New Egyptian novel sheds light on Pharaonic mores

Sunday 02/04/2017
Cover of Sherif Said’s Wa Ana Oheboki ya Salima.

Wa Ana Oheboki ya Salima (And I Love You, Salima) is a newly released first novel by Egyptian writer Sherif Said. The 313-page book sheds light on the memoirs of a Sudanese woman named Salima.

Salima is 17 when her father makes her undergo Pharaonic circumcision after the army of Egyptian ruler Mohamed Ali Pasha enters her town of Shendi in Sudan to capture slaves in the early 19th century.

Salima’s father fears she might share the fate of the women of a neighbouring town who were raped by soldiers of Ismail Pasha, the son of Mohamed Ali.

During Pharaonic circumcision, the clitoris and labia minora are removed and the labia majora is sewn closed, leaving a small opening for urination and release of menstrual blood.

It is wrongly believed by some that the circumcision protects the chastity of the girl by pre­venting her from being sexually aroused.

“If you write Pharaonic circum­cision or Sudanese circumcision on any search engine, you will realise the size of the psychologi­cal and physical disaster that many may not know much about,” Said said.

“The part in the novel of Salima’s Pharaonic circumcision was the hardest for me. I was shocked when I learned that the practice is still carried out in southern Egypt behind walls away from the media, fatwas and women’s rights advocacy.”

The novel has two parallel plots, one about Salima and another about a love story involving a young director named Hossam, who wants to make a documentary film about Salima.

The main themes of the novel involve love, persecution, betrayal and opportunism.

The writer takes the reader back and forth from the 20th and the beginning of the 21st century in Egypt to the 19th century in Shendi and Cairo.

In the 19th century, after Salima runs away from home with the help of her parents, she is enslaved by soldiers and travels handcuffed to Cairo and moves from one owner to another until a French physician named Clot, who works for the army of Mohamed Ali, owns her and treats her well.

“The character of Salima is imaginary. Yet there are thou­sands of Salimas in the history of the first third of the 19th century in Egypt and Sudan,” Said said.

A love story develops between Salima and Clot. The writer’s description of the platonic love between the two is quite superb. He makes the reader live and imagine every detail in their relation­ship.

The writer vividly describes settings and characters with sophisticated standard Arabic.

Salima is a rounded character who changes throughout the course of events. Through Clot, who consid­ers her his lover, she learns about life and sees and experiences things and places.

“What a soft sentimental shake that conquered me and revived my femininity that had earlier been buried in a deep well,” Salima thinks during her first encounter with Clot.

The setting changes into the 20th century Cairo and the writer describes Hossam’s hopes and frustrations.

“The influence of history on Said is very clear helping him link the past to the future, which made the plot quite coher­ent,” journalist Alaa al-Ghatrifi said.

“The novel is quite distinguished. The writer wrote about an era through humane angles that has not been tackled much, the conquests of Mohamed Ali in Africa,” said writer Fatma Khair.

Hossam, a round character, is never free of flaws. He does anything to prove himself at state TV, including spying on his boss for the head of the channel he works for.

Despite Hossam’s defects, the reader cannot help sympathising with him, especially after he fails in his love for his former college colleague Abeer. She is an opportunist who spies for state security agencies against her fellows to reach a better position.

Despite being quite enjoyable to read, the novel does not end well for Salima.