On Monday, July 5th we met to discuss Hunger by Mohamed El-Bisatie.
As with his earlier works, Mohamed El-Bisatie’s novel is set in the Egyptian countryside, about which he writes with such understanding. Episodic in form, it deals with a family Zaghloul the layabout father, Sakeena the long-suffering wife, and two young boys. Hunger was shortlisted for the Emirates Foundation International Prize for Arabic Fiction Shortlist in 2009.
The central theme of the book is hunger: the hunger of not knowing where one’s next meal is coming from, the universal hunger for sex and love, and the hunger for intellectual stimulation – curiosity and conversation. Sakeena’s life revolves round trying to provide her family with the necessary daily loaves of bread that will stave off starvation. Labor-shy Zaghloul works on and off at one of the village’s cafes, but prefers to spend his time listening in on conversations about subjects such as politics, which he would have liked had he but had an education to know more about. He is also intrigued by the stories told by young university students about their sexual exploits. Eventually chance presents him with a new job: to keep company with an elderly and over-fat man and help him on and off the mule he has to use for getting about.
After looking in turn at the lives of the husband and the wife, the novel finally focuses on their elder son, who, although lacking the advantages of any sort of education, none the less shows more initiative than his father, and discovers his own way of contributing to the family bread larder. Despite its bleak title, Hunger is told with a lightness of touch and the writer s trademark wry humor.
About Mohamed El-Bisatie
Mohamed El-Bisatie was born and brought up in the Nile Delta and lives in Cairo. Since 1968 he has published six volumes of short stories and a number of novels, many published in English translation. A collection of his short stories translated by Denys Johnson-Davies was published in the mid-1990s – A Last Glass of Tea and Other Stories, and in 2003 AUC Press published Johnson-Davies’s translation of his novel Houses Behind the Trees. Banipal No 7 published an extract from the manuscript translation by Hala Halim of Clamor of the Lake, with the whole book published by AUC Press in 2004. This novel, translated by Hala Halim, was runner-up in the inaugural Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation (2006). In 2006 his novel Over the Bridge, translated by Denys Johnson-Davies, was published by AUC Press. El-Bisatie was awarded the Oweiss prize in 2001.
Our discussion included some of the following:
- A major theme is the quite literal depiction of the effects of physical and emotional hunger…but the book also presents the universal hunger for sex and love, and through Zaghoul’s attraction to the students discussion of politics the hunger for knowledge and conversation – and through Sakeena’s attraction to the mystery of the big house to curiosity. How do you feel El-Bisatie was able to present the range of these ‘hungers’ through the character’s lives?
- As with much of his work, the story demonstrates El-Bisatie’s concern with social justice and marginal communities – however while the story takes place in an unnamed rural community in the Nile Delta, it feels like a universal reflection on poverty and its affects. Compare this treatment of poverty to For Bread Alone (al-Khubz al-Hafi) by Mohamed Choukri and The Lodging House (Wikalat Atiya) by Khairy Shalaby.
- El-Bisatie uses a lightness of touch and use of wry humor in his writing – how does this serve the serious subjects dealt with in the book?
- Why can’t Zaghloul maintain a steady position?Is it because, as Sakeena says, he is the only one who doesn’t work? Is it because there is no work?
- What do you think the future of the son will be?
- How does El-Bisatie communicate Sakeena’s strength?
- Throughout the book we are presented with glimpses of a touching affection between Zaghloul and Sakeena, although they do struggle with the strain of the economic situation. How does this change your understanding of the characters?
- The book is written in an episodic form that allows us to focus on the characters in succession. How would the experience of the story change if he had not chosen to write in this way? Is it successful? Without a beginning or an ending the story could in some ways continuously be read and reread as a demonstration of the cyclical feast/famine of the family’s life and of life along the Nile Delta in general.
For learn more, we recommend:
- http://www.almasryalyoum.com/en/node/22936 – Drumbeat: Tales from the Gulf’s back end, a Review of Mohammed el-Bisatie’s novel Drumbeat by Ursula Lindsey, from Al Masry Al Youm – Monday July 5th 2010
- http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/1999/429/bk9_429.htm – Village life from within By Denys Johnson-Davies, from Al-Ahram Weekly, 13 – 19 May 1999, Issue No. 429
- http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/1999/429/bk10_429.htm – (Excerpt) And the Train Comes By Mohamed El-Bisatie, from Al-Ahram Weekly, 13 – 19 May 1999, Issue No. 429