Tales from Dayrut: Feudalism, folklore and fantasy
In Egyptian writer Mohamed Mustagab’s short story “Bughayli Bridge”, a police officer goes to a village in Upper Egypt to investigate a murder. After he is tipped off that the murderer has thrown the murder weapon, a cleaver, into the Dayruti canal under the Bughayli Bridge he brings a diver to explore the canal.
The diver brings up a bloodstained bag and an endless succession of body parts and skeletons. The villagers speculate over the identity of the human remains and some join the diver in his combing of the canal. “An elderly man came and requested that they search for his five children”.
All becomes chaos, and finally the bridge gives way and spectators tumble into the water. “The water of the canal filled with wheat stalks, turmoil, sycomore-fig branches, divers, peasant caps, arms, legs, timbers from the boat, and weeds from the bottom of the bridge. The spume scattered by the raging waves took on a bloody colour, like that of wisdom.”
The story lays bare the violent feud-ridden history of the village. It shows Mustagab’s surreal imagination, forthright language and characteristic narrative style teeming with characters and incidents, by turns hilarious and horrifying.
The English translation of “Bughayli Bridge” appears in the first anthology of Mustagab’s work to appear in English: “Tales from Dayrut” published recently by the American University in Cairo (AUC) Press.
Different Egyptian writers in translation have brought English-reading audiences different visions of Egypt; we have the Cairo of Naguib Mahfouz, the Alexandria of Edwar Kharrat, the Bedouin society of Miral al-Tahawy, the Damanhour of Khairy Shalaby. Mohamed Mustagab transports the reader to the strange, distinctive world of rural Upper Egypt with its poverty, superstition, vendettas, honor killings, rumors and folklore.
Mustagab was born in 1938 in the Upper Egyptian town of Dayrut al-Sharif. Although he had little formal education, he eventually became director general of the Academy of the Arabic Language in Cairo. He published his first short story in al-Hilal magazine in 1968 and was subsequently a prolific writer for that magazine and other publications including al-Musawwar magazine.
He won several literary prizes over the years. His novella “The Secret History of Nu’man Abd al-Hafiz” won the State Incentive Prize in 1984, and AUC Press notes that it was chosen as one of the top hundred novels from the Arab world in the last century. He was posthumously awarded a State Merit Award in 2006, the year after his death.
“Tales from Dayrut” consists of fourteen connected stories from his collection “Dayrut al-Sharif”, plus “From the Secret History of Nu’man Abd al-Hafiz”. In his vigorous translation, Humphrey Davies captures Mustagab’s rollicking style and vivid descriptive powers.
Davies was in 2006 the first winner of the annual Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation for his rendering of Lebanese author Elias Khoury’s novel “Gate of the Sun”. His translations for AUC Press include Alaa Al Aswany’s “The Yacoubian Builidng”, Naguib Mahfouz’s “Thebes at War”, Ahmed Alaidy’s “Being Abbas el Abd” and Gamal al-Ghitani’s “Pyramid Texts” and “The Mahfouz Dialogs”. He recently translated Egyptian writer Bahaa Taher’s novel “Sunset Oasis”, which was the inaugural winner in 2008 of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF). The translation is due to be published in the UK in September by the Hodder & Stoughton imprint Spectre.
Before the publication of “Tales from Dayrut”, little of Mustagab’s work had appeared in English. The Egyptian scholar Mona Zaki, who did her doctorate at Princeton University, had however brought some of his writing to pages of Banipal, the London-based magazine of modern Arab literature.
The Autumn 2001 issue of Banipal carried Zaki’s translations of two of Mustagab’s stories: “The Exit” (from the collection “Huzn Yumeelu lil-Mumazaha”) and “Hulagu” (from “Dayrut al-Sharif”) . Zaki’s translation of “Hulagu” was also included in Banipal Books’ 2005 anthology of short stories from North Africa, “Sardines and Oranges”. Humphrey Davies’ translation of the same story appears in “Tales from Dayrut”.
The Spring 2006 issue of Banipal marked Mustagab’s death the previous summer through publication of Zaki’s translations of his short story “The Hired Killer” and of his true account “Ola the Hit Man”.
The narrator of “A Woman”, one of the stories in “Tales from Dayrut”, tells us that “every village has a hired killer who takes care of it and is taken care of by it.” In an alarmingly matter-of-fact manner the men of the village agree to hire Mr A to kill Mrs N, an alluring woman about whom there are rumors.
“We knew when to expect that killings would take place in our village – in the morning, at dawn, or a little after the evening prayer – and were capable of discussing the murderer’s wages and the method he would use to dispatch his victim – a knife, burning, poison, strangulation using the hands or a palm-fiber rope, or smothering with the bedclothes.” Mr A is expected to strangle Mrs N, but she throws him out of the window, and stands on the roof of her house “steadfast, proud, and completely naked, looking at us with a smile of contempt.”
In “The Edge of the Day” Mustagab builds up through precise details a picture of a village and its people and wildlife towards sunset. The ominous hush is broken by fatal shots. In “The Battle of the Camel” clans gather and besiege the house of man, killing his children and butchering the man.
The villagers in “The Offering” lose the power of speech. They overcome this first through sign language and then develop a special form of clapping which makes them much in demand at weddings in other villages.
The novella “From the Secret History of Nu’man Abd al-Hafiz” is an entertaining account of Nu’man’s childhood and youth , complete with footnotes. Nu’man was born to a woman who sold salted fish on the banks of the Bahr Yusuf canal. As the novella’s first sentence states: “No one in this world can pinpoint the year in which Nu’man was born”.The narrative is full of digressions and references as disparate as Albert Camus, Islamic history, family dramas and the clock Harun al Rashid presented to Charlemagne.
Saudi Gazette 9 March 2009