By Sherif Azer
In his latest novel, “Ana A’sheqt” or “I Fell in Love,” Muhammed El-Mansi Qandil is telling a love story that went beyond reality, and beyond love. It all started with the girl, Ward, who suffered from a rare medical illness close to stupor after she paid farewell to her lover, Hassan, at the train station in this gloomy city.
After thought being dead, medical examination proved that her heart still beating. When Ali, a medical student, saw her standing still on the stations platform, he felt something for her, something he never admitted even to himself. What he felt for Ward made him decide to go on a quest to find Ward’s lover and return him back to her as one last hope to restore life to her almost-dead body. Ali leaves their small city, which fits the description of El-Mahalla El-Kubra, even though the author never mentioned the name, and heads to Cairo. The Egyptian capital devours Ali into its ugly underworld with all its poverty, injustice and cruelty.
In the first chapter, Qandil succeeded to produce one of the most melancholic pieces of Arabic literature one can experience. The description of the dolorous city with those bleak factories and miserable workers puts one in the right mood to the lovers farewell scene. When you think that it is the saddest moment, Qandil strikes you with post-farewell drama of Ward’s case, only gets better when they declare that she is not dead yet.
It’s hard to tell if Ward’s medical case is scientific or symbolic, but considering that Qandil was a medical doctor himself then we assume he knows what he is writing about. As Ward stands there at the train station’s platform, frozen but still alive, her delicate body exposed to cold and wild animals, one cant resist the feeling of sympathy, and maybe love, exactly as what Ali felt for her.
Ali who is a young medical student reminds us with the main character of Qandil’s previous novel “Moon Over Samarqand,” which also gives the impression that it is a personification of the author himself. It makes more sense knowing that Qandil is from El-Mahalla El-Kubra, which makes “I Fell in Love” more like a personal account from the author.
It’s obvious from the novel’s events that it is taking place before the January 25 Revolution. The city of El-Mahalla El-Kubra is boiling with labor strikes against the regime, cases of torture by police spread, students demos at universities, corruption of the big guys and their connections with the ruling elites. Everything was paving the way for a revolution to come. What was interesting in this novel is that it didn’t talk explicitly about the revolution, but rather leading into the Revolution. Qandil managed to give his deep and rich personal analysis of the revolution through his novel away from all those shallow newspapers articles and talk shows spreading all over Egyptian media now.
Some of the novel’s chapters could be considered a separate novella, something that Qandil mastered in his previous novels. One chapter presented the story of Abdul Moaty, Hassan’s cell-mate, who was working as a security guard in a museum when he fell in love with a head-statue of a Pharaonic princess that brought him some nostalgia.
Abdul Moaty’s obsession with the statue ended him up in the slammers accused of trying to steal it. Also the story of how Hassan and Abdul Moaty became friends in jail is an interesting insight of life inside Egyptian prisons that is full of violence, sexual abuse and corruption. Hassan’s experience inside the prison turned him from a revolutionist to a criminal, showing the amount of injustice that was spreading in Egypt.
By the end of the novel, one feels tempted to see the symbolism in the characters, like you imagine that Ward is Egypt, and Ali is the real lover, the revolution, who scarifies to bring her happiness, while she is in love with Hasan who lost his innocence and turned to criminal. After giving it a second thought, its better to drop the symbolism and just take it as a normal love story to avoid negative impressions.
It will not be a surprise to see “I Fell in Love” on the Arabic Booker’s list next year, or maybe it will be adapted into a movie or a TV series like Qandil’s previous novel “A Cloudy Day in the West Bank.”
The novel’s title “Ana A’sheqt” is originally a song by classic Egyptian singer Sayed Darwish. The song is about the pain a lover suffers while in love, as Qandil wanted to symbolize the emotional state of the novel into a musical melancholic mood. Qandil succeeded in creating this mood, with his smooth and simple language that guaranteed an enjoyable reading from cover to cover.