Winner of the first “Arabic Booker Prize,” a vivid compelling historical tale set in late nineteenth-century Egypt.
When Mahmoud, a disgraced Egyptian officer, is posted to the remote desert town of Siwa, his Irish wife insists on accompanying him, to pursue the secrets of Alexander the Great. Neither is prepared for the stultifying heat, the hostility of the townspeople, or the astonishing and disturbing events that befall them in the dreamlike other-worldliness of the Sunset Oasis.
In turns mesmerizing and shocking, Sunset Oasis is an enthralling story of mystery and frustrated passions set against the backdrop of an exotic locale in the late 1800s.
From the Hardcover edition.
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A widely read novelist in the Arab world, Egyptian Bahaa Taher has received honours and awards in Egypt and abroad, including the prestigious Italian Giuseppe Acerbi prize and, in 2008, the Booker Prize Foundation’s first International Prize for Arabic Fiction for Sunset Oasis.
From the Hardcover edition.
He told me, 'Your wife is a brave woman,' as though I don't know my own wife! Isn't she willingly going into danger with me? All the same, it may be that I don't truly know Catherine. Not now! The important thing is it was no coincidence. Every word he utters is spoken for a reason, though Catherine isn't the problem at this moment. And anyway, I'll never solve any problem wandering the gloomy corridors of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, especially following that oppressive meeting with Mr Harvey.
There was nothing new in what he said, apart from the veiled hints, some of which I understood and the rest of which puzzled me.
I knew before I saw him that matters were settled. Brigadier General Saeed Bey had informed me that the ministry's advisor had forwarded the recommendation to His Excellency the Minister of Internal Affairs and His Excellency had issued a transfer order, to be implemented immediately. I had only a few days left if I was to join the caravan that departed from Kerdasa, and the brigadier general advised me, as a friend, to abandon the idea of taking my wife: the journey to the oasis was not easy, and the posting itself very difficult, as I well knew, though, in the end, the decision was mine; despite which, it was his duty to warn me of the danger of the journey, which, under the best conditions and with a skilful guide, took at least two weeks.
I'm confident that Saeed wasn't trying to scare me and I believe he did everything in his power to have me excused the posting. Our friendship is of long standing, though it may have waned over the years and these days is hardly more than the relationship between any official and his subordinate. However that may be, the stories and secrets of a bygone age form a bond. We haven't spoken of them for years, but each of us knows that the other still remembers. My other colleagues, of course, warned me, with suspect compassion, against the journey. Some were glad to have escaped the posting themselves and that it had fallen to me, and others had to make an effort to hide their delight at my discomfiture. They told me of the numerous caravans that had gone astray in the desert and been swallowed up by the sands, of small caravans that had lost the path and of a mighty Persian army on its way to take the oasis long ago that the desert had engulfed and buried beneath its sands for ever. They told me it was a lucky caravan which completed its journey before its supplies of water ran out and before the winds altered the features of the road, building dunes that had not existed before and burying the wells on which the caravans depended for watering the camels. Lucky too the caravan whose campsites were not attacked by wolves or hyenas and one or two of whose company were not stung by a scorpion or a snake.
All this was said, and more, but I paid no attention. My fear of the caravan's safe arrival at its destination is no less than my fear of its getting lost. I know very well I am going to the place where it is my destiny to be killed, and perhaps Catherine's too.
Was that one of the things Mr Harvey was hinting at in our meeting?
I had entered his office determined to provoke him. What did I have to lose?
It was the first time I had been in the office of this advisor, who held all the strings of the ministry in his hands. I found his diplomatic manner of talking affected and I found him affected too, as he sat there, his short body behind a huge desk, a tarboosh, from beneath which fair hair peeped, unconvincingly perched on his head. He didn't address himself to me but for most of the time directed his remarks towards an invisible point to his right, in the corner of the office. He repeated the things I had already heard from Brigadier General Saeed, but kept needling me on what he took to be my weak point: 'You must be happy, Captain Mahmoud Abd el Zahir Effendi – I beg your pardon, I should say Major Mahmoud now, of course!' he said, referring to my appointment as district commissioner for the oasis. He pretended to look through my service file, which was placed in front of him, and went on to say that under normal circumstances I would have had to wait long for this promotion.
I interrupted him with a smile, which I tried to make polite, to say, 'Especially if one takes into consideration, Mr Advisor, how few in the ministry would welcome such a promotion for themselves!'
