Egyptian Comedic Novel Captures Dark Tale of Bedouin Migrants

18 April, 2022
Two unti­tled works by Egypt­ian artist Ahmed Farid, acrylic on can­vas, 70x50cm each, 2019 (cour­tesy Ahmed Farid).

 

The Men Who Swal­lowed the Sun, a nov­el by Ham­di Abu Golayyel
Trans­lat­ed from the Ara­bic by Humphrey Davies
Hoopoe Press (2022)
ISBN 9781649030948

 

Saliha Haddad

 

While the mod­ern world has known refugee crises of epic pro­por­tions at least since the two world wars, we have seen a pletho­ra of nov­els about migra­tion and exile writ­ten by Arab authors, from Ghas­san Kanafani’s sem­i­nal Men in the Sun to the more recent crop that includes Omar El Akkad’s What Strange Par­adise, Lay­la AlAmmar’s Silence is a Sense, and Rabih Alammedine’s The Wrong End of the Tele­scope. Ham­di Abu Golayyel’s The Men Who Swal­lowed the Sun, orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in Ara­bic in 2018 as Qiyam wa inhi­yar al-sad shin, should be con­sid­ered in this vein.

The Men Who Swal­lowed the Sun is avail­able from Hoopoe.

Born in the late six­ties in a small Bedouin vil­lage in Egypt’s Fay­oum region, Ham­di Abu Golayyel migrat­ed to Cairo in the ear­ly eight­ies, where for years he worked in con­struc­tion, doing hard man­u­al labor, only lat­er launch­ing his writ­ing career. Before long, how­ev­er, Golayyel’s cre­ative pur­suit and ded­i­ca­tion began to earn him lit­er­ary acclaim and awards for his inno­v­a­tive writ­ing, as well as for cen­ter­ing his oth­er­wise mar­gin­al­ized com­mu­ni­ty in the nar­ra­tive space. Both his ear­li­er nov­els, Thieves in Retire­ment and A Dog Has No Tail, made avail­able to Eng­lish read­ers by trans­la­tors Mar­i­lyn Booth and Robin Moger, respec­tive­ly, fea­ture work­ing class char­ac­ters who moved from their Bedouin vil­lages to Cairo in search of a bet­ter life, only to stum­ble onto many unpleas­ant sur­pris­es and dis­il­lu­sion­ment in a megac­i­ty of more than 10 mil­lion souls.

Golayyel’s work draws heav­i­ly on his own expe­ri­ences, com­mon­ly and wit­ting­ly char­ac­ter­ized by the vein of dark com­e­dy that runs through it. See­ing the world with his iron­ic sense of humor ren­ders his fic­tion all the more engag­ing and pow­er­ful as it explores the lives of the Egypt­ian Bedouin com­mu­ni­ty from which he hails.

Not only do his char­ac­ters grap­ple with their direct envi­ron­ment, they are also sit­u­at­ed in his­tor­i­cal con­text, as the author appears to describe the his­to­ry of Bedouin tribes in Egypt and the sto­ry of Libya’s Qaddafi. But while Golayyel’s themes of migra­tion, pover­ty, crime and cor­rup­tion are grim in nature, the way he writes about them is not. The Men Who Swal­lowed the Sun fol­lows vil­lage char­ac­ters Ham­di and the Phan­tom Raider in their jour­neys across the desert and the sea to Libya and Italy, in search of a bet­ter life. In truth, these two leave home look­ing to become wealthy beyond their vil­lagers’ dreams.

The nar­ra­tor, who car­ries the author’s name, relates their sto­ries and those they meet with in an unflinch­ing humor that bears many dark undertones.

