The Book of the Sultan’s Seal, Youssef Rakha Review

book of the sultan's seal Youssef Rakha bookblast review

Youssef Rakha explores a man’s “transformation during twenty-one days from a Europeanized intellectual to a semi-madman who believed he could perform magic deeds to resurrect the Islamic caliphate” is a very readable feast — taking in love, friendship, work and (in)sanity . . . identity, faith and the nationalist movement . . . Ottoman Turkey, neoliberalism, politics . . . digital photography, the intYrnet and Cairo café life . . . Amgad Salah’s conversion from a lost hobo into an unarmed terrorist . . . laced with a smattering of zombies, camels, masturbation and ecstasy (chemical or otherwise). The Book of the Sultan’s Seal: Strange Incidents from History in the City of Mars is one helluva read.

Part confessional, part letter to a friend, part philosophical treatise and a journey of self-discovery: Mustafa Çorbaci’s stream of consciousness carries the reader along in a weird and wonderful coherent swirl of words that conveys his thoughts, impressions and emotions as his world is turned upside down. “My marriage had been a Greek tragedy, which begins and ends within twenty-four hours. Blink and it’s over.” A journalist for over a decade, “in the last seven years he hadn’t budged from in front of the screen.” He eventually leaves his job and travels, ending up in Beirut.

Mustafa dreams and ruminates: “I acknowledged to myself that I had deserted her and that — despite the fact that she deserved to be deserted by every man in the world — she does demand heartbreak: her neuroses, her negativity, and the terrible paralysis that afflicts her in relationships. Her silence. I recalled that she had hardly any friends. As soon as she got to know someone, she quarreled with them, at work and in life. And since she was unable to make up with anyone, she would lose them quickly, usually without hope of retrieving them. Her heart was black as coal. Without being free of the female crap that’s traditional in Egypt, she had all the English problems of psychological isolation, excessive reserve, and gloom. Like the English, she was totally incapable of expressing her feelings, which made every expression of her feelings hysterical. It was nice to feel genuine heartbreak over her because it meant I could stop grieving for myself, for the faults that she’d accused me of, and for my inability to go on. I recalled that my wife was just a variation on the shitty confusion and unease that surrounded and tormented me everywhere in Cairo, just one more deformed child of the marriage of cultures.”

People are shrewdly observed — Mustafa “liked the idea of having a Sunni friend. What struck him every time was how shallow and stupid Amgad’s faith was. Totally devoid of spirituality. Amgad said, for example, that he’d gotten a mark on his forehead as soon as he started praying regularly.”

— Mustafa’s wife, “sitting on the floor and itemizing piles of pictures, papers, and other small things of obscure sentimental value. Sometimes I felt this was the only time she was really alive. My wife was the kind of person who keeps everything — and spends more time preserving the thing that symbolizes an event than they spend on the event itself [. . .] In brief, the “pickle” approach to life: instead of eating something, you spend your time marinating it.”

— Fustuq at work: “The girl he loved, Lilianne, wasn’t a Muslim, but an atheist from a Protestant family, and her father would never agree to their marriage. ‘Because, I mean, she’s not from the same church — but believe me, that’s not the problem,’ he said. He was silent for a moment, as he put his hand on my shoulder. ‘Tell me frankly, Mustafa, would you marry someone you’d already slept with?’ Wow, so that was it, that was the nub!”

— A friend after taking ecstasy, “When Amgad sat up straight that evening so that he was in the light, darkness all around him, he looked like the icon of an unknown saint that had somehow come alive.”

Drawing by Youssef Rakha
Drawing by Youssef Rakha

Joyce has Dublin; Modiano has Paris; Rakha has Cairo. Abandoning the marital apartment in Dog Alley, Mustafa returns to his mother’s place in the Dokki quarter. He draws a map of the city which he sees in his mind’s eye, “I would start, naturally, with the Nile, then try and incorporate the residential areas along its two banks.” And goes on a tour of the Islamic quarters in overcrowded, but beautiful, Old Cairo — al-Rawda, al-Fustat, al-Qarafa, al-Muqattam, Bab al-Futuh, Bulaq; entering via “Bab Zuweila, the gate named after a Berber tribe who supported the Fatimids and came with them from Tunisia.” Modern Cairo offers a chaotic, ugly contrast: “With the packed housing, the tinpot apartment buildings springing up around it, the appalling manners of the drivers, the rudeness of the coffee sellers and shop owners, and the force of pedestrians hurtling like ants between paralyzed cockroaches, Mustafa knew in the depths of his heart that Faisal was the most perfect example of the collapse of civil society in the whole of Greater Cairo.”

The Book of the Sultan’s Seal does not read at all like a translation. Paul Starkey has done a truly exceptional job, no wonder he has been awarded the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize. I hope it is just the first in a long list of awards which this delicious cornucopia of a book deserves to receive. Works such as this fly in the face of the formulaic writing taught at the various writing schools dotted around London and the provinces — not all readers want a predictable narrative arc, archetypal characters and generic descriptions. Far from it.

The late Naguib Mahfouz, Alaa Al Aswany and now Youssef Rakha: Egypt produces world-class writers.

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About Georgia de Chamberet 377 Articles
Bilingual editor, rewriter, anthologist, French-to-English translator. Has written for 3am magazine, words without borders, The Independent, The Lady, Banipal, Prospect Magazine, Times Literary Supplement. Currently writes for The BookBlast Diary. Founder (1997) of London-based writing agency BookBlast.