by Nur Elmessiri
Book: Mukhtarat (Selections)
Author: Mohamed El-Bisatie
If the only pleasure to be had from a short story is that derived from following the development of the opening line, El-Bisatie's stories more than provide. They captivate, draw in, unsettle and thrill. Like the characters inhabiting the three to five pages in which they come into being, the opening lines of El-Bisatie's stories are deceptively simple. The first line read is like an immediate unclenching of a fist, a palm, that of a creator, opening, bringing a universe into full view -- no coy or tight-fisted holding back, no contrived mysteriousness, no pretentiously forced depths. Everything is there for the reader to see. But what the reader sees, what comes starkly into view, is the impermeability, the utter opacity of things -- the landscape, people. Even if they do not handle anything remotely majestic, the world of the El-Bisatie stories borders on the sublime. The reader, holds his breath, eyes wide open, and ventures forth to where terror is just held at bay.
Most of the stories in Mukhtarat (Selections) are set in the Egyptian countryside. They deal with situations similar to those treated by Youssef Idris, an unquestionable master of the Egyptian short story in whose shadow El-Bisatie's stories inevitably fall. Some -- Al-Barari (1983), Al-Tall (1992), Monhana Al-Nahr (1990) and Al-Alam (1969) -- are no more than extended vignettes charting the progress of the village's bio-rhythms over the period of a day, an afternoon, a season, an annual cycle, as the light changes and sounds, shadows, a corpse in a canal, keep natural-musical synchrony. Less "ethnography" -- always a danger in Egyptian short stories when they take as their subject unlettered places for a literate-urban readership -- than "natural history," these are poetic descriptions of the crouching, beautiful but dumb creature which, one suspects, is the true "protagonist" of the El-Bisatie oeuvre, namely, the rural setting, tamed -- if only just -- nature still retaining a vestigial link to its primeval, mute past in which individual lives and houses appear and disappear. As such, it is in these relatively plotless stories that the reader gets a taste of the quintessential El-Bisatie.
Engaging with such stories, the reader is more bird-watcher than psychologist, voyeuristic, but only in as far as observing natural phenomena beyond the pale of notions of privacy may be considered a species of voyeurism. "Our town," the opening line of the selection's opening story, Al-Barari begins, "overlooks the lake." The narrator then goes on to describe the various species that periodically alight there -- gypsies, different subspecies of fisherman -- as well as the village folk themselves, and how each "flock" interacts with the other, each, on the whole, keeping to its own territory, all moving according to the almost immutable laws of the social-natural ecosystem. In Monhana Al-Nahr, the reader watches the ritual going out of the village women to the tall kafour trees at the river bend on summer evenings, and their being watched from the vantage point of a distant bridge by village boys who have gone to universities in the city and who return in the summer season. This recurrent summer-evening episode is described in a manner that conjures up courtship rituals of bashful, long-legged birds, elegant, yet with a hint of menace about them.
El-Bisatie's stories, though, never become too "National Geographic" because, in spite of their panoramic and cinematic quality and the sharp vividness of their imagery, the narrative voice is powerful -- and literate. Even when this voice speaks in the third person, it is never simply the scientistic voice of a biologist, nor is it ever the bubbly voice of an enthusiastic bird-watcher. It is a voice that has complex registers and tonalities, at once detached in a manner reminiscent of Hemingway -- and full-throated, resonant, participatory. The narrator knows well the species held up to the reader's view. He is, after all, a member of the species. Yet, like many of the human protagonists of the stories, he has strayed slightly away from the well-trodden path of the fold to gain a story-telling vantage point.
And, yes, there are the stock characters and situations of the Egyptian short story set in the countryside: the blood feud (in Ibn Al-Mawt, 1977); the adultress who must be killed by one of the family's men folk in order that the family honour be preserved (Koub Al-Shai Al-Akhir, 1991, Lil Mawt Waqt, 1995, Al-Gawal Al-'Aem, 1995); the old grandfather who wants to take an umpteenth (young) wife (Aba'l Haj, 1994, Geddi, 1992); the son estranged from his ageing father (Al-Am Zaidan, 1982); the marginal feared-but-loved figures of the village (mentally handicapped or deformed children, as in Al-Hafa, 1992 and Eth Eth, 1973; wizened hags living in delapidated huts on the edge of the village as in Ala Ganib Al-Tareeq, 1972 and Al-Tout Al-Barri, 1981); the "nymph" bathing in the canal being watched by a pair of male eyes... and so on. Yet there is nothing merely formulaic about the way these village stock characters and situations are handled in El-Bisatie. They are dignified in their opacity.
One particularly powerful nocturnal image that stays with the reader (and "nocturnal" many of El-Bisatie's stories are, even those set in the daytime) is that in Koub Al-Shai Al-Akhir: "the boy clung to the banister besides his mother who pushed him away, and then he returned and clung to the banister and looked where they [the women] were looking. The [gypsy's] tent was there beneath the hill: a luminous spot amidst the extensive dark spaces. A lantern dangled at its centre. In the lit space, the boy saw goats resting in front of the tent and a dark shadow moving within, bending its head to dodge the hanging lantern. The light shook in the wind, and the tent's cloth moved like waves. The place seemed like scenes from dreams that he could make neither heads nor tails of -- smooth, swinging gently, always seeming about to disappear. From the shadow's movement in the tent it seemed that it was removing its vest, standing naked for a moment and then bending down, disappearing. The boy saw the old woman go into the tent and stand in its centre. She removed her scarf and took off her galabiya. It must have been the black galabiya that she had come in, but from the shadow it looked as if she was now wearing a different, tighter-fitting one. She looked more like a boy, but then she suddenly spread her hair out, pushing it back away from her shoulders with a quick movement of her hands and then bending her head back so that the hair dangled thick and long. She reached her hand up to the lantern, and the light went out, becoming only a small red circle. The women on the neighbouring roofs began to move. The boy saw them getting up, bits of straw caught on their galabiyas, and then disappearing without a sound. His mother too turned and went down the stairs."
This image stands out because, in contradistinction to the general tenor and image-repertoire of Mukhtarat, it is one of those rare moments in which translucence takes place. Epiphanies El-Bisatie does not tediously lay on thick. There are quite a few closed rooms in Mukhtarat. There are, too, doubles (in Ibn Al-Mawt and Maqaad fi Hadiqa, 1995) and wierd Kafkaesque encounters (in Mushwar Qasir, 1961 and Liqaa, 1981) and there is, occasionally comedy and the absurd (in Mubarza, 1995, Do' Daeef la Yakshif Shai', 1992 and Faris ala Sahwit Guwad, 1995). But mostly there is poetry, one that does not see through or transform things, but rather, stands before and respects their stubborn opacity. El-Bisatie is the kind of
story-teler who can narrate the three-day journey of a corpse down a river (in Al-Guwal Al-A'im, 1990) without either allegorising or unmasking, and yet, at the same time, allow this strange journey the dignity of a pilgrim's progress.
What the narrator of Conrad's Heart of Darkness says of Marlow captures the spirit of El-Bisatie stories: "The yarns of seamen have a direct simplicity, the whole meaning of which lies within the shell of a cracked nut. But Marlow was not typical (if his propensity to spin yarns be excepted), and to him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine."