Academic journal article Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics

National or Not?: Tal'it Al-Badan and the Bedouins of Sinai

Academic journal article Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics

National or Not?: Tal'it Al-Badan and the Bedouins of Sinai

Article excerpt

[O]n the whole, racism and anti-semitism manifest themselves, not across national boundaries, but within them. In other words, they justify not so much foreign wars as domestic repression and domination.

--Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities

The discourse of nationalism is built as much upon notions of collective identity and belonging as it is upon forms of oppression, discrimination, and marginalization. Benedict Anderson's seminal work on the imagined community of the modern nation-state offers a means to consider the relationship between the discourse of nationalism and types of repression and domination. (While the quote cited above highlights anti-semitism specifically, the significance of Anderson's claims extends to other forms of discrimination and racism.) This relationship is at the very heart of Mus'ad Abu Fajr's Tal'it al-badan (2007). (1) Abu Fajr, a writer and activist for Bedouin rights in Egypt, grapples with the precarious position of the Bedouin communities of Sinai, questioning the underlying contradictions of the category of the 'national.'

Tal'it al-badan, Abu Fajr's first novel, takes its name from a mountain range in Sinai. (2) The novel's action spans the twentieth century, tracing how Ottoman rule, British colonialism, Israeli occupation, and Egyptian state control have all led to the displacement of the Bedouin communities from their lands. It is a work that brings together a multitude of stories, with very little in the way of a linear narrative of events; instead, the narrator Rabi', a native of the town of Rafah, weaves in and out of one story after another, bringing together personal tales, historical accounts, and fictional anecdotes. Of greatest concern to Rabi' are stories about 'Assaf and 'Awda, two friends from his hometown. The former leaves school and runs away to Israel, only to return years later to set up a tourist camp in Nuweiba. The latter remains in Egypt, moves to Cairo to go to university (where he meets

Rabi'), and later returns to settle in Sinai. The three friends are born in the early 1960s, representing a generation that grew up under the Israeli occupation of Sinai and lived to see it return to Egypt. The central narrative concerns the time they spend at 'Assaf's camp with Thomas, the foreign photographer, and Galit, a Romanian tourist with whom Rabi' is in love, but whom 'Awda will later marry. This marriage is the reason for 'Awda's subsequent arrest, to which 'Assaf responds by taking Galit, Thomas, and Rabi' hostage, in the hope that this extreme act will force the Egyptian government to release 'Awda. It is with this final display of desperation that the novel closes. Interwoven into this main narrative is a plethora of stories that recount experiences of displacement, dispossession, and exploitation, constantly shifting the reader from past to present.

This article begins by exploring the way the novel maps the changing borders of Sinai through the movement and displacement of its characters. Here I draw upon Edward Said's reading of Antonio Gramsci as offering "an essentially geographical, territorial apprehension of human history and society ... conceiving of politics as a contest over territory, both actual and historical, to be won, fought over, controlled, held, lost, gained" (Said 464). This reading of identity as spatially constructed is fundamental to my reading of Abu Fajr's project, which focuses upon how the different actors in the novel construct identities based on particular relationships to the land. I examine the impact of changing borders upon the formation and understanding of national identity. What are the implications of the institution and transformation of state borders for groups such as the Sinai Bedouins, whose relationship to the land is continuously called into question by the Egyptian state? How is the relationship between national identity, citizenship, and the land negotiated by the Bedouin community? …

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