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War in the Land of Egypt (Emerging Voices) Paperback – November 1, 1997
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Yusuf Al-Qa'id's War in the Land of Egypt was banned in his native country but published to wide acclaim outside of Egypt. The first of his novels to be translated into English, it tells the story of Masri (the only character with a name), a young Egyptian peasant who is sent into the Egyptian army on the eve of the 1973 Yom Kippur war in place of a rich man's son. Al-Qa'id tells his tale from several different perspectives: that of the village headman (the Umda) whose son Masri will replace; the broker who finds Masri; the hapless young man's father; his friend; his commanding officer; and finally, the investigator sent to look into the switch. The one character we do not hear from is Masri.
It soon becomes apparent why this book was banned in Egypt, as Al-Qa'id uses the events surrounding the war to indict the bureaucratic corruption and social inequality rife in his country. Each character represents a different facet of Egyptian society with Masri himself, by virtue of his name (which, in Arabic, translates as "Egyptian"), standing for Everyman. Political this novel doubtless is, but it is also a masterfully crafted piece of fiction and a genuine page-turner as well. --Alix Wilber
The first of Al-Qa'id's 11 novels to be published in English is the account of an umda, a village politician, who plots to get his youngest son out of army service during what turns out to be the beginning of the Yom Kippur War. The novel begins with Sadat returning land nationalized by Nasser; the umda's land is soon restored to him, and he is suddenly once again the most powerful man in his region. To get his son out of the service, he turns to "The Broker," a former teacher who has learned how to manage the loopholes of Egypt's bureaucracy. A replacement is found for the umda's son. When the war begins and the replacement is sent to the front lines, the novel becomes a broiling indictment of Egyptian double standards. Not surprisingly, it was long banned in its home country. Each chapter is inventively told by a different character, but none by either of the two boys at the plot's center. A welcome addition to any international fiction collection. David Cline
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We never meet the young man in question, but the story follows him to the front lines during the brief Yom Kippur/Ramadan War of October 1973, where he heroically serves as a stretcher bearer. Efforts are made after the cease-fire that ends the war to correct the injustice of his role as a replacement inductee (as an only son he is not required to serve). However, the poverty of his family and bureaucratic indifference at many levels conflict with the efforts of those who want to right a wrong.
First published in Beirut in 1978, the book was banned in Egypt. It's overdue version in English was not published until 1998 and is part of Interlink Books' excellent Emerging Voices series. The book includes an afterward discussing the author's career and provides an informative commentary on the novel's structure and story.
Al Quid uses extensive symbolism in the story; none of the characters have names except for the main character who was given an unusual generic first name "the Egyptian". Oppressive social pressures, slaving for family status and appearances, corruption a patriarchal tyranny, city indifference, rich vs poor, gap of opportunity, oppression of authority, helplessness of the common and indeed of all Egyptians are all the strong and recurring themes throughout the book. The symbolism is generally not subtle and at times it feels like the author has tried to cover more social ills than anyone story can do justice. The story is too gripping to lose the reader in the midst of the litany of Egypt's social ills.
While the six different story tellers help round out a more complete picture of the central sad tale as a whole, much of the story and many of the characters came across one dimensional, too cardboard like the good, the bad, the greedy, the conscientious, the helpless and so forth. Somehow, to me, it felt something was lacking despite the six different perspectives. All six storytellers painted the one vision the Al Qaid had, they told us different parts of the story, only in few cases did they really show us very different perspectives. While I have immensely enjoyed this novel, this one missing aspect detracted from it for me. The multiple storytellers is such an ideal way to portray more well rounded characters but was not fully utilized.