Of titans and kings

Nazek Fahmy, Monday 8 May 2023

Reem Bassiouney, Al Halawani: The Fatimid Trilogy (The Sicilian, the Armenian, the Kurd), Cairo: Dar Nahdet Masr: November, 2022. pp671


Functioning as both prequel and sequel to her other novels, Reem Bassiouney’s latest book – set in the years 1019-1167 – is woven around three nation builders of titanic import in Egyptian history: one Sicilian, one Armenian, and one a Kurd. Whether or not they are well known, none is of Egyptian origin but all three make a lasting impact on life in their adopted country during years rocked with foreign invasions, internal schisms, and insurrections.

The one-volume trilogy is the story of Jawhar Al-Sakelli, Badr Al-Gammali and Youssef Ibn Ayoub, the latter better known as Saladin. The characters, their battles and achievements are historically verifiable, but events are knotted in an aura of breathless whispers. They impart the matchless joy of myths and secrets unlocked, filled with the magic of past chronicles. Mystical allusions, facts and legends combine to dispel the fog of history.

The historical is cushioned by a medley of fictitious characters and at times is sidetracked by long discourses about the quest for God, for love or meaning. Even the most innocuous facts are fraught with questions expressed with lyrical ambiguity and aphoristic power, all contributing to a sense of timelessness in a time-rooted narrative.

Stone is the main legacy. While Cairo is built in order to replace Fustat as the capital, Al-Azhar Mosque is constructed in a bid to salute the Shia sect of the incoming North African invader. Conversely, the subsequent restoration and building of Sunni mosques is a clever attempt to reconcile and restore balance between the two Islamic sects. Unfortunately, however, the atmosphere of construction is also one of destruction. Torching, burning, plague and famine run parallel to the new structures going up. Greed, political whims and sectarian hostilities determine the fate of ordinary characters in a precarious world full of unmitigated betrayal and court intrigues. The facts are full of incongruity: gruesome public flayings and slayings, severed heads and decomposing bodies take up the same space as romantic longings and whiffs of paradise.

Stone may create an enduring monument, but it divulges a trajectory of human dreams, ambitions, sighs and groans, both factual and imaginary. The stories are of their time: abducted boys metamorphose into monstrous warlords, slavegirls turn into the most cherished of wives. The ever-present swordplay can suddenly and unflinchingly turn living, breathing men into gruesome streams of blood. Ruthlessness and brutality are the norm. So are the coffers of acquired wealth, which resound with dirhams and dinars in the thousands and glitter with emeralds and rubies.  

Al-Halawani (or “The Confectioner”) is a title with a pointed reference to the Fatimid era, for Egyptians owe their fancy confections to the Fatimids: fritters, qateyef and konafa dripping with syrup, breathtakingly beautiful sugar dolls and horsemen bursting with colour made for children’s delight during the moulid or the Prophet Mohamed’s anniversary, and many other sweets stuffed with exotic nuts and herbs date back to that time. (This culinary addition to indigenous culture is saluted with a glossary, deliciously provided at the end of the book). Beyond offering joys of the palette, the confections are the thread and motif which organically cements together this three-part narrative. Confections even take on a life of their own, becoming characters and animated players, at times impacting lives and events, miraculously transcending their fragile and crumbly life span, and surprisingly acquiring an existential dimension. Sugar dolls and horsemen are transformed not only into a passion, a survival ploy, but also eventually become the ethos, the soul of Egypt.

The historical confectioner is the grandson and namesake of the Sicilian but in the deft fingers of the author, he becomes a ubiquitous avatar, a myth, smoothly vanishing and reappearing from one era to the next and from one venue to the next.

And yet love conquers all. Each one of the three knots of events is eventually humanised by a fabulous romance, at the centre of which is a heroine representing indomitable womanhood. If men win through courage, military prowess and indefatigable will, they are never beyond being disarmed by the patience of the self-sacrificing and fairy-like devotion of a female. Women come in all shades. They may be saintly and self-denying or shrewish, conniving, and aggressive, but they share the melodies of a uniquely poetic literacy. Incredibly but repeatedly, reversals happen, the most ruthless of fighters become the gentlest of lovers, and the deformed body becomes the most sought after source of nuptial ecstasy.

Being about dynasties and time, the book has many converging and diverging threads. An overlap of past and present emerges as memories and realities phase into each other. At times the prose is high-flown, even hallucinatory, blurring time and space.

A joyride for the time-traveller that is nonetheless dense and at times even baffling, this narrative is not only a testimony to the richness and diversity of Egyptian history and culture, but also to its complexity, its admixture of races – from Africa, Asia and Europe – and its conflated beliefs and doctrines, its folklore from pagan sorcery, to indigenous Coptic to its mainstream Sunni and Shia doctrines.

Beyond fact and fiction, this is a spin that celebrates storytelling as a timeless and functional human activity worth undertaking for its own sake. Words weave together stories. Like confections, words are sweet — they melt in the mouth.


A version of this article appears in print in the 4 May, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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