‘The Collar and the Bracelet’
William ARMSTRONG - firstname.lastname@example.org‘The Collar and the Bracelet’ by Yahya Taher Abdullah, translated by Samah Selim (The American University in Cairo Press, $18, 156 pages)
Judging from this collection, Yahya Taher Abdullah agreed with Montaigne that “if you are everywhere you are nowhere.” A fragmented diptych of one novella and 13 stories, the volume is uncompromisingly local - free of the contemporary fad for “cosmopolitan” literary appeal and understandable only on its own terms. Abdullah was born in a village near Luxor, in Egypt’s deeply conservative rural south. He moved to Cairo in 1964, but his fiction always carried the imprint of the Upper Egypt oral tradition that had shaped him. Like many exponents of literary modernism from traditional societies, Abdullah strived to adapt the local oral culture that he knew to contemporary fictional forms. This collection exemplifies his method: A sophisticated brew of head-scratching modernist innovation, traditional oral folk rhythms, and austere storytelling.
The eponymous narrative is a swirling mini-epic: Taking in three generations of a family in barely 70 pages, through elemental questions of providence, disorientation, alienation and the intrusion of modern politics on ancient rural tradition. Set in the village of Karnak, we meet the struggling al-Bishari family as young Mustafa departs to spend years abroad as a migrant labourer. First he goes to Sudan and then to Palestine, sending back remittances and occasional letters to his family, whose fortunes wax and wane throughout his exile. Mustafa is sent to Palestine to work in the years before the establishment of the State of Israel, but when he returns to Egypt after a spell of banditry against the British in Palestine it is a time of optimism. The words of the great Tunisian poet al-Shabi capture the mood: “If the people should one day choose to live, Fate must comply / Night give way to day and the chains that bind them break.”
But Mustafa is disturbed by his experiences abroad and soon becomes a drifter in Luxor. He leaves his family to live alone in a shack made of corn stalks, vowing to never again be held in bondage and declaring that he will seek his “bread from the birds and the prophets.” Mustafa’s fragile psychological ground is thus prepared, and at the narrative’s climax all the traditions of honor and shame collide with his sense of emasculated disaffection to erupt in a tragic explosion of familial violence.
The narration is poetic enough to leave the tale subtly open-ended to interpretation, and that is also the case to an even greater extent in the stories that follow. Despite its short length, the focus is deliberately widescreen in “The Collar and the Bracelet,” but the tales that follow – some less than a page long – read as claustrophobic, cryptic visions. Some conventional, most highly innovative, they tend to focus on deracinated urban males, struck down by unknowable fates that are always more decisive than individual initiative. A sentence from “An Embroidered Tale” could be an epigraph for the whole collection: “How true it is that man is not the master of his own destiny.” While “The Collar and the Bracelet” gives the reader enough threads to allow speculation on causes and consequences, these unsettling mini-narratives often leave you simply grasping around in the disorienting darkness.
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