Hesham Taha, Sunday 11 Feb 2024
Warathit Aal Al-Shaikh (The Sheikhs' Inheritors) is not only a novel but also a family saga written by Ahmed Al-Qarmalawi, published by Al-Dar Al-Arabiya Lil-Kitab in 2020.
Ahmed Al-Qarmalawi constructed his fifth novel on a vision passed from one generation to another about a hidden treasure in the form of seven tall clay jars full of gold, buried underneath the family house and guarded by a fallen hair monkey, which will give it to the rightful descendent, named Mohammed, among seven descendants bearing the same name!
It is not just a novel but rather a family saga, intertwined with the efforts of the narrator Ahmed, who works as an engineer like the author, to emigrate from Egypt to Australia after the failure of the 2011 Revolution.
This thinly veiled semi-autobiography is so packed with numerous characters to a confusing extent and comprises some vignettes with varying degrees of quality. One unforgettable vignette is when Nashaat, an army officer, who is almost one of the narrator’s grandfathers, returned wounded from Palestine during WWI, taking full pride in defeating the Turks. Being a Turk, his mother had ambivalent feelings towards this; she was happy for her son’s return. At the same time, he trounced those who are symbolically his forefathers! Another vignette was when an aunt of the narrator’s father brought from between her legs a bat which she caught and which deprived the narrator of sleep in the country house.
A third one, the most harrowing episode, is when the Cairo Police Commissioner Sedqi Bek, who is also almost one of the narrator’s grandfathers, went to his brother-in-law’s palace along with a company of soldiers, tied him, killed his horses, and seized his precious horse in revenge for strangulating Neamat, his sister, to satisfy his sadistic desires. The bright side is when Neamat, who was below 18 years old when she got married and remained unmarried until her death, resided in the country house (the one with the aforementioned vision). During his life, her father bequeathed her a large piece of land, upon which she built this house. Then, she started to rent lands to peasants and thrived when her nephew came and managed these lands.
After that comes the love affair of epic proportions between Nashaat, the wounded army officer, and Lilit, a neighbouring Armenian girl, who fled with her mother after the reported Armenian genocide in Turkey. His commanding officer gave him a gift: two telephone sets, a leftover from the British troops at the end of WWI, which was a wonder at the time. He used them in talking to his lover after training her how to use them. He used to accompany her to Port Said by train with all his military regalia pretending to be a high-ranking military officer escorting a princess visiting the city, which became a reception point for Armenians fleeing the Turks. Although Armenians were wary of Nashaat, being a Muslim officer, he gained their trust when he recounted his victory against the Turks. Unfortunately, this affair did not end in marriage because the Armenian Orthodox priest, who wanted to terminate this relationship, told Lilit to ask Nashaat to convert to Christianity.
A tragic episode occurred when one of Mohammed's family burnt down the hut of Ephraim, a Jewish photographer, which he used as a studio, in revenge for refusing to return photos he took for Zubeida, his beloved cousin. Ephraim instructed a group of Jewish youth to start a brawl with Mohammed, through harassing his sister, which resulted in losing an eye.
Zubeida, who used to look down upon her female cousins viewing herself as much more refined and who eagerly wanted to be a fashion model in the West, was an enchanting beauty who did not care a bit for her cousin’s love. She got married to Shaher, a truly smart engineer, who provided her with a velvet dreamlike life, only to be shaken to the core by his premature death. She never got married again!
On the other hand, Fadel, Mohammed’s father, suffered a psychological breakdown when his wife humiliated him for not executing a severe punishment upon his son’s attackers. As a result, he left the house and used to return to it occasionally. He became a Sufi and led an ascetic life, roaming about many mosques.
Being the only child, Ahmed, the narrator, was torn between leaving his mother and father, who are cousins, and his home country while his financial fortunes were dwindling monthly and emigrating. He was also struggling with his wife and father-in-law, who was a former high-ranking police officer and viewed the 2011 Revolution as a conspiracy against the state.
Ahmed was also striving to persuade his wife of the idea of emigration, which he finally decided to embark on solely.
The final pages show that the hidden treasure was the oil discovered and excavated by the government in the family land!
As a conclusion, the number of successes in this family saga is outweighed by the tragedies. Although the novel is comprised of 43 chapters, the author put number 44 on a blank page, alluding to an open end or denoting that the narrator/author did not write it because he did not live it to relate it!
Al-Qarmalawi won the Sheikh Zayed Book Award in 2017 for his novel “Summer Rains.”
The novelist was so keen to tell the story apparently of his family at the expense of a robust novel. One felt that certain episodes should have been excluded totally or at least abridged.