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Book Review: The long, winding path to lasting change

Amr Shaarawi's debut novel follows the troubled fortunes of a former army officer from Ahmed Orabi's defeated army – tackling the themes of romance, revolution and national sovereignty

Hesham Taha, Thursday 27 Apr 2017
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Tokar: Hekayat Miaat wa Alf Qamar (Tokar: The Story of One Hundred Thousand Moons) by Amr Shaarawi, Al-Ain publishing, Cairo 2016. pp. 578.

This historical novel tackles the defeat of the Egyptian Army – and its leader Ahmed Orabi – at the hands of the British Army in September 1882, and the series of defeats suffered by the Egyptian garrison in Sudan between 1882 and 1885 during the uprising led by Al-Mahdi.

Tokar marks the debut of Amr Shaarawi – a physics professor at the American University in Cairo (AUC) – as a novelist. The story is told in the first person and makes use of flashbacks.

It starts with the protagonist Abdel-Kareem Sabri, a former officer in the disbanded Egyptian Army, writing a letter to his father from Sudan, while working as a camel driver.

The novel then moves back in time, narrating in detail the Battle of Tell El-Kebir in Ismailia, as seen through the eyes of Abdel-Kareem, who was an artillery officer and tasted the disgrace of defeat and the bitterness of treason. He escapes capture and reaches Cairo, finding work with grave-diggers.

The novelist shows Abdel-Kareem’s total fascination with Ghalia, a prostitute working in a bar. Ultimately, this fascination drives him to kill Ayman Tawagin, the bar owner and pimp. Tawagin insults him viciously in his bar, but Abdel-Kareem can't strike back, for fear that his real identity as an Orabist officer might be exposed.

The narrator keeps telling himself – unconvincingly – that his motive for the murder was patriotic, since he'd heard that Tawagin made money as a police informer, revealing the whereabouts of Orabist officers.

Abdel-Kareem is arrested and tortured, and when he is released, he tries to find Ghalia – but to no avail. He is persuaded by a fellow Orabist officer to join the Gendarmes, an armed polic force formed to assist the police in security matters, and which allowed entry to soldiers and officers expelled from the army.

However, the Gendarmes are suddenly ordered on an entirely different mission. They are sent to Tokar and Sinkat, in eastern Sudan, as military reinforcements for the Egyptian garrisons there, under the command of a British officer.

At this time, a Sudanese Sufi scholar named Muhammad Ahmad had proclaimed himself Al-Mahdi (the Guided One), and his movement was gaining momentum, with several military victories over Egyptian forces with British commanders.

One of the many themes of this lengthy novel (37 chapters in all) is the sibling rivalry in the relationship between Abdel-Kareem and his elder brother Abdel-Raheem (even their names rhymed), both during childhood and after their appointment as artillery officers.

This continues until the final chapter, when Abdel-Kareem reveals that he stopped trying to save his elder brother after he realised the falsity of joining the Gendarmes to fight the Sudanese in their bid for independence.

Another theme is the difficulties caused by the entry of the military into the treacherous waters of politics. This is illustrated quite early on with the elder brother Abdel-Raheem vehemently opposing Orabi and his supporters’ entrance into politics. His outspokenness – and even an attempt to lead a mutiny inside the army – caused him to be banished to Tokar.

Shaarawi also raises the question of whether, in times of defeat, the unsuccessful revolutionary will seek solace in an unbecoming, immoral relationship, as a form of escapism.

The author displays an exquisite eye for detail: in narrating battles in Egypt and Sudan; in showing the grave-digger’s profession; and in describing the Al-Attaba and Al-Azhar neighbourhoods.

However, Shaarawi uses contemporary language, and sometimes the vocabulary is incompatible with the social and cultural status of some illiterate characters, such as Ghalia the prostitute and Abeid Al-Garhi the grave-digger.

Shaarawi foreshadows events, warning the reader through prophecies and dreams. There is the prophecy of the female Aleppine fortune teller, who orders Abdel-Kareem to leave the tent in which he took refuge after the Battle of Tell El-Kabir kept ringing in his ears. There is also Aisha, the prostitute who reads his coffee cup, warning him of a merciless crouching tiger. Abdel-Kareem dreams of defeat in Sudan by way of birds carrying bombs.

The author writes very poetic phrases, such as, “The Phoenix of the old regime is resurrected from the ashes of an incomplete revolution.” The line is a commentary on the celebration of the return of the traitor Khedive Tawfiq from Alexandria, arriving by train with the aid of the British military. The Egyptian populace waves the Egyptian flag – red with its three white crescents and stars!

In the novel’s very last chapter, the narrator's disillusionment peaks, forcing him to reveal to the reader that all the letters to his father – and his father's wife Fadhila, whom he very much wanted to marry – were actually jotted down from Egypt, not Sudan.

He then, in the very last page, he makes another shocking revelation – that he is living with Ghalia, whom he has, quite inexplicably, tracked down at last. Thus, the novelist seeks to convey the overarching message, which is that “the path for real change in Egypt is very long, after one hundred thousand moons.”

The author also uses the search for a brother lost among the Egyptian Army stationed in Sudan as a vehicle for demonstrating a wider historical point. The scenario shows the futility of sending the remanants of a defeated army – in the form of the Gendarmes led by Baker Pasha, an officer from the British victorious army – to subjugate another country’s uprising.

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