He made no comment and didn't look at me. Instead, he turned the pages of the other file, on which 'Siwa Oasis' was written in large letters in English. He seemed to be enjoying what he was reading and muttered 'Interesting, very interesting' to himself every now and then. Finally, raising his face towards me with something like a smile on his lips, he said, 'So you know, my dear Major Mahmoud, that you will deal only with the heads of the families, whom in the oasis they call the agwad?'
'Naturally. Saeed Bey has given me all the necessary instructions.'
He went on, as though I hadn't spoken, to tell me that I was to have no dealings with the cultivators whom . . . and here he returned to the file in search of them and I reminded him that they were called zaggala.
Taking another quick look at the file, he echoed, 'Yes, yes. The zaggala. So long as they accept such a way of doing things, what business is it of ours? One is reminded somewhat of Sparta. Have you heard of Sparta, in ancient Greece, Mr Abd el Zahir?'
'I have heard of it, Mr Harvey.'
A certain disappointment appeared on his face at the thought of my having heard of Sparta, but he was determined to continue his lecture. 'Yes, indeed. Sparta. With a difference, of course! Sparta was a city dedicated to the production of warriors. They trained their children from infancy to become soldiers and they kept them apart from the residents of the city, which is how the whole of Sparta came to be an army living in a city, the strongest city in all Greece until Alexander appeared. And these, uh . . . these zaggala in the oasis are also conscripted, to work the land until they are forty years old. Forbidden to marry or to enter the city and pass through its walls after sunset.' Speaking for himself, he thought this was a system for society and for labour that deserved consideration; he might even go so far as to say it deserved admiration. 'Observe, Mr Zahir, our colonies in Africa and Asia where chaos reigns because labour there—'
I interrupted him once again with a laugh and said, 'My dear Mr Harvey, we don't have colonies in Africa, or Asia.'
I managed, however, to prevent myself from saying, 'We're the colonized!'
He frowned for a moment, abandoned his musings on the matter of the colonies, and returned to his perusal of the file. Then he raised his head and gave me a sudden, crafty smile as he said, 'Naturally, the other aspects of this system of theirs that separates the men from the women in boyhood do not concern us. It is a matter of no interest to us. We have nothing to do with their primitive customs.'
I understood what he was trying to say but did not respond, so he started addressing the invisible thing to his right again. I would have heard, of course, from Saeed Bey, that they were divided there into two hostile clans.
My patience was close to exhausted. Yes, yes, and I knew that the battles between them were never ending.
He turned his face towards me once more and emphasized his words as he said, 'Even this is no concern of ours. These battles are a part of their lives and they are free to do what they like with themselves, unless, of course, it should be possible, through specific alliances with one clan or another, to turn this into a means to assure our domination. It is a tried and true method, so long as the alliance with one party does not go on too long. The alliance has to be with one group this time and with their opponents the next. Do you understand?'
'I am doing my best, Your Excellency. I am aware of the policy, but have no experience of its application.'
'You will learn, my dear sir,' he said, with, for the first time, a certain malice. 'Do not forget that your first task will be to collect the taxes. A difficult task, as you are aware. A very difficult task. Your survival instinct will teach you this, and other policies, Major.'
He stopped suddenly and smiled again as he said, 'There is, all the same, something comical about the whole business. These people built themselves a fortress in the desert and built a town inside the fortress to protect themselves from the raids of the Bedouin, and despite this, the blood that the Bedouin would have shed in the open they have taken upon themselves to spill behind their own walls.' He found this quite remarkable. He found it extremely oriental!
The blood rose to my face and I burst out, 'Battles like these, within one group of people, are to be found in both East and West, Mr Harvey. It's different from invasion from the outside . . .'
He looked at my face for a while and then said, in an amused tone, 'Major Mahmoud Effendi is still under the influence of ideas from the past. Though, of course, he no longer sympathizes with the mutineers?'
I was incapable of controlling myself and burst out once more, 'I never sympathized with any mutineer . I was performing my duty and nothing more, and I have paid the price twice over in unjust treatment.'
He shook his head. Anyway, I would be aware, naturally, he pointed out, that my work would be the object of close scrutiny.
I thought this would be my last chance, so I said, in a tone of voice I tried to keep perfectly neutral, 'I hope that my work, when scrutinized, will be found satisfactory. But what if I do not succeed?'
He replied curtly, 'You know that you will pay the price.'
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Descrizione libro McClelland & Stewart. Hardcover. Condizione libro: New. Codice libro della libreria P11034092487X