by Mahmoud El-Wardani
Book: Layali Okhra (Other Nights),
Author: Mohamed El-Bisatie
Mohamed El-Bisatie is a prolific writer with seven novels and seven collections of short stories to his credit. Recently he has written a new book every year, his works almost invariably trading in the same human and literary currency: the small village, close to a coastal town, in which the author was born and spent his childhood and adolescence.
However in his new novel, Layali Okhra (Other Nights), El-Bisatie treads new ground that he has barely explored before -- the noisy, disturbing world of Cairo. And, in the four chapters that make up this book, El-Bisatie comes across as a more skillful and slier writer than he has ever been, employing a number of narrative tricks in a perfectly unobtrusive way. So smooth is his application of this "narrative seesaw", which oscillates between one narrative style and another, that his novel reads as a simple, yet very powerful text.
Through his protagonist Yasmine, a single woman living in a Cairo apartment block, El-Bisatie reveals his vision of the city, or rather, he turns his own essentially provincial gaze on it. Yasmine passes her days in an excess of tedium and monotony, for she works as a state employee and lives alone and suffers the way a solitary Egyptian woman suffers. Yet as El-Bisatie traces one day in her life through his four narratives dealing with four consecutive parts of her day, she also emerges as the witness and victim of the transformations that have overtaken the Cairo intelligentsia. And to this extent the degree of intimacy El-Bisatie enjoys with his protagonist is reminiscent of Flaubert's famous statement, "Emma Bovary, c'est moi".
Yasmine's day begins early in the morning, and by noon and almost without noticing it, we are already familiar with her childhood. With each new episode, each progression of the rising and then setting sun, a further part of her life is revealed -- until the writer stops at a crucial moment in modern Egyptian history, being the few days following the detention of the more than 1500 dissidents by President Sadat in September 1981.
If this book is about Yasmine, it is also about a whole generation whose beginnings and whose childlike dreams we encounter and with which we move.Yasmine is shown entering into the life of this generation's factions and suffering; she survives, protests and conforms as the rest of this generation does, showing its pattern of consciousness, desire for change, activism, disillusion and eventual resignation. She is the contemporary middle-class leftist intellectual par excellence, as mediated by the distance between El-Bisatie's biography and his creation, Yasmine.
Effectively the history of the generation of the 1960s, El-Bisatie's approach to his subject is however neither sentimental nor nostalgic. It is, like much of El-Bisatie's writing, at once cutting, objective and intimately involved. The narration in particular is impressively impersonal, reflecting the writer's mental distance from the subject at hand, and therefore being all the more effective as a moving record of an age.