There is a rich body of literature in Arabic; English readers are deprived of much of it by our disinterest and our historic political antagonism both to Arabic culture and our debt to it. We rarely have access to modern Arabic fiction in translation, particularly by women, so it is an unusual treat to read two books by this contemporary Egyptian writer and academic. Her books are not dry or academic but bold novels with strong characters whose lives and actions are lovingly detailed with daily life meshed into unfolding history.
This is the saga of a family, its friends and neighbours living what might be called ordinary lives in an extraordinary time and place. The time is 1492 in Spain; the family is Arab and the king of Spain sends his ships off to the unknown, seeking India, finding the American hemisphere. At home he wants to consolidate his power over the remnants of the Arab civilization in Spain that created a land of rich culture as well as prosperity and lasting architecture. Granada is lone holdout against Castilian power and the Spaniards break their promises to respect this city of Islam.
Within the matrix of dramatic history, Ashour describes the lives of Abu Jaafar, a bookbinder and a lover of books and knowledge, his family and community, their joys as well as their sadness and tribulations resulting from the oppression of their religion and culture. Life has joys in the most terrible of circumstances; happiness, even in short bursts, is essential for survival. People fall in love, some marry, children are born, daily life has its pleasures – food and books, even pets and gardens can be sources of joy in the most trying of times. And so this family creates a life for itself within a time when the king and queen, “forced all the people of Granada to taste the bitterness of defeat.”
I was fascinated by the different ways her characters react to the betrayal of their society and the capitulation of its leader. Some comply outwardly, but rage inwardly, rebel secretly by continuing their practices, hiding books destined to be burned, keep their stories alive at home; some retreat into mental anguish; others give in, the oppression is too persuasive and fearful. Some choose collaboration and opportunism. Some men take the armed resistance route and join rebels in the hills; others flee to North Africa. Ashour´s insight into how different personalities react is fascinating. Her skill in describing the minutiae of the oppression and peopleâ€™s reactions are what makes her book great writing and absorbing reading.
Islam funeral custom is to wrap the naked dead in a clean shroud for burial. Christians prohibited that custom and dictated the dressing of the dead in their clothing. When I was in Iraq before the last USA invasion when the population was suffering under the cruelty of trade sanctions, one item that the Iraqis wanted and raged against its prohibition was shroud cloth (cited as a possible war material in the sanctions) to wrap their dead — of which there were so many due to untreated illness, malnutrition, contaminated water and depleted uranium. Ashour´s fiction and present reality are fused forever in my mind.
Although Granada, like all novels must succeed on the credibility of its fiction and its specific invention, it also, as does all good fiction, creates universality. Thus in this specific story of dispossession and betrayal, Granada resonates in today´s world where betrayal and dispossession form the reality of millions of Palestinians.
In 1527, this first volume of the Granada trilogy ends sadly as the barbaric authority of the Roman Catholic inquisition metes out its terrible verdict to Saleema, Jaafar´s scholarly daughter, who, like so many women of her time, receives the ultimate punishment for her wisdom, healing skills and independent thought.
This ending is made less unbearable by knowing that this is the only the beginning of a long story. I wait for the next volumes to become available in English. While Saleema faces her execution, her daughter is loved by her aunt who tells her the story of the tree of life. Thus life goes on and this family continues to struggle against history and fate to multiply, remember and to express humanity throughout all its fortunes and misfortunes.