Basatin al Basra
EZ ELDIN Mansoura

Dar al shourouq, Cairo, Egypt, 2020, 163 pages         



Hisham Al Khattab is Yazid ibn Abih. At least he thinks he is. Some 13 centuries separate the two, but in the despaired mind of Hisham Al Khattab, and through the magical power of dreams, Hisham is Yazid.

An unemployed skillful young man, Hisham, like so many others, could not be hired anywhere after he graduated from the chemistry department. He didn’t have the connections needed to secure a position in one of the large oil companies. And so Hisham lives with his frustrated mother, making ends meet through finding and reselling old and rare books. A passion that leads him to the nicknamed “Al Zanidq” (or “The atheist”).
Al Zandiq is a fervent defender of a modern revisionist view of Islam — though his appearance, and that of his wife and daughter, would say otherwise — and he therefore lives under constant threat. Soon Hisham and Al Zandiq become close associates. Hisham gradually becomes his informal research assistant, finding rare books for his mentor’s work and papers, and sometimes even sharing his valuable insights. At first, Hisham feels proud that someone finally seems to value his worth and intellect. But soon, as with all the others, Hisham is given no credit, his ideas are stolen and and his work is taken for granted. Yet, it is through his work with Al Zandiq, that Hisham gets to know more about Yazid ibn Abih.

He dreamt of him one night. He had dreamt of falling jasmine flowers, a recurring dream, but this time, this man was in his dream, he knew his name, he knew who he was. More than that: He was this man.

“Where have you heard of him?” asked his mentor suspiciously. The question was hard to answer, and Hisham was evasive. But a few days later, Al Zandiq allowed him to consult an old manuscript where the life of Yazid was in part told.
Somehow, Hisham knew more about Yazid than the book revealed. A more intimate knowledge. And an even more intimate connection.

Similarly to Hisham, Yazid was a poor man with an appetite for knowledge. In the Basra (Iraq) of the 8th century, Yazid got to attend the gatherings of the most luminous and respected men of knowledge of his time. Their company would enlighten him. Yet, Yazid, a poor basket-maker, belonged to a completely different world, with no hope of riches or power.

As Yazid and the men of his time, Hisham gives a lot of importance of dreams and their interpretation. Yazid’s close wealthy friend, Malek bin Oudi, the copyist, is a famous dream interpreter of his time, and would be consulted by many on the meaning of their dreams. Like Hisham, Yazid also has a recurrent dream of jasmine flowers on the grounds of the orchards of Basra. According to The Great Book of Interpretation of Dreams attributed to the Imam Muhammad bin Sirin, jasmine flowers are a bad omen. And when Yazid told his dream to his mentor, the latter was taken, as jasmine foretold worry and sadness, “The Ulamas, or men of knowledge and science, are gone”, he added. This is the beginning of the end, for Yazid and Hisham, both of whom commit crimes that will bring their life to a halt.

In this almost historical fiction, dream and reality are one and the same, and the boundaries between reason and madness are dangerously shifting. Similarly to the life of Yazid bin Abih, the life of Hisham is tainted with violence. A violence so crude, it strangely gives reality to the tales of the 8th century.

With her fluid writing, Mansoura Ez Eldin beautifully shifts from contemporary Egypt to ancient Iraq, fleshing them both out with few but so specific details, that the scenes come alive in the reader’s mind. Like the jasmine that repeatedly falls to the ground, there seems to be no end to the downfall of the likes of Hisham and Yazid, or to the fall of Ulamas, the men of knowledge.

Translation sample

Translation sample coming soon


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