The many meanings of sabil

Heba Hendawy, Tuesday 17 May 2022

Reem Bassiouney, Fountain of the Drowning, trans. Roger Allen, Cairo: Diwan, 2022, pp513

Reem Bassiouney

Reviewing Reem Bassiouney’s novel The Fountain of the Drowning in English is an intriguing task. For perhaps the first time in response to a book, I feel helpless and constrained. Set in the early 19th century in Cairo, the novel is beautifully translated by Roger Allen, but there is no way to convey the beauty of the word sabil, with its many poignant connotations throughout the novel. It has a myriad of meanings in Arabic and the brilliant novelist skilfully uses it to communicate a message of spiritual and material deliverance though her characters. Sabil Al-Ghariq, as the book is called in the original Arabic, refers to a spring that quenches the thirst of passersby, but it is also the protagonist Hassan’s path to safety and honour, closely tied up to his love for Galila. It is also self acceptance he, the descendent of a slave, eventually arrives at, but it is also a special form of salvation and the way of God, taken by “those from whose hearts we have plucked all vanity”.

For Daisy, the small, humpbacked British teacher – an orphan – the metaphorical sabil that is Egypt offers far better opportunities, while for Galila, the heroine, it is rather more than the way home to happiness ever after. At a time when Egypt is strained by immense debts to Britain, Galila is constrained by societal stereotypes and accusations. Her revolutionary spirit will not abide ignorance or lack of freedom, and that is how she deviates from the path of convention to obtain and give her fellow Egyptian women an education, defying the view that religion prohibits women from learning. She seeks refuge in the presence of Sheikh Mohamed Abdu, whose words pave the way for her: “Be assured that you will never arrive without movement.” She realises then that the problem is genuinely with human beings and not the faith. Her people can read and write but their minds could not comprehend. And so, shunned by her family, Galila works as a teacher and a writer. Later, she is assaulted by a supposed proponent of freedom who is actually only after sensual pleasures. Seeking wine and an unsolicited kiss, he sheds his veil of morality as he threatens her, but she is firm: “I am not afraid.” Nonetheless the incident makes her question her choices, though she eventually remembers her supportive uncle’s words: “If we stand firm we will win.”

This mysterious novel intertwines a legendary tale of the folk hero Shater Hassan and a dove that bewitched him with a saga of another Hassan and another dove: Galila. In the shadow of the love story, a very sensitive episode of Egyptian history – that of the impending British occupation and the struggle against it, going in the sabil of freedom – is discussed. Galila, for me, can be a symbol of Egypt having to endure ignorance and oppression then finding true love and care among her people, represented by Hassan, her servant who becomes her saviour. As Egypt insists on her rights so does Galila, whose name in Arabic denotes dignity. Bound to a very special relationship with a Sufi sheikh, for his part, Hassan has his soul refined and his path cleared in a mystical atmosphere. The message to him and to Egyptians rallying around the Urabi Revolution is clear: “If you fear drowning, then you will surely drown.”

*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 May, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

Short link: