War in the Land of Egypt

Written in 1975 and banned in the author’s country of birth, War in the Land of Egypt is the first of Yusuf al-Qa’id’s 11 novels to be translated into English. The action takes place during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, as the son of a village chief is called up to join the army. With the help of a local fixer, the chief bribes a night-guard to send his own son instead. This boy, Masri or ‘Egyptian’, is the only character named and yet he is the only one without a voice as he is not allowed to tell us directly of his life. Instead his tale is told by others – a series of six narrators, each of whom reveal only the part of the story they are familiar with, and who are, to varying degrees, unreliable witnesses.

We are led inexorably to a tragic yet farcical conclusion as the narrative swaps from the arrogant and self-serving chief via the fixer and the impoverished night-guard, to Masri’s friend on the frontline and eventually to the army officer and the investigator appointed to sort out the tangle of identities. Yusuf al-Qa’id handles the unfolding complexities of the story beautifully and War in the Land of Egypt is a deft and effective satire on official corruption, bumbling bureaucracy and the vast and iniquitous inequalities of wealth and power endemic in Egyptian society. It is also a heartfelt song of praise to the Egyptian countryside and to the indomitable spirit and courage of its exploited and oppressed inhabitants.

Peter Whittaker

New Internationalist issue 378 magazine cover This article is from the May 2005 issue of New Internationalist.
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