The nov­el opens with the ori­gins of the men’s Bedouin tribe, along with what appears to be a seri­ous record of how it came to be known — along with oth­er tribes — as the Saad-Shin, in pos­ses­sion of a seem­ing­ly spe­cial bond with Libyan Leader Muam­mar Qaddafi. Here, for instance, is Golayyel’s satir­i­cal descrip­tion of a char­ac­ter who might indeed be the revered Leader:

Of course, peo­ple dis­agree, as they do with every leader, over the date and place of his birth.  One sto­ry says he was a Jew, his moth­er a Jew­ess from Tel Aviv. Anoth­er claims he was of French extrac­tion, his father a pilot who fell from the skies of the Sec­ond World War onto the tent of a bunch of Libyan Bedouin roam­ing around in the desert, and that he mar­ried their daugh­ter, who bore him the Leader. Both sto­ries, though, con­tain ide­o­log­i­cal ele­ments, jus­ti­fy­ing the sus­pi­cion they were plant­ed by the Leader’s his­tor­i­cal ene­mies, the first most like­ly by the Islamists, who thought he was an infi­del, the sec­ond by the Left­ists, who thought he was a traitor.

The read­er dis­cov­ers that the nov­el is some­thing of a “docu­com­e­dy” that has a pur­pose oth­er than attempt­ing to illu­mi­nate obscure bits of his­to­ry; Golayyel uses it as a device to empha­size the dou­ble dis­il­lu­sion­ment the two men and their com­mu­ni­ty suf­fer. The first dis­il­lu­sion­ment is liv­ing in poor con­di­tions back home in their vil­lages, and the sec­ond is in think­ing that their spe­cial bond with the Leader would some­how trans­form those poor con­di­tions into bet­ter ones. Their pos­ses­sion of this spe­cial Saad-Shin trib­al con­nec­tion and of its high­ly cov­et­ed iden­ti­ty card, how­ev­er, soon proves to be use­less and to ben­e­fit only those real­ly close to the Libyan head.


Listen to a Bulaq podcast on novels by Egyptian authors Hamdi Abu Golayyel and Mohamed Kheir.


Golayyel con­tin­ues with his iron­ic approach when he over­states the oppo­site fea­tures of the two char­ac­ters — Ham­di being self-dep­re­cat­ing and a bad deci­sion mak­er, while Phan­tom Raider is self-con­fi­dent and despi­ca­ble — as a way to under­score that no mat­ter the per­son­al­i­ty, any­one can be pushed to quest for a bet­ter life. Golayyel goes fur­ther to sup­port this idea by hav­ing the two men run into oth­er peo­ple from their same vil­lage and coun­try and from sev­er­al oth­er coun­tries such as Sudan, Alge­ria, Alba­nia and Tunisia. In one instance, Egypt­ian Bedouins find them­selves con­gre­gat­ing in a room in Libya, a room the writer goes to the extent of call­ing Mec­ca: “It was quick­ly turned, though, or Bu Abdal­lah quick­ly turned it, for pur­pos­es of cam­ou­flage, into the Mec­ca of every poor Egypt­ian who’d come from our home dis­trict of Etsa, in the Fay­oum, to work in Libya.” (87).

As Golayyel makes these meet­ings in such dis­tant and big cities as Milan seem like fun coin­ci­dences, his true inten­tion seems to point at the ugly truth, which is how every­one almost always ends up in the same trou­bles and worse con­di­tions than back home, even after arriv­ing safe­ly to their dream destinations.

Golayyel also relates the var­i­ous crim­i­nal enter­pris­es and busi­ness­es they take part in, in amus­ing episodes. The pro­tag­o­nists find them­selves immersed in the crim­i­nal world when no oth­er legal oppor­tu­ni­ties to make mon­ey are pre­sent­ed to them — they sell drugs and illic­it alco­holic drinks; they steal and par­tic­i­pate in fraud, and while doing so they get caught mul­ti­ple times, but even­tu­al­ly escape in absurd ways. Dur­ing one of these escapes, one of the two men runs away from the Libyan aux­il­iary police while wait­ing in stor­age to be smug­gled to Europe:

“As I was run­ning, I came across a cor­ral full of sheep and goats — palm-rope net­ting with sheep and goats inside — and I threw myself into the mid­dle of them.” (40).

