Translated by Barbara Romaine. Berkeley: University of California Press. This brief novel comes packaged in three pages of acknowledgments, a note on transliteration and pronunciation of Arabic, a glossary and 15 pages of introduction. By the time you reach the first words by the author, you do feel rather as if you were contemplating a museum exhibit cocooned by curatorial explanation. The most useful part of this freight is the introduction, which sets the scene for a piece of fiction that is frequently allusive and the context of which could be mysterious to those unfamiliar with the social and political background of modern Egypt.
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Preferred Citation: Taher, Bahaa'. Aunt Safiyya and the Monastery: A Novel. To my daughters, Dina and Yusr, with love to them and to my country. This translation is dedicated to the memory of my mother, who died in April This translation would never have been possible without the assistance, both spiritual and material, of innumerable friends, colleagues, and relatives, some of whom must unfortunately go unnamed here, in the interest of keeping my acknowledgments to a length somewhat less than that of the novel itself!
Taher as well for his endless, patient assistance on the translation itself, in which he has been a full participant, usually over inconveniently long distances. Second, I wish to express my utmost appreciation to Lynne Withey of the University of California Press, for encouraging me to publish this novel and then putting up with thousands of E-mail messages from me as a result of her encouragement.
She has been unfailingly cheerful and supportive in the face of my unremitting queries and complaints. James Bill, director of the Reves Center for International Studies at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, came through with both financial and moral support at a very crucial juncture. I am profoundly grateful to him and the Reves Center for helping me keep this project on track. Additional thanks for consultation on the translation itself go to Mr.
To David Wilmsen and Ray Langsten—without whom I might never have had the heart to pursue this project when in its early stages the obstacles seemed insurmountable—many thanks. I thank David in particular for his efforts to help me locate a publisher for the novel. I am grateful to my mother, Susan Romaine, my sister, Janet Romaine, and my friend Philip Zimmerman, who read early drafts of the translation with good grace and helpful comments; for advice on the introduction, thanks to my father, William Romaine, and to friends Carolyn Makinson and Dan Byman, among others.
Susan Barile, along with her friendship and her belief in me, supplied books that were helpful in researching background material.
Finally, to all those not named here whose good will and encouragement nevertheless made a difference in helping this translation come into being, my sincere gratitude. Like all languages, Arabic is full of idioms and words for which there is no exact equivalent in any other language. For the most part, I have tried to get around this with at least an approximate translation, but in a few cases I have found any English rendering of the Arabic to be so awkward as to interfere with the flow of the narrative.
In such instances, I have transliterated an Arabic word or expression, explaining it either with a footnote or in the glossary. In general, Arabic words in this text have been transliterated so as to make them, insofar as possible, phonetically intelligible to the non-Arabic speaker.
In some cases, phonemes that do not exist in English have been omitted entirely or replaced with similar English phonemes where the presence or absence of the Arabic phoneme—although significant to an Arabic speaker—makes little difference to most English speakers. A few points call for explanation. In the narrative, this form of the word is used.
In the dialogue, however, the reader will often find the word spelled migaddis, following a variation also used in the original Arabic text. He has to his credit several collections of short stories and three novels, of which Aunt Safiyya and the Monastery, published in Egypt in , is the third.
Raised and educated in the city of his birth, Taher nevertheless feels a strong connection with the geographical setting of this novel: the region of Luxor, where his parents came from. In his introduction to the original work, the author pays tribute to his mother, a gifted storyteller whom he credits with inspiring his own narrative talents. Taher himself is both a first-rate storyteller and a shrewd observer of the world in which he lives, revealing through his fiction a great deal about a broad range of Egyptian experience: from the struggle of daily life in Cairo to the difficulties facing an Egyptian emigrant in Europe to a conflict of ethics and tradition in an Upper Egyptian village.
