As I have already written about a Ukrainian author I thought why not an Egyptian one. Sulaiman Fayyadh‘s Voices (أصوات) which I read in Arabic is one of those short novels which you read in one go and which opens up several topics.
An Egyptian man, Hamed, who left his village at the age of 10 and became rich in Paris, decided to go back home 30 years later for a short visit. And he took his French wife Simone with him. Fayyadh uses the voices of many of the story characters (Hamed, his mother, his brother, his brother’s wife, a young high school student, the mayor and the police officer) to relate the events that happened before and during the visit. Each giving a different perspective and completing the story.
Voices ends in an unexpected way with Simone‘s death by the hands of the village’s women. إن كيدهن عظيم :) And as I don’t want to entirely spoil the story, I won’t tell you how the woman died despite the fact this was one of the major points Fayyadh wanted to address. Click here [ar] if you want to know more.
Besides its end, the story deals with topics, which have been and are still being treated in novels, articles and movies, related to the East/West relationship and what some would call the clash (or dialogue) of civilisations.
As soon as the villagers heard of Simone‘s visit (her husband’s comeback looked anecdotal), they rushed to fix things in their own lives and behaviour to make sure the foreign woman feels great and they feel no shame before her. They cleaned the streets, washed their usually dirty clothes, prevented their children from urinating everywhere, etc. It shows how these people were actually aware of what they were doing wrong and kept doing it regardless, because they were, like we say in Algeria, binat’houm. They didn’t care so long as no external observer was watching…
Hamed spoke once in the novel. He shared his feelings on his countrymen and how they looked now like the French. They wore pants and suits, drove cars, took off the tarboush and the Jellabiya, but they lacked spirit and civilisation, cleanliness and good manners. Hamed even felt ashamed of them and displayed a sort of inferiority complex towards his wife.
The other males’ voices talked more about Simone. They all kind of got infatuated with and wanted to please her. They belittled their own wives in comparison, but at the same time were too afraid she’d influence their “chaste and veiled women” and corrupt their minds. They were too happy to have Simone in their meetings, noting she was the only female present besides the belly dancer, but would never consider taking their wives with them. Their admiration decreased a little when they saw she didn’t remove her armpit hair, which, to them, was a sign of dirtiness.
And I liked this part because it symbolised what most Easterners feel: they admire the West for its development and knowledge, for its art and science, for its democracy; but they want to keep their traditional values which would be wiped out were they to adopt the Western way of life.
While reading the novel, I thought the women were smart as they didn’t behave in a too stupid way, relatively, until the end with them killing the poor Simone lol. But interestingly enough, the reason behind their action was their attempt to “egyptianize” her, to make her worthy of being Hamed‘s wife who would therefore not be married to “a man”.
We read in the novel that Simone wrote notes about her visit but we never get to know them, just like her voice is not audible. It’s like Fayyadh didn’t want us to know the foreigner’s perspective. But Hamed‘s brother tells us that she behaved like she was in Paris, and forced them to adopt her behaviour (eating with forks, etc.). He remarked that normally, the guest should adapt to his host’s way of life and not the other way around.
The West’s ignorance of the East’s condition is depicted by Fayyadh through Simone‘s questions reported to us by the high school student. She wondered why the people didn’t look healthy, why the farmers didn’t use machines, etc.
The novel ends with the police officer asking the doctor about the real cause of Simone’s death (because they had agreed to say it was a heart attack). The doctor replied, “her death or our death?” Making it sound like killing her was killing the only chance for the village to enter into civilisation.
In a separate article, Fayyadh said he had been accused of being a supporter of western imperialism after he wrote the novel. He also mentioned how the French press took the opportunity of the publication of his novel’s French translation to blame everything on Islam. It’s like we’re way too far from being reasonable and keeping our emotions aside when dealing with West/East topics. And perhaps it’s party due to History as illustrated in the novel when the village males gathered to discuss about Simone‘s visit and they brought back the 17,000 of their ancestors killed by French invaders many decades earlier. Even Simone didn’t forget that past for she wanted to know more about Louis IX‘s capture by the Egyptians.