Sunset Oasis (Wahat al-Ghurub) by Bahaa Taher

On Monday, April 5th we discussed the Egyptian author Bahaa Taher’s Sunset Oasis (Wahat al-Ghurub).

Continuing his exploration of such themes as love, death and exile, this is his sixth novel from over a 40-year career. Set in the last years of the 19th century, Sunset Oasis (Wahat al-Ghurub) follows the misadventures of a middle-aged government official, Mahmoud Abd el Zahir, who longs for the courage to fight against the British colonization of his country.

Sunset Oasis was the 2008 recipient of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (aka the ‘Arabic Booker Prize’), and we look forward to reading more nominated / winning titles in the future. For more on the prize visit: http://www.arabicfiction.org/en/shortlist.html or read this article from when Bahaa Taher was the recipient: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2008/mar/11/news.lindesayirvine

Review:

About the Author:

Bahaa Taher (بهاء طاهر‎) (alternatively transliterated as Bahaa Tahir, Baha Taher, or Baha Tahir) was born 1935 in Cairo, Egypt. He graduated in literature from the University of Cairo.

Shortly after graduating from the University of Cairo, he started work in Radio 2, the culture channel of the Egyptian Radio. In 1964, he published his first short story. Bahaa was active in the left-wing and avant-garde literary circles of the 1960s and was one of the writers of the Gallery 68 movement. A storyteller and social commentator Taher lost his job in radio broadcasting and was prevented from publishing in the mid 1970s in Sadat’s Egypt. In 1975, he left Egypt and travelled widely in Africa and Asia seeking work as a translator. During the 1980s and 1990s he lived in Switzerland, where he worked as a translator for the United Nations.  After many years of exile in Switzerland, he has returned recently to Egypt in the 90’s, where he lives today and remains very active in all cultural circles.

He has received much recognition in the last five years. Apart from the translation into English of two of his novels, his collected works were published  in Cairo by Dar al Hilal in 1992, and a film was made about him as a leading member of the 60s generation by Jamil ‘At iyyat lbrahim in 1995. Bahaa calls himself a pan-Arabist and has been critical of many Arab regimes.  Quickly becoming one of the most widely read contemporary novelists in the Arab world, Taher has received in 1998 the State’s Award of Merit in Literature, the highest honour the Egyptian establishment can confer on a writer. In 2000 he was awarded the prestigious Italian Guiseppe Acerbi prize for his widely acclaimed novel Khalti Safiya wal Dier (My Aunt Safiya and the Monastery). He was the first ever winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2008. Through his writing he feels it important to refuse to comply with the stereotypes of exoticism, gender discrimination, and problems between minorities that he feels Western readers want to see in Arab Literature.

His novels include

  • East of the Palms (شرق النخيل) – His first novel was first published in serialized form in 1985.
  • Qalat Duha (قالت ضحى) – (In English As Doha Said) was published in Arabic in 1985 and translated by Peter Daniels & published by the American University in Cairo Press in 2008.
  • Aunt Safiyya and the Monastery (خالتي صفية والدير) (Khalti Safiya wal Dier) – His third novel, set in Upper Egypt, concerns a blood feud as a result of which a young Muslim man, fleeing vengeance, finds sanctuary in a Coptic monastery. Aunt Safiyya and the Monastery was published in 1991 and has been translated into ten languages, including the 1996 English translation by Barbara Romaine.
  • Love in Exile (الحب في المنفى) – His fourth novel deals with the massacre of Palestinians at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon in 1982. Love in Exile was published in Arabic in 1995 It was translated into English by Farouk Abdel Wahab (pen name of Farouk Mustafa), and first published by American University in Cairo Press in 2001, then later reissued by Arabia Books.
  • The point of light (1999)
  • Sunset Oasis (واحة الغروب) – His sixth novel was published in 2007 and set in 19th century Egypt at the beginning of the British occupation of the country. The protagonist of the book is a nationalist Egyptian police officer who suffers from an existential crisis. It was translated by Humphrey Davies and published in 2009 in English .

Bahaa Taher’s Sunset Oasis

For more information about the book, check out:

Discussion Questions:

  • The book is divided into very distinct chapters by the voices of the main characters. Did this approach enliven the book? Break up the story?  How successful do you feel the difference in voices was?
  • Outside of this formula was the Alexander the Great chapter. How do you feel this changed your understanding of Catherine? Did it surprise you? Did it elicit sympathy? Do you see links between Alexander and Mahmoud?
  • Did you reading of the book change with the historical note at the front of the book about the ‘real’ character our hero was based upon?
    • Does the fact that this could be an attempt to reconstruct history make you feel differently about the text?
    • Did you read the endnote or use the glossary throughout the book? Do you feel these are useful? Interruptions? Didn’t notice them?
  • Bahaa Tahir is well known in Cairo as a broadcaster. He was banned from writing in 1975 and left Egypt to live in Switzerland but he did return.  Is Mahmoud’s voice on his ‘banishment’ from Cairo speak to the experience of Tahir’s experience of dislocation.
  • What was Maleeka trying to communicate to Catherine? Why was Catherine so afraid?  Was the curse of the ghoul woman true because people believed it to be?
  • Do you think Fiona was aware of Mahmoud’s feelings towards her?  Do you think her coming was in any way motivated by a larger history between her sister and Michael? Is she truly a simple ‘angelic’ figure?
  • Would Mahmoud have been happy if he could have found his “Dusky Ni’ma” again, would that have been a lasting love or were his dreams of her about youth, the unattainable?
  • What does the destruction of the temple symbolize on an interpersonal level?
  • Orientalism: Does Catherine’s love of Mahmoud stem from the same Orientalism that leads her to her obsession with antiquities?  While she is revering the ancient sites/stories, how do her actions betrayer a larger disrespect of the Other?
  • The possibility or impossibility of heroism, or failure in general:
    • Mahmoud is living the human condition caught between opposing forces in his own self: “The problem is precisely you, my dear major! It’s no good in this world being half good and half bad, half a patriot and half a traitor, half brave and half a coward, half a believer and half a womanizer.”  Do you feel as though one side ‘wins’ at the end? Do you feel that such a ‘victory’ would ever be possible?
    • Catherine sees herself as looking for an answer to Alexander’s mystery to make up for the failure of her life with Mahmoud and Michael and the tragedy of Maleeka. Was everything she tried a failure? Do you think there were alternative outcomes?
  • Oppression or social control: As he explained it to Maya Jaggi of The Guardian, Taher was inspired to write this in part upon reflection on the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which he vehemently opposed, and his desire to explore earlier occupations, of Egypt by Britain, and of Berber lands by Egyptian Arabs. Throughout the story links are made between the British oppressing the Irish, the British colonizing the Egyptians, and the Egyptians in tern colonizing the Siwis or Berbers, and men controlling the actions of women.
    • Do you feel it is a necessity of the human conditioned that oppressed groups look for another group to oppress or control?
    • Reflect on Mahmoud’s statement: “our ancestors were great men, but their grandchildren are fit only for occupation”.
  • What is the impact of literary awards such as the one awarded to Sunset Oasis?
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One comment on “Sunset Oasis (Wahat al-Ghurub) by Bahaa Taher

  1. […] and as well as the first runner up ((also Humphrey Davies, this time for his translation of Sunset Oasis by Bahaa Taher, itself recently nominated for the 2011 IMPAC Prize – the original Arabic was the winner of […]

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