Aunt Safeyya and the Monastery


Reviews and Readers comments on Bahaa Taher's Novel


This novel "is set 30 years ago in a village outside Luxor. . . . Safiyya, the narrator's aunt, is an orphan girl who was taken in by his parents and brought up by them. It is taken for granted that . . . she will marry Harbi, a handsome and agreeable young relative. . . . {However}, the local bey--a man in his 60's, of wealth and prestige--asks to marry her. Safiyya acquiesces. . . . {She later} bears the bey a son. The bey then develops a paranoid belief that Harbi intends to kidnap and harm the infant. He brings hired thugs to the village to torture Harbi, {who} . . . manages to break free and shoot the bey. . . . {Following the village custom of the blood feud}, Safiyya must raise her son in the expectation that he will in due course avenge his father bykilling Harbi." (N Y Times Book Rev)

Editorial Reviews

This brief, beautifically crafted novel introduces one of the finest contemporary Arab novelists to English-speaking audiences. In it, Bahaa' Taher, one of a group of Egyptian writers-including the Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz-noted for their revealing portraits of Egyptian life and society, tells the dramatic story of a young Muslim who, when his life is threatened, finds sanctuary in a community of Coptic monks. It is a tale of honor and of the terrible demands of blood vengeance; it probes the question of how a people or nation can become divided against itself. Taher has a magical gift for evoking the village life of Upper Egypt-a vastly different setting than urban Cairo and a landscape that tourists usually glimpse only from the windows of trains and buses taking them to the Pharaonic sites. Here, where Christians and Muslims have coexisted peacefully for centuries, where the traditions of the Coptic Church are as powerful as those of the Muslims, Taher crafts an intricate and compelling tale of far-reaching implications. With a powerful narrative voice and a genius for capturing the complex nuances of human interaction, Taher brilliantly depicts the poignant drama of a traditional society caught up in the process of change."Taher is by far the best and most original contemporary Egyptian writer." (Muhammad Siddiq, University of California, Berkeley)

"It is a compelling and fascinating book, written in a direct and terse style by a writer who paid attention to his world and saw its limitations clearly but who remembers it with nostalgia and affection." (Segno Sette)

"The pleasure of the narrative comes from the large number of characters, from thewriting, which is expansive and rich in incidents, and from a moral and historical sense that gives the book depth." (L'Indice dei Libri del Mese)

"Beyond the events, Taher draws a very lively portrait of a woman of Islamic civilization in the 1960s, where women, holding their chador between their teeth while their hands serve their men, play the part of the protagonists who are silent but very powerful in the life of the community (a community that is disintegrating with the departure of women for the social emanicipation offered by the big city, and with the of Safiyya [the book's heroine] and of the superstitions that have persecuted her, as for millenia they have persecuted Egypt, crushed by its myths and by cultural tradition immobilized by time." (Il Sole 24 Ore)

From the Critics

From K.I. Semaan - Choice 
A cheaply produced publication, this novella offers the reader no artistic or historical satisfaction of any kind. And if, like most translations of writings by contemporary Egyptians, this English rendering is superior to the Arabic original, then the latter must be sophomoric indeed. . . . Not recommended.

From Issa Peters - World Literature Today 
Taher represents a competent voice of the new generation that came after the giants, Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz and Yusuf Idris. Hence a translation of one of his works is particularly welcome. The author . . . must be givencredit for having the courage to deal with such highly sensitive topics as blood feuds in Upper Egypt and Muslim-Coptic relations there. Moreover, he handles both topics extremely well. . . . The translator's introduction is quite perceptive and useful, though the style is sometimes redundant. . . . The text also flows idiomatically. . . . {Romaine} is to be congratulated on her accomplishment.

From Trevor Beeson - The Christian Century 
Egyptian novelist Bahaa' Taher responds to the increase in violence between Christians and Muslims in Egypt with this tale of cooperation and trust between a Coptic monastery and a Muslim village. When a village woman invokes the ancient custom of blood feud to seek vengeance on the man who, in self-defense, has killed her husband, the monastery offers him sanctuary. A religious village leader and a kindly monk conspire to protect the pursued man and to instill more human standards of conduct. But this is no simple didactic tale. Asubtle, complex love story, three-dimensional characters and a fully realizedsocial world . . . give this novel power. Taher's abilities as a storytellerand stylist shine. He is one of the Arab world's major writers.

