September 11, 2015
By Hamida Ghafour
Karim Alrawi’s first novel Book of Sands has won the inaugural HarperCollins/UBC Prize for Best New Fiction and the jury in its citation described the book as “beautiful” and “enduring.”
It is also a strange and absorbing novel.
Not much happens in terms of plot. Tarek and his schoolteacher wife Mona live with their 10-year-old daughter Neda in a small apartment in an Arab capital. It is unnamed, but clearly we are in Cairo with references to “the old autocrat” (Hosni Mubarak) toppled and replaced by a new self-described “patriot” (the current military ruler Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.) Mona is in the early stages of labour and she remains so for the duration of the book. Tarek, a decent man, visits the square where young protesters are demanding free elections to search for the son of a friend. Instead, he finds himself on the radar of the feared State Security, military intelligence officers who detain and torture citizens with impunity. Tarek himself was tortured extensively in his student days so when a state security officer calls to request a meeting, he flees the city with Neda until the political situation calms down. Father and daughter embark on a long journey to the desolate mountains. Mona’s brother, a taxi driver named Omar, struggles to reconcile religious piety with his job ferrying East European prostitutes to clients.
Meanwhile an unexplained swarm of birds has descended upon the city. Could their arrival be the reason so many women are experiencing delayed childbirth? A popular talk show debates the question. Only the birds are free to go where they like. The city’s inhabitants are shut in by walls erected by the army to contain the protests. They are ground down by corruption, lack of economic opportunity and surviving means averting your gaze to the injustice of it all.
Alrawi’s writing is lyrical and intricate; the evocation of a grimy Arab city suffocated by pollution and corruption very real.
Book of Sands is also an intensely political book but there is hardly any politics in it.
The protests remain mostly in the background and the action, what little there is of it, takes place beyond the square. The story shifts between lower middle class people such as Tarek, a puppeteer who struggles to figure out who to bribe so he can pay his electricity bill, to Omar who keeps a pet cockroach, and the barely literate peasants in the mountains who believe the spittle of hyenas causes leprosy. The ruling class is remote and unknown, unresponsive to the aspirations of its urban subjects, and unconcerned with the backward rural peasantry practicing female genital mutilation.
When Tarek escapes to the mountains he confronts old secrets that threaten his loving relationship with Neda built around her curiosity of the natural world. “I miss mummy,” Neda says on the journey.
“You remember quantum mechanics. It doesn’t matter how far apart particles are once entangled they continue to relate,” Tarek says.
The second half of the book set in a mountain plateau moves into the realm of magic realism involving rainmakers and, at one point, an army of hyenas.
One of the paradoxes of the current crisis in the Middle East is it has given inspiration to a new genre of literature written by Arab novelists explaining the uprisings in their societies. Several have been translated into English including Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad, and are reaching a wider readership in the West. This is a good thing. The events played out in news bulletins often baffles Western audiences. Writers telling stories of their countries through the perspective of ordinary people helps to demystify the politics. Alrawi, an Egyptian-Canadian, does this well.
“We grow up twice,” Mona’s uncle, a retired judge, comments darkly. “Once with our parents and another time with our children. We’ve turned our children against us and now we’re killing them.”