Reviewed by Marie-Thérèse Abdel-Messih
Short story writing has gained strong popularity among Egyptian writers and readers at the turn of the century. Unlike mid-century realist writers who matured the form, fantasy realism has become the vogue among some young writers of the 1990s.
Ashbah Al-Hawas (Phantasmal Sensations) is the second collection of short stories by Ibrahim Farghali. Since his very first collection, Bi-itigah Al-Ma'aqi (Looking within Eyeballs, 1997) he has decided to go against mainstream realist fiction by showing the dialectical relationship between the real and the fantastic. It is followed by Kahf Al-Farashat (The Butterflies' Cave, 1998) a novel written at an earlier date during his stay in the Gulf. The desert has played a major role in shaping expatriate literary culture. Expatriate writers are constantly travelling from the heavily populated metropolitan cities to the desert. For some expatriate writers, the desert is a void, for others it arouses fantasies that may be re-combined in the real. The desert has nourished Farghali's imagination, as its caves encode the fantastic or the unknown within the present. In his latest collection, Ashbah Al-Hawas, as in most of his works he undermines the conventional notions of causality and motivation characterising realist short story writing. At a time of upheaval, realist fiction writers have been trying to establish an art that can put chaos into order. Mainstream fiction has always been basically conservative even when critical, since its realism implies supposedly immanent structures. It would only address "serious" issues marginalising whatever disagrees with the community's values.
The feminine is encoded as either passive or dominant / the modern woman. Conversely, the younger writers have expressed their reluctance to adopt the contradictory morality prevailing. Farghali uses the fantastic to uncover moral degeneration in inhibited social relationships based on fantasy-bonds. In his stories the reader is positioned as spectator to quotidian male-female relationships that most of the time end melodramatically. Chance is the sole motivator in all the stories, as the love affairs alternate between bestiality and romance, the lyrical and the sensual. The chance cycle may cover a lifetime or an evening, and the narrative shifts within different time sequences.
The same cycle of events may be repeated in another story from another character's viewpoint. The stories mostly end with personal transformation. It is either a mental transformation or a metamorphosis. There is no marvelous intervention, but the real and the fantastic exist in a symbiotic relationship. The thematic concern in the stories focuses on male-female intimate relationships, a subject long denied by the conservative cultural milieu, sex being tabooed as the "other" of the sacred. In the stories, Farghali configures the female body as a site of contradiction that creates chances for proximity and/or estrangement. Even when metamorphosed it does not represent an element of mystery but is taken as a given. In "Mariam: the Cooing Lady," Mariam, the deserted woman is transformed into a hideous owl. This does not surprise the reader. The story opens at a climatic pitch after midnight, reverberating with the sounds of howling ghosts, croaking owls and soft incantations proceeding from the nearby mosque. The disconcerting sounds are later domesticated when their source is found out. The reader is at ease with the fantastic yet bewildered at the males' natural disposition to treat women inconsiderately. Love becomes a combat, an act of violence leaving bruises on the female body.
When touched, the bruises connect her with unknown forces, phantoms that satiate a desire that has never been appeased. In "Phantasmal Sensation," again the abject woman is unresponsive to the male touch and chooses to fantasise intimate relations with a phantom. Like all the stories in the collection it subverts the bids for power underlying all common male-female relationships. The transformation of the abject woman into a spectral being is a movement from self to other in protest against oppression. The male transformation is usually in the form of a withdrawal due to estrangement. The male figure is always a sexual exile. He is in constant craving for the woman but never content. Estrangement is experienced after each aborted love story.
"Gin Tonic" and "Screw Driver," recount the same event from male and female viewpoints respectively. In "The Green Room" the male voice comments on both stories in relation to a new contact with a woman in Paris. The stories are autonomous but revolve around analogous experiences emphasising the cyclic pattern of life swinging in a constant wave oscillating between fulfilment and deprivation. The subjects are dominated by repressive moral constraints determining their lives. Such constraints are supposedly a safeguard against bestiary, but they actually transform the subjects into voracious beings. The fantastical encodes the external disorder and becomes the inevitable condition of being. The result is incomprehensibility leading to self-reproach or victimisation of the other. The stories usually parody the melodramatic endings of the boy-girl love story in popular fiction. The melodrama invites the reader to identify with the protagonist, a process that subverts any liberatory concepts. It makes it difficult for the reader to feel distanced from the event allowing for oppositional readings. Notwithstanding, the recurrence of the same event in several stories emphasises the contradictory process of experiencing, which makes for multiple readings.
In "The Green Room," what has previously seemed incomprehensible in the boy-girl relationship becomes comprehensible in the light of a new relationship. If incomprehensibility has earlier led to the lovers' estrangement, estrangement between the lovers in another relationship may lead to understanding. In "The Green Room" both partners are lonely strangers meeting by chance in Paris. However, they manage to recreate an illusion of happiness, to actualise the passion represented in the spectacle they have attended together. "Three Candles" narrates the encounter in Paris through the female viewpoint. Paris becomes a site of licence and fulfilment for both. Significantly their fulfilment is partial; the couple being away from home and their displacement makes future encounters unfeasible. Their present chance encounter appears phantasmal but the woman avows that she has never before stood on more solid ground. The texts deflect metaphorical conceptualisations, and the meanings to be drawn remain suspended. It is not solely restricted to a social criticism of conflicting moral codes, but also touches on the archetypal, revealing the continuum of eroticism and aggression. Love and hate, joy and pain are not opposites; there is only more passion and less passion. Revelations or reconciliation can never take place with the subjects constantly pushed towards estrangement.
Meanwhile, to live in love and peace is one of the persistent contradictions, an ideal impossible and unnatural. It is high time to uncover what has been blocked from consciousness for long. The stories represent emotional conflicts long repressed. However, the ahistorical nature of their major topic, individual love, does not subdue their subversive impulse. The stories reveal the intricate intersection of nature and culture. Sex cannot be reduced to a mater of social convention nor can the self remain unrestrained by society. If sex is one of the forms of power, the question the stories leave us with is how to contain the will to power?
Al-Ahram Weekly 9 - 15 May 2002
Ashbah Al-Hawas (Phantasmal Sensations) Cairo: Miret, 2001. pp80 Author: Ibrahim Farghali