I discovered Mansoura Ez Eldin through an interview of hers that I read in the newspaper. The interview was impressive and it looked like she was one of the new voices of Arabic / Egyptian literature. I haven’t read much of Arabic literature (I don’t think I have read any – shame on me!) and so I thought I will start with one of her works. I discovered that ‘Maryam’s Maze’ was her most famous work. So, I got it and I read it. It is a slim book – around a hundred pages – and I read it in one sitting. Here is what I think.
‘Maryam’s Maze’ is about Maryam who gets up one morning and discovers that she is living in a strange house. She tries to meet one of her friends and finds that her friend is missing. She has a date with her boyfriend but he doesn’t turn up. When she goes to his office, she discovers that there is no one with his name who works there. She goes back home (the strange house she woke up in) and looks at old newspaper cuttings she has, in which her boyfriend has written articles. She discovers that those articles are all missing. Maryam realizes suddenly that though she lives in the same city that she used to live earlier, she doesn’t know anyone there and all the people she knew had somehow disappeared. She is bewildered by this. At this point, we the readers are not sure whether this whole sequence of events actually happens or whether they are a part of Maryam’s dream.
After the first chapter, the story travels back and forth to the past and the present. We learn about Maryam’s family, her parents, the woman her father loves, her grandmother, her friends, her childhood. While we get a glimpse into Maryam’s past, the story also continues to tell us about Maryam’s quest for the truth about her present.
If I stand apart from the book and look at it from some distance, I can say that the book has two significant parts – a dreamy, surreal part which is set in the present and a concrete part which is set in the past. There are nine, unnumbered chapters. The chapters on the present and the past interleave with each other. The chapters on the past talk about history, life in Egypt, a little bit of politics. The chapters on the present are surrealistic, even avant garde and grab the reader’s attention with their unusual strangeness.
For me, the favourite part of the book was the third chapter. It is about Maryam’s parents, Yusif and Narges. It talks about Narges’ life when she marries Yusif, about how she learns to live as a newly married young woman, about how she is shocked when she discovers that her husband is in love with another woman at the same time, about how she manages the difficult time during her pregnancy and the aftermath. It is a beautiful chapter and it elevated the book to sublime heights. One of my favourite scenes in this chapter is when Narges discovers in the middle of the night that there are big ants crawling all over her and the reason that they are doing that is because her breasts are filled with milk. What does one do in this situation? She is upset, confused and mystified.
There are going to be some spoilers in the next paragraph, and so please be forewarned.
Another interesting chapter is the seventh which reveals part of the mystery – atleast I think it does. It has beautiful passages and wonderful thoughts and insights. I couldn’t get most of the mystery though. (I am one of those guys who had to see ‘The Sixth Sense’ more than once to find out the truth about Bruce Willis’ character.) This chapter seems to suggest that there is the real Maryam and there is the spirit of Maryam which is an independent entity, which shadows her. In his note at the end of the book, the translator Paul Starkey describes this as ‘the idea of the qarin or qarina, or ‘spirit companion,’ a concept found in the Qur’an but which undoubtedly has its origins in pre-Islamic times.’ There are also a few scenes which remind one of ‘The Sixth Sense’ – Maryam tries to talk to people or touch them but they don’t seem to be aware of her presence. It all made me feel puzzled – was Maryam dead and was this her ghost? Or is this all a dream? Or is it her spirit, her qarina, which is telling the story, while Maryam is actually sleeping comfortably at home? There is one surprise which is revealed towards the end, but I couldn’t fathom the central mystery even after the last page. This is the kind of book that will lead to a fascinating book club discussion.
It is surprising how much we can enjoy a book, inspite of not being able to understand how the central mystery is resolved. I would have been disappointed with ‘Maryam’s Maze’ if I had read it when I was younger. However, now, I loved it. Each sentence in the book is beautifully constructed, there are beautiful thoughts and ideas, the prose is exquisite. I can imagine how it might have read in the original Arabic – it must be an absolute pleasure to read. Another thing which I found quite interesting about the book was this. It would have been easy for Mansoura Ez Eldin, as a woman writer from an Arab country, to take potshots at the patriarchal establishment and portray her country in not-so-good light. International readers would have lapped it up. But she hasn’t done that. She hasn’t taken the easy way out. She has written a book where each sentence is beautifully sculpted and where the whole story is a work of art. I admire her for that. (Of course, this is my own opinion. A more informed reader might see underlying subtext in the story.)
I loved ‘Maryam’s Maze’. It is a beautiful, slim gem. I want to read other works of Mansoura Ez Eldin now.
I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.
She began to count her losses, which had piled up during the years of her marriage. She had known that marriage would make her lose herself, but had nonetheless immersed herself in it totally. She had abandoned her dreams of completing a master’s thesis in English literature on William Blake, and occupied herself with the intricacies of El Tagi’s family. Only now did she return, like a soldier who had rushed into horrendous battles, only to suddenly discover that the victories had not been credited to him, but rather to his commander.
Yusif knew better than anyone that Narges was in love with herself…in love with the young girl of eighteen she had been. She would have liked herself and her experience to have stood still at that age, with her personality at the time. For this reason, despite her love for Yusif, she had never wanted to be totally in love with him, or to immerse herself in him totally. She always looked at him as a person trying to steal from her the girl she had been and whom she still loved.
Death seemed to Narges terrifying and inhuman, but despite that, she wanted to die young and without getting ill. She didn’t want to see any more evidence of the body’s betrayal. She never wanted to witness it collapse, waste away, or turn into something resembling a corpse, quite remote from the beloved if frightening body that she had lived in and grown used to.
When Maryam looked at her, the other woman wondered whether her eyes saw the world exactly as Maryam did. Did people in general, she wondered, see things around them in the same way as others? What if there were very slight differences from one person to another, which when added together might lead to alarming results, as alarming as the chasm that separated their world from hers? Was it sight that defined everything? They existed because she could see them, while she did not exist because she was outside their field of vision.
A stranger knows the cities better than those born there. He remembers their features, and is familiar with every inch of their streets. His feet cling to the asphalt when he walks over it. He does not expect the city to cast him out far away where there is no one and nothing. The stranger tries harder to belong to the city than those who are native to it, for they have no need to prove anything, but walk on in a neutral way, paying no attention to the finer details of their city, looking at strangers with an almost vulgar politeness that springs from their sense of its great superiority.
Have you read Mansoura Ez Eldin’s ‘Maryam’s Maze’? What do you think about it? What do you think happened to Maryam in the story?