Brieven uit Egypte

By Nahed Selim

A novel in letters — written, not by the protagonist, but by her family, friends and her readers. And a book with an all too familiar, but none the less true, message. Perhaps it would have been better to write this book in Arabic, to make it possible for it to reach its audience.

  • Author: Nahed Selim
  • Title: Brieven uit Egypte
  • Pages: 142
  • Published: 2000
  • Publisher: Van Gennep
  • ISBN: 90-5515-260-9

Nahed Selim’s Brieven uit Egypte (Letters from Egypt) is a novel — at least, that is how it is presented. The backstory is that a young female journalist, Basna, is sent to that center of the Western World, Amsterdam. She is supposed to write ‘Letters from Amsterdam’ for a small Egyptian magazine. The book consist of letters that her family and readers have sent the journalist.

The wide gamut of reactions to these letters from Amsterdam show in a brillian way the complexity of the Egyptian society. The form is very satisfying: because we only read the letters Basma receives, never the letters she writes, neither the published ones, nor her correspondence with her familiy, we are free to conjecture their contents.

I needed the conceit of assuming that these letters were all translated from Arabic, because the style is a bit uniform. You cannot open a page and guess with certainty who has written the letter on grounds of style. The contents make that very clear, naturally. There are exceptions: Nabiel is very cute, and recognizable.

Of course, by its very nature, it is a very political book. And I am afraid that the book’s blurb already makes clear where the author stands, and what she thinks of the issues she is writing about. Quite often Egypt’s problems are discussed in letters when there’s almost no reason for them to be — for instance when Nabiel suddenly sprouts an interest in statistics.

Fortunately, that is set off by the engaging backstory of Basma’s family, and how the cope with her, her growing notoriety, and how their lifes change accordingly.

On a side-note: what is made very clear is how suffocating the millennia of history Egypt carries. I, living in Europe, in the Netherlands, am concious of the two thousand years since the birth of Christ, of the thousand years since history in the Netherlands started for real. But the Egyptians in this book feel the traditions of the Pharaos, the Byzantines, the Arabs, and feel they cannot free themselves from it.

Near the end, the book reaches out to the lofty spheres inhabited by Multatuli, by allowing the author to directly interfere in the book. Multatuli took up the pen, and wrote his famous accusation, and ended his book. If you haven’t read the Max Havelaar yet, do so. Since you’re reading this review, you can read English. An English translation is available from Penguin Classics. Buy it, and read. But to return to Brieven uit Egypte: the last letter but one is signed N.S.. It is a manifest, equally impassioned as Multatuli’s, about Islam, or rather, about Naheed Selim’s opinion of the current state of Islam.

It is well written, and impassioned, as I said, but not as well written as the Multatuli section of the Max Havelaar. However, where the Multatuli section of the Max Havelaar is necessary in the structure of the book, the N.S. letter seems to be more an attempt to make clear what the rest of the book has made admirably clear by itself. I cannot really disagree with the contents (except that I think she gives Islam too much credit for intellectual achievement), but I didn’t need it either.

However, in a subtle move, it’s the last-but-one letter. The last letter, from Aziez, Rashida, Basma and Saï is about a dream. Free from all tradition, loving his wife and his children, Aziez entreats his sister to never lose her dreams. That is a hopeful note, and one on which I want to end.

A rather less positive review, by Coen Peppelenbos, in Dutch has appeared in the Leeuwarder Courant. I think he’s a silly, sour bugger.

Currently reading: Multatuli, Max Havelaar, John M. Ford, The Dragon Waiting, P.G. Wodehouse, Young Man in Spats, Dimitri Obolensky, The Byzantine Commonwealth, John Dickson Carr, The Emperor’s Snuff Box, E.R. Eddison, A Fish Dinner in Memison, Freeman Wills Crofts, Golden Ashes,
P.C Hooft, Warenar, Geoffrey Bibby, Looking for Dilmun, John Hargrave, At Suvla Bay

Just discarded: Ann Granger Asking for Trouble