The everyday cruelties – poverty, corruption and a myriad of other injustices – which form part of the daily lives of many Egyptians have recently found their way onto screen and page, in the form of artworks dealing with the darker side of Egyptian society.
Alaa El-Aswany’s “Yacoubian Building focused on terrorism, corruption and poverty. Heya Fawda (Is It Chaos?), directed by Youssef Chahine and Khaled Youssef, explored police brutality, while most recently, Khaled Youssef’s excellent Hena Maysara (In Time) delivered a disturbing yet compelling snapshot of life in a Cairene slum.
Egyptian society – or at least its art critics, religious institutions and censorship authorities – have arguably long had an uneasy relationship with artworks which they seem to regard as voicing the unspeakable: Artworks which depict the unpalatable truth; the broken, the filthy, the unusual or the forbidden.
Yusuf El-Qa’id’s novel “War in the Land of Egypt is one such example. Published in Lebanon in 1978, the novel was banned in Egypt until 1985 – before eventually being transferred into a cinematic adaptation El-Mawatan Masri starring Omar Al-Sharif.
Set just before the outbreak of the 1973 October War, the novel tells the story of Masri (a male name which also means ‘Egyptian’), a brilliant but poor fellah (farmer) from a village near the Delta town of Tanta.
Masri is the only son of a poor night watchman who guards the umda’s (village mayor) house, and who by day works on the tiny patch of land he rents. With nine family members to support, Masri’s father cannot afford to allow his son to attend the secondary school in the nearest town and Masri instead studies from home – and still manages to obtain excellent grades.
Two pivotal events shape the course of Masri’s life; his father’s forced retirement – and the significant reduction in his salary which accompanies this – and the passing of a law returning to its owners the land nationalized under former president Gamal Abdel Nasser.
The land belongs to the umda, the obscenely wealthy, corrupt, and reviled figure who dictates the life of Masri and all the villagers. As one character puts it, “The umda owns the land and he owns whoever lives and works on it, so the watchman’s son is the umda’s property, to do with as he likes.
It is this indomitable reality, coupled with the economic desperation of Masri’s family, which set the stage for the events that will follow. The umda’s youngest son (born of his third wife) – who is the same age as Masri and shares the same birthday as him – is called up to perform military service.
The umda has recently had a prostrate operation of which he is deeply ashamed because “loss of my prostrate means loss of [his] manhood. Only his third wife knows about the operation and, afraid that she will betray his secret if upset in any way, he decides that his youngest son must not be sent to the army lest he come in harms’ way.
He and “the broker – a former school teacher who was dismissed when it was discovered that he has a second job helping his clients get through “the Bottomless Government Pit by bribing officials – hit upon a solution. Masri will pose as the umda’s son, adopting his identity and discarding his own, and perform his military service for him. It is a plan which ends in tragedy.
The brilliance of “War in the Land of Egypt lies in El-Qa’id’s skilful use of the monologue. Six monologues delivered by, among others, the umda, the broker and the night-watchman (Masri’s father) together create a composite picture of Masri’s story, rather like a jigsaw puzzle.
While a series of monologues risks being repetitive, El-Qa’id avoids this by using each successive monologue to introduce a new facet of the tale; in this way the story progresses forward seamlessly without superfluous recounting of events.
The most striking thing about this narrative device, however, is Masri’s absence from it. This absence serves to underline his disenfranchisement at the hands of others. So powerless is Masri that even his name, his identity – the one thing unique to him – can be appropriated to serve the interests of his master, the umda.
The name Masri is, of course, a deliberate choice, because Masri is symbolic of all Egyptians, victims of a society in which perceptions of entitlement are so inextricably linked with class and origin. Born into privilege, the umda sums up this attitude succinctly: “My father used to say that there are two kinds of people in the land of Egypt: sons of good families and sons of dogs – landowners and the rest.
This attitude even extends to the spiritual domain, with Masri’s friend suggesting that since the umda claims that his power comes from God, and that this God is for the rich alone, the poor have no alternative but to look for their own Lord.
This hierarchy of power and servitude is regarded as so natural, so normal that Masri’s friend, while he stops short of suggesting that what happened to Masri was “inevitable destiny, says that the answer lies in the “gulf between the umda’s huge white mansion, which gleams even at night, and the house, or rather the shack, where Masri’s family lived.
“War in the Land of Egypt is a devastating commentary on the corruption and injustice which is so endemic that it succeeds in robbing a man of his name. It is also a tribute to Egypt and its people in the wake of Egypt’s 1973 victory. Ultimately, the novel challenges Egyptian readers to consider their own relationship with a country to which they are deeply attached, yet which is capable of such cruelty.
Masri’s friend says: “I won’t raise the issue of the motherland and patriotism because we all love Egypt in our own different ways, but which Egypt do we really love? The Egypt of people dying of hunger or the Egypt or people dying of overeating?
“War in the Land of Egypt by Yusuf El-Qa’id. Translated by Olive and Lorne Kenney and Christopher Tingley. Published by Interlink Books, 1998.