Review: Sunset Oasis by Bahaa Taher

Sunset Oasis by Bahaa Taher1 Review: Sunset Oasis by Bahaa Taher

The sixth novel by celebrated Egyptian author Bahaa Taher, Sunset Oasis has already garnered accolades far and wide, with the Booker-esque Arabic Fiction award amongst its more notable achievements. Its not difficult to see why: this volume may be slim, but its deceptively so, making masterful use of setting and character to address themes such as colonialism, identity, exile and love.

It is just prior to the turn of the twentieth century, and Egypt is struggling under the fractious weight of British colonialism. Mahmoud embodies well the ambivalence induced by the presence of the British: despite the sentiment alluded to by his formal Western attire, Mahmoud is torn between odd conceptions of progress and nationalistic fervour, and this conflict is deeply and painfully evident in almost every element of his person. For example, despite marrying an Irishwoman, an act that might be seen as a way of ingratiating himself to British rule, Mahmoud finds himself pleased to hear her rail against the British invasion of her own homeland. 'But in contrast, he reflects curiously on his languid, indolent youth, a pleasant existence that he was granted due to his familys well-off positionbut one that stands in stark contradiction to the lived reality of his less fortunate countrymen.'This ambivalence causes Mahmoud, torn between the old and the new and what each represents, to act strangely and ambivalently, and it is after a manifestation of anti-colonialism'that he is deployed to the desert oasis Siwa to collect taxes on behalf of the capital. A Berber settlement, Siwa, with its proud walls and rich and untainted linguistic and cultural history, is unsullied, pristine, having not succumbed to either of the recent colonisation efforts: those of the Arab Egyptians, and more recently, those of the British. Mahmoud, then, is sent to become that which he has tried so ambiguously and confusedly to fight: the colonising force. This existential challenge is further augmented by the educative passions of his wife, an Orientalist intent on unearthing the historical reality of Siwa. Together, they are positioned as invadersMahmoud representative of the Egyptians, and Catherine the Britishwhose goals are entirely at odds with those of the natives of Siwa.

Mahmoud is aware of the danger that this position represents, and is pragmatically aware that he and his wife may indeed not survive. Again, we see the juxtaposition of his lazy but pleasant youth and the similar futility that comes with this new role: is one any more meaningful than the other? Mahmoud is increasingly torn, lost between the two poles of his identity. 'The trial ahead is, though, gradually exemplified through a series of warnings, none of which Mahmoud nor Catherine heed, albeit perhaps for different reasons: Mahmouds sense of internal conflict and resignation, and Catherines blinkered obsession with the invasion and legacy of Alexander the Great. Though'the desert comes alive with vicious, lashing sandstorms that hurl stones and try to drag Mahmoud and his entourage beneath its burning surface, both press onward; the same, too, when Catherine invites the bitter wrath of the locals by shrugging off local custom and imposing her western sensibilities as it suits her. Try though they might, both remain exiles in the town, their efforts to fit in representative of patronising colonial self-righteousness and expectation. Catherine, despite her linguistic faculty, and calm confidence in her anthropological skill, is unable to make herself understood by the locals, and Mahmouds sense of masculinity and self-efficacy is undermined by the usurping actions of others. It is notable, perhaps, that Mahmoud hesitates in attempting to save from death a young boy who shares his name.

The two begin to fall together, their lives increasingly lost beneath the torment of their obsessions, the pasts that haunt them, and their inescapable positions as exiles. Redemptive forces, though, are sent their way: Catherines sister Fiona, who goes some way towards bridging the cultural and communicative gap between the locals and the two invaders, and the gentle Sheikh Yahya, whose notably bespectacled visage seems to hint at a new way of seeing and interpreting, for example. Then there is Maleeka, the Sheikhs niece, who seems to be a sort of counterpoint, acting out against the local customs, raising the possibility that perhaps the united front of Siwa is not quite as strong and intransigent as it seems. But as Mahmoud and Catherine remain oblivious of their own influences and arrogance, these forces are buffered, swept away: Fionas tuberculosis is ever worsening, and Maleeka is punished for her actions. Even the Sheikh capitulates, recognising the turgid, stagnant nature of colonialism, and the vast gaps between cultures that can only be bridged over time. However, it is Catherines continued obliviousness to this fact that results in her downfall, and that of Mahmouds: when, desperate to force the hand of history to meet her own interpretations, she willfully misinterprets a historical text, an act that has an astonishing and horrifying recourse.

Sunset Oasis is a striking and poignant examination of colonial era Egypt, and offers an intriguing analysis that forefronts the perspectives of both the colonised and the colonisers, as well as the complexities and contradictions inherent in these roles. Curiously, perhaps, it is also an examination of the importance of story, both personal and collective, and its ability to act as a redemptive force, and possibly, to engage with and shape the lived reality of a people. 'While its not a flawless bookthe characters are sometimes less individuals than they are vessels for a theme or argument, and there are narratives that are perhaps overemphasised, such as Catherines incessant search for the past, and a strikingly out-of-place soliloquy from Alexander the Greatits a moving and thoughtful addition to Tahers oeuvre.

Rating: ?????

With thanks to Sceptre books for the review copy.

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