Between worlds

Mona Anis , Saturday 28 May 2011

The publication of Youssef Rakha's first novel Kitab al-Tugra (Book of the Sultan's Seal) coincided with the beginning of the Egyptian popular uprising on January 25.

I am not sure whether this coincidence is fortunate or unfortunate, since a historical event of such wide import as the Egyptian uprising will naturally overshadow the appearance of any new novel, no matter how accomplished. Nevertheless, it could be argued that the uprising itself, especially since it largely took place in central Cairo, an area which Rakha calls in his novel the "Gate of the World" ( Bab al-Dunya in Arabic), vindicates much that is included in this particular book, in large part a chronicle of the decay of the city and a call to arms.

This is also a coincidence that befits the Egyptian capital, itself founded as a result of a historical coincidence. In the book's prologue ( Khutbat al-kitab in Arabic), Rakha mentions this, quoting the words of Egyptian historian Ibn Iyas (1448-1522) from his famous book Bada'i al-Zuhur fil Waqa'i al-Duhur.

According to Ibn Iyas, the Fatimid Caliph Al-Muizz li- Din Allah, who founded Cairo in 969, ordered astrologers and fortune-tellers to find the most fortunate place and time to lay the city's foundation stone. A complicated system of ropes and bells was devised to send a signal to the builders once the place and time had been decided, but a crow landed on one of the ropes, causing the bells to ring and the builders to lay the foundation stone before the appointed time. By then, it was too late for the astrologers to rectify the matter. However, they noted that the planet Mars ( Al-Qahir in Arabic) was in the ascendant at the time, and as a result the city was called Al-Qahira (the City of Mars of Rakha's title).

Also in the prologue to his novel, which imitates the style of Arab chroniclers like Ibn Iyas and Jabarti, Rakha sets out the content of his book:

From the prologue, readers will know that the story they are about to read is in the past tense and that it involves both first-person and third-person narrators. "Wanting to give the story some variety, five sections are narrated by Mustapha and three by an anonymous narrator," the prologue says.

Regarding what happens to Mustafa Nayif âorbaci, the protagonist and main narrator, we learn from the first chapter of the novel, entitled "From Dog's Alley to Dreams' Bridge," that he leaves home on 30 March 2007 feeling despondent and bereft, having decided once and for all to separate from his wife -- thus begins a labyrinthine journey through the thoroughfares of Cairo.

The author explains in the prologue that each of the novel's nine chapters deals with an event that takes place while Mustafa is wandering the city trying to make sense of external and internal disintegration. Attempts are made to bring together various partings and to find cohesion in materials having to do with flight and dispersal.

Each neighbourhood is described metaphorically, in order that it can be reclaimed for the narrative, as Rakha puts it in a recent interview. Thus, Dog's Alley (in Arabic, Darb al-Kalb ) and Dreams' Bridge ( Gisr al-Hilm ) are the names the author gives to the neighbourhoods of Maadi and Dokky, respectively, the former being the place where Mustafa lives with his wife and the latter the place where his parents' house is located and where he goes after leaving his wife.

Besides Maadi and Dokky, Mustafa's itinerary over the 21days covered in the novel includes seven other Cairo districts, each of which is given a metaphorical name. Thus, downtown Cairo is called the "Gate of the World," the beginning of the Alexandria Desert Road where the vast Carrefour supermarket is located is called "Khan of Secrets" ( Khan al-Sirr ), the desert on the outskirts of Giza is called "Desert Port" ( Mina al-Raml ), the area covering Madinat Nasr and Heliopolis up to Cairo airport is called the "Aeroplane's Playground" ( Hosh Tayara ), Zamalek is called the "Sea of Japan" ( Bahr al-Yaban ), the Muqattam Hills is called the "Hill of Trees" ( Kom Shagar ) and the October Bridge, linking Cairo to Giza, is called the "Dry Nile" ( Al-Nil al-Nashef ).

In each of these places, Mustafa, sometimes in the company of one of four male characters, colleagues at the newspaper he works for, has a harrowing experience, and each of his colleagues, by virtue either of madness or meanness, is capable of assuming different masks or guises.

In the fourth chapter of the novel, one of these characters takes the form of Mehmed VI Vahdeddin, the last sultan of the Ottoman Empire and 100th Caliph of Islam. Vahdeddin assigns Mustafa the task of finding one of seven lost manuscripts that together make up the complete text of the Surat Mariam from the Qur'an. These manuscripts were written by the sultan's father Abdulmecid, and they are among the few things that Vahdeddin took with him into exile. Mustafa finds a copy of one of the manuscripts in the novel's eighth chapter in the house of a woman with whom he has fallen in love. She is also the reason why he himself embarks on writing a treatise on eroticism.

In the novel's final chapter, narrated in the third person by an anonymous narrator, we learn of Mustafa's desire to become a professional calligrapher. He has drawn his nine itineraries through the city as three separate maps, and as he places these on top of each other he sees that they combine to form a shape like the seal of an Ottoman sultan.

In Rakha's words, "after each journey he makes over three weeks in Cairo, Mustafa âorbaci traces his route across or adjacent to the Nile. He draws with his eyes shut, in order to avoid the influence of reality. At the end, having renamed the relevant neighbourhoods the better to reclaim them for his story, he combines his drawings and ends up with a tugra, or sultan's seal."

A tugra is not only a seal, however, since the word can also mean a stylized drawing, often in the shape of a bouquet of flowers, in Arabic usage. There is much in Rakha's novel, with its anecdotes written in stylized prose, that resembles such emblematic bouquets.

Indeed, the inter-textual references in this thoroughly hybrid text are astonishing, and, rooted in the classical Arabic tradition of the literature of the criminal underworld and the maqamat, the book shares characteristics with the work of modern Arab writers like Emile Habibi and Yehia El-Taher Abdalla.

However, this is also a text that benefits from traditional and modern western culture. Rabelaisian in its satire and robust language, it also includes references to popular horror and zombie literature, notably to George Romero's 1968 film Night of the Living Dead. All this, and much more, is woven together in a magical realist style that injects things too strange for belief into the realistic setting of the novel.

Kitab al-Tugra : Gharaib al-Tarikh fi Madinat al-Marikh (Book of the Sultan's Seal: Strange Incidents from History in the City of Mars) is an outstanding first novel by an author who has a special ability to deal with modern and classical material, both Arab and western, with equal ease. One looks forward to further novels with eager anticipation.

A version of this article also appears in Al-Ahram Weekly newspaper



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