This is essentially the question that Mehetab Allam tackles in her recently passed PhD thesis, which he dedicates to the issue of crossing obscure borders as portrayed in the works of novelist Mohamed Baraka.
Throughout his oeuvre – ranging from his most recent 2023 novel, Ice Heart Fi Al-Alam Al-Akhar (Ice Heart in the other World), to earlier works published as far back as 2005 – Mohamed Baraka has consistently examined the peculiar revelations arising from moving from one universe to the other.
In his novels Ashbah Broxel (Ghosts of Brussels) and Al-Fadiha Al-Italiah (The Italian Scandal), Baraka focuses on the issue of the “struggle of identities”.
According to Allam, in portraying the complex trips and choices of two Egyptian men who end up in the heart of Europe face to face with realities that contradict their long-held assumptions, Baraka has taken the issue of East-West squabble a few steps further than the established parameters laid out by early and mid-20th century Egyptian and Arab novelists, including those set in novels such as Tawfik Al-Hakim’s Asfour Min Al-Shark (A Sparrow from the East) and Tayeb Salih’s Moussem Al-Higrah Ela Al-Shamal (Season of Migration to the North).
In his thesis, Allam argues that the experiences of the second half of the 20th century and those of the early decades of the 21st century have reshaped the question of the struggle of identity beyond the colonial and immediate post-colonial frames so that now the questions of Islamophobia and radical Islamism figure prominently.
He suggests that the question of finding a middle ground between the two worlds, which figures prominently in the works of the novelists of the first half of the 20th century, has been overshadowed as the world has become much more obsessed with the question of migration and terrorist groups.
Similarly, Allam argues that Baraka’s take on the struggle of identities, as portrayed in his works of ‘migration,’ is in some ways also present in his novels that address the question of crossing the borders between life and death – and possibly backwards, as in the case of his Hannet El-Set (The Diva’s Inn).
He suggests that it is in this nexus between life and death and between East and West that Baraka posits the more profound questions of ‘self’ and ‘other.’
In sum, Allam suggests that the evolution of the question of life and death and the question of East and West – as displayed in Baraka’s works – reflects the evolution in examining the more profound questions of life and death and the clash of civilizations and tolerance.