Academic journal article Arab Studies Journal

Thus the Sadness of the Heron: Interpreting Aslan's Imbaba

Academic journal article Arab Studies Journal

Thus the Sadness of the Heron: Interpreting Aslan's Imbaba

Article excerpt

Why don't you write, and say it all?

Because you are no longer you?

Because the river is no longer the same river?

Answering yes, he felt despondent. Because you are not you.

And what you're looking at isn't your river anymore. It's discarded dishwater.

You'll be healed the day you pour out your heart and wet your lips with it. . . .

But you're content enough with the salt of tears in your

mouth. And the taste of alcohol and thirst.

Yusuf al-Naggar was roused by the sound of a distant explosion.1

Thus pondered Yusuf, a primary character in Ibrahim Aslan's The Heron, as he sat alone along the western bank of the Nile in Imbaba, one of Greater Cairo's poor informal neighborhoods. The novel narrates intricately woven stories about Kit Kat, Imbaba's southernmost community, that take place over the course of the day and night of 18 January 1977. On this fateful evening, two key events intersect within The Herons Imbaba. First, Kit Kat loses its primary gathering place, the 'Awadallah café, to speculative development and consequently faces social disintegration. Second is a milestone in Egypt's modern political history: the January 1977 Bread Intifada against government-imposed austerity measures. These measures were part of then-President Anwar al-Sadat's free-market policies, or the infitah, that the government introduced in 1975 on the basis of International Monetary Fund recommendations. The uprising engulfed Egypt starting that evening. It is announced by the distant thuds Yusuf hears in the background.

Yusuf's self-rebuke, quoted above, marks a significant shift in The Herons narrative. It initiates a sequence of scenes toward the novel's conclusion where individual characters take turns conducting intense reflections about self and city. Echoing the novel's original Arabic title, Malik al-Hazin (Malik the Sad, a reference to the heron in one of the stories of Kalila wa Dimna), the scenes exude an intense sadness that the characters express through mixed emotions and elusive actions. Formulated by Aslan, a native Imbaban,2 in a literary work that approximates the annals of local history, such expressions and actions reflect Imbaba's contemporaneous conditions with considerable veracity. Thus, The Herons sadness is a propitious filter that brings into focus this article's primary purpose: exploring the deeper social and experiential layers of Imbaba's informal urbanism revealed by this crucial historical moment.

Key elements of The Heron's sadness help to outline the research framework. First, Yusuf and other characters express estrangement from the Nile. It ceases to be "[his] river anymore" and its water becomes the idiomatically banal "discarded dishwater." This development is striking since Yusuf and others depend on fishing in the river to feed themselves.3 Others repeatedly seek refuge on its banks from life's pressures.4 It is also a telling portent given the deep-rooted symbolism the Nile holds for urban migrants with lingering rural ties, like Imbaba's residents. Thus, Imbabans project sadness onto an urban element of vital impact and symbolism; The Heron charts a geography of alienation around Imbaba.

Second, characters experience dissonance in their personal and collective memories. The estranged river seems far removed from the site of childhood memories of swimming races, bonding with parents and, for Yusuf, his adolescent ogling of girls bathing and washing dishes along its bank.5 Even dishwashing was erotically charged back then-far from banal. Characters also forget what the café represents as a communal space, collaboratively built and owned by community members. The Heron diagnoses mnemonic disjunction alongside urban alienations.

Third, The Herons sadness conjures grotesque imagery, through which characters reimagine river and neighborhood in visions mixing horror with comedy. Yusuf visualizes the riverbanks overrun by large, monstrous "steel cranes towering over him from the sky" with "long extended arms and . …

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