By Emad El-Din Aysha, PhD
I’ve never been very partial towards reading heavy-duty fantasy novels, I’m loath to admit, let alone a full length fantasy novel in Arabic. So it was a refreshing change from my usual diet of hard sci-fi to read Ahmed Salah Al-Mahdi’s The Greek Papyrus: The Envoy of Morpheus (2019), the first book in a series that may finally put us as Arabs and Muslims on the path towards international stardom, up against the likes of Dan Brown, William Blatty, Wilbur Smith and David Baldacci.
It’s exciting, fun, informative and engrossing and a surprisingly quick read. It’s not perfect, mind you, but it does bring a fresh and distinctively Egyptian feel to such a hackneyed thematic terrain, something that’s been a long time coming too since topics like alchemy invariably bring up the ancient Egyptians. (It’s been pending since 2008, to be honest, since the novel mushroomed out of a short story Ahmed had penned at the time, with writing and rewriting and research and more rewriting beginning from 2014 onwards). And, wouldn’t you know it, the story begins in southern Egypt, Al Minya, with a stunning archaeological find – the temple of Thoth and in it an Ashmunin, a sand clock necklace of non-Egyptian origin. The thing doesn’t even belong to that period of history, apparently. A journalist named Basim makes his way into the hallowed chambers and snaps away with his camera, to the consternation of the Egyptologist in charge, Dr. Mustafa. The good professor can’t explain the find but Basim goes online and finds literary references to the symbol in question that go against conventional knowledge, and prints it all in an article.
No sooner has the discovery been made, and the puzzle posed, that a friendly Scotsman by the name of Richard makes his presence felt, contacting Basim and making his way to the exhibit to take a peek at the mysterious Ashmunin. You suspect straight away that Richard works for somebody and wants to get at the artefact. That’s when all hell breaks loose, with another group trying to steal the symbol for their own ‘apocalyptic’ machinations.
An Oblong Narrative Treat
First things first. The novel’s strong, and weak, points. The first two chapters are really nice. Lean but mean. You have likeable characters, nice descriptions, and an alternative historiography of things. Not to mention a good sense of humour. While Dr. Mustafa is busy wondering about the mysterious pendant, Basim creeps up on him and the camera flash almost makes the good professor jump out of his skin!
The lifestyle of the reporter is also presented in nicely, something very recognisable, along with the invitation and heavy lunch that Basim and Dr. Mustafa have afterwards, and the young journalist’s refusal to give up on making sense of the discovery – referencing novels and stories from the occult and fantasy writers – is very refreshing and reassuring. The second chapter has an historical storyline, with a mysterious Greek named Ulysses making his way to the temple of Thoth in ancient times, and begging to be included in the cult of Thoth. The head priest accepts him with open arms, believing that the devotion to the god of knowledge and magic should be open to all. (You can seriously imagine an Egyptian being that naive, like Al-Azhar accepting that the French occupier, general Kléber, had converted to Islam). Ahmed’s portrayal of religiosity in ancient Egypt and the kind of expressions and incantations used is reminiscent of Naguib Mahfouz and recognisable to us as Egyptians. It’s something that you feel Egyptian authors got right, whereas Western authors either got wrong or ignored altogether.
The problems begin to emerge in chapters 3 and 4. The narrative is a bit too compressed. You have the hapless Basim heading off to meet Dr. Mustafa, and he feels he is being followed, then you cut to the head bad guy in the story, Mr Selim, and he talks about having Basim tailed, explaining what just happened. This is understandable. Ahmed is an exciting writer but I think this is his first writing a thriller, and one of the perennial problems with fast-paced thrillers is that they give the game away periodically through the text. The novel I read after the Greek Papyrus was Solo (1980) by Jack Higgins and you found that tell-tale pattern, with a fair amount of predictability too. So, no bother in the end.
Selim gives his chief henchman, Murad, the job of retrieving the Ashmunin, only for his arrogant and sadistic daughter Eanor to take it upon herself to get the pendent, with her own heavy-set bodyguard, Rostom, to do the dirty work. There’s nothing wrong here as such but you can guess straight away what is going to happen, with Rostom fouling things up in his oafishness while Richard saves the day. It would have been nicer to introduce us a bit more to the bad guys and how they operate and their ‘desires’ from behind all this. Selim lives in plush villa in Cairo, decorated on the outside with Islamic style architecture, but on the inside with ancient Egyptians and (more so) ancient Hellenistic artefacts and frescos. This is really nice and evocative but you wanted to get a sense of the ‘expanse’ of the place, with hidden chambers and crypts and surveillance cameras. (Rostom being a ‘homunculus’ also gives too much of the story away, and he doesn’t do that much afterwards, getting in the way of a much bigger henchman. It would have been nice to see how he was created, or how he gets repaired). The component bad guy, Murad, is also almost forgotten and the cat-like Eanor, while good and formidable, isn’t given enough to do afterwards.
