Ibrahim Al-Mazini’s “Ten Again And Other Stories takes us into early 20th century Egypt
“Ten Again and other stories By Ibrahim Al-MazaniTranslated by William M. HutchinsThe American University in Cairo Press, 2006Hardback, 256 pages
CAIRO: Ibrahim Al-Mazini’s works provide one of the best representations of the social life of early 20th century middle class Egypt, with its customs, traditions and beliefs that were being challenged and reshaped by the modern and liberal thought of the time.
“Ten Again And Other Stories by Al-Mazini is one of the latest publications from The American University in Cairo Press’ Modern Arabic Literature series. The collection, translated by William M. Hutchins, includes two novellas, “Midu and His Accomplices and “Ten Again, and a number of short stories which the publishers consider to be some of the author’s “best short fiction.
Midu is a charismatic, popular officer in the army who, with a number of accomplices, arranges a “faux heist from his uncle’s library to facilitate a romance. In “Ten Again, a middle-aged man wakes up on his birthday to discover that he has returned to being 10-years-old: his wife is now his mother and is being courted by another man, and his two sons tease him during his party. His short stories introduce us to a litany of memorable fictional characters: a drunk struggling with the simple task of opening a door; an unmarried woman dreams of her unborn daughter, a withdrawn literary writer tries to escape from the pressures of Cairo’s social scene.
Reading Al-Mazani’s work is far from a passive undertaking. His style and techniques call upon the reader to fully participate.
Al-Mazani mingles the voice of the writer with that of the narrator, a technique that was common during the early 20th century and that Arab writers only dispensed with in the 1960s. Often, the reader finds it difficult to decipher whether the work is autobiographical or fictional. For example, in “A Night Unlike Any Other, when the young man, around whom the story revolves is asked about his name, he answers “Ibrahim Abd Al-Qadir Al-Mazini! The same occurs in “Smile of Belief when, dreaming that he has become an undertaker, the protagonist vows to bring about a radical change in the way people perceive death because if he stays satisfied with what he has turned into (just a shop owner) his “name’s not al-Mazini.
The reader plays an important role in the text, since the narrator is constantly aware of his presence, addressing him directly at times, clarifying things for him and humorously begging him not to let the characters into the secrets he has just uncovered for them. In “Midu and His Accomplices, after revealing to the reader the name of the person who stole professor Badi’s manuscript and describing how the crime was committed the narrator writes “We just hope the reader will keep the secret and not disappoint us or spoil the story for us.
Like other writers of his time, such as Mohammad Taimour, Al-Mazini adopts an exclusively Arabic mixture of Romanticism and Realism in his writings. In “Midu and His Accomplices, a novella that deals mainly with the theme of love, the action at moments lapses into excessive sentimentality. as boys and girls express their love for each other.
Strangely enough, unlike writers of his age, Al-Mazini does not romanticize childhood as the age of innocence, but rather depicts the restraints and problems children have to put up with. In “Ten Again, the author describes the middle aged man who dreams that he has become 10-years-old again as being “annoyed by this childhood, which was surrounded on every side by barriers and obstacles, by restraints and restrictions, as though it was not enough that by its nature it imposed limitations. All one who is condemned to it ever hears is ‘don’t’ and ‘be careful.’
Like other progressive authors of the time, Al-Mazini portrays favorable images of modern, liberated women and imagines a future world in which the imposed patriarchal differences between the two sexes comes to an end.
In “The Dream, an old fashioned, traditional woman dreams that her yet unborn daughter has visited her dressed up in light, transparent pajamas and with very short, boyish hair. So when the mother criticizes her haircut and her smoking as being boyish and not fit for a girl the daughter answers her back with, “What’s the difference, by God, between a boy and a girl? It’s a question of details, not of substance . of appearance, not of essence. The time has passed when a girl’s life was dedicated to getting pregnant and having children . It is not a profession to which women of my generation are confined. The man is a partner and assistant in this when both husband and wife want and seek to have offspring. She is his partner in other things beyond that too. So why should one sex have special clothing and a different appearance?
In translating, Hutchins tries to convey the different levels of Arabic depicted in the original dialogues. However, while succeeding in retaining a strongly Egyptian touch, the depiction could not be accurately rendered due to the nature of the Arabic. Otherwise, the translation was able to retain the liveliness and humor of Al-Mazini’s original style.
Ibrahim Al Mazini’s writings depict an Egypt in which old traditions and superstitions existed side by side with modern, secular thought and, in its simple, straightforward narrative, provide numerous sketches that are appealing to a wide range of readers. “Rich in insight, imagination, and humor, these stories are a splendid introduction to a major figure in the early generation of Egyptian writers.