work, positions, marriages, and adventures. The quest for the treasure becomes a background story barely ever noticed.
There are no specific story lines in the novel, just a narration of the life of many people that happen to be related by blood. Due to the many persons that appear in the novel, a second read and a chart are necessary if the reader finds it attractive enough to re-read.
The large number of characters leads to a superficial handling of each character, making up events they experience. The writer explains their thoughts and feelings, but the reader is constantly confused about them, trying to figure out who is who in the sequence of events.
The writer is well aware of this and he tries to remind the reader of minor details from previous pages to identify each person, before he builds on them towards the future of the family and the person.
This technique is not always successful, and it sometimes leads to losing interest. The reader may sift through the pages to get to the bottom of the story.
If this superficiality is true to most of the characters, Sedky Bek’s name stands up among them; he is the exception that proves the rule. The Sheikh’s eldest son is a character rarely covered in Arabic literature, an Egyptian supporting the British occupation forces in the early 20th century; working as a police officer, dedicated to his job, serving his masters and implementing their policies, reaching the high rank of Hekemdar – a rarely achieved rank for Egyptians at that time, and finally standing against the rebels during the 1919 Revolution.
Sedky Bek is an aggressive character, yet he always helped his family and acquaintances when they needed help. So his name was always associated with prestige, and even fear. His career plummeted when he was replaced by an English officer when Britain and the Ottoman Empire took opposite sides in WWI. Britain had to put a firm hand on the governmental apparatus and Sedky Bek was the victim. They assigned him as the head of the police station, which was a huge demotion for him.
The interesting part about Sedky Bek's character was his death on his way to visit the family house one day two years into the revolution. He found that the rebels established barricades to resist the British forces and prevent their tankers from entering the streets of Cairo. He got out of his car to yell at them to take down the barricades. He was shot by a British bullet and died.
El-Qarmalawy leaves it to the reader to decide whether Sedky Bek is a villain or a hero.
Putting the narrator’s life in the mix – he is one of the many grandchildren of El-Sheikh -- through the flash forward technique attracts the reader. This character has a straight line, the development is clear, following his ups and downs in his career, his love story, marriage and the eventual lack of interest in his wife, his passion for writing a novel about his family, the treasure quest, and finally his pursuit to immigrate to Australia.
The writer goes quickly through the modern political turmoil that occurred in Egypt in the past decade. That, in addition to the way he portraits the character, makes the reader relate to the narrator but does not have real sympathy for him.
The country suffered economically due to the political turmoil in its recent history and the idea of immigrating has been in the back of the mind of a good portion of Egyptians from various ages.
However, by writing the novel about his roots, family, and the mythical treasure, the author is rooting against the idea.
The novel was written in a classical way. The creativity is minimal. In other words, the reader may have read many similar stories before.