Gamal al-Ghitani, Zayni Barakat (American University in Cairo Press, 2004)
Naguib Mahfouz, Arabian Nights and Days (Doubleday Books, 1995)


Zayni Barakat arrived in a recent package from International Publishers Marketing. At about the same time, I happened to find a very attractive hard-cover edition of Naguib Mahfouz's Arabian Nights and Days at a local used bookstore. Both books were written by Egyptian authors, originally in Arabic. The American University in Cairo Press owns the rights to the English translation of Arabian Nights and Days, but evidently sold U.S. distribution rights to Doubleday. As I read these books, I realized that they have remarkably similar themes. What makes this observation particularly remarkable is that Zayni Barakat is based on a historical person, while Arabian Nights and Days is, as you might expect, based on some of the tales from the Arabian Nights -- rather far removed from history!

Gamal al-Ghitani is an Egyptian journalist and magazine editor who writes historical fiction on the side. This copy of Zayni Barakat comes from the latest printing of a translation initially published in the UK in 1988, one of a few of his many novels to be translated into English. The narrative first appeared in Arabic as a serial in 1970-71. Edward Said's brief, but helpful, foreword seems to have accompanied this translation through its various presentations; I surmise that because it also bears a 1988 copyright. The book also includes a longer note from the translator, which is actually less about the translation and more about Egyptian culture during the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, when the action of the story takes place. This note also explains how the author used and departed from historical texts in creating this fictitious rendering of the ending times of Mamluk rule over Egypt, just before the Ottomans conquered these lands. I found this very helpful as context, even though I have recently read and reviewed Desmond Stewart's Great Cairo: Mother of the World, which covers this period rather well. Finally, the book offers a very brief glossary of some of the Arabic words that the translator leaves in the original language.

In terms of this particular story, the most important of these words is muhtasib, or market inspector. This person in Mamluk Egypt carried quite a lot of power, for not only did he oversee the prices and quality of the goods being sold in the marketplace, but he also held responsibility for monitoring public behavior to assure the maintenance of moral standards. That's a pretty tall order. If Zayni Barakat is at all accurate in its portrayal of this person, he accomplished these daunting goals in large part by employing an elaborate network of spies. The historical Zayni Barakat ibn Musa held the post of muhtasib in Egypt for roughly twenty years, quite a feat given the general instability of the leadership during this period. While he is the focus of this novel, he is not actually a character with lines; rather, he is the subject of conversation by other characters. 

The most memorable of these other characters is Zakariyya ibn Radi, known as Chief Spy Supreme, a rather cruel and devious fellow whose business it seems to be to monitor everything that happens in the Sultanate. He accomplishes this by maintaining a large cadre of spies who report to him regularly through a network of underlings. Sometimes he learns what he wants to know by torturing or murdering his suspects, sometimes by bribing or blackmailing his informants. He also uses his spy network to spread rumors and lies among the populace by planting stories in the taverns where men of the ruling and laboring classes spend their leisure time. He does this at least once in an effort to discredit Zayni Barakat shortly after the latter is appointed to the position of muhtasib. Needless to say Zayni Barakat is most affronted by this behavior. Thus begins the rivalry between these men, and it's this conflict that drives the novel's plot. Said's foreword notes, I think correctly, that Zayni Barakat can be read as an allegory of life in Egypt during the 1950s, under the leadership of Gamal Abdel Nasser, a man who also used political intrigues, bribery and persecution of his enemies as means to achieve his ends.

Although I greatly appreciate the underlying intent of this novel, I found it relatively difficult to deal with as a piece of fiction. While the book is just over two hundred pages long, the type is small and densely laid out on the pages. I couldn't always tell whose viewpoint a section represented. While I am becoming increasingly comfortable with Arabic proper names, they still confuse me in any narrative where there are many characters with similar-sounding names, as there are here. I found this novel far more difficult to follow, for example, than the novels that form Tariq Ali's Islam Quintet, two of which are set in roughly the same time period, or the novels that form Naguib Mahfouz's Cairo Trilogy, which are translated from Arabic but which take place in the modernity. It may be that the combination of late middle ages setting and translation of Arabic text into English just introduces too many confusing elements into the narrative for me to handle.

It was pure coincidence that I picked up Mahfouz's Arabian Nights and Days right after Zayni Barakat. I was immediately and forcibly struck by their similarities and their differences. Both are translated from the Arabic, both authors are or were Egyptian (Nobel prize-winner Mahfouz, who worked as a civil servant, died in 2006). Like Zayni Barakat, Arabian Nights and Days is relatively short, not much more than two hundred pages in length. The text, however, is considerably less dense, both in terms of layout (larger font, more white space on the page) and content (less exposition, lots more dialogue). These qualities contribute to making this a much more accessible and thus enjoyable read.

Like its namesake, Arabian Nights and Days is not really a novel. Rather, it's a series of loosely connected short stories. Where Zayni Barakat is grounded in history, Arabian Nights and Days (also like its namesake) has a timeless quality, and includes genies (djinn) and an angel of death as characters, along with others whose names will be familiar to anyone who has seriously dabbled in the Arabian Nights. These include Aladdin and Sindbad, as well as the Sultan Shahriyar, the story-telling vizier's daughter Shahrzad and her sister Dunyazad. Many of the book's other characters initially appear together at a café where they all spend leisure time. Mahfouz often refers to his characters by their names and occupations, e.g., Ragab the porter and Sahloul the bric-a-brac merchant. This practice makes it much easier for a reader unfamiliar with Arabic to keep track of these players as they appear and reappear throughout the unfolding stories.

The first story-arc follows the careers of succeeding chiefs of police as they fall under the influence of the genies, get in trouble, and fall out of favor with the local rulers. In attempting to achieve their own ends, the genies compel their human servants to commit horrible crimes, including but not limited to murder. More than once, they enable a human, once executed, to return to life in another human form in order to continue the genies' work. In many ways, the genies reminded me of the Chief Spy Zakariyyah in Zayni Barakat, only there are more of them and they have supernatural powers. Some of the characters who fall under the genies' influence are actually quite sympathetic, and it's hard to watch them struggle against these powers, and lose. 

I got sidetracked by some other reading project before I read past the first story-arc in Arabian Nights and Days . As I write this review, I have been looking at the rest of the book. Ah, there are Shahriyar and Shahrzad, Fadil the son of the first ill-fated police chief, and there are those pesky genies, Qumqam and Singam. Uh-oh, Mahfouz has grabbed my attention again. I guess I'd better find time to finish Arabian Nights and Days!

[Donna Bird]