Another wonderful book by contemporary Egyptian writer Bahaa’ Taher. This story is set in the late 1800s, when France and Britain had dual control to supervise the revenues of the Egyptian government after Khedive Ismail, who ruled from 1863 to 1879 bankrupted the country. The new khedive acquiesced in the stringent austerity measures imposed by the Dual Control, causing hardship on many sectors. This led to a nationalist movement and subsequently Britain and France sent a naval force to the waters off Alexandria. There were subsequent riots, and the British bombarded the city, and the British defeated the Egyptian army and took control of Egypt, which lasted until 1956.
The novel opens in 1895, in a tranquil Egypt, but the memories and resentments run deep. Our protagonist, Mahmoud, a police official, is sent to a distant and very remote oasis to act as the District Commissioner of the Oasis in order to collect the unpaid taxes from the rebellious citizens. His Irish wife wants to come with him, a strange and possibly dangerous request. The journey is arduous, but she delights in it all.
We discover that Mahmoud took part in the uprising against the British, and it is not clear if or who he betrayed during those times, but he is eaten up by the memories and guilt. His wife knows nothing of this, and has her own interests in languages and ancient history of the Greeks and the Egyptians.
She is appalled to learn upon reaching the oasis that she is considered an outsider and dangerous. She would like to explore the ruins but is denied access, because there is also an ancient rumor of treasure buried in them, and the oasis citizens fear she is there to steal the treasure.
The ruins might be the final resting place of Alexander, — you know, Alexander the Great,–
and there is a portion of the book dedicated to Alexander’s thoughts as he inhabits the Afterlife.
Due to the wife’s improvident actions in insisting on going places she should not go, the longtime aide of Mahmoud is involved in an accident which leaves him with a mangled leg, and a young widow dies, whether by suicide or ritual murder is not clear, after visiting the wife of the commissioner.
It is a story about the clash of cultures, with a heavy anti-British overtone, and revealing details of life at that time in a remote oasis, in which live two competing factions. For some reason it put me in mind of A Passage to India, where a Westerner involves herself in situations that cause problems all around.
Taher wrote Aunt Safiyya and the Monastery, and this book, Sunset Oasis, won the inaugural International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2008.