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Friday 10 October 2008

The Society of the Faithful - a short story by Alaa Al Aswany

October 11, 2008

by Suzan Abrams

Even books command the power to tempt an eager reader through trailers, that double up as mini-booklets while infused with a tale or two and this, as a prediction of good things to come.

In order to emphasis my meaning, let me just say that I was thrilled to discover this little purple booklet which features a surprise short story by bestselling Egyptian novelist and essayist Alaa Al Aswany.

It lies sure and discreet, tucked away inside the back flap of his latest hardback, Chicago; an intense story spun around an Egyptian community in America. Like his earlier bestseller The Yacobian Building which dealt with the turmoils of difficult personalities housed together in one building and which was recently turned into a film, Chicago stays a talking point with book circles in the UK.

The hidden 12-page story titled The Society of the Faithful forms part of Alaa Al Aswany's collection of short stories called Friendly Fire. It is to be published by Fourth Estate, UK, in June 2009. At this juncture, I feel as if I may have plucked the teaser out of a Christmas stocking. I thought that the advertising effort proved to be an ingenius idea that would certainly sit well with a serious book lover. The word gimmick would merely cheapen a sincere cause in this case and not one I'd care to describe as fitting.

The story revolves around el-Zahhar, a disillushioned Egyptian political activist who still ails in his mournful remembrance of his once charismatic leader. Mustafa el-Nahhas passed away 25 years ago.

Zahhar holds a gathering in a tiny room only to be shocked that el-Nahhas is himself barely remembered, former agendas are swiftly forgotten and that jaded followers would prefer to turn scavengers hounding necessary material pursuits, with calmer spiritual engagements thrown aside. When food is brought into the room, they rush with snarls to grab whatever may be had. The black-clad and frightened aged maid immediately throws her trays into the air and dashes out in fright. How disappointed a stunned el-Zahhar is to view the brutal truth as he sinks heavily into the nearest chair.

Descriptions do well to create an intense drama and the mood of the scene is at once atmospheric. Aswany creates a vivid episode with ease, while confidently relying on a stringent construction of words. The next scene happens upon one of magical realism as el-Zahhar comes face to face with his dead leader in the now empty room. Later, he tries to explain the incident in all earnestness to his bemused friends. Convinced of good things to come thanks to this fantastic vision, el-Zahhar lovingly promises his wife much.

This leads to an interesting end for the black comedy where the tale would appear comic and slightly tragic all at once.

Each different scene lifted new characters to unexpected moods and provoked varied emotions. The writing is distinctly masculine and through the simple plot, serves to reveal man's secret vulnerability while caught in a precarious situation.

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