19 - 25 December 2002
Book : Lailat Urs (Wedding Night) Cairo: Al-Hilal Novels Series
Author: Youssef Abu-Rayya
Reviewed by Youssef Rakha
Since giving up journalism to devote himself to creative writing, Youssef Abu-Rayya (b.1955) has produced three short novels and several collections of short stories, as well as various works of children's literature. In the present volume, his fourth novel, he pursues his concern with the intimate details of small-town life further, resuming a life-long preoccupation with what the late critic Ali El-Ra'ie called "a fascination with the hidden" and forsaking the surface of things for narrative that is at once deeper and more subtle.
Certainly, the two quotations which prefix the book, from Jubran Khalil Jubran and Wadie Sa'ada, testify to this interest in the smaller dimensions of the existences of the less fortunate: "Now that I am ready for weddings/ Like a goose on a platter/ Let the party commence/ So that assassins and homosexuals/ Might dance with kings and saints/ And prostitutes, not priests, give matrimonial blessings/ That this night might bear a beautiful progeny."
The narrative turns around Houda El-Akhras, a central player in the town's social games, who becomes the subject of a conspiracy on the part of the townspeople. They feel that he has discovered, and may divulge, their secrets, but paradoxically El-Akhras means "dumb", referring to the character's speech impairment. El-Akhras's only saving grace is the woman he is in love with, part of the cause of his misfortune, whose failure to disclose her feelings until the conspiracy is well underway leads to the pair's separation.
This intense, almost conspiratorial mise-en- scene is new to Abu-Rayya, whose plots have tended to demonstrate a scarcity of incident and a tendency to eschew direct confrontation. Yet, the present novel's dramatic plotting provides the perfect counterweight to Abu- Rayya's subdued vision, giving the book a kind of hushed poise. Here, the love theme, the brutality of the conspiracy and the figure of the dumb man invest the novel with pretensions towards universal relevance, as well as marked vitality, taking the author's project of constructing an individual mythology out of incidents in the life of the Nile Delta to new levels.
Abu-Rayya locates his drama near the town's market, the abattoir in which El- Akhras and his brother work becoming the setting of this character's near-consuming, but frustrated, sexual desire. This condition, expertly dramatised, might be taken as part of Abu-Rayya's diagnosis of small-town life, as well as a comment on the problems of many of Egypt's young people. However, there are also other human types: Me'alem Osman, owner of the abattoir, Sheikh Saadoun, a failed Azharite dervish and Hamada, a homosexual transvestite assigned the role of wife to El-Akhras.
Against this background, El-Akhras plays out his absurdist or existential predicament, giving all the characters sufficient cause for vengeance. Yet, this predicament is one of excessive honesty, for, like Camus's Mersault, El- Akhras is unable to play the social game, allowing his adversaries to conspire against him. He is honest, exposed, and therefore dangerous. While Abu-Rayya employs a range of literary devices to convey his anti-hero's sense of personal crisis, conveying not only a particular Egyptian locale with which he is familiar but also a deep sense of place, time and identity, there are differences between Abu-Rayya's treatment of his theme and that pursued by Camus, signalling a difference between the Western metropolis in which Mersault lives and the small town life presented by the present author.
In Abu-Rayya's novel, the woman El-Akhras loves, Fakiha, informs him of the plot against him, at the same time confessing her mutual affection. As a result, his adversaries are denied the pleasure of discovering Fakiha's transvestite nature, and El-Akhras disappears, in a gesture reminiscent of Mersault's fate. His disappearance from the community, equivalent to execution, is a banishment made because he has transgressed the line between what is and what is not acceptable.
Here, too, Abu-Rayya's meaning appears culturally specific: the novel draws to a close on the same quiet note that had sounded its commencement, and, while many in the town ask after El-Akhras, furious that their plot against him has not succeeded, even his elder brother has no idea where he might be. At this point the reader's admiration for Abu-Rayya's novel is reinforced, for, though the narrative is engaging enough, its intensity of expression would perhaps have proved heavy-going had it not been for such moments of featherweight simplicity.
Abu-Rayya seems at his accomplished best in this novel, and in it, arguably for the first time, he has given his usual theme a vital, almost theatrical edge, investing the narrative with the qualities of good entertainment. However, the author has nevertheless also managed to retain the broader significance of his theme, imbuing the text with the same subtle and moving qualities that had marked his earlier work. Lailat Urs is an unequivocally satisfying read.
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