Sunday, February 13, 2011

Reading Egypt: A Light Comparison of Two Texts

It's not the ideal way to start a blog post. I don't have any particular interest in the subject of the two books that I read. But it's true. With all the uprising and freedom marches in Egypt, I had an involuntary urge to pull down a specific book from the shelf. I have about 50 books that I haven't read yet, with two or three old favorites mingling with the never been's. I scanned the selection, needing a break from the large "From Beirut to Jerusalem" by Thomas Friedman. My interest in Egypt doesn't exceed the general reading public's, but somehow over time I had collected 2 books on Egypt and then read them back to back. In the last two weeks, I read these two novels about Egypt, although thematically, they are vastly different.

Naturally the Middle East is very interesting to me at this moment in my life because I'm living here amidst all the chaos and hummus and revolution and suppression. But, Israel isn't chaotic or oppressed or amidst revolution, so when the countries around us start to make noise, I listen. While I liked both novels, neither text is about current Egyptian politics or the Muslim Brotherhood, which is what originally prompted me to read the first book. Both novels are filled fantastically with references to real Egyptian kings(as I type this something on t.v. is about an Egyptian symbol for power...weird how things always coalesce) and real Egyptian history. Of course, the kings and history are woven into a fictional story, but each novel was compelling and difficult to put down.

The first novel is The Hidden Oasis. It is set in modern times, mentions Mubarak and a few failed American policies relating to Iraq, as well as the Beirut US barracks bombing(which I had just read about in Friedman's novel). The Egyptologist, in contrast, is set in 3 time periods: late 1910's, 1922 and 1955. The story is told through letters, drawings, cables, and mostly journal entries. There are many story tellers and the story unfolds in a way that isn't entirely unpredictable, but is absolutely clever.

Paul Sussman's "The Hidden Oasis"(a nice, thick distraction while I was laid up in bed) looked like just the right choice. Sussman is a British writer with a wickedly short biography on Wikipedia. He's written two other books; I've read neither and in fact, had never heard of him prior to the reading the text. He has a fourth book coming out and the common thread throughout all his books is Egypt and archaeology. His characters are not consistent through each novel, which I like sometimes because it means he's focusing on the mystery, the history and not the characters. But that's only good for a book that you're reading because you're sick and you don't want to try very hard on extracting something besides pure entertainment from the book. Unfortunately, I found myself skipping over many sections because it felt like I was reading the descriptions for an action scene of a film. I got the distinct impression that he wrote the novel for Nicholas Cage to star in.

I hate Nicholas Cage movies.

After I finished "The Hidden Oasis", I moved onto "The Egyptologist", by Arthur Phillips, educated in Harvard and also writer of 4 novels.

The Egyptologist is really quite a special find. I almost didn't buy it because I was short on dollars. But it was in a used book store and decided to use my credit card. The story is dry sometimes because the details of Ralph Trilipush(a main character)'s digs drone on, but they must because it's a window into the psyche of his character. Phillips masterfully creates several characters whose qualities and inner-struggles are masked and peeled away a thin layer at a time. We are made to feel anger, regret, shame and pain through his characters, as well as revulsion, annoyance, and even, perhaps, a bit of jealousy. I wholeheartedly suggest The Egyptologist and look forward to scouring future second-hand book stores for Prague, Arthur Phillips first novel.

I don't have any books left on Egypt and I'm not rushing out to buy any more at this time, and yet, aside from excellent vocabulary and clever story lines, I am very glad I read them because I was reminded of how much history is at stake in a land at risk because it's current politics are unclear. The Egyptians have such a long, stunning history, and left so much of it behind for us to study. Even as Jew, whose people were enslaved in Egypt thousands of years ago, I can say that I am in awe of Egypt and its history, hopeful that whatever happens there now, it's once proud history of kings and queens and gold and royal cats can at least be preserved, since it is doubtful to be resurrected.