Browse this book with Google Preview »
The first images that occur to most readers of literature in English when they think about the Arabian Peninsula and the Middle East are oil derricks and camels striding across sand dunes. But these images and visions are far from accurate in describing the true reality of Arabia today (and even more inaccurate in regard to earlier times). This excellent novel, Saqifat Al-Safa, not only entertains, it also informs its readers about the Arabia of the first half of the twentieth century in a graphic and fascinating way.
The story is set in Mecca in western Arabia, the city where Prophet Muhammad was born and where he received many of his revelations that constituted the Qur'an (Koran), the holy book of Islam. Because of its religious importance, deriving from the presence of the Ka'ba and the annual worldwide pilgrimage to it, Mecca was central to the Ottomans, who controlled it from the early sixteenth century. The Ottomans provided food and money to the people of Mecca and, in return, the local dynasty of sharifs helped provide legitimacy to the Ottoman Turkish dynasty of the House of Osman. During World War I the sharif, Husain ibn Ali, who had been appointed in 1908, revolted against the Ottomans, allied himself with the British, and gained control of western Arabia and other areas to the north. However, the Saudi rulers of central and eastern Arabia conquered Mecca, Medina, and Jeddah in the 1920s. After the Saudi conquest of Mecca the pilgrimage resumed. It was of vital economic as well as religious importance. Oil was discovered and first shipped in 1938, but it was only in the 1950s that very large quantities of oil were extracted and that Saudi Arabia gained enormous wealth from petroleum.
In this novel, Hamza Bogary brings alive, in a very particular and sympathetic way, the Mecca of those days before oil. Much of his account deals with education, the type of materials studied, the manner employed in teaching them and the very amusing ways in which some students accepted the educational structure and others rejected it. The protagonist, Muhaisin al-Baliy, reads avidly, so much so that he takes to reading at night beside a street lamp, since his home has no light strong enough for reading. Bogary also gives much information on the pilgrimage and the treatment of pilgrims, including a memorable trip to Medina. Other aspects of social history are also touched upon in a very realistic way, including the rivalry of urban neighborhoods, slavery, styles of clothing and their meaning, and public executions.
As Muhaisin is exposed to various aspects of modern technology, such as the photograph and phonograph, Bogary shows how a naive and unsophisticated youth gradually adjusts to their novelty. He also vividly discusses the status of women and the nature of the relationship between men and women, as in his account of the use of a male servant to purchase supplies and of the possible impropriety involved in Muhaisin tutoring a female student.
Much in this account also deals with religion. Muhaisin studies formal religion, and he also experiences many examples of folk or informal religious practices. He tells of Auntie Asma, his mother's friend, who believes in many superstitions and unusual practices. Muhaisin broadens his understanding of religion to reach beneath surface conformism. A great help to him in this and many other ways is Amm Umar, a government employee, an avid reader, and a wise and sophisticated man. It is he who represents the forces of modernity in conservative Mecca, and it is he who guides Muhaisin toward a better self- understanding as well as an appreciation of the world beyond Mecca.
The depth of this novel that derives from its particularity is wonderfully complemented by its treatment of universal themes. Bogary writes of Mecca in a way that reminds the reader of other outstanding works that deal with different parts of the Middle East, such as Kurban Said's Baku and Taha Husayn's Cairo. But he also touches upon character traits and behavior similar to that of Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer. Muhaisin, like Tom, wants to be the center of attention, and he embellishes stories about a funeral so as to gain the interest of the other boys at school. There are charming accounts of boyhood nicknames, touching descriptions of a child's reaction to death, and mischievous incidents such as that of Sufyan and the water container. Muhaisin is frank in his language and vivid in his humor. The author shows Muhaisin's weaknesses, an example being his childish vanity about his early literary ventures, but Bogary ultimately makes Muhaisin a character for whom the reader cares deeply. Muhaisin's irony, his love for his mother, and his growth as an individual and as a teacher, along with many other aspects of his behavior and thoughts, should bring him and his milieu alive to a world audience.
This version of the Arabic original is well annotated and contains an excellent glossary of terms. In light of the extreme scarcity of books in English dealing with Mecca in the twentieth century written by Meccans themselves, this translation is particularly valuable. Perhaps the true-to-life images presented here will begin to replace the old stereotypes with a more sympathetic, human, and individual picture of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, and the Middle East.
Until then I had never seen a person die. At the time of my father's death, I was a little boy, still unable to discriminate between things, and I was sent to my aged grandmother who could not bear to witness her son's dying. When I returned home the following day, I was told without any explanation that my father had died. Therefore, although I did not suffer over it, my uncle's death was a new experience for me. Most children of that age don't distinguish between a funeral or wedding in their house, being interested only in the transformation that occurs within the household and the freedom they enjoy as a consequence of the break in routine. The assembled guests, the lights, the different kinds of food, and the chance to stay up until late at night, are all greeted as welcome distractions.