“Cul­tur­al Migra­tion,” oil on can­vas-140x240cm, 2014 (cour­tesy Ahmad Farid).

The author’s use of enter­tain­ing sto­ry­telling, how­ev­er absurd, seems to be his way of point­ing out the hap­haz­ard­ness of the lives of many immi­grants who endure dan­ger­ous trav­els seek­ing to improve their circumstances.

As he goes on to recount the mis­ad­ven­tures of the two men, the author uses them to sat­i­rize the polit­i­cal lead­er­ship and sys­tems fail­ures that led them to migrate in the first place. Golayyel mocks the insis­tence of Leader Muam­mar Qaddafi at cre­at­ing the illu­sion of bear­ing lim­it­less great­ness while con­tin­u­ing to fail, whether in con­vinc­ing his own peo­ple to believe his polit­i­cal the­o­ries, make his influ­ence reach the neigh­bor­ing Egyp­tians, or even in com­plet­ing sore­ly need­ed infra­struc­ture projects. And if the writer is pok­ing fun at the Libyan leader, he doesn’t spare crit­i­cism of west­ern coun­tries — yet while he crit­i­cizes Libyan, Egypt­ian and oth­er Arab states overt­ly, stat­ing for instance that theft, fraud and oth­er crimes were nor­mal in Libya, the writer shows clev­er­ly how it’s the same thing in places con­sid­ered to be devel­oped and above such cor­rup­tion. By hav­ing the migrants slip away from the Ital­ian and oth­er Euro­pean author­i­ties’ pun­ish­ment for drug sell­ing and oth­er crimes in unbe­liev­able ways, he shows not only their inef­fi­cien­cy but also how they aren’t that dif­fer­ent from bungling Arab authorities.

The writer’s humor­ous approach isn’t only vis­i­ble in his sub­ject mat­ter but also in his over­all style, which is chat­ty, irrev­er­ent, and self-reflec­tive. And The Men Who Swal­lowed the Sun, much like his ear­li­er nov­els, is writ­ten as a set of sto­ries, albeit relat­ed, that do not fol­low a chrono­log­i­cal order or any oth­er order for that matter.

But if Golayyel writes in this style rather than a con­ven­tion­al one, it is to show that God is a trick­ster, par­tic­u­lar­ly with the unlucky and the mar­gin­al­ized. He deploys irony to show that much of life is dis­or­dered and messy. And though there is a sort of detach­ment and lack of emo­tion here, that’s what even­tu­al­ly ren­ders par­tic­u­lar moments of weak­ness and sur­fac­ing of feel­ings in the face of the bru­tal­i­ty of life all the more impact­ful. In one such instance, Phan­tom Raider opens up to the read­ers in an earnest con­fes­sion about his unen­vi­able sit­u­a­tion, and about his fear and shame of going home with no mon­ey for his family:

“I’d smoke a cou­ple of joints and sit alone and feel like, I don’t know — like you want to go home but you can’t: you haven’t made any mon­ey.” (155).

The Men Who Swal­lowed the Sun is a time­ly refugee nov­el mas­ter­ful­ly trans­lat­ed by the late Humphrey Davies. I found it inge­nious, engag­ing and pow­er­ful as it carves out a niche in the nar­ra­tive space for the most mar­gin­al­ized groups of Egypt­ian society.

 

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Saliha Haddad is an Algerian assistant editor at the South African-based publishers Botsotso and a fiction editor of the literary journal Hotazel Review. She has worked as a literary interviewer at Africa in Dialogue and her reviews of books have appeared in The Other Side of Hope, The New Arab, and The Transnational Literary Journal. Her creative work has been published or forthcoming in Agbowo, Isele Magazine and Newlines Magazine. In 2021 she was shortlisted for The African Writers Awards and was awarded with the first place in the inaugural ANTOA literary contest.