‘The Book of Safety’ offers new insight into Arabic literature

Set in a modern, dystopian-esque Cairo, Havez’s novel follows Khaled Mamoun, a transcriber at a state-run agency shrouded in mystery.
Sunday 28/01/2018
Cover of Yasser Abdel Hafez’s novel “The Book of Safety,” translated by Robin Moger.
Cover of Yasser Abdel Hafez’s novel “The Book of Safety,” translated by Robin Moger.

British translator Robin Moger beguiles the reader with his skilful translation of Yasser Abdel Hafez’s novel “The Book of Safety.” Winner of the 2017 Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation, Moger’s skill is indisputable. He captures all the vibrancy and nuance of the original Arabic, never sacrificing the flow of the text.

As a result, “The Book of Safety” reads organically, without compromise, enveloping the reader fully into a familiar but parallel world, rich with eccentric characters and thought-provoking philosophy.

Set in a modern, dystopian-esque Cairo, Havez’s novel follows Khaled Mamoun, a transcriber at the Palace of Confessions, a state-run agency shrouded in mystery. Mamoun is, by all definitions, a spectator, with no stories of his own to tell.

He is fascinated with works of fiction, idolising protagonists until he encounters Mustafa Ismail, a man so larger-than-life that Mamoun becomes obsessed with Ismail’s unique worldview. With good reason, as he is such a fascinating and persuasive character, readers may also find themselves seduced by his criminality.

Hafez’s novel is fearless, unafraid to take expectation and turn it on its head and voice a perspective of the world that subverts not only Mamoun’s understanding of morality shaped by the fiction he’s read but challenges the reader’s own perception of morality.

Strong themes that pervade the novel are activity versus passivity, freedom versus compliance. This is fertile ground to explore and spares no one, regardless of culture or background. In ways, it engages with the passive act of absorbing a story, the relationship a reader forges with fiction reflected brilliantly in Mamoun, who becomes the reader’s vessel.

A quote from the first chapter encapsulates the driving force of the novel: “The world has no logic and fiction is truer than reality.” Mamoun is referencing Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” but it perfectly foreshadows the transformation he is about to undertake and the realisations that Ismail inspires within him.

Ismail excels as a thief with the mind of a scholar and the key to his success is the subversion of expectation.

Ismail tells us how he did it, how even the life of crime has rules and expectations and using this to his advantage was the key to his success. Enthralled by this and eager to escape mundanity, Mamoun wishes to follow Ismail’s example, pursuing a life of freedom, not dictated by rules, nor concern for how he is perceived by others.

Ismail says: “They lie who say that a man’s life story is all he leaves behind. They set us in motion with profound utterances that fix themselves in our thoughts, and we move accordingly, like machines with no minds of their own. You are the totality of the actions you undertake now, in the moment, and when you pass on that space you filled is taken by the breeze.”

Moger possesses a genuine talent in his work that will continue to have a great effect in the translation industry. The four judges were unanimous in naming him the winner of the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for 2017. The $4,170 prize is to be formally presented by the Society of Authors on March 1.

For the first time in its 11-year history, the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize named a shortlist. In addition to “The Book of Safety,” other works nominated were: Saudi author Raja Alem’s “The Dove’s Necklace” translated by Katharine Halls and Adam Talib; Syrian author Khaled Khalifa’s “No Knives in the Kitchens of This City” translated by Leri Price; and Lebanese author Hilal Chouman’s “Limbo Beirut” translated by Anna Ziajka Stanton.

Moger has translated Maan Abu Talib’s “All the Battles” (2017), Yousef al-Mohaimeed’s “Where Pigeons Don’t Fly” (2015), Youssef Rakha’s “The Crocodiles” (2014) and Mohammad Rabie’s “Otared,” which was nominated for 2017’s Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize.