Book Review: A life journey linking the Israelites with their Arab cousins


Awraq Shamoon Al-Misri (“The Papers of Shimon the Egyptian”) by Osama Abdel-Raouf El-Shazli, Dar al-Ruwaq publishing, Cairo 2022 pp.623

It is an unknown part of history, at least for an Arab audience, except for what was mentioned in the Old Testament and the Holy Quran. In this lengthy novel, which comprises four books divided into eighty six papers or chapters, El-Shazli intertwines this narrative with the path of their cousins, the Prophet Ismail’s descendants.

He has invented a character by the name of Shamoon son of Zakhary, or Shamoon the Egyptian, who narrates his life through flashbacks, recording on papyrus “what I have witnessed with my own eyes or conveyed to me via trustworthy men.”

Shamoon is the son of Zakhary, the carpenter, and Romana, the only Egyptian who immigrated with the Israelites. Romana’s love for Zakhary drove her to watch and believe Prophet Moses’ miracle before the Pharaoh, which was viewed by the Egyptians as magic.

They marry, which is met with displeasure the Israelites. After the miracle of the parting the Red Sea, Shamoon starts recounting the hardships that the Israelites faced in Sinai and also God’s gifts to them, manna for example. In countless events, skeptics sow their suspicions and lack of faith among their brethren and express their desire to return to Egypt despite of the humiliation and oppression they suffered there.

Prophet Moses always uses Joshua ben Nun as a messenger to the Israelite Tribes such as their battle with and victory over the Giants. Zakhary marries Sulaf, Ashkol’s widow, much to the consternation of Romana, begetting a daughter they name Batia. After Prophet Moses goes to speak to God, the Israelites turn against Prophet Aaron and worship the Golden Calf forged by an Israelite named Al-Samri, who was a sculptor and the husband of Zakhary’s sister, Batsheva, from the jewellery they borrowed from Egyptians.

On the eve of this day, Zakhary, being a true believer motivated by his faith not his mind, feels that something most horrible will take place so he takes his family and travels to another place. Zakhary becomes acquainted with Arabs, who are the descendents of Prophet Ismail, headed by Sheikh Aber. Shamoon observes that the Arabs are very generous. After heavy rains fall, turning into floods, Shamoon and Arwa, Sheikh Aber’s granddaughter, are trapped and take refuge behind a rock for hours until the rains stop.

Upon Zakhary’s return to Prophet Moses, he finds that God commanded the Israelite believers to kill those who worshipped the Golden Calf. Sulaf commits suicide due to suffering from after suffering from symptoms of madness. Shamoon strikes up a friendship with Amir, who is a fisherman like his father and nine brothers. All the brothers are transformed by God into apes and die after their insistence on disobeying God’s order not to fish on the Sabbath. Thus, Amir moves and lives with Shamoon’s family.

After the return of the twelve spies, representing all the Israelite tribes, from their forty-day mission of scouting out the Land of Canaan (the Land of Milk and Honey), only two of them encourage the Israelites to invade this land; the majority of Israelites refuse. Prophet Moses informs them that God had decreed that the Israelites wander in the wilderness for forty years. At this very moment, Zakhary dies instantly of a broken heart for he yearned to enter the Holy Land.

On the eve of his death, he confides to his son that he always felt as a stranger among his brethren because of their incessant insubordination of Prophet Moses and his situation worsened when he married an Egyptian girl. In defiance to God’s decree, a rogue group of Israelites goes to attack the Canaanites and Shamoon follows them, leaving his mother and sister alone. Consequently, they are all slaughtered except Shamoon, who tried to warn the group’s leader due to a dream in which his father foretold him of this doomed expedition.

He runs with all his might until he is picked up by the tribe of Sheikh Aber, who informs him that the Israelites left the place they used to dwell in. He accompanies them in their annual journey to the Levant to sell and buy merchandise then go to Mecca to do the same and perform a pilgrimage.

The first observation Shamoon makes is to note the high degree of reverence Sheikh Aber’s sons, grandsons and granddaughters show him, kissing his hand and sitting at his feet. He compares this to the Israelites’ behaviour with Prophet Moses. Through this journey, Shamoon begins slowly to learn from Sheikh Aber the meanings of faith and how religion is not only confined to restrictions and forbidden acts as had been the case with the Israelites.

Moreover, Shamoon learns that mercy is also one of the main attributes of God. Arriving at Edom, Shamoon saves the life of Amr, one of Sheikh Aber’s grandsons and they leave with a hidden golden treasure partly owned by Shahbur, a renowned trader. Nabit, Sheikh Aber’s son, loses his arm and Amr is wounded when their caravan is attacked by Edomite knights. They leave the wounded in a city on the road to Mecca.

There is a question that keeps crossing Shamoon’s mind: why is he always facing a maze, even after leaving the Israelites?  The answer he reaches is that every man has to make a choice when confronted with crossroads and those who are unable to choose are the ones who are really lost.

Shamoon continues to make comparisons between the Israelites and the descendants of Ismail. For instance he finds that the Kaaba is a simple cuboid form without a tent, incense or the Holy of Holies like the one of Prophet Moses in Sinai. Another example is that Mount Arafa, where pilgrims talk to God without a prophet or priest, is unlike Mount Horeb (the site where Prophet Moses talked to God).

On seeing Arwa as a grown up girl, Shamoon wants to marry her for his heart has been attached to her since the flood incident. The two eventually do marry after several predicaments, begetting ten children.

Every now and then, Shamoon raises significant questions, like why the heart and the mind are always in engaged in incessant conflict? Why did the Pharaoh hate the Israelites so much while Egyptians were kind to them to the extent that they lent them their jewellery? Do trials and tribulations drive people to come into the fold of faith or drive them out of it? Why is Sabbath the day of worship and rest while it was not the same for their cousins, the Arabs?

A hidden struggle existed between two women; Tareefa, a pagan priestess, and Umm Iyas, a benevolent fortuneteller. The priestess convinces to the chieftain of the Khuzaa tribe, which was the custodian of Mecca – or Bacca, its name in ancient times – to bring forth a giant statue of Baal from the Levant to the Kaaba. Following this heinous crime, torrential rain pours on Mecca and floods it, driving Meccans to flee to the mountains. Here, Shamoon meets Umm Iyas, who seemingly does not leave until being sure that the priestess was dead in revenge to her deed.

On meeting Shahbur once again after years, Shamoon gives him the golden treasure, which contains twenty gold bullions each worth one thousand dinars. Shamoon gives up his entire share to Amr bin Dawma in order to prevent Laith, his cousin and Arwa’s brother, from selling liquor in Mecca. Shabur also gives up half his share to Amr. Then, Shahbur recounts how he saw Prophet Moses and a mysterious virtuous man and their intriguing deeds, his failure to meet them and his determination to follow Prophet Moses wherever he is.

One of the questions that the novelist does answer is how Shamoon is supplied with almost endless stock of papyrus to record his chronicles while travelling all the time?

Upon Shamoon’s return to the site of the Prophet Moses in Sinai accompanied with Shabur, he finds that Amir has married his sister Batia. He is then falsely accused, along with Amir, of murdering an old man. God shows their innocence through the well-known story of the yellow cow. Afterwards, he is determined to depart with his entire family.

When Shamoon goes back for the last time to where Prophet Moses stayed in Sinai, he finds that Shabur, the trader, with a very long beard and that has almost become a rabbi. Shortly afterwards, Prophet Moses dies and the new generation of Israelite tribes began to move towards the Promised Land. At the end of his papers, the chronicler/protagonist states that he did not seek honour or glory, only to narrate events that have extended over fifty years as a witness to “a generation of the Israelites who were saved by God’s miracle from its enemy, then He was angry with them and made them perish in that barren wilderness after He made them taste the hardship of constantly migrating and the bitterness of the wandering.”

In an earlier section, Shamoon performs the Haj with Sheikh Aber. Thus, El-Shazli eventually makes his message clear, showing that there is one religion and one God for all, whether it is El in Hebrew or Allah in Arabic, and that believing in any other deity is paganism.