Ashour, Radwa. Siraaj: An Arab Tale 2007. Austin, University of Texas, USA.

This is a slim volume and a seemingly simple story of a baker working for a despotic sultan on an island off East Africa at end of the 1800s. Amina´s husband was lost at sea so she waits anxiously for her son, Said, to return from a long voyage. He does return and is full of the history he has witnessed. He has been to Egypt, lived there with Egyptians and has witnessed the British invasion of Alexandria.

The fictitious island, set near Zanzibar, is a small lush fiefdom of a fabulously wealthy sultan with a castle full of Arabic servants and plantations full of African slaves. But his world is also changing; when the British navy comes in the name of Queen Victoria demanding the right to a military base on the island, the sultan knows he lacks the power base to say no.

Meanwhile the serfs, servants and slaves are organizing a revolt and the sultan gets a tip in the name of Siraaj, but he can find only a senile old woman by that name. Power supports and understands power: the sultan calls upon his new British allies to crush the revolt and the significance of the title name is revealed.

Siraaj is easy to read, colourful and vivid, but it is set in the complexity of global conquests by Europe to which the many characters respond to in various and completely believable ways to the changing times.

Filed under Book Reviews, Radwa Ashour