Awaiting the day of resurrection
The Penguin Classics series has brought nearly 3,000 works to mass English-language attention, although most have been by North American or European authors. It boasts a paltry three classics from medieval Arabic literature: by Ibn Fadlan, Usama ibn Munqidh, and Shihab al-Din al-Nuwayri. Return of the Spirit is its first modern Arabic work – likely added more for its historical significance than for its aesthetic pleasures.
Al-Hakim (1898-1987) is certainly an author of "classics". He exerted broad influence on twentieth-century Egyptian theatre, literature, and politics. But Return of the Spirit was not his most powerful literary work – not even among those he published in 1933, a year he also brought out The People of the Cave and Diary of a Country Prosecutor. Yet Return of the Spirit became the favourite of a young man who would become very important in twentieth-century Egypt: Gamal Abdel Nasser. Al-Hakim wrote, in his The Return of Consciousness (1974), that he understood his novel had "influenced the formation of his [Nasser’s] nationalism" to such an extent that Egypt’s first president reportedly tried to write his own literary work much like it, with a protagonist also called Muhsin.
Return of the Spirit opens in 1918, and the first section reads like a comedy of manners. The core characters are from an Egyptian family that has come from the north to live in a one-bedroom apartment in Cairo. Three are struggling middle-class men, all brothers; one is their unmarried thirty-something sister; one is a poor villager who works as their servant; and the sixth is our young protagonist, Muhsin: the family’s wealthy nephew.
Most of the novel proceeds in a tone of light hilarity. It’s less like the bawdy seventeenth-century Egyptian peasant satire of Yusuf al-Shirbini and more like 1920s comic theatre. Al-Hakim wrote Return of the Spirit while he was in Paris, where he’d been sent by his parents in the misguided hope that the French city would cure their son of his literary aspirations. It didn’t.
In its broad outlines, Muhsin’s life is not so different from al-Hakim’s. Muhsin’s father, like al-Hakim’s, was a rural notable. Muhsin’s mother, like al-Hakim’s, was a Turkish lady who looked down on the Egyptian peasantry. Both sets of parents – fictional and real – sent their sons off to Cairo to study and live with their uncles.
From comedy of manners to earnest mythology
In the first section of Return of the Spirit, the action hinges on the romantic aspirations of 15-year-old Muhsin, his ugly aunt, and two of his uncles. The three males are all smitten with Saniya, their clever and beautiful neighbour, while aunt Zanuba is in love with handsome Mustafa Bey. It’s unlikely that this first section caught Abdel Nasser’s eye, although he might have enjoyed the comic misdirection. But the novel takes a sharp turn in its second section, when Muhsin gets on a train and goes to visit his parents up north. Here, the tone lifts out of comedy into earnest, epic mythologising.
While Muhsin is still on the train, there’s a telling exchange between passengers. One man speaks of his travels in Europe, noting that Europeans aren’t as friendly as Egyptians. Another passenger says it’s because Europe is "without Islam", and the first man is clearly uncomfortable. The other passengers notice that the first man has a cross tattooed on his wrist. At this point, sensitive Egyptian passengers wax lyrical about how the second man had not meant Islam, but rather a concept that was neither religious nor sectarian, but "the emotion of mercy, a goodness of heart[.]" Later, the novel returns to this anti-sectarian ideal of Egyptian Christians and Muslims working together.
But first, Muhsin arrives in the countryside and is struck by the clever, thrifty, hardworking Egyptian peasantry, whom he places in opposition to Bedouin and Ottoman invaders. These peasants may not be as flashy as the Turks, but they have been co-operatively tilling the land for millennia. The narrative reaches its most fevered pitch during a soliloquy by a French archaeologist who has come to have dinner with Muhsin’s father. The archaeologist pontificates on how ancient Egypt was great, and how Egypt will be great again. All the country lacks, he says, is a beloved leader.
Alaa al-Aswany suggests, in his new foreword to Return of the Spirit, that young Abdel Nasser would surely have been swayed by this Frenchman’s speech, taking to heart the archaeologist’s assertion that Egypt can "take an astonishing leap in only a short time and work wonders in the wink of an eye."
The ‘resurrection’ of 1919
Most of the second section feels like an entirely different novel. It’s less a European comedy of manners and more a part of Egypt’s Nahda project, or its "awakening", a time when intellectuals worked to establish the foundations of a post-Ottoman, uniquely Egyptian identity.
Once Muhsin returns to the city, however, the novel does complete its comic love story, marrying off Saniya and Mustafa Bey. But that’s not our happily-ever-after. Far more important is that, in the final two chapters, it’s March 1919, and the French archaeologist’s predictions come true. Now, "the day of resurrection had dawned".
Muhsin – like young al-Hakim – goes out to protest in support of nationalist leader Saad Zaghloul. Like his creator, Muhsin is arrested along with his uncles and taken to prison. The novel ends with imagery that echoes its beginning: the men are all sleeping crammed together in one room. Yet what was before the comic debasement of peasants has become their heroic elevation.
In the end, the men are purged of their ridiculous romantic attachment to Saniya. Now, they – like al-Hakim, who was famously anti-romantic – have a higher passion: their country. Although al-Hakim is clearly also winking at us, from today’s vantage the novel feels sadly innocent.
Marcia Lynx Qualey
© Qantara.de 2019