Al-Hareem (The Women) by Hamdy El-Gazzar, Sifsafa Publishing, Cairo, 2014, pp.
The newly-published novel Al-Hareem (The Women) is noteworthy not only because of its diversity and richness in regard to the contributions of different generations, but also for its originality as an extension of a long list of heritage novels.
The Women is Hamdy El-Gazzar’s third novel, following the previously published Black Magic and Secret Pleasures.
In The Women, El-Gazzar writes of a place made up of 18 women who shaped the childhood, adolescence and youth of the narrator. The novel explains that these women brought him both happiness and defeat as they took him by hand to experience life and the world.
It is difficult to summarise the novel as it is not exactly dependent on a plot, but rather separate portraits of these 18 women.
The author chose an ancient neighbourhood, deeply rooted in history, to be the centre stage for his novel. Tulun neighbourhood, which is adjacent to Ahmad Ibn Tulun Mosque, is crammed with old mosques, sabils (Water Dispensaries) and centuries-old shrines.
The portraits of the women in the novel start in the narrator's childhood and continue until his marriage. He initially portrays Rawheyya, Zubeida and Karima, and as the narrator ages he draws portraits of Batta, Iman and Ons. At every stage in the narrator's life a different cast of women surround him and shape his awareness.
The novel stands on the brink between surrendering to the spark of life and its sorrows and the virtue that the writer is keen to apply through a language that is free of elaboration.
El-Gazzar avoids falling into the trap of emotional involvement characteristic of much narration and provides a stunning work. Although each of the 18 women are nothing alike, all of them leave scars, wounds, delight or remnants of enchanting desire in the narrator's soul and body.
Another important aspect to the work is that the characters are unique and cannot be stereotyped. The mother, for example, is also portrayed as the wife of the narrator’s father. Thus, the threads of the novel are spread wide, entailing an abandonment of any central plot or story.
The women of El-Gazzar’s work come from myriad places. There are the women of Tulun, the girls of Sayeda Zeinab, and women of Japan who the narrator knew during university. The work tells us of different types of women as well: the licentious, the lovers, Coptic and Muslim women, and middle-class women who suppress their urges.
However, the greatest achievement lies precisely here, for again these women are not stereotypical. For instance, Ons isn't just a stereotypical professional prostitute. She is a woman whose features and details differ from anything the reader anticipates in such a profession.
Overall, The Women splices together scattered threads throughout 200 pages to weave together a comprehensive novel. While the women may not meet one another in the course of the novel's events, their existence, even if separate, is necessary to revealing the state of awareness of the narrator. The reader is ultimately exposed to a coherent work woven in one braid within a compact structure.