Book Review: Yasser Abdellatif’s lyrical novel about life in Egypt now in English

Updated 13 August 2018

Book Review: Yasser Abdellatif’s lyrical novel about life in Egypt now in English

  • The author brings the history and mystery of Egypt’s streets and their inhabitants to life

CHICAGO: Originally published in Arabic in 2002, The Law of Inheritance won one of Egypt’s inaugural Sawiris Cultural Awards in 2005, and has now been translated into English by Robin Moger.

The four-part novel unfolds lyrically, as a nameless narrator navigates student riots, political change and everyday life in Egypt in the 1990s. But the narrator’s life is only a piece of the story. Yasser Abdellatif uses his narrator’s ancestry  in Nubia to take the reader back in time and tell his story of Egypt — its history, its governance and its people.

Abdellatif’s novel is a complex experience for the reader. It’s a journey that has no specific chronology but is made up of memories old and new. We quickly learn that the narrator moves through life with indifference. His “protest” — smoking near school grounds — has become tiresome rather than a form of dissent. He no longer fears being caught. His father, an Al-Azhar instructor, is away in Saudi Arabia and our young protagonist does not have to answer to anyone other than his mother and brother.

Abdellatif’s first chapter has no transitions. It consists of snippets of memories that materialize out of thin air. As the book moves on, so does the style — shifting to full sentences and complete thoughts. The narrative weaves in and out of the past, capturing the life of the narrator, his friends and their lives in Egypt, and his connection to his ancestors — when his grandfather first traveled to Cairo in the 1930s to continue his education, we learn, he was met with a city going through “violent upheavals.”

Abdellatif leads the reader through the streets of Cairo from the Metro Tunnel’s multiple exits: Bostan Street, Tahrir Street, Qasr El Nil and Champollion, and Talaat Harb, to the narrator’s grandfather’s house in Abdeen. Abdellatif’s narrator is acutely conscious of himself and his surroundings and how quickly context can change with a word or an action. He can recall the transformations of the past, reflecting on how street names change, along with the function of certain buildings.

The author brings the history and mystery of Egypt’s streets and their inhabitants to life. His stories are rich and vibrant, diverse and multilayered. Egypt and its people have transformed many times over the years as has the landscape, and Abdellatif captures the great joy and tragedy that comes with such changes.


Book review: ‘Where the Bird Disappeared’ is a tale as old as time

Updated 22 September 2018

Book review: ‘Where the Bird Disappeared’ is a tale as old as time

CHICAGO: Taking a leaf from the real-life stories of Prophet Zakariyya and his son Yahya, Palestinian poet and writer Ghassan Zaqtan’s “Where the Bird Disappeared” is a beautiful yet haunting novel set in the village of Zakariyya, in modern-day Palestine.
Inspired by Qur’anic stories and political history, the novel talks about the relationship between Zakariyya and his best friend Yahya who not only share their names with the two prophets but bear a distant resemblance to their personalities and fates as well.
Zaqtan’s narrative is lyrical, heartbreaking and profound. Rooted in Palestine — a land that stood the test of time and would go on to become the hub of early and modern civilizations — the story is captivating enough to transport us to the hideaway monastery in Nuba Karam or the vineyards of Beit Jalla, the new homes for several villagers forced into exile.
Recalling the devastation and violence faced by those migrating from their homes and country, Zaqtan’s ability to take his readers through the same mountain paths and into the soul of his characters is a cause for applause. As Zaqtan writes of his central character, Zakariyya, “he felt he was walking inside a book, stumbling inside stories that had circulated in these hills since his birth. Journeys and names repeating themselves in succession without end.” And while the novel succeeds in digging deep into the annals of history, it also makes the reader realize how much impact the land of Palestine has had on the two characters and the various stories generating from the region.
Zaqtan’s tale is gentle enough to etch out images of each village, street or ancient structure that make the story and yet devastating enough that these get lost in the bigger picture. His brilliance lies in how conscious he is about the words used, while never losing sight of the historical context of his narrative or the love of the central characters for their beloved land.
Ghassan Zaqtan is an award-winning Palestinian poet, novelist, and playwright. He first published “Where the Bird Disappeared” in Arabic in 2015. It was then translated into English by Samuel Wilder and published by Seagull Books in 2018.