Miral Al-Tahawy’s novella “Gazelle Tracks explores themes of familial obligations, love, lust, and gender norms fraught with complications.
Al-Tahawy’s writing sheds light onto the little known inner workings of Bedouin communal traditions. Prose mixed with proverbs and song is interlaced with bleak imagery of a culture in decline, succumbing to its place in modernity.
The novella follows Muhra, who is at once the narrator and the narrated, as she seeks to understand her family’s past with the aid of photographs hanging on her grandfather’s walls. The photographs lead to vignettes describing members of a doomed family whose fortunes hinge on the rules of their own suffocating culture.
Muhra is the daughter of Hind and Mutlig. Hind was forced to marry Mutlig, her cousin, as per the repeated custom “A girl will marry her cousin if it’s the last thing she wants. Her “father’s brother’s son is first in line. Mutlig, a womanizing scoundrel, is known for preying on both the female slaves of the household, family members, and loose women in the community.
Despite her pleas, and later known love of another, Hind is forced into an alienating marriage, which slowly drives her insane. She succumbs to depression and while pregnant with Muhra, is sequestered in a house with only Inshirah, her slave-nanny, to watch over her. She dies inside the house and Muhra is raised by Sahla, Hind’s sister, the next girl of the family to be married to Mutlig. The new marriage is one of silence, Sahla ignoring Mutlig until his deathbed.
Through his life Mutlig suffers, both as a result of Sahla’s continued ignoring of his presence and the decline of the family’s fortune. Mutlig begins to work as a hawk trainer for a Gulfi prince who wants to hunt gazelles, a continued metaphor throughout the book. In this age of modernity, the fierce Bedouin pride and former glory as controllers of caravans has faded, their pride, like that of the birds he trains, is tamed for the princes of the new global order.
As Muhra struggles to understand her past, the reader struggles to understand the confusing novella. Choppy narration, overly complex sentences, which although poignant and emotionally jarring, are easily befuddling.
“There, through the opening in the roof through which they lowered the baskets, Hind watched as the fleeing gazelle left behind her little newborn child, that had not learned how to run, in the desolate pitch-black sky, Al-Tahawy writes, conveying meticulously a mood without communicating clearly the details of the scene.
Al-Tahawy has an equally intriguing story of her own. Born in 1968, to a Bedouin tribe, she broke familial traditions by moving to Cairo for an MA and becoming a writer. Marrying outside the community and living in the city, she has been quoted as saying, alienated parts of her family. Her previous work, “The Tent and “The Blue Aubergine met critical acclaim making her one of the luminary voices of new Arabic literature.
The novel is a defiant work and should be heralded for its stylistic beauty, but several factors inhibit its mass appeal. Her gift for prose and description has sacrificed the book’s clarity. Al-Tahawy seems to want you to work as hard at deciphering the novel’s events and meaning as she probably did in writing it. Characters are numerous and barely developed, Al-Tahawy has opted for a folklore-like fable in which an atmosphere melancholy pervades over empathetic attachment to the figures in the text.
The translation of the novel by Anthony Calderbank into English opens the book up to a much larger audience, allowing international readership to glean an understandings of the world Al-Tahawy has left behind. The novel is a short read, but can take longer if one flips back and forth between chapters, struggling to remember which character is which. The flashbacks and forwards also disorient the reader as the book flits between characters and time, but the rich style makes up for it.
If you choose to struggle through the work, you will be ultimately rewarded, although the ending leaves closure to be desired. Participating in the haunting world Muhra inhabits is a reward onto itself as it sheds light on a part of the Egyptian community too frequently overlooked by its literary cannon.
Gazelle Tracks Miral Al-TahawyTranslated by Anthony CalderbankAmerican University in Cairo Press