Shadow of the Sun Taleb Alrefai Review

shadow of the sun taleb alrefai bookblast review

Shadow of the Sun by Taleb Alrefai is a powerful work of fiction – beautifully translated by Nashwa Nasreldin – about the degrading lives endured by migrant Egyptian workers in Kuwait. It is a poignant exploration of the immigrant experience, offering insight into the profound sense of displacement, disappointment and longing that accompanies leaving home and family in order to work and make money in a foreign land to fund a better life.

As a highly qualified teacher, Helmy earns a pittance, and is obliged to live at home with his wife, Saniya, and little son, Saad. He is bullied by his father and bitched at by his mother. The situation becomes so unbearable that he no longer feels even momentarily at peace when in the arms of his mistress. He decides to leave Cairo and head to Kuwait where there is plenty of money to be made, or so it is said. Saniya’s uncle arranges the visa so that he can go there to work on a construction site for two years, build a future, and escape with his family from his father’s house. He frequently has to remind himself that, “a man isn’t defined by his job.”

On arrival in Kuwait, Helmy ends up lodging in a room with four other men, where “the colour of the walls lay somewhere between yellow and a murky white, with a ceiling that looked like it had been scarred by smallpox, and a triple bladed green fan hanging down from the centre . . . a room with a rotten smell, the stink of exhausted men and their sweat blended with cooking aromas.” More money is extracted from him for a residence permit, work permit and other documents . . . along with promises of work which does not materialise. When he is finally hired by a plumbing contractor and does five months unpaid work in searing temperatures, his boss does a runner with his wages. Helmy falls further into debt. Ending up in court . . . his dream has turned into a nightmare . . . and it seems he is done for. But is he?     

Shadow of the Sun by Taleb Alrefai is set to join a body of classic literature that provides insights into the experiences of migrant workers in different parts of the world, illuminating the challenges they face and their resilience in attempting to find a better life, that resonate across cultures and borders.

A favourite of mine is Solitaire by Tahar Ben Jelloun, the multi-award-winning Moroccan-French author known for his explorations of identity and exile and cultural angst. A Moroccan immigrant moves to France in the hope of a better life, only to end up grappling with feelings of isolation and disconnection from both his homeland and his new surroundings. He works odd jobs, faces discrimination, and tries to forge connections with others who are also wrestling with their own sense of alienation and a desire to belong. Ahmed is ultimately a solitary figure in an unfamiliar world.

Essential Reads: Refugee and Migrant Stories

Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go, which follows the fortunes of the Sais family in the US, prospering until the day father and surgeon Kweku Sai is victim of a grave injustice;
Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West, set in an unnamed city in the Middle East, follows Nadia and Saeed as they flee civil war;
Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner which sheds light both on life on Afghanistan in the 1970s, as Amir and his father are forced to flee their homeland, and then the experiences of Afghan migrants living in the United States;
Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia which explores the experiences of a British-Pakistani teenager growing up in the suburbs of London; and lastly,
John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath may be set entirely in the United States, however it covers similar ground in that it portrays the plight of migrant workers from the Dust Bowl region as they journey to California in search of a better life during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

All these novels are harrowing reads that remain all too relevant to today’s world, as monolithic global capitalism digs in ever deeper, commodifying everything, and is supported by too many world leaders who put greed and money before compassion and humanity.

BUY Shadow of the Sun

BUY Ghana Must Go

BUY Exit West

BUY The Kite Runner

BUY The Buddha of Suburbia

BUY The Grapes of Wrath

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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.

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