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BOOK REVIEW – Lessons in Innocence: Western Chills and Eastern Frills in Ahmed Al-Mahdi’s Reem

By Emad El-Din Aysha, PhD

 

Reem: Into the Unknown (2017), a novel by Ahmed Salah Al-Mahdi, is about a lovely little Egyptian girl with blue eyes and blonde hair who is being forced into witchcraft by her evil grandmother. The girl, Reem, crosses paths with the central protagonist of the story, Saif, when he makes the mistake of buying a suspicious looking black cat at the local pet store.

His boring life is turned upside down by the cat and his repeated attempts to get rid of it force him to try and track down the original owner, or so he thinks, the aforementioned Reem. He follows the advice of the pet shop owner (he had the same horrendous experiences with the black cat) and goes to a local market (souk) to ask around about a little girl with that damnable cat. (She always wears a white dress). He befriends a little boy named Osama – his poor mother sells vegetables in the souk – and he leads Saif to Reem’s house, an ominous cabin in the woods. (Just thank your lucky stars it’s not a gingerbread house!)

Reem has had enough tragedy in her life as it is. Her mother, who ran away from the evil grandma, married a carefree wealthy boy, so Reem never knew anything about her grandmother. Then her mother and father die in a car accident and the wealthy grandparents want nothing to do with her – they objected to the marriage to begin with – and she got dumped in her grand mama’s lap. And the rest is history. Or is it?

 

Of Two Minds

The story is told from the perspective of several characters, but Saif – interestingly – is the first person you see, not Reem. This is a sneaky, sneaky way of doing things, if I do say so myself. While written in the third person, this always you to switch from an adult perspective to that of a child – Reem and Osama – and it is quite an enjoyable transition. Innocence and ignorance of bad things in the world is what keeps them going, after all.

This, in turn, allows you to switch from the cold, technologically scientific world of the protagonist, Saif, to the world of black magic and the mysterious that Reem is forced to inhabit. Again, this is very deliberate on the part of the author, someone schooled in the “weird fiction” works of H.P. Lovecraft.[1] (Not horror as such, but incorporating elements of the supernatural into a modern setting).[2] When you see Saif, at his boring corporate job, and boring house in the suburbs, you can’t imagine that there’s anything amiss with the world. Everything is predictable, the world is governed by discernable laws, and so on and so forth. Children don’t look at things that way. Everything is mystical and new and wondrous, or threatening.

The important thing is to always learn along the way, and find someone to share your loneliness with, as is the case between Reem and Osama. (Osama is an only child too and lost his father at an early age, and he can’t handle the life of the souk, so he spends too much time by himself, inventing games or looking for friends).

You love the hesitancy of the two children, while laughing at how pensive and claustrophobic Saif is. When he buys the black cat, it’s because he feels it’s neglected and trapped, exactly as he does in his job and personal life. (Interesting choice of name, don’t you think? Saif means ‘sword’ in Arabic, but he’s hardly the gallant knight type – until he’s forced to save Osama’s life at the end. In the meantime, Reems saves his life and more than once). The ending is also ambiguous, since Saif and Reem meet again, with a completely new black cat this time over.

Has she succumbed to the evil ways of the witches, or is she a good witch, using her powers in a completely different way? Ahmed Al-Mahdi doesn’t tell you, a bit of a rarity in serious Egyptian writing. The average Arab author, relying on old-fashioned story techniques, tends to spill the beans by the end and rarely finishes with a cliffhanger.

 

A Generation of Gaps

Al-Mahdi’s generation is much savvier and more commercially minded than those before them and they are quite consciously aping Western techniques and genres. Reem’s house is the classic cabin in the woods. Deep, dark and mysterious woods, hardly something you find frequently here in Egypt – forests.

Witches, ironically, are not a big part of Arabic folklore. There are sorceresses, on occasion, and women foretellers aplenty, but witches are a key part of European literature proper. Querying Ahmed on the appearance of the little girl – her skin is white too – he explained that this was a tribute to Western fantasy literature, which he grew up with. (Noted literary critic and university professor Melanie Magidow has described Reem as a “…fun, smooth, suspenseful read. Similar to Harry Potter and Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book.”).[3]

The format of the story is Western, true, but the raw materials it’s made up of are thoroughly Egyptian. You have an easily recognizable Egyptian protagonist, the desk jockey type, living the good life in the suburbs, oblivious to the misery of the rest of the country. (The only person he ever waves to at work is the garage attendant). Why else would he think he could return the cat to the pet shop owner? You can’t give anything back to the place you bought it, in Egypt!

The humor is also distinctively Egyptian. Again, the pet shop owner springs to mind. When he sees Saif, he sizes him up straight away as one of those bored, spoilt types who just wants to take a look around the store and not actually buy anything. The next time he sees him, all he can think of is how to throw him out of the shop. Very recognizable, indeed. If you try leafing through second-hand books in the street here in Cairo, and asking how much something costs, you could get told to get lost. The concept of the consumer actually trying to find what he is looking for – an author, a genre, a particular title – is alien to them, let alone helping the buyer compare prices to know he’s not being swindled.

It’s like dealing with microbus drivers. They can force you to ride with them, at knife point if necessary!

 

Reem to the Rescue

You also feel the novel is addressing issues in Egyptian society, in a tongue-in-cheek manner. (It is a children’s story, after all). The gap between rich and poor is in there, whether in the form of Saif and the working class people he has to rub shoulders with, or the ill-fated marriage between Reem’s mother and father and the aftermath of their death.

The fact that Reem’s mother disobeyed the witch is also a talking point. Dear old grand mama keeps going on and on about the stereotypical way Arabic parents see their kids – as disrespectful and disobedient. And Reem comes in for this tirade as well. Bridging the gap between boys and girls is hinted at too through Osama and Reem. Arab parents are overly protective too and not having mixed schools (girls and buys) is an example of this.

Remember that the whole point of fairytales is to ‘empower’ children to make their own fate, and teach adults – especially their parents – a thing or two. Reem certainly hits the mark on that count, in a delightfully subtle and thoroughly Egyptian way. (It was so subtle in fact that I missed it, even after reading the novel twice!)

All I can say to Ahmed Al-Mahdi is, good show, and good luck. His novel was an overnight success and is being reprinted as we speak; it has already hit the Algerian bookshelves.[4] He’s also busily translating it to English to reach an international audience.

This is as nice a way as any to present Egyptians to the world literary stage. Oh, and did I mention that Reem is still dressed at white in the end?!!

 

NOTES:

[1] Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about it: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Weird_fiction.

[2] Please see Ahmed Al-Mahdi’s own article on the subgenre, http://ahmedmahdi.net/2016/12/14/weird-fiction-lovecraft-and-arthur-machen/ .

[3] Please see https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/32945525.

[4] https://www.facebook.com/Official.AlMahdi/photos/p.797210460440066/797210460440066/?type=1&theater

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