THE IDEA OF FATE IN CONTEMPORARY ARABIC FICTION
The Committee, by Sun 'Allah Ibrahim. Tr. from Arabic by Mary St. Germain and Charlene Constable. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2001. 166 pages. $22.95.
A Matter of Fate: the Concept of Fate in the Arab World as Reflected in Modern Arabic Literature, by Dalya Cohen-Mor. Oxford, UK and New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. xxiv + 308 pages. Index to p. 320. $52.
The Last Summer of Reason, by Tahar Djaout. Tr. from French by Marjolijn de Jager. Foreword by Wole Soyinka. St. Paul, MN: Ruminator Books, 2001. xvi + 145 pages. $19.
State socialism is gone. Pan-Arabism is out. Islamism, too, is nowhere in sight. Multinational capitalism is in, and a consumer's paradise is in the making. The postmodern society of the spectacle is finally here; its agents from Microsoft to Hollywood, McDonalds to Coca-Cola, Sony to Toyota, Ford to General Motors, are already in place, gazing in every direction, day and night. Despite globalization, however, the country is still a tyranny - of a different sort, though. No one gets imprisoned or tortured or executed anymore. This postmodern state has other means to keep its people in check. It is the mind, not the body the authorities are now after. Police are nowhere to be seen, but round-theclock surveillance gives the state a tight grip on its people. The result is that trust among people is completely gone; some have even become suspicious of their own thoughts, just in case the state finds them to be subversive. This is the world of Sun 'Allah Ibrahim's novel, The Committee, the story of one man's struggle for survival in a Kafkaesque metropolis. Now, how much of a factor is fate in this man's situation?
This forty-something narrator/protagonist, perhaps a former journalist, is brought before the Committee for questioning. He has no idea why. He lives alone, has never been married, and never socializes with anyone. The reader never even learns his name. Hours of questioning leave him all the more confused. Until much later in the novel, fate is the only thing he can think of to blame, not an unusual thing to do in this post-Nasir Egypt, where fate is seen by many to be the regulator of everyday life. Here fate, as a network of cultural signs, or what Terry Eagleton calls a "taken-for-granted" system of belief, can provide, when closed to rational criticism, a sense of ultimate meaning by working its way dimly through our lives.1 As such, fate could become a force for harmony and protection, something like a culture's way to shelter its people against isolation and despair. The narrator seems to know this instinctively. The reminder that destinies are ultimately the work of a prime mover, and not of an individual, has a calming effect on him.
Fate here is synonymous with God's will and with the idea of predestination. It also implies a belief that things happen according to a set plan determined by God, not people. The Qur'an, as Dalya Cohen-Mor reminds us, is quite explicit about this: "God has created you and your handiwork" (37:96); "He has the keys of all that is hidden" (6:59). Although the Qur'an does lend some credence to the idea of free will and although some Islamic sects and scholars advocate it, the majority of Muslims seem to be steadfast in the belief that Allah, not the individual, is in charge.
Exactly how big a part fate plays in the Arab people's everyday life is the subject of Dalya Cohen-Mor's book. The study is lucid and scholarly, and never moves away from its focus. A research fellow at Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a specialist on Arab literature, Cohen-- Mor drives home the thesis that, despite all the changes the Arab world has experienced in the last hundred or so years and despite some very serious challenges from Marxism, communism, socialism, and nationalism, fate "continues to function as a viable cultural force" in the Arab world (p. …