He writes of the elation he and his classmates felt at the success of the revolution, as well as their subsequent rapid disillusionment with the new regime. This was evidently a painfully confusing time for those who had actively supported the revolution and believed in the ideals it represented, which were essentially socialist in character. Thus a period of social reform and a striving for political autonomy in Egypt was also one of political purges and radio broadcasts of the trials of alleged subversives.
In his introduction, Taher refers eloquently to the contradictory feelings of loyalty and horror this situation evoked in him and his contemporaries. It was in this atmosphere, he tells us, that he and many others began their literary careers, without fully understanding at the time why they were so confused. Only later, he says, did they gain a more useful perspective on their conflicting feelings. A number of them feature characters whose hopes for a prosperous future are dashed in one way or another, or who endure some senseless setback.
The characters seem to be more or less paralyzed, as all attempts to reverse their fate have met with defeat; the result is a sense of resigned despair. The reader might read their plight as analogous to the hopes and disappointments the Egyptian people felt in connection with the revolution of In Egypt social criticism, ranging from the gently allusive to the scathingly satirical, often finds expression in fiction.
A number of Egyptian writers, such as Yusuf Idris and Naguib Mahfouz—who are among the Egyptian authors best known outside the Arab world—have at various times suffered censorship, or worse, as a result of expressing their views too freely. Taher himself, in the mids during the administration of Anwar Sadat , was dismissed from his job in radio broadcasting and prevented from publishing his writing.
There he found a position as a translator for the United Nations, where he is employed to this day, although he continues to regard writing as his most important occupation.
The commentary underlying his clear and direct prose is certainly integral to his stories, but the language is kept deliberately simple, with a strong emphasis on descriptive detail, punctuated by action depicted in straightforward narrative style.
There is plenty of scope for analysis, but such probing is left mainly to the reader, for the narrator of the story is generally himself a participant in the events and thus expresses a limited, not omniscient, viewpoint.
This is expressed in the characterization of the people who come to life in his novels and short stories, for they cannot be said to stand unequivocally for such qualities as innocence, honesty, corruption, ambition, guile, and so forth.
The story begins when the protagonist accidentally wanders into a park that has been specially created for people to walk their dogs. On realizing where he is, he reacts first with dismay, then with rage as he thinks how many starving Egyptian children could be fed on what these Europeans feed their dogs. Before he can get away, however, he is drawn unwillingly into a conversation with an elderly woman, who is walking her dog in the park. Yet she is fully as sympathetic a character as the protagonist himself, even though she and her dog represent the culture in which he feels so alienated.
Taher proposes no facile solutions to the persistent divisiveness of human society. Several of his protagonists, in seeking to understand themselves and their experiences, encounter aspects of pharaonic Egypt, whether in dreams, through desert wanderings, or by other means. These pieces express a sense of alienation from both the homeland and the adopted country, and simultaneously a striving toward reconciliation with the homeland and with the adopted country as well.
Aunt Safiyya and the Monastery, which Taher in fact dedicates to his country—as well as to his two daughters—is preceded by East of the Palm first published in its entirety in and Duha Said also published in In each of the two earlier novels, the narrator is a young man coming of age in Egypt, trying to establish his identity as an Egyptian and an Arab in an atmosphere of political and societal confusion and angst.
Both characters are frustrated with the status quo and disillusioned with a society that offers them little in the way of future prospects or opportunities for self-expression.
The narrator of Aunt Safiyya and the Monastery is a man approaching middle age, looking back on a period of his childhood. All this is set clearly in the broader context of the events surrounding the Arab-Israeli hostilities, and in particular the war of The novel also implicitly concerns itself with the problem of sectarian relations within Egypt. This period—the late s to mids—is not the first in which Muslim and Coptic groups have come into conflict; indeed, this is a recurring phenomenon that can be seen as symptomatic of other divisive influences affecting Egyptian society as a whole.
Here it is helpful to be at least moderately conversant with the history of the Copts in Egypt and the way in which Muslim-Coptic relations have developed since the Islamicization of that country. The identification of the Copts as a distinct religious group was an outgrowth of a confusing controversy concerning the nature of Christ that rocked Christianity in the fourth and fifth centuries.
