‘Demaa Fi Al-Matbakh’ (‘Blood in the Kitchen’), by: Dina El-Shafey, (Cairo: Al-Etihad Al-Araby Publishing 2021).
Short stories are always problematic for critics. The creativity of writers can occasionally take them away from writing solid stories that can be developed into complete narratives — that may eventually turn into movies — and down a metaphorical rabbit hole of absurdity where animals can talk and the plot points being discussed require an open mind to be understood.
In her first collection of short stories, ‘Blood in the Kitchen’, Dina El-Shafey takes the reader from solid grounds where the events are clear and the snapshots captured by the writer are described in accurate and smooth wording, to stories that do not seem to hold any meaning or substance.
Among the 28 short stories, the writer chose ‘Blood in the Kitchen’ to be the title of her book, claiming in the foreword that it carries value for her personally. In that two-page story, a mother wakes up carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders, contemplating her daily responsibilities: how she needs to be at work on time, worrying about the salary which hardly covers her monthly expenses, the bills that she has to pay, and her son — who depends on her to wake him up for school.
By the end, the mother faints due to an unspecified illness, hitting her head on the kitchen table and spilling her blood all over the floor.
This novella describes the many households led by a single mother all over the world and the burden they carry dutifully. In the case of this short story’s heroine, we don’t feel that there is any appreciation for her effort from either her son or from society in general.
El-Shafey here, in a very forgiving way, sends out a cry for compassion on behalf of the many women in this dire position in today’s world. The reader can relate easily to this story, since most people are familiar with women like these through either first-hand experiences or from word of mouth.
Female writers tend to have a talent for writing male protagonists, and El-Shafey displays this talent in her short story ‘The Poison’s Cook’.
Here, the main character is a doctor who performs virginity reconstruction operations; an illegal procedure that some girls do before getting married after losing their virginity outside the institution of marriage. El-Shafey described the dilemma that the main character finds himself in when offered to perform this operation for the first time in great detail.
As a young doctor, the protagonist was expected to work hard for years before he could reach the status and financial stability that so many covet, however, by agreeing to perform these operations, he creates a shortcut to success for himself.
Even though the purpose of operations such as these is to fool a man into thinking that his bride was never touched, which some find to be morally dubious, the doctor managed to assuage his conscience with the financial reward that came from running the secretive practice.
Eventually, the young doctor meets a girl and falls in love with her, and when they both agree to get married, he decides to stop performing the operation and lead a “clean” practice. Ironically, he gets a taste of his own “poison” — if you will — by the end of the story when it turns out that his final patient before leaving this chapter of his life behind is his future bride to be.
In this particular novella, the writer — without getting into the nitty-gritty details — touched on many problems that society suffers from regarding pre-marital sex. We really don’t know how many girls had to perform this operation to satisfy societal standards, or how many men were fooled by it; however, a good portion of society has heard about it.
Pre-marital sex is still an issue that confuses any conservative society. Virginity reconstruction operations are just a side effect to a problem no one wants to address. The writer skillfully brought up the subject without attempting to offer a solution, which is certainly a point in her favour, given that writers sometimes fall into the trap of thinking highly of themselves to the point of telling people what to do. El-Shafey simply and humbly shed light on a situation that could and might have happened.
A noticeable — and at times questionable — attribute of the book is the leniency of its language even when addressing dark subject matter. A case in point is the novella ‘Satan Leads the Prayer’; a story where she tackles the subject of pedophilia — a devastating phenomenon that all societies suffer from in one way or another. The writer could have used a much more dreadful style in describing the crime but chose not to. Her writing style shows that she can handle a most disgusting subject in a classy way that would not unsettle the reader.
She also manages to be optimistic at times, like in the story ‘Why Not?’, where she describes a woman taking care of her parents, choosing to put matters of the heart on the backburner. She then gets an arranged marriage where the husband is unkind and ill.
Eventually, her parents and husband pass away, shunting her from the caregiving role she had adopted all her life. However, the writer introduces hints of a potential romance or even marriage by the end of the story, suggesting that happiness may be an option after all. In brief, El-Shafey fosters hope wherever she can in her writings.
Not all of the stories in the collection are as good as those mentioned above, however, whether in the flow of language or the narrative devices used. Using symbolism in the novella ‘Croaking Frogs’ — for example — was not effective and made the story hard to follow.
El-Shafey’s first outing as a published short-story writer has much potential, as some of the novellas in this collection can serve as inspiration for longer novels that she can pursue in the future.