During most of the past two weeks it has been sweltering hot here in Graz. Yesterday the air currents from the Sahara made temperatures rocket up to the all-time record of 40,5°C in the North-Eastern corner of Austria, to scorching 37°C in my town. Considering the extraordinary heat and the drought in my country, what could be more obvious than writing today's review about a book set in the desert? I picked the novel Sunset Oasis by the Egyptian writer Bahaa Taher, one of the most popular writers in Arabic today.
Bahaa Taher (بهاء طاهر) was born in Gizah, Egypt, in January 1935. He studied literature at the University of Cairo and then worked for Radio Egypt until the mid-1970s, when he was dismissed from his job and banned from writing under Anwar Sadad's regime. After several years of travelling, he went into exile in Geneva, Switzerland, from 1981 until the 1990s where he worked as a translator for the United Nations. The writer in Arabic first received international acclaim with his third novel Aunt Safiyya and the Monastery (خالتي صفية والدير) from 1991 which came out in English translation in 1996. English editions of´his novels Love in Exile (الحب في المنفى) from 1995 and As Doha Said (قالت ضحى) from 1985 followed in 2001 and 2008 respectively. His 2007 novel Sunset Oasis (واحة الغروب) was published in English in 2009 after having been awarded the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. Bahaa Taher returned to Cairo, Egypt, in the 1990s where he still lives.
Sunset Oasis is a historical novel set in the Sahara, more precisely in the Siwa Oasis in North-Western Egypt about 50 km from the Libyan border. The novel begins with the undesired transfer (and promotion) of police officer Mahmoud Abd El Zahir to the oasis some time in the 1890s, a couple of years after the failed Urabi revolt (leading to the British occupation of Egypt in 1882) in which he has been involved. As the district commissioner representing the Khedive in Cairo, Mahmoud is charged to collect the high taxes which the rebellious and proud dwellers of the oasis always refuse to pay to the occupiers. Against his wishes his Irish wife Catherine accompanies Mahmoud on the exhausting and dangerous travel through the desert. It is her hope to make important archaeological discoveries in the oasis about which she has read and heard so much. She is particularly interested in finding traces of Alexander the Great in the ruins of the ancient Egyptian temples. As expected, the inhabitants of the oasis give the couple a cold welcome. Not only are people uncommunicative, even hostile towards the strangers, but also the place itself is shutting them out. All the fertile gardens are walled up, so nobody can see what is going on in them. Moreover the commissioner and his wife live isolated in a house outside the village, always aware that their lives are in danger because the people of the oasis don't want them there. Despite all they settle down to a quiet life of routine. Limited to themselves the ghosts of the past invade and estrange them, though. While Mahmoud is haunted by life decisions which he made out of weakness and his inability to hinder Sheikh Sabir from plotting against him and the enemy Western Siwan tribes, Catherine is getting ever more obsessed with Alexander the Great and pursues her research without heed to personal risks or local customs. The arrival of the ambitious as well as opportunistic junior officer Captain Wafsi and Catherine's critically ill sister Fiona in the oasis is the beginning of the end. The presence of those two people suffices to show Mahmoud and Catherine even more plainly the shortcomings of their own lives and to push them further in their desire to achieve something great and memorable.
The story of Sunset Oasis is told from alternating perspectives which give the characters a very authentic and real shape. The main first-person narrators are Mahmoud and Catherine, but as the story evolves Sheikh Sabir, Sheikh Yahyah, and even Alexander the Great take up the thread. The language of Bahaa Taher is simple and at the same time poetic, especially when it comes to descriptions of the desert. It doesn't feel lengthy nor too grave in any place. The historical facts and the tensions of the period are depicted with great precision, but no more than necessary to understand the background. The translator Humphrey Davies, however, provides some additional information on the time and its most important events in his note at the end. The story itself is (almost) pure fiction. A district commissioner called Mahmoud Abd El Zahir never existed, nor is the scholarly Catherine based on a real person, although people like them might well have lived in Egypt in the late nineteenth century.
It goes without saying that I enjoyed the read which gave me the additional benefit of learning a few things about the history of Egypt and British colonialism beyond the clichés of Lawrence of Arabia and The English Patient. To cut a long story short: I warmly recommend the novel Sunset Oasis by Bahaa Taher for reading.