The main participants in the dispute were the Orthodox Church itself and two other groups, known as the Nestorians and the Monophysites. The Monophysites argued that the nature of Christ was wholly divine, whereas the Nestorians maintained that Christ had two entirely discrete natures, one divine and one human. Officials of the Orthodox Church, who held a position midway between the two, persecuted both dissenting groups.
Under Byzantine rule, the Copts continued to suffer persecution from the Orthodox Church. But in the seventh century, the Arab conquest spread from the Arabian peninsula to Egypt: under the leadership of Amr Ibn al-As, the Arabs wrested Egypt from the Byzantine empire.
Many Copts at this time saw in the relatively tolerant Muslim government of Amr Ibn al-As an attractive alternative to Byzantine oppression, and thus they readily converted to Islam.
Nevertheless, the Coptic community did not disappear but has survived to this day as a distinct religious minority in Egypt, with a strong communal identity. The question of identity—Coptic, Muslim, Egyptian—is a complex one, yet it is arguably not primarily the issue of religious identity that has historically given rise to conflict between Muslim and Coptic communities.
Egypt has many times been challenged in this way, whether as the result of an East-West power struggle, as during the British occupation from to and after the war in which Israel with the support of Western powers occupied Sinai, or because the government has failed to serve the needs of the majority of the population—as is currently the case.
It is certainly true that the Copts, owing to their minority status following the establishment of Islam in Egypt, have suffered a certain amount of hardship and persecution—sometimes quite severe—over the course of the centuries leading up to our own.
During the British occupation both Copts and Muslims felt disempowered as a result of the British co-optation of government authority. The nationalist movement taken over by Mustafa Kamil in attempted to unite Egyptians, without reference to religious identity, against the British occupiers.
But the Copts, fearing the development of pan-Islamic tendencies in the Muslim-led nationalist movement, had their own agenda. Perceiving themselves now as a minority threatened specifically by the Muslim majority, they sought to advance their own interests under British protection. Consequently, tension between Muslim and Coptic communities rose sharply, as each group strove to assert its place in society and politics.
Although a nominal truce was achieved when Copts and Muslims came together in Cairo to try to resolve their differences at the General Egyptian Congress of , the fact remains that what had previously been, for the most part, a cooperative relationship between the two groups had now become a decidedly competitive one, sowing the seeds of a mutual mistrust that has plagued the two communities ever since.
Although in the early years of his presidency Sadat tried to work with at least some of the Islamic groups, his ultimate response to the conflict between Muslims and Copts was not to mediate disputes but to crack down harshly on both sides, thus further aggravating an already tense situation; violent clashes between the two groups escalated during the years leading up to and following his assassination in Conditions in Egypt today are in some respects similar to those of the period just after the war, although the immediate causes are somewhat different.
Meanwhile, high unemployment increasingly leads those who can to seek work outside Egypt, draining the country of crucial human resources for which the imported income does not adequately compensate. The large-scale emigration of highly qualified workers from a country whose population can no longer maintain itself is a vicious circle from which Egypt has so far not managed to escape.
Already strained by the series of Arab-Israeli clashes that had come before, Egypt after was left economically depleted and thoroughly demoralized by the loss of Sinai—as well as the loss of thousands of Egyptian lives. The intensity of the conflict between Arabs both Muslim and Christian and Israeli Jews that has characterized relations between Israel and its Arab inhabitants and neighbors ever since its founding in has been a major cause of the rise of violent fringe groups on all sides.
Islamic extremists in Egypt have gained a still firmer foothold in a society composed chiefly of Muslims, most of whom are poor and whose basic needs are increasingly desperate and not effectively addressed by the present administration.
Like any group seeking political power, these extremist factions promise the populace what the government does not deliver, at the same time profiting from their own identification with the more moderate Islamic groups that are in fact setting up free schools and health-care facilities in some of the regions where such resources are lacking.