From Aida A. Bamia - The Middle East Journal 
Taher is undoubtedly a first-class storyteller. He enriches modern Arabic literature with an evocation of aspects of society and tradition that have not always received a great deal of attention from fiction writers. . . . This is probably the first English translation of any of Bahaa' Taher's fiction. Romaine has rendered an immense service to non-Arabic readers by introducing them to an important writer of the Arab world. . . . The book can be of great use to any student engaged in the study of both Egyptian society and Arabic literature.

From Penelope Lively - The New York Times Book Review 
This brief novel {contains} . . . three pages of acknowledgements, a noteon transliteration and pronunciation of Arabic, a glossary and 15 pages of introduction. . . . The most useful part . . . is the introduction, which sets the scene for a piece of fiction that is frequently allusive and the context ofwhich could be mysterious to those unfamiliar with the social and political background of modern Egypt. . . . {The novel is} about the conflicts and confusion within traditional Egyptian life at a time of accelerated change. . . . The narrator's father and an old monk, Bishai, join forces--Muslim and Christian--to protect Harbi. . . . This is a significant alliance . . . and gives the novel a political relevance. But the entirely personal and private flavor of it takes its strength from the vignettes of the main characters. . . . Simply told, without adornment or much authorial intrusion, this is a brief tragedy with resonances wider than its village setting.

Readers Comments

A tender novel with a strong message of love
Reviewer: Isis S. Mikhail from Alabama, USA

This is the first book I read for Bahaa' Taher, an author previously unknown to me. His novel is describing the life in a southern village in Egypt where Copts (Egyptian Christians) and Moslems (Egyptian Moslems) lived together in peace and harmony for centuries. Suddenly, a rumor was injected by some unknown source, in order to create hatred between the villagers. Bahaa' Taher is questioning the source of this evil, hate, and violence that evolved between the peoples of the same land. Bahaa's style reflects his tender feelings and a sense of nostalgia for the past, the 'good old' and peaceful days. This book should be a must read for all schoolchildren in Egypt to teach them about Egyptian history of tolerance and peace. The novelist's style is so tender and his words flow soft like clouds. (It would be great if he would consider writing a romance). I must acknowledge Barbara Romaine for her translation of this book, it is simply flawless. This is a fascinating novel by a fine and very distinguished writer.

Compassioned Magic and Copts of Upper Egypt
Reviewer: jack schaaf from Virginia USA

Bahaa' Taher's short novel, following the earlier "Duha Said," and centering around the Copts of present-day Egypt, provides an engaging glance into the relations of Muslim-Christian while offering an interesting plot and narrative technique; As with the works of Naguib Mahfouz, it is not so much history as much as a well-wrought tale. While one wishes the author would write an historic novel based upon the relations of the monophysites and neighboring sects through the ages, Taher achieves something perhaps greater; creating his own byzantine while never imposing an entirely personalized view -or judgment- upon his very believable characters. This slim, taut novel is a very good answer to anyone who believes Egypt is only about Nasser, one-eyed Nefertiti idols, or political irresolve. Strongly recommend

Revenge and Justice, 
Reviewer: from Seattle

This book deserves an official review from a known source - a review listing it as a "must read". With an introduction and a glossary starting the book, I expected a difficult book. (I rarely read Mideastern literature because I generally find it less than engrossing.) I only used the glossary once - for curiousity not meaning. And I'd quite comfortable but the introduction at the back ... The book stands quite well on its own, thankyou.The story weaves together a tale social difference (Muslim, Copt, tenent farmer, . . .), family responsibility and social change. The characters are complex and realistic - the wise ones recognizing both the past and the future in a country just stripped of the Sinai in war. It provides a positive picture of Islam - a picture sadly needed in the West - as well as of the Copts, largely unknown in the West. Add it to your "must read" list - you'll be well rewarded


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