– excerpt from a longer essay –
(Tarek Eltayeb’s Villes sans palmiers, translated by Paul Henri, L’Esprit des Peninsules, Paris 1999).
#1In this totally realistic and presumably partly autobiographical work, we find the “hero” leaving home on the back of an open truck driving across the desert to Omdurman. He arrives covered in dust, which turns to a thick mud when he attempts to wash his face and hair.
Tarek Eltayeb is a young novelist born in Cairo of Sudanese parents. His story starts at home in a village lost in the wastes of famine-stricken Sudan. It tells of the gradual struggle for personal freedom of an innocent village boy and his experiences in the school of life that make of him a man of the wider world, a wandering exile who cannot forget his home. The narrator, who has only his youth and strength to recommend him, arrives starving and with very little money in the capital Khartoum. He is taken on by a gang of criminals who siphon petrol from car tanks at night to “remedy poor government distribution”. Then he tries in vain to find work in the huge fruit and vegetable market. He breaks into the stores after dark and steals quantities of spices that he sells on the streets, until he is noticed by a shopkeeper who engages him for a paltry wage and a bed in the store. The storekeeper has three wives, and our hero and the neglected second wife, who – like the others – has not borne the boss any children, start a clandestine love affair in the store after hours. It is the boy’s first experience of sexual love, and it irradiates the poverty of his daily life. But when the woman becomes pregnant, to the joy of the boss who reinstates her in his bed, she no longer has any interest in her lover. Broken-hearted, he escapes on a slow train to Wadi Halfa, where he sails down the Nile to the Aswan Dam. There he boards a train that takes fifteen hours to reach Cairo.
Totally at a loss in that city, he falls in with a joyous gang of youths who initiate him into the mysteries of the Khan al-Khalili bazaar and the delights of a kebab and kofta restaurant. Then they all take an air-conditioned bus to Port Said, where in the huge duty-free zone he learns to buy cheap clothes and other goods to sell at a good profit in the Cairo markets. For the first time, he becomes fairly well-off, and sends money home, buys gorgeous dolls for his sisters and a gold chain for his mother (whose amulet he has been wearing ever since he left home). But when he returns to his village he finds it in ruins, his family all dead. Then begin his long wanderings through the capitals of Europe – Rome, Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam. (He now lives in Vienna…)
The book is entertaining and touching. The reader finds himself passionately concerned about the young man, and keeps willing him to make good. We get a feeling of real life passing before our eyes, with sometimes very odd details: for example, there is a sudden fleeting description of men defecating in public at an Arab port – a scene that by curious coincidence also occurs in Habib Selmi’s novel when the young teacher sees a starving child shitting blood on a road. Such incidents are treated in a detached way, without sensationalism. But they may be a shock for most readers, who are not likely to find that kind of documentary detail in our anally-retentive British literary scene. But Eltayeb’s book also has its tender, lyrical pages, and once started it is difficult to put down. It is sensational, original and altogether a magnificent literary debut.
Published in Banipal, Autumn 1999.