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Book review: Historical Egyptian figures back to life and rewriting the past

'Damned' by Egyptian writer in which imagination is interwoven with historical personalities not events

Reuters, Sunday 25 Aug 2013
Ihab Qassem
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Mal'oon(Damned) by Ihab Qassem, Beirut: Dar Al-Farabi Publishing, 2013. 189 pp

In the novel "Damned", the novelist Ihab Qassem interweaves imagination with history that is present with its personalities not its events. The reader follows a part of the Egyptian struggle against the British occupation through the artiste Taheyya Carioca and Anwar Sadat the army officer who was expelled from military service in the forties then afterwards he became a president.

Carioca succeeds in smuggling what she thought a political pamphlets carton in her car while traveling from Cairo to Alexandria but Sadat reveals to her that the carton is full with explosives. She drives the car and also smuggles Sadat, hiding him in a back seat. She advises him, "if anybody asked you who you are? Say that you're Idrees the butler" in reference to his dark skin and being skinny.

Qassem's novel, which is his third book, does not develop according to a chronological timeline but it is rather a novel of ideas that rely on making the reader gasping after the plot or one storyline. It depends on flexibility in tackling different eras and recalling incidents and events that the protagonists did not witness but it kept recounted from one generation to another until it was carved in their memory.

In some chapters, the events goes back to the rise of Mohammed Ali's state in the early Nineteenth century and his Wars in Al-Hejaz, when he sent his son Ibrahim leading an army to the city of Dir'iya, capital of Al-Hejaz at the time. The memory of what they did in Dir'iya was a source of bitterness for Sheikh Al-Birak – one of the followers of the Egyptian writer Abbas Al-'Aqqad – who keeps relating to his son Ghazi all the time what "they did to us in Dir'iya" to the extent that Ghazi, who saw his father cry for the first time, felt that the tears were a "tattoo" transcending generations.

The novel starts with a speech delivered by the late president Gamal Abd-Al-Nasser, after the 1967 War, in which he acknowledged his responsibility for "An-Naksah" (The Setback), his readiness to abandon any official post and to join the people but the people refused and the streets were transformed into a "flood" insisting on steadfastness and fighting.

The novel records that this War made some Egyptians happy and among them Sheikh Bayoumi who prayed with a number of his friends "a thanking prayer because of the Tyrant Pharaoh's defeat, his god and his army", thus the protagonist wonders how "they thank God for the victory of Israel?"

The opinion of Sheikh Bayoumi was in harmony with his guest Ghazi Al-Birak who was surprised with the Egyptians holding to Abd-Al-Nasser and describes the people as "stupid who relish humiliation and despicableness until defeat" and considers Egyptian soldiers "the Pharaoh army" and describes war victims as "heathens".

Bayoumi, who was at his youth "exceptionally gifted" in sculpture and was able to sculpt any Pharaonic face but stopped doing so and became a hardliner who believes that "the world today is living in a "Gahiliyyah" (Ignorance) which resembles the one which Islam rose amidst or darker. Everything around us is Ignorance, people's perceptions and beliefs, customs and traditions, their sources of knowledge, Arts and Literature, legislations and laws and even what many consider Islamic culture, Islamic Philosophy and Islamic thought is also a product of Ignorance" and other ideas which he was copying from          " Signposts on the Road" by Sayyid Qutb.

In counterpoint to this hard-line stance, the novel records the tolerance of Sheikh Emad Ad-Deen Al-Rif'aee, a man who loves life and the Great Sheikh Muhyiddin Ibn 'Arabi (1164 -1240), the renowned Andalusian Sufi mystic and philosopher.

The novelist dedicated the novel to "everyone who seeks freedom… to Egypt's righteous martyrs" while its back cover bore a commentary by the Egyptian critic Mustapha Bayoumi that says "the freedom of thought and creativity faces a real danger when the extremists rule and everyone should stand together against inquisition courts and infidelity accusations platforms which we may all fall by its infernal arsenal…"Damned" is the era in which the Ignorant becomes predominant, who are living outside time and History and we must resist". He adds "Resistance or the Flood".

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