On the Threshold of the Modern Age

The winner of the first Arabic Booker Prize was no great surprise. The Arab-British jury chaired by the Iraqi writer Samuel Shimon decided in favor of Sunset Oasis by the Egyptian novelist Bahaa Taher, the most prominent of the six finalists. Mona Naggar reports

Baha Taher (photo: Festivaletteratura.it)
Baha Taher, winner of the First Arab Booker Prize (photo: Festivaletteratura.it)

​​The award for the best Arabic fiction, which carries a prize of $50,000, is the culmination of Bahaa Taher's literary career. He received Egypt's highest national award for literature twice during the 1990s. The author is not a complete unknown in Germany, either; his novel Aunt Safija and the Convent was published in German in 2003, but also in French, Italian and English.

Bahaa Taher was born in Giza, in Upper Egypt, in 1935. He studied history, worked as a cultural editor with Egyptian radio, but left his country, largely out of dissatisfaction with the policies of then-president Anwar al-Sadat. During the 1980s and 90s he worked as a translator for the United Nations in Geneva and returned to Cairo in 1995.

Bahaa Taher belongs to the generation of Egyptian intellectuals who consciously experienced the national struggle against British colonial rule and identified with the goals of the July Revolution led by Gamal Abdel Nasser in the early 1950s. Their attitude toward the era of the heroes of Arab nationalism is ambivalent, however.

On the one hand, there is approval of the social and economic achievements made, but on the other hand, the bitter realization that pluralism and democracy continue to be unattainable in this political system.

The end of a love affair

The conflict of the intellectual with authority is one of the recurring themes in Taher's works, including Sunset Oasis. The novel is set in the late 19th century. Mahmud, an educated officer, is posted to the Western Egyptian oasis of Siwa as a military administrator. The young man feels torn between military obedience, his sympathy for the anti-British Urabi Revolt, and the hostility of the oasis inhabitants. They see him as the representative of the hated central government. Mahmud is the epitome of the loser.

​​He is incapable of standing up for his ideals and finally resorts to a senseless act of destruction. In an interview with the Egyptian newspaper al-Ahali, Taher conceded that this melancholy figure represents the period of defeat which many parts of the Arab world are currently experiencing.

The love story between the protagonist and the Irishwoman, Kathrin, develops from another constant in Taher's literary work – his reflections on relations between the West and the Arab world. The relationship of the two main characters – at first, passionate and sexually fulfilled – increasingly fades and, after several months in the oasis, gives way to profound mutual alienation and indifference.

Ancient cultures on the threshold of a new age

Arab critics concentrated primarily on the political interpretations of the novel. They barely touched on the richly facetted figures of the inhabitants of the oasis. Through these characters, the author describes, in a sophisticated idiom, the ancient Berber, Bedouin, and Egyptian cultures on the threshold of a new age.

The goal of the initiators of the Arabic Booker Prize – the Emirates Foundation and the Booker Prize Foundation – is to draw more international attention to contemporary Arabic literature and to encourage translations. Sunset Oasis stands a good chance of attracting the interest of Western publishers.

Mona Naggar

© Süddeutsche Zeitung / Qantara.de 2008

Translated from the German by Phyllis Anderson


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