Village Life From Within

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By Denys Johnson-Davies 
Al-Ahram Weekly May 1999

Like many another author, Mohamed El-Bisatie has marked out his own special territory. Geographically, it consists of the villages that skirt Lake Manzala in the north of the Delta. He peoples his writing with the usual folk who make up the population of such places: simple peasants, small shopkeepers, schoolmasters, fishermen and petty government officials. The stuff of his stories and his novellas is the daily comings and goings of these people and the small dramas and comedies of their lives. 

Like most budding authors of his time -- his first volume came out in 1968 -- he started as a writer of short stories. His writing, characterised by a brevity and directness often lacking in other Arab writers and making no attempt to either dramatise or romanticise the situations, soon took on a style that became immediately recognisable; standing aside from his characters, he allows their actions and cryptic conversations to speak for them and to provide the only commentary. This technique, in which he employs a straightforward almost journalistic style, often exploiting the richness of the spoken language, has become more refined with the years. His last slim volume of stories entitled Sa'at Maghrib (Time of Sunset) published in 1996, contains stories that are typically pithy; stories like 'Sibya', the gently humorous tale of a village woman who works as a servant in the city and returns with unfailing regularity each year to the village happily pregnant with yet another child though there is no evidence of the presence of a husband. In the same collection is the description of the day in the humdrum life of an elderly couple during their monthly outing at the local railway station where they watch the trains going through and indulge their appetite for ice-cream. (A selection of his stories is available in English translation under the title The Last Glass of Tea.) 

El-Bisatie has also written 6 novels, of which one, Sakhab al-Buhayra (The Roaring of the Lake), took the prize for the best novel in 1994. His novels are very much the longer writings of an author who has cut his teeth on the short story: written in the form of vignettes, these are skilfully strung together to supply a complete picture. Here again there is no tiresome moralising, commentary or asides giving the writer's views on a variety of subjects which may have little to do with the subject on hand. That is not El-Bisatie's way: having a tale to tell he relates it in the most economical and effective way he can, and in this he not only demands his reader's full attention but at the same time respects his ability to grasp what he is about without lecturing him. (So far, only one of his novellas, Buyut wara 'l-Ashgar, 'Houses Behind the Trees', is available in English translation.) 

His latest book, Wa ya'ti al-Qitar (And the Train Comes), to appear this month in the Hilal series, is a work of autobiography dealing with his early years in the village, from birth until the time comes for him to take the train to Cairo to go to university. 

Born on a night of rain, thunder and lightening, his mother later tells him of how the midwife arrives almost too late and in no state to help her. As if resulting from this traumatic entry into the world, the child is born with an acute curiosity for life and a natural aptitude for getting into trouble. While still able only to crawl about, the young boy lands himself in a variety of scrapes so that his mother, for his safety and her own state of nerves, ties him to a peg in the courtyard which had previously been used for the sheep the family had slaughtered at his birth. 

The boy from then on passes through a number of situations, most of them comic; El-Bisatie possesses that rare ability to extract humour from scenes of daily life. Then comes almost the only dark period in the book when the village is struck by the cholera epidemic in which his own father meets his early death. After his father's death, the old grandfather, who as a widower has insisted on living on his own, now comes and joins the family. With this change in his situation, the grandfather begins to enjoy a new lease of life and comes out of retirement to take up again his former business of being a grain merchant. In fact, the pages dealing with the old grandfather and his 'lad', who is as old as he, are among the most delightful, and show to perfection El-Bisatie's special underwritten sense of playful humour. The grandfather's presence continues on till the end of the book, with the old man getting older and more frail so that it requires a major operation, with the help of his teenage grandson, to get him onto the back of his donkey. Other amusing vignettes of village life take place at the school, in the local caf� and in the newly opened cinema. Among various pranks practised by the growing boy and his fellows are the stealing of a man's donkey and the pound's ransom demanded for its return; also his early escapade with a young girl, the daughter of the local purveyor of hashish. 

The book ends with the boy making his way to the station to join the faculty of commerce at the university in Cairo. It is not the college he wants to study at, but under the Egyptian system he has not achieved good enough marks in his examination to qualify for the college of his choice. As his grandfather tells him: "One doesn't always get what one wants." 

And so again, in this volume of autobiography, one of the villages on the shores of Lake Manzala is the venue for another book by El-Bisatie. Though, like many of his contemporaries, he spent several early years of his working life in Saudi Arabia, he has not, like some of his fellow writers -- one thinks in particular of say Ibrahim Abdul Meguid and Soliman Fayyad -- drawn on his years of residence there for any of his writing. He has also not used his experience of life in Cairo. One sometimes feels that the area of Lake Manzala remains for him almost a place created by his own imagination as a writer, that it no longer has any meaning for him other than as the inkwell into which to dip his pen. It is surely significant that he has not once been back since, as a young man, he left to go to university. "Have you never been curious to go back and pay it a visit?" I once asked him. He smiled and gave a decided shake of the head. "Never," he said shortly. No doubt, I told myself, he does not want to risk having the canvas he has painted for himself in any way distorted by reality. 

Perhaps, though, with the publication of the present volume of autobiography, he will feel able to fold up the map of his childhood years and allow his imaginative talents a freer rein. He possesses the imaginative talent to strike out wider. 

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