Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Aunt Safiyya and the Monastery

Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Aunt Safiyya and the Monastery

Article excerpt

Aunt Safiyya and the Monastery, by Bahaa' Taher. Tr. by Barbara Romaine. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996. xix + 124 pages. $35 cloth; $12.95 paper. Reviewed by Aida A. Bamia

Bahaa' Taher is an Egyptian novelist who, slowly but steadily, has been taking his rightful place on the national and international scenes. He remained in the shadow of other familiar, though not always superior, writers, but not for a lack of writing dexterity nor of prowess in fiction writing. It is probably his residence overseas, far from the traditional centers of the Arabic literary movement, that is partly responsible for his late discovery by critics, readers and translators.

It is, therefore, a real pleasure to read the translation of one of Taher's novels, Aunt Safiyya and the Monastery (published in Arabic in 1991). This book was preceded by two other novels, Qalat Duha (Duha Said, Cairo, 1985) and Al-Hub Fi al-Manfa (Love in the Land of Exile, Cairo, 1995).

Taher is undoubtedly a first-class storyteller. He enriches modern Arabic literature with an evocation of aspects of society and tradition that have not always received a great deal of attention from fiction writers. Originally from the Sa`id (Upper Egypt), Taher depicts this interesting region and evokes some of its well-known customs from a new angle. The tradition of revenge for a killing in the Sa`id, the central theme of the novel, is reminiscent of the writings of another Egyptian writer, Yusif Sharuni. Both seem intent on presenting a more positive image of their region to dispel the impression of blood-thirsty Sa`idis that has stuck with Upper Egypt for a long time. Taher reveals the favorable side of a Sa`idi through the personality of the Haj, who, while acknowledging the power of the custom of revenge, does everything in his power to put an end to it. Strong family bonds are at the center of the action in the novel. The Haj, who has, with his family, led a quiet life, sees himself dragged into the village feuds through two of his orphaned relatives whom he has raised as his own. The Haj and his son, the narrator, are mere catalysts in this novel where society and its traditions are the protagonists. The author succeeds in building a novel on tradition without falling in the trap of didacticism. Touching on the otherwise sensitive issue of religious tolerance between Copts and Muslims in Egypt, he draws the picture of a model community in a subtle and entertaining manner. The disarming appeal of the novel lies in the simplicity of the subject matter as well as a capacity to dramatize commonplace events. …

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