Throw in a multitude of Egyptian folk tales and contemporary politics (Israeli/Palestinian conflict, social and political oppression in Egypt), blend them together, turn the folk stories upside down, rewrite them once more with different endings, sprinkle the mix with a bunch of angels, continue stirring until a coherent whole is produced. Now, what do you get?
It is just as difficult to define the final result of this mix as much as to classify it under a literary genre. What is not difficult is to enjoy Said Nooh’s novel “Malak Al-Forsa Al-Akheera (The Angel of Last Chance), which brings to mind the intricacy of “One Thousand and One Nights, Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses and even a faint glimpse of the commanding style of Nietzsche’s “Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
One reason the novel feels so fresh lies in Egyptian literary scene’s over-saturation with realist works. Nooh offers readers a much-needed breather with his novel, where the imagination can soar high to unearthly worlds, free of restraint. He does, however, return to earth every now and then to contemplate the current realities of Egypt and Palestine.
In a nutshell, Nooh’s fifth novel revolves around an angel whose job is to rescue people, granting them one last thread of hope to cling to. “After one tries everything, goes down all the open roads yet reaches his limits of tolerance, the Angel of Last Chance appears and offers them a reason to continue. Unfortunately, for a man named Palestine, the night the angel is supposed to pay him a visit, he gets distracted by the sight of a Palestinian girl named “Khateya or Sin, whom he falls in love with.
Or at least this is how one story goes.
Nooh uses a myriad number of storytellers to tell his stories, avoiding adopting one viewpoint. The short, swift, conversational prose, paired with a complex web of narration and fables the author creates might leave some readers a tad dizzy. The combination of the two techniques, however, succeeds in making the novel seem like an endless adventure with the reader never guessing correctly what the next page could possibly hold.
The times and places of the stories wildly fluctuate. Starting with God talking to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, Nooh makes overwhelming jumps within the span of few pages to early Islamic times and modern-day Egypt.
Nooh takes liberty in rendering these merged historical anecdotes, pushing the reader in the process to mull over the basic essence of story-telling. Does telling a story instigate transcending the reality behind it?
With this transcendence in mind, the barely-felt unity that holds these anecdotes together don’t lie in the basic stories but in what the author attempts to convey through the fables he rewrites. So what does he want to convey?
Dissatisfaction. Dissatisfaction with how miserable life can get. Dissatisfaction with how misguided human oppression can be. Nooh travels to distant eras, telling fabulous fables only to return every time to one of these two sentiments.
In one legend, he tells the story of how “Islam was reduced from being a call to a whole people to becoming a prisoner serving the head of the state. In another, he openly calls out: “Oh son of gods, our greatest Pharaoh: life in the slums is God’s blazing hell. He who lives there dies stabbed with a jackknife, or by hunger, or by a plague, or by a drug. He who leaves there goes to prison, or the National Security seizes his soul.
Nooh also takes a firm stance regarding the Palestinian cause via the somewhat forced historical lesson about the creation of the Israeli state. An obvious Winston Churchill quote confirming how Britain helped create the state of Israel bring nothing but slight tediousness as the author turns a little preachy near the end. Truth be told though, he does it with remarkable style.
“Now is the time for Palestine to be victorious, the Angel of Last Chance says, “now the whole Arabic nation is summoned to start putting in an effort, and let’s make our motto: if we attack, we will win. Just ask Hassan Nasrallah if you don’t believe the words of the Angel of Last Chance.
With a novel like Nooh’s, it’s safe to confirm that the legacy of Arabic storytelling and fables is still alive and well. If indeed story is the currency of culture, then “The Angel of Last Chance is an enjoyable and interesting link between the old and the new, bringing back some of the glamour of our literary traditions in a modern style.