At the time I was an indifferent pupil who attended a private school separated from our house by a narrow street. The latter was our hangout during recesses between classes and our playground after school. While he was alive, my uncle had repeatedly impressed upon me that I was a good-for-nothing and that, as my life would amount to nothing, I would end up being a burden to others. By way of a bet, he would point to the expansive white beard on his face, and say, "If you succeed I'll shave off my beard." Then, taking hold of it to emphasize his point, he would tug it gently. Sometimes he would substitute another wager, the import of which would leave me confused and distressed. He would say: "If ever you succeed in anything, come and piss on my grave!" Since I had no clear conception of what a grave looked like, I would try to imagine someone pissing on another's grave. Who were these people, I wondered, who went about pissing on graves, and where did they do it? In my child's mind, as I had never encountered this behavior on my way to the mosque or my grandmother's house, I assumed it happened somewhere far away.
Vexed by my uncle's behavior, I used to wish that something would happen to his beard, that either he would decide to shave it off or that it would fall off by itself. I was curious to know how he would look without it, and, with the cruelty of a child, I would sometimes intentionally set out to annoy him. At other times I wished him dead, so that I could obey his instructions and piss on his grave. Nevertheless, after having these thoughts, the innate goodness of the child would triumph, making me cry bitterly and cling to him, patting his whiskers, afraid lest my thoughts should come true.
They laid him out, with his hands folded across his chest, upon a wooden bench which was slightly higher than the one we used for a rooftop bed. A man whose very appearance disquieted me stood facing him. He was tall and wore a faded blue girdle around his waist and tattered shoes of a style now obsolete. The man was dipping his hand into a vessel of warm water, then pouring it on the corpse, all the while reciting in a voice that was incomprehensible to me.
Behind the door stood my mother, her sisters, and many other women whom I did not know, all of them weeping for the dead, and with such intensity that one of them fainted. But the man inside the room paid no attention to them. From time to time he would stop what he was doing, roll up his sleeves, and cry out: "People! Declare that He is One... declare that God is One!" At this, the wailing would increase, the children accompanying it with their screams, and I too found myself crying. The occasion seemed so serious that I found myself wanting to do something, but unable to identify what that something was.
For awhile I succeeded in stifling my tears, until finally I burst into a kind of loud crying I had never experienced before. Impulsively I darted out through the long passageway where my uncle was being washed, and found myself in the street. There an older boy, with whom I had often fought, immediately picked a quarrel with me. No sooner were we embroiled than he took to punching me on the head and chest with his fists and even butted me with his head. I could do little to defend myself except continue crying. Eventually the mourners came out and formed a long line. Four men carried the bier and placed it on the ground in front of the house. After reciting the Fatiha over it, one of them cried in a loud voice: "One of the blessed, God willing," after which the sounds of mourning in the women's quarter increased.
When the procession moved on, I remained standing there, uncertain as to what I should do. Should I join the men or return to the house? After a few minutes, the procession receding into the distance and the wailing becoming fainter, I decided to run after the bier.
Barefoot and bareheaded, I ran until I caught up with the procession. By now the crowd had increased. Shopkeepers, the crowd of men ambling toward the mosque to attend afternoon prayer, and others all shared in carrying my uncle's bier. When we arrived at the mosque, we found we had coincided with another funeral, so prayers were said for both of the deceased.
This was my first experience of praying for the dead, but unhappily it wasn't to be the last. In the days to come I was to have much to do with the dead and funerals. But by that time I had reached puberty and had made a vow that I would help carry every dead person to his final resting place, particularly those who were conveyed to their graves unaccompanied by many mourners.
Outside the mosque the body was quickly passed from hand to hand among those who had joined in the procession. Some of them placed their cloaks over their heads, an action that indicated that they belonged to the family of the deceased. I was surprised to find that I who was probably the closest relative went ignored, although I in turn failed to recognize anyone except a shaikh whom I knew to be a relative of my uncle.
The people gathered around the grave contended with each other to help lower the coffin, and I, in my anxious concern not to miss anything, contrived to sit on the edge of the grave and take in the scene that has remained with me to this day. My final memory of the burial, before the grave was covered over with stones, was of my uncle's uncovered face with his long white beard escaping over his chest.
That night I hardly slept at all, although it wasn't grief that kept me awake—for neither I nor anyone else, including my mother, had grieved over him—but rather the memorable events of the day. I was obsessed with the sequence of events from the time my uncle was laid out in the morning and his eyes were closed to the last fleeting glimpse I had of him. All of these things, including the sight of his cane and shoes beside the bed I slept on, left an indelible mark on my subconscious and continued to preoccupy me for years to come. Perhaps it was the unflinching reality of death that concerned me, although at the time I was unable to rationalize my fears.
After the three-day period of mourning was over, I returned to school to find that things had changed for the better. The teacher desisted from beating me for a number of days and instead turned his attention to one of my classmates, whom I had unfairly reported. My fellow pupils persisted in gathering round me each morning to inquire about the funeral, the deceased, the man who washed the dead, and the grave itself. I would invent stories that originated in my childish imagination and would add to these my grandmother's tales about the black dog which had barked for three consecutive days before my uncle's death. Fortunately I was skillful enough to alter these improvised stories with each new telling so that my audience never grew bored. But in time the novelty of the story I had lived through lost its attraction, and I ceased to enjoy the privilege of being the center of attention.