Book Review: Saida... Slavery... Middle Eastern style

Ossama Lotfy Fateem , Tuesday 28 Sep 2021

Writer Shahinaz El-feky was very clear that her novel is a fictional work based on historical events, but once the reader begins reading it, he or she gets the impression that El-Feky was writing a piece of history in 'Saida: Malhamet el Eshq we alhorreya.'

Book Cover
Saida, book over

The main theme is slavery in the 19th century, and the location is in Sudan mostly but the writer took us to Egypt, Greece and Turkey as well through her characters that travelled there. 

When bringing historical character in a novel the story becomes interesting instantly; General Gordon the British ruler of Sudan, Khedive Ismael of Egypt, the Ottoman Sultan, Mohamed El-Mahdi, the leader of the Mahdi revolution in Sudan, are all present in the novel. We see them as humans, their personalities are analyzed by the writer and how the political events affect them at a personal level and the other characters in the novel. General Gordon is the most interesting among them all since the contemporary reader probably knows very little about him. 

The writer describes the general as an arrogant British officer, who have problems performing sexually due to an injury. El-Feky highlighted his mockery of the Mahdi revolution; they believed that their leader was the chosen one, sent by God to end the misery on Earth. According to religious beliefs, El-Mahdi’s mere existence meant that the end of the world was about to occur, which was the main reason for his sarcasm of those fools who believed they knew the timing of the world's end. He was killed by the rebels he mocked.

Saida, a beautiful black girl makes an appearance in the first chapter. The writer describes her beauty with great details. Her beauty is simply magic, and the reader falls in love with both the woman and the character. A fighter, an African version of Amazon women, with features and a body that men would die for,  she was raped as a child, swore to learn combat, seduced the man whom she loved into marriage, then eventually her tribe was crushed in a war with another tribe and she was sold to slavery. The fact that tribes fought each other to sell the losing tribe to slave traders was a common practice at the time. Something that is rarely talked about nowadays; nobody wants the shame or the guilt that their ancestors committed. 

A good part of the novel takes place in a slave caravan from Sudan to Egypt. The author reveals that most of the population in both Egypt and Sudan refused the abolition of slavery. They thought it was a way of life, and the Islamic religion did not abolish it hence God himself wants slavery to exist. On the other hand the novel reveals the plot of the British Empire in using slavery as an excuse to undermine the Egyptian authority whether in Egypt or in Sudan.

It was among the tools used to prevent Egypt from getting its independence. Their first tool was swamping Egypt in debts using Khedive Ismael's ambition to develop his country to make it comparable to European countries.   

The fictional characters are numerous, from a Sudanese slave trader to a Jewish jeweler, an Italian Jewish postman stationed in Sudan, El-Feky was able to describe their backgrounds, the way they became who they are and made most of the events evolving around them a real epic story. 

After describing some of the horrors of slavery in a non-graphic way, Saida questions God’s wisdom in creating or accepting injustices, why he created the strong and the weak, the healthy and the ill and why doesn’t he interfere in establishing peace instead of war, in brief why did he create humans in the first place.

The answer came in the words of a mystic figure that showed up in one of the stops of the slaves’ caravan: “He created them so that they get the chance to know him, once they know him they will love him, He simply created them because he loves them.”  A believer’s answer to the most complicated existentialist questions. He stated that some things are understood by sight, others by insights. Slavery and other injustices are not forgotten by the creator they are just dealt with at a different level that requires clarity, not all humans possess such transparency. The writer shrewdly leaves each reader to reach his/ her own answer regarding the sin of slavery.

El-Feky managed to craft a few love stories within the novel. One between Saida and her husband who died defending her against slave traders, another between the Italian Jew and the daughter of Jewish merchant, even though both were of the same religion Arabs do not let their daughters marry foreigners even if they shared the same religion. Arab Jews shared the same values of societies they lived in despite wanting to create their own country in Palestine. The writer showed some of the arguments that the merchant had with his fellow travellers in the caravan. He was simply defending the rights of the Jews to establish their own country even if it meant kicking out the Palestinians out of their land. 

On a parallel line, the writer showed the pressures that the Ottoman Sultan was under to “sell” Palestine to the Zionist movement and his stern refusal of such a humiliating offer. According to the novel the cost was the eventual destruction of the Ottoman Empire. 

Without giving up the novel’s surprising conclusion, freedom from slavery if coming through the British Empire was not always accepted by those enslaved. Some saw it as a plot and if given by the occupying forces, they will not be able to keep that freedom. They have to be strong enough to earn it.

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