I also found the scene with Rostom was unnecessarily gory, with skulls crunching and brains splattering. Normally that would be okay but you shouldn’t have dollops of gore so early on, since it desensitises you to what comes afterwards. This early magical battle ruins some of the surprise factor as well. The continued historical narrative with the mysterious Greek in ancient Egypt is also a bit a predictable. You can guess that Ulysses’s up to no good and the fate that will befall the Egyptian cleric who follows him into the labyrinth. On the plus side, when Richard meets with Basim and Dr. Mustafa, they are at the edge of their seat, and almost fall off when Richard lights his cigarette instead of answering the million dollar question!
The following set of three or four chapters, however, are all great. Basim gets seriously injured in the altercation with the golem-like Rostom, while Dr. Mustafa gets kidnapped by the baddies, to be used as a bargaining chip for the pendent. That’s when Richard begins Basim’s training, revealing the secrets of the order of alchemists he belongs to, and the secrets of alchemy itself, and it’s so well written and well thought out you almost come to believe that this is all for real. It’s like watching a kung fu movie with the philosophy drilled into you, and it’s a respectable philosophy. (It reminds you of The Name of the Rose and the maxim that to rule nature, as God intended, we must first learn to ‘obey’ it). The symbolism is very persuasive too, with the sand clock standing in for the alchemic relationship between this world and the next, with the sands of time (or fate) flowing from one to the other.
This puts Ahmed Al-Mahdi’s world-building skills on a par with the Da Vinci Code, since the interpretation of the painting of the Mona Lisa in that novel leaves you gaga. It may all be make believe but it’s done so well, you can’t readily tell the difference, at least while you’re reading. Same goes for National Treasure (2004). An added twist though. While in preparation Basim meets other alchemists, including Omar and the lovely half-Egyptian gypsy girl Maria. He takes a liking to her instantly and finds himself angry at Omar, out of jealousy. Envy is one of the seven deadly sins, but Westerners have departed from their pasts to such an extent that they don’t realise what a poisonous emotion it really is. Arabs are much more akin to it than white people, which is why Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky translate so well into Arabic. Our world is their world, not the cold rational world of modernity.
After that elongated pause, with minimal reference to Selim and Eanor, the action begins to pick up again while the newly trained Basim does the wrong thing for the right reasons, and transforms into the ultimate bad guy in quite a chilling scene indeed. It’s a lot like Star Wars, admittedly, with a Jedi going over to the dark side, but that’s one of the endearing things about this novel. And Star Wars itself is modelled on fantasy epics, so at least here you’re served up the real thing.
No Eat Shredded Wheat
If you’re wondering about the subheading, it’s something we took in geography to help us remember what came first, North East South and West. I bring this up because Ahmed Al-Mahdi is a southern Egyptian, only for Richard (so-called anthropologist and metaphysician) from as far north as you can get – Scotland – to embroil himself in the impending mystery. Note also that the main scene for the action is Alexandria, a city southern Egyptians have a certain affinity for and Egypt’s traditional doorway to the world. I also don’t think it’s a coincidence that the unofficial headquarters of the occult necromancer bad guys is in Cairo, the capital city, which has always been neglectful of the south. Selim also has an Ottoman sound to it, like the bombastic name of a Sultan. (Ahmed tells me Eanor is a Turkish name too, along with Rostom. What a coincidence!)
The villa Selim lives in is reminiscent of the nouveau riche in Egypt too, surrounding themselves with a history of accomplishments they are not entitled to. Contrast them to the good guys. Richard, like Richard the Lionheart, and Maria (the Virgin Mary), and her father is named ‘Adam’ (an alchemist himself). And there’s Omar too, a very noble name. Maria, being a fluent speaker of Egyptian Arabic with blue eyes and European features is a literal meeting of East and West, something that the city of Alexandria is as well. The library of Alexandria is where Basim gets his training and the ancient library is mentioned along the way – hinting that it was the bad guys who’d destroyed it. He’s also meant to get a higher level of training in Greece, the land of philosophy and nerve centre of Hellenistic civilisation.
It’s also where the original occultists were massacred, with the one who got away being Ulysses. (In a yucky scene he drinks the blood of the fallen comrades and acquires their dark magical knowledge). The name Basim also has some significance, since it means smiling or ‘smiler’ in Arabic. The hero is one of those guys who is ‘happily’ swept up by fate, not a protagonist as such. (Ulysses also describes Basim this way, saying that they have a great deal in common since he was brought up in the black arts and didn’t join the occult by choice. But what can he do? His sense of mission and innate superiority get the better of him, as they do Basim at one point in the story).
There’s a lot of Ahmed Al-Mahdi in Basim, if you ask me. The scene where the journalist is pouring over his photographs and searching through the internet and hoping to strike it big with a scoop is no doubt taken from Ahmed’s own life story as a translator and graphic artist, constantly searching out opportunities in an insecure world. Basim also drinks a mug of ‘concentrated’ coffee, and I know for a fact that Ahmed – and Moataz Hassanien – stay up all night working, living on coffee and fast foods.
