Hala El Badry, Muntaha (The American University in Cairo Press, 2006)

This book came in a package we received from the folks at International Publishers Marketing. It's another in their series of modern Arabic, mostly Egyptian, novels translated into English. Unlike the others I have read and reviewed in this series, both the author and the translator of Muntaha are women. Like many contemporary Egyptian authors, Hala El Badry writes novels as an avocation; she makes her living as a magazine editor. Her translator for this novel is Nancy Roberts, who appears to be very experienced at this work, with several other novels and numerous legal and scholarly translations to her credit. While I can never be sure with translations whose words I am really reading, I can say that Muntaha is an absolute pleasure to read in English. If that is due to the skill of both author and translator, so be it!

Muntaha is the name of the fictitious village where all of the action takes place. It's located in Egypt's central delta region, between Alexandria and Cairo. El Badry's dedication suggests that the word means something like 'reason for being'. A Web search provides further insight, revealing that the Sidrat al Muntaha is the tree that marks the boundary of the seventh heaven, beyond which no living being can pass. El Badry certainly presents the village as a magical place, not in the obvious sense of a place inhabited by djinns, but in more subtle ways, as I shall elaborate below.

The main characters are all members of the family of the village's mayor, Taha Musaylihi. He is a very kind and well-respected fellow, who chose to remain in the village and make his living as a farmer and grain merchant while his two brothers traveled to Paris, one to study law, the other to study medicine. His father, Hagg Abd al-Qadir, likewise served as mayor. His wife, Wadida, literally emanates fecundity. Not only is she herself fruitful, she also influences all their livestock to be equally fruitful. Her reputation is such that the local midwife gives her afterbirth to women who are unable to conceive -- and often enough, the treatment has the desired effect!

Most of the action takes place in the late 1940s, although the characters' many reminiscences often draw the reader back to the earlier years of the twentieth century. This easy movement through time was one of the most disorienting aspects of the book, at least for me. It took me a while to make sense of the time changes; they can be very subtle. I finally figured out that they usually began with a statement like: 'Taha thought back to the time when. . . .' On the plus side, these reminiscences provide a great deal of background on the village and the main characters, adding considerably to the richness of the narrative.

As you may know, North Africa was a site for several famous and bloody battles during the Second World War. And, although their presence became increasingly unwelcome, the English kept Egypt as a protectorate until the early 1950s. Men from the villages were impressed into military service during both World Wars, sometimes dying far from home, sometimes returning injured or otherwise transformed by their experiences. Taha's family is fortunate; his brother Rushdi returns with injuries but still alive and whole. But the wars and the economic disruption that followed meant food shortages and illness for the villagers.

El Badry uses the image of an immense cloud of green sparrows, so numerous that the sound of their wings makes the very air vibrate, to describe the spirits of the departed soldiers returning to their homes and families. The long and beautiful passage that introduces this recurring imagery may also give some readers a bit of confusion, because at first the villagers think the sparrows are locusts. I noticed that the person who wrote the plot summary on the dust jacket had some trouble with the narrative at that point, referring to the hordes of locusts as though they were real.

One of the most dramatic incidents to take place in the village's present time occurs quite early in the narrative. One day after being away on business, Taha returned to the village on the train, only to discover that, in his absence, the villagers demonstrated against the local police, who were entering people's homes to search for unauthorized weapons. As a consequence of this incident, many of the men in the village were arrested and detained, Taha received a year's suspension from his office, and the authorities declared an evening curfew and brought in rotating teams of Sudanese soldiers on camels to maintain 'order'. These so-called 'dromedary riders' have a definite, mostly negative, impact on village life.

Although the publisher characterizes this book as a modern Arabic novel, I am not sure I would call it a novel, at least not as most Western readers understand that word. There really isn't a plot, rather a series of past and present stories about the village and Taha's family members. The book is just over two hundred pages long, but the stories could easily have gone on for another hundred pages. The publisher has included a short glossary of Arabic names for various common items like food and clothing and currency. This enables the translator to leave these words in their original language, lending just a hint of authenticity to the text. I would have greatly appreciated a foreword to give me some information about the author's intentions in sharing this story.

Like the other books from The American University Press in Cairo, you are not likely to find Muntaha on the shelf at your local bookstore, whether independent or chain. It is, however, readily and affordably available from the usual on-line sources. If you enjoy novels about peasant life, say, for example, John Berger's Into Their Labors trilogy or Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude or even John Nichols' The Milagro Beanfield War, I think you would find Muntaha well worth tracking down. 

[Donna Bird]