Book Review By Aida Nassar
Daily Star Egypt
First Published: December 1, 2006
Award winning book explores truth vs appearances
By Yusuf Abu Rayya
Translated into English by R. Neil Hewison
American University in Cairo, 2006
CAIRO: Houda is deaf and
mute; he hears no evil and he speaks no evil.
However, his disabilities certainly do not stop him from spying on his
neighbors. With a talent for mimicking, he is a popular storyteller
among the townspeople who find amusement in exposing the local gossip.
And his neighbors provided him with sufficient material to entertain the
men at the local coffee shop.
�He knew the troublemaker, the bribetakers, and the illicit
relationships � he knew the man who in the heat of the afternoon visited
the wife of his friend who was away, and the man who in the dark of the
night visited the wife of a friend who was ill.� Houda uses sign
language to articulate what those who can speak dare not say out loud.
His boss, the local butcher Maallim Osman, soon discovers that one can
easily play a starring role in one of his mimed tales, a humiliating
prospect. The maallim had made his fortune sealing a deal with an army
officer in the local hashish den to become the meat supplier for the
regiment camped outside of the town. But given his current standing, his
past is quickly forgotten. He is married to a beautiful woman � his
first love, a woman whose parents didn�t deem him worthy of until he had
become a prominent and wealthy member of the community years later.
Houda, though, can make a dent in his flimsy armor of honor.
The maallim�s desirable wife claims that Houda assaulted her � the mark
still evident where he pinched her breasts � when he was delivering meat
to their house. Not willing to have this transgression become local
gossip, Maallim Osman plots his revenge. The whole town, in fact, helps
to publicly humiliate Houda. They plan an elaborate wedding for Houda,
but keep the bride�s identity a secret.
Houda has his reservations, but when the brass ring is dangling before
him, he chooses to trust the maallim. It�s ironic, however, that the man
privy to the town�s innermost secrets � the drugs, the lies, the sordid
affairs, and perverse sexual habits � seems to trust them naively.
It�s only natural that he�s nervous.
�This marriage goes back to the old days, the days of our fathers and
mothers, when no man saw his future bride in advance. She would be
revealed to him on the wedding night, and it was a matter of luck,
either one of the gardens of paradise or one of the pits of hell. Or, it
was like a watermelon, also a matter of luck, whether it would be red or
white inside, only God knows. These days, watermelons are split open
before you buy them, so why can�t you do it the modern way, ya maallim?�
wonders Houda as he analyzes his own pre-wedding jitters.
Zaki, though he has reservations about the town prank, doesn�t struggle
with the decision to stand by as he watches his brother prepare for the
hoax nuptial night. He�s not even aware of what Houda did to rile up the
maallim, not to mention the rest of the townspeople who are more than
willing to help out. Zaki�s fatalism is endemic, a statement about
today�s society, where we all sit back and watch injustices happen, but
say nothing, do nothing. Is it out of fear of losing his livelihood at
the butcher�s? Is it out of a sense of feeling negligible?
The author, Yusuf Abu Rayya, was awarded last year�s Naguib Mahfouz
Medal for Literature by the American University in Cairo Press for
�Wedding Night.� At the awards ceremony Samia Mehrez, one of the judges,
described his novel as �the rural counterpart to Mahfouz�s critical
dissection of the urban world.�
Abu Rayya�s talent comes in creating a web of characters that bring the
small, sleepy town in the Delta to life. The characters are simple, but
that isn�t to say they are one-dimensional. They are not complicated;
they are who they are. The author doesn�t go into elaborate explanations
of how they developed, he simply describes them as they are � their
hopes, their fears � with no apologies.
�Sarcasm, irony and light comedy dominate the narrative tone; they
become a means to protest dominant values in society. The symbolic level
of the novel is anchored in a stifling reality from whose hell the
individual might be able to escape,� comments Ibrahim Fahmi, another
judge on the panel of the Mahfouz Medal. �But the question is: where
If towns are big villages, as Abu Rayya descried in his acceptance
speech last year, then the �capital is a condensed version of the
homeland.� There is no escape then. The pitfalls of one community will
only be replicated elsewhere.
If people rally with the maallims of this world, if they chose to join
in ridiculing the truth in order to continue the charade of
respectability, then there will be no escape. Life will go on, following
routine day after day. There will be no escape.
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