The big action finale – don’t want to ruin it for you – is great and full of unexpected twists and mythical beasts and lays the beautiful city of Alexandria to waste. And, don’t worry, the good guys win, with plenty of unanswered questions that will form the bedrock of the next novel in the series, inshallah. Not to mention the romance that you know is going to blossom between Basim and Maria, her and her lovely beer-coloured skin. Arabic is such a great language. A foreigner would just say bronze, but beer has the same yellowy haze while being ‘transparent’, like a layer of varnish that floats over the skin, adding colour to it.
My only qualm is the Englishy type expressions that creep in, such as ‘welcome to the party’ and ‘subconscious’ mind, among other things. And only an Arab author would think of European gypsies and Scotsmen as being blue-eyed. Still, it’s a meeting of cultures, so we shouldn’t fret over the details!
The Lighter Side of Death
Ulysses, if you haven’t already guessed, is the envoy of Morpheus. But who is Morpheus?
Not Laurence Fishburne from The Matrix, that’s for sure. He’s the ancient Greek god of dreams, a guy who connects you to the other world, which is where dreams come from – signs and portents of things to come. And he’s given black wings, to signify evil. The tragedy is that Morpheus was originally a good guy, a guardian angel of sorts placed on earth – along with others – to insure that the Zodiac forces can never reign supreme on the planet once against. Then Morpheus himself turned bad, arrogant at his own power and the subservient position of mankind. (He reminds you of Iblees, Satan in the Islamic tradition, who was a devotee of God then became angry, with jealousy, over God’s preference for Adam).
The alchemists are the humans who fight for the guardians against the inevitable return of the forces of the Zodiac, while the bad guy occultists are necromancers, the worshippers of the dead and conjurers of evil spirits. The homunculus is an artificial life-form made out of mud and blood, a kind of robot from antiquity. (The Frankenstein monster was modelled on the homunculus and Mary Shelly actually read up on alchemy for her novel).
Ahmed Al-Mahdi digested all these elements from mythology and literature and produced a reasonably original mix here; one that feels genuine and authentic, not imitation. And its’ about time both the West realised what we can do with their myths, while we at the same time need to stop making pale imitations of how the West looks at our history. We’re besotted with novels and stories in Egypt, mostly horror, about the curse of the Pharaohs, which isn’t a notion modern-day Egyptians hadn’t heard of till Hollywood movies began dealing with mummies in scary stories. The portrayal of ancient Egypt is really nuanced and convincing in this novel and an alternative to the way we’re normally portrayed. Religiosity to us means naivety and patience and humility, and hospitability, not to mention ‘responsibility’ over the tremendous powers that knowledge gives you.
Whereas for Ulysses, the typical Westerners, it’s just a tool for advancement. (One small mistake. The head priest is given a grey beard. Ancient Egyptian priests and monks shaved themselves clean, seeing hair as unclean. But it’s a forgivable mistake since Ahmed is portraying him like a Sheikh). What next?
Well, an academic friend – an Egyptologist herself – suggested that we do our own brand of ancient Egyptian science fiction. Not fantasy, mind you, but SF. Sadly, I’m too much of a hard and social SF guy to think up any examples of what could constitute ancient Egyptian SF, so had to consult others. That’s when Wael Abd Al-Raheem told me about this novel, Amon’s Planet (كوكب امون), by Sally Magdy. It’s the story of a poor Egyptian girl who is befriended by a mysterious stranger, who comes from outerspace. Turns out he’s an Egyptian himself, just from a planet that was colonised by the ancient Egyptians. He tells her that Egypt was cursed by a princess the ancient space colonisers had left on earth, which would explain the sorry state of the country since then and to this day!
Needless to say, the girl is descended from this princess and agrees to leave for the planet of Amon. If you have interstellar travel, it certainly counts as SF, even if you have curses, and it makes a welcome change from movies like Stargate (1994) that try to explain the grandeur of ancient Egypt with reference to alien intervention. Sally Magdy has already followed up her novel with a sequel, which proves that the novel was a smash hit. And it’s good that the hero is a girl as well, to put the lie to the passive image of Arabic and Muslim women in Western literature and art.
The important thing is to shift the balance of writing about ancient Egypt in our direction, whether in the fantasy or sci-fi genres. And if we can do it by using European mythology and history itself, as Ahmed Al-Mahdi does, all the better. (He tells me he’s already started the sequel, and that the first chapter takes place in Lycia, in Anatolia, another one of those cross-cultural zones in Greek and Turkish history). Not to forget Wael and Mahmoud Abd al-Raheem’s own novel Akwan (Universes), which centres round the Bermuda triangle, something you’d think only Americans would write about. And then there’s the appropriation of the Atlantis myth by Ammar Al-Masry. In the meantime, I’ll busy myself with English-language SF and have the Arabs beating the Yanks at their own game. Hence, my story “Lambs of the Desert” in R.N. Stephenson’s The Worlds of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Volume IV (2019).
My Arabic isn’t good enough otherwise!!