Under the circumstances—and I have here touched on only a few of the problems that are straining the social fabric of Egypt—it is easy to understand how certain elements of the society have become polarized.
The question of whether such polarization has occurred along religious, ethnic, or political lines, or some combination thereof, is perhaps less significant than the undeniable fact of the resulting social schism. For Egypt has become, in some sense, divided against itself: not only because Muslims and Copts are all Egyptians and some of them are fighting among themselves, but also because on both sides it is, as usual, a volatile minority that is causing most of the disruption, to the grief and consternation of the majority of the populace, regardless of religious affiliation.
This situation is easily enough distorted and misrepresented by the reports that circulate within Egypt itself, as well as in the surrounding Arab countries.
Still, it is perhaps most profoundly misunderstood in the West, where the whole Arab-Islamic world is often viewed as a hotbed of religious extremism in which reason and discourse are scarce, while irrational violence, perpetrated mainly on the innocent, is the order of the day.
Too little recognition is accorded the voices arguing for peace and for tolerance among different groups—and yet these voices represent the vast majority.
For just as it is no accident that his novel—about a remarkable alliance between a Muslim village in Upper Egypt and the inhabitants of a nearby Coptic monastery—emerges precisely when it does, it is no coincidence that the novel has not just one chief heroic figure, but two: the one a Muslim and the other a Copt. He is a meditative and deeply principled man, a social and religious leader in his community.
The mystical hero of the tale is a Coptic monk, who, while often a comic figure who confuses his facts, yet manages to combine humility and authority. He seems to be endowed with extraordinary powers of perception, almost a sixth sense, and in fact as events unfold he emerges as something of a prophet.
For although she is a figure of power and intelligence, what chiefly motivates Safiyya is violent emotion, which takes the form of a savage obsession with the fulfillment of a vengeance to which—according to tradition, not religious principle—she considers herself entitled. The story takes place in postrevolutionary Egypt, in a small village near Luxor, over a period of years prior to and just after the Arab-Israeli War of It is not just the characters themselves that are at variance with one another, but cultural values as well, for those who oppose the blood feud set themselves up in opposition to an ancient and deeply embedded practice.
The morality of this custom of exacting blood for blood is not explicitly debated in the novel: both sides of the question are represented by sympathetic characters, whose stories are told.
What is particularly interesting, however, is that the opposition to the blood feud brings Muslim and Copt in this novel into a state of true, interdependent symbiosis.
Preferred Citation: Taher, Bahaa'. Aunt Safiyya and the Monastery: A Novel. To my daughters, Dina and Yusr, with love to them and to my country. This translation is dedicated to the memory of my mother, who died in April This translation would never have been possible without the assistance, both spiritual and material, of innumerable friends, colleagues, and relatives, some of whom must unfortunately go unnamed here, in the interest of keeping my acknowledgments to a length somewhat less than that of the novel itself! Taher as well for his endless, patient assistance on the translation itself, in which he has been a full participant, usually over inconveniently long distances.
Aunt Safiyya and the Monastery
The present first English translation by Barbara Romaine appeared in This tragic narrative of an unwanted love that begets a terrible revenge and obsessive hatred, offset by several touching examples of wise benignity, is set in a small village in Upper Egypt in the vicinity of Luxor — in most ways an ordinary village of poor Muslim peasant farmers, whose settlement is distinguished mainly by its having an ancient Christian monastery nearby. The Orthodox monks and the villagers live side by side without any tensions and one of the monks in particular, the miqaddisBishai, is a village favourite for his easy-going friendliness and his fund of agricultural knowledge. Indeed, the disputes around the Suez Canal and the subsequent war with Israel show up faintly and intermittently on the sidelines of the narrative, which is much more centrally concerned with the intensely personal drama in its midst. She was an orphan brought up in their household along with the narrator, his three sisters being always less interesting to him than the remarkably beautiful Safiyya, who was only about eight years his senior. In this small village, where almost everyone is related to everyone else, there is another strikingly good-looking person, several years older than the narrator and Safiyya, and a cousin to both of them.
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