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Memories of a century

By Sally Bland - Apr 14,2014 - Last updated at Apr 14,2014

House of the Wolf

Ezzat El Kamhawi

Translated by Nancy Roberts

Cairo-New York: The American University in Cairo Press, 2013

 

While the title might strike a sinister chord, “House of the Wolf” is not about wild animals, but the saga of an Egyptian family named Al Deeb (Arabic for wolf). It tells the story of four generations who grow up, marry, have children and marry them off, in order to continue the cycle of life. The plot would be a bit rambling if not for two elements that provide structure, and rich emotional and historical dimensions. The first is a torrid, but ill-fated love affair; the second is that the Deeb family history is fused with that of Egypt.

The emotional depth of “House of the Wolf” derives from the fiercely guarded love of the main character, Mubarka Al Fouli, who marries into the Deeb clan but not as she envisions. Mubarka is a girl of such disquieting beauty and “ability to close the windows to her spirit so tightly that [one] couldn’t see anything of her”, that many suspect she is possessed by demons. (p. 9) Only one lad of the village, Muntasir Al Deeb, dares to approach her. Right away, they fall madly in love, with all the innocence and sensuality of youth. Then, on a selfish whim, Muntasir’s good-for-nothing uncle arranges to marry her instead. As a wife, Mubarka shuts down emotionally for many years, reserving her love for her children and later grandchildren, but she never forgets Muntasir, who leaves the village in a rage. One races through the novel if only to know whether the lovers ever get a second chance, but there are many other reasons to keep reading to the end.

The shifting fortunes of the Deeb family are chronicled in the context of developments in their village, Al Ish, which, in turn, are related to the major events of Egypt’s modern history from Napoleon’s invasion up into the 2000s. The story of the early days of Al Ish (The Nest) is both charming and instructive, comparable to an allegory for how self-sufficient, egalitarian, farming communities once existed the world over before greed and power-seeking infringed on their simple, harmonious life. As a Nile Delta village, Al Ish symbolises Egypt’s transformation from an overwhelmingly peasant society engaged in cotton cultivation to a more modern, diversified, capitalist economy. 

When Mohammed Ali’s emissaries come to Al Ish, they are astonished to find no central square and no appointed leader. “We all speak for the village,” say the inhabitants. (p. 16) But everything changes with the installation of a Turkish mayor, armed sentries, tax collection, conscription, etc. Muntasir’s father, Salama, leads a Robin Hood-like resistance to the new authority, while his son is later to stage attacks against British colonialism. However, as the Deebs prosper, they become the leading family of the village; the first Salama’s nephew becomes mayor, and the whole clan moves from their farmhouse into the mansion that had been built for the previous mayor. 

“The House of the Wolf” is fictionalised history-from-below wherein one sees colonialism, two world wars, independence, the Palestine War, Gamal Abdel Nasser’s regime and Sadat’s trip to Jerusalem through the eyes of the villagers. There are also devastating floods and cholera epidemics, but of all the calamities, the recurring wars with Israel and the Yemen war are considered the worst as they take away husbands and sons, disrupting the cycle of life prized by the villagers. Less dramatic, but equally powerful transitions also chip away at traditional life: a school is built in the village and Mubarka no longer has to stay in Zagazig with the children so they can get an education; the next generation goes to university. Remittances from Egyptians working in the Gulf fund high-rise apartment buildings which dwarf the original village homes and new economic policies break up the communal way of life.  

Although many occurrences in the novel show women’s weak status, in the end it is the women that hold the Deeb family together. Despite all the changes, Mubarka remains solid, the repository of the village and family memories of a century: “Replaying the tape of her life from the beginning, she would spend hours… commenting on scenes that no one but she had witnessed.” (p. 247)

Kamhawi’s writing is lucid and attention-grabbing, whether describing village customs or the sometimes out-of-bounds sexual escapades that occur within the extended family. Besides having a good command of history as it trickles down to ordinary people, he is quite adept at creating characters who are totally credible in their eccentricity, as well as depicting rather astounding behavior in a perfectly natural way. Not all the Deebs are exemplary, but Kamhawi treats them with empathy and humor, gently chiding the hapless but well meaning, while mercilessly ridiculing the selfish and cruel. Nancy Robert’s translation is seamless, preserving the local flavor of Egypt in fluid English prose.

 

Sally Bland

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