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Zayni Barakat Paperback – Sep 15 2004
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"A gripping, unforgettable work of prose fiction. It displays its author's originality of conception and execution at every step." - Edward Said, in his Foreword to the book; "Whether read as a colorful evocation of past times or as a bleak political parable, Zayni Barakat succeeds brilliantly." - Robert Irwin, Times Literary Supplement"
About the Author
Gamal Al-ghitani was born in 1945 and educated in Cairo. He has written 13 novels and 6 collections of short stories. He is currently editor-in-chief of the literary review Akhbar al-adab.
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However, Zayni Barakat is, like much of Naguib Mahfouz's later work, a pointed commentary on modern Egyptian politics. In particular, it is the story of police surveillance and what it means to live -- and work for -- a police state. Al-Ghitani captures the dis-ease and perversity of the Nasserist police state admirably. The novel thus deserves to be read both as a diversion and as an education in contemporary Arab politics.
The novel is set in the last years of the Mamluk state, an unusual state ruled by slave soldiers that controlled Egypt, the Levant, and the Red Sea (1). For over a century, the sultanate became a permanent junta, with the sultan himself merely the top-ranked oligarch. In 1516, the sultanate entered its last war with the Ottoman Empire--a war that would prove to be a crushing walk-over by Selim I the Grim. But this shattering blow to Cairo is still in the future. The ruthless and oh-so-professional spymaster Zakariyya is challenged by the rise of a mysterious, naïve-seeming inspector of markets--Zayni Barakat, notionally, his new boss (and a direct appointee of the sultan). Soon Zakariyya discovers that Zayni is even better at spying than he is, and potentially a deadly adversary for control of Cairo's immense network of informers and investigators. All his career, the effects have been felt through the rise and fall of entire factions of Mamluks and emirs. Zayni adds to the stakes by introducing pietistic populism in his public appearances.
The narrative structure is unusual and complex. There are many characters, and the point of view shifts constantly. Mainly there are four characters: Zakariyya, the perennial head of the secret police; Zayni (2), the market inspector; Visconti Gianti, the Venetian merchant; Said al-Juhayni, the idealistic student; and Shaykh Rihan, Said's mentor. All are the objects of intense scrutiny by one of the others. An obsession of the characters is the grievous injustice of Cairene society: cruelty is meted out to the innocent, while the powerful enjoy impunity--except when they fall in factional struggles.
The obvious comparisons to this book are George Orwell's 1984 and Naguib Mahfouz's Arabian Nights and Days. Orwell and Mahfouz wrote purely fictional accounts of life under murderous hypothetical regimes--Orwell's, in a familiar near-future (3), and Mahfouz's, in a faintly comical update of an ancient fairytale (4). In Orwell, the power of the super-states are terrifying and infallible; the thought police easily gull the protagonist, Winston Smith, into betraying himself. If there are splinters in the security apparatus, we never see them. In Mahfouz, the main protagonist is a "reformed" Shahriar, who imagines that he can avoid the consequences of his obsession with control. Both of these books have their place, but after reading them, a connoisseur of deep politics may want to look at the endless convoluted dilemmas and delusions of secret power.
* Translations from Arabic to English
Ira M. Lapidus, A History of Islamic Societies, 3rd ed., Cambridge University Press (2014)
Naguib Mahfouz, Arabian Nights and Days, Anchor Books (1995/1982*)
*First date refers to date of translation into English; second, original publication in Arabic.
Naguib Mahfouz, Palace Walk, Anchor Books (1990/1956*)
George Orwell, 1984, Secker & Warburg (1949)
(complete text available online at Project Gutenberg)
R. Stephen Humphreys, "The Politics of the Mamluk Sultanate: a Review Esssay," Mamluk Studies Review, IX.1 (2005), p.221
(Many of the articles in the Mamluk Studies Review are available online for free)
Carl F Petry, "Crime in Mamluk Historiography: A Fraud Case Depicted by Ibn Taghribirdi", Mamluk Studies Review, X.2 (2006) p.141
(1) FYI: many states used slave soldiers (Arabic: sing., "ghulam," pl. "ghilman"), and many states fell under the control of slave soldiers. Not all of these were Muslim. Historian Ira Lapidus (2014, p.197) uses the terms "ghulam" and "mamluk" interchangeably; "ghulam" is a more specific term ("Mamluk" just means "owned slave").
(2) Zayni Barakat is an historical figure from the Bada'i al-Zuhur fi Waqa'i of Muhammad ibn Iyas. So is Sultan al-Ghawri (r.1501-1516). A few other characters in the novel are real, but they are not prominent. The other main characters are fictional.
(3) This may be controversial, but in Orwell's personal experience the world of Winston Smith was rather familiar. The lapse from realism is, I think, surprising to most readers: it is the political cohesion and ideological sincerity of Ingsoc, not the panopticon cities, or the global scope of the three superpowers.
(4) Mahfouz's book is yet another retelling of One Thousand and One Nights; in Mahfouz's version, the Empire of Shahriar seems to be a modern police state that merely lacks modern technology. Shahriar is the emperor who resolves to marry a virgin every night, and behead her the next morning--until Scheherazade (Shahrazad) changes his mind. Realistically, Mahfouz's Shahrazad does not forgive her sociopathic husband