Book review: 'Gardens of paradise or the pits of hell?'

Aida Nassar
7 Min Read

Award winning book explores truth vs appearances

“Wedding Night By Yusuf Abu RayyaTranslated into English by R. Neil HewisonAmerican University in Cairo, 2006

CAIRO: Houda is deaf and mute; he hears no evil and he speaks no evil. However, his disabilities certainly do not stop him from spying on his neighbors. With a talent for mimicking, he is a popular storyteller among the townspeople who find amusement in exposing the local gossip. And his neighbors provided him with sufficient material to entertain the men at the local coffee shop.

“He knew the troublemaker, the bribetakers, and the illicit relationships – he knew the man who in the heat of the afternoon visited the wife of his friend who was away, and the man who in the dark of the night visited the wife of a friend who was ill. Houda uses sign language to articulate what those who can speak dare not say out loud.

His boss, the local butcher Maallim Osman, soon discovers that one can easily play a starring role in one of his mimed tales, a humiliating prospect. The maallim had made his fortune sealing a deal with an army officer in the local hashish den to become the meat supplier for the regiment camped outside of the town. But given his current standing, his past is quickly forgotten. He is married to a beautiful woman – his first love, a woman whose parents didn’t deem him worthy of until he had become a prominent and wealthy member of the community years later. Houda, though, can make a dent in his flimsy armor of honor.

The maallim’s desirable wife claims that Houda assaulted her – the mark still evident where he pinched her breasts – when he was delivering meat to their house. Not willing to have this transgression become local gossip, Maallim Osman plots his revenge. The whole town, in fact, helps to publicly humiliate Houda. They plan an elaborate wedding for Houda, but keep the bride’s identity a secret.

Houda has his reservations, but when the brass ring is dangling before him, he chooses to trust the maallim. It’s ironic, however, that the man privy to the town’s innermost secrets – the drugs, the lies, the sordid affairs, and perverse sexual habits – seems to trust them naively. It’s only natural that he’s nervous.

“This marriage goes back to the old days, the days of our fathers and mothers, when no man saw his future bride in advance. She would be revealed to him on the wedding night, and it was a matter of luck, either one of the gardens of paradise or one of the pits of hell. Or, it was like a watermelon, also a matter of luck, whether it would be red or white inside, only God knows. These days, watermelons are split open before you buy them, so why can’t you do it the modern way, ya maallim? wonders Houda as he analyzes his own pre-wedding jitters.

Zaki, though he has reservations about the town prank, doesn’t struggle with the decision to stand by as he watches his brother prepare for the hoax nuptial night. He’s not even aware of what Houda did to rile up the maallim, not to mention the rest of the townspeople who are more than willing to help out. Zaki’s fatalism is endemic, a statement about today’s society, where we all sit back and watch injustices happen, but say nothing, do nothing. Is it out of fear of losing his livelihood at the butcher’s? Is it out of a sense of feeling negligible?

The author, Yusuf Abu Rayya, was awarded last year’s Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature by the American University in Cairo Press for “Wedding Night. At the awards ceremony Samia Mehrez, one of the judges, described his novel as “the rural counterpart to Mahfouz’s critical dissection of the urban world.

Abu Rayya’s talent comes in creating a web of characters that bring the small, sleepy town in the Delta to life. The characters are simple, but that isn’t to say they are one-dimensional. They are not complicated; they are who they are. The author doesn’t go into elaborate explanations of how they developed, he simply describes them as they are – their hopes, their fears – with no apologies.

“Sarcasm, irony and light comedy dominate the narrative tone; they become a means to protest dominant values in society. The symbolic level of the novel is anchored in a stifling reality from whose hell the individual might be able to escape, comments Ibrahim Fahmi, another judge on the panel of the Mahfouz Medal. “But the question is: where to?

If towns are big villages, as Abu Rayya descried in his acceptance speech last year, then the “capital is a condensed version of the homeland. There is no escape then. The pitfalls of one community will only be replicated elsewhere.

If people rally with the maallims of this world, if they chose to join in ridiculing the truth in order to continue the charade of respectability, then there will be no escape. Life will go on, following the same routine day after day. There will be no escape.

Share This Article
Leave a comment