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Saturday, 31 August 2019

Book review: Otared, Mohammad Rabie (2016)

Published in Arabic in 2014, this work of speculative noir eventually morphs into a cosmic fantasy. It deals initially with events surrounding a resistance fighter living in Cairo in 2025. Egypt has been occupied by a foreign power and Colonel Ahmed Otared, an ex-cop, is a sniper in an organisation peopled by others who used to be police, by people who used to be in the armed forces, and by civilians. Despite the sometimes violent and unpleasant nature of some events that go to form the plot and that constitute the colour that makes additional meaning in the book, the writing is beautiful. It is characterised by a clarity and an economy that make reading this novel a real pleasure.

As is true of a lot of speculative fiction, Rabie tries to grapple with contemporary issues in his novel. The first chapter is set in the present (now) at a time when the autocrat had been deposed and the Arab Spring had played itself out and the military had staged its coup to take power from the elected government. In this part of the book, Otared has to deal with the murder of a family by its father. Otared goes to the scene of the crime and then, later, to the court to watch justice being done. Rabie is scathing in his assessment of the judges in the Egyptian justice system but Otared has no idea why the murders he had been exposed to were committed. It was a crime for which there were no neat answers, and to explain which no reliable narrative could be advanced.

This set-piece provides context for the reality on the ground once the foreigners have moved their ships into position in the Nile, to a point lying between east Cairo (which is occupied) and west Cairo (which is not occupied). It is 2025 and Otared has just been called back down from the tower he had been working in, a place from which he and the men under his command had an unobstructed view of most sectors of the city and from where, over a period of two years, he had regularly used his rifle and scope to put to death to people who had been singled out for him as targets, as well as people he had decided, on his own initiative, should die.

Drones are used by the resistance to communicate and, once he is out of the tower and finds himself in east Cairo, Otared receives a message from a small machine shaped like a scarab beetle that takes a shine to the assassin. He meets with a number of other operatives in an apartment in the city and there they discuss a new plan and also relive past glories, recalling events that took place a decade before when the state, which they had been devoted to protecting was, in their view, threatened by the citizenry’s demands for representative government. As before, as in the scenes taking place in court that were recounted in the first chapter, in this staged discussion Rabie examines a number of issues that (today) characterise politics in Egypt, and this conversation ramps up in intensity in the third section of the book, which is set in 2011 at the time of the Arab Spring.

This part of the book starts at about midway in the volume and is followed by another section, dated AH 455 (1063 AD). “Anno hegirae” is the Islamic dating convention, starting from the year Mohammed and his followers left Mecca to move to Medina and establish the first Islamic community. This chapter is, quite simply, extraordinary in its imagining and involves people witnessing what happens after the death of a man named Sakhr. The chapter contains intimations of the Last Judgement accompanied by a kind of messianic zeal that occupies the minds of people who come to see Sakhr’s corpse. It is a tour-de-force of imaginative writing that relies on very little in the way of scene setting beyond the crowds, a few guards, a gate, a cliff (which also feature in the book’s first section set in 2025), and the deceased man’s body. Everything plays out in the mind of a man in the crowd and, in this part of the book, Rabie convincingly demonstrates the breadth of his skillset.

But most of the narrative dances between 2011 and 2025 with one character who links the two periods. To say who it is would require me to reveal more about the plot than readers, who have not read this book, might want.

Otared is a complex character and Rabie does not look for simple solutions to Egypt’s problems. Rather, he acknowledges the importance for Egyptians of revealed religion and the equally powerful force of cultural momentum in deciding the form that government can take at any given point in time. He also lays responsibility for the health of the polis at the feet of the people, rather than merely blaming unaccountable heads of government. In such a way the novel can be taken as a commentary on humanity more broadly, not just on Egypt; in this light Otared’s obsessions might appear unsurprising.

To find a reasonable way to explain the end of this novel you might ask if Otared suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. He certainly saw enough of the grisly result of crime during his time in the police force to suggest a mental illness as the reason for his visions. He most certainly could also have been rendered severely traumatised as a result of killing so many innocent people. But this is a novel and it is not necessary to always find neat, logical explanations for endings. Sometimes the existence of a paradox can be just as rewarding for the reader as a pat solution, one where everything wraps up neatly and all the loose ends are tied up in a bow. Rabie’s poetic vision might best be summed up by lines written by America’s Sylvia Plath (from ‘Tale of a Tub’, 1956):
each day demands we create our whole world over,
disguising the constant horror in a coat
of many-colored fictions
Rabie has a larger vision than most writers, and this exceptional novel deserves broad acclaim. In fact, this is just one of many very good novels that in recent years have come from countries in the Middle East. You cannot forge an alternative perspective of this kind. Forget about cultural appropriation: if a Western author wants to write about a person of colour living in a developing country, let him or her do so. It’s not important. What is important is that books like this one get read as widely as possible.

Lastly, if the indiscriminate shooting of people walking in the street were the only type of objectionable violence this book offers, I wouldn’t add a warning, but there are other things, which are very dark, that might prove too challenging for some readers.

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