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Sons of the People
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B+ : historical fiction that's especially strong on character
See our review for fuller assessment.
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The complete review's Review:
Sons of the People is a trilogy set in Egypt largely during the time of the Mamluks -- the first book opening in 1309, the second in 1388, while the third is set around the time of the end of the Mamluk Sultanate (1517).
Mamluks were slaves, but, as a professional class of soldiers, with a much higher status than ordinary slaves.
Generally kidnapped as young boys and then rigorously trained to be soldiers, they served local rulers as such and as administrators, "their loyalty was to their teacher and religion alone", playing important roles in seeing to the security and the proper running of the state.
As one character sums up: "they come into the world with the sole purpose of defending country and faith" -- remaining also in many ways separate from the local population.
That title, "sons of the people," was restricted to Mamluk children. It did not refer to either Egyptian children or Mamluks themselves. Sons of the people were born in Egypt but were not Egyptians.Being raised by a mother and father in a family -- as 'sons of the people' were -- was the wrong kind of upbringing for a true Mamluk; in addition: "Mamluks don't like the idea of inherited authority" Hence, Mamluks did not pass on power to their sons, unlike, for example, royalty in all its variations, where succession is primarily determined by familial links.
The first story of the trilogy, The Mamluks, finds teenage girl Zaynab, the daughter of a merchant, catch the eye of the Mamluk Amir Muhammad. Zaynab has only ever wanted to marry her cousin, Yusuf, and is engaged to him, but when he and her brother are imprisoned she is forced into marriage with the amir. She is horrified by what she is being forced into -- "He's a Mamluk, and I'm free. I swear to you, he'll never possess me. My husband is Yusuf, and no on else" -- but her freedom is only so great, and Muhammad's power, with the ability to decide the fate of her brother (and Yusuf), force her to make this great sacrifice for her family.
Zaynab's father hopes he'll be able to fix things after his son is freed, but Muhammad is determined to hold onto his wife, and does. He also manages to slowly win Zaynab over -- she weakening as she comes to find the physical satisfactions he offers very satisfying, her body succumbing to his (much as she fights it): "It's as though my body isn't part of me anymore. He bewitched me, so it seems, and then totally crushed me", she complains/swoons.
Eventually, Zaynab finds herself more or less won over -- though she does make one demand of her husband, that she be the only woman in his life (a lot to ask for in that culture when, as Muhammad notes: "I don't think I know a single amir with only one wife and no slave girls"). Though Muhammad does act with a very firm hand -- with her, as also in all other respects -- he is clearly quite smitten by her: marrying an Egyptian was already a very unusual step for a Mamluk ("Muhammad's decision to be married to an Egyptian woman was baffling; no one could understand it"), but he also agrees not to take any other wives or women. They are a somewhat oddly matched pair -- Muhammad observes: "You read a lot and talk like poets and Sufis. You're weird, Zaynab" -- but the fact that Zaynab is educated (unusual in and of itself) and has experience helping her father with his accounts, also brings them together, as she proves helpful in dealing with administrative matters.
It is an unusual love story, of two headstrong people who nevertheless come to be passionately devoted to one another. Their early time as a couple is described in great detail, but once they've settled into their respective roles and are a happy couple the narrative moves quickly ahead some two decades. By then Zaynab has borne seven children (of whom five survive), and politically the times are relatively stable, Egypt now even: "a model for all the countries around it".
Dutiful Muhammad meets his fate, however, and Zaynab dies only two years later, "forty-two years old, or less". One of their sons, also named Muhammad, is ten when she dies. His passion is architecture and he becomes an architect (with a comfortable inheritance to fall back on); he is: "stricken with the creativity curse".
Muhammad becomes obsessed with designing a grand mosque for Sultan Al-Hasan -- "More magnificent than any other mosque or palace". The project becomes a reality -- but is a costly undertaking that the Mamluks disapprove of; before the building is completed, they dispatch the Sultan -- but, though it took another two years, at least Muhammad is able to finish building it ("The amirs could not leave the mosque unfinished. What kind of evil omen would that be ? What calamity would strike them ?")
The second story is titled The Judge of Qus. A short introductory piece, set in 2017, has the granddaughter who published the first volume, her grandfather's novel, visiting the Sultan Hasan Mosque. She has been researching not the architect -- her grandfather covered that story -- but rather a name she came across in her research, one also brought up in connection with the mosque, that of the: 'Judge of Qus'.
The story proper then begins in 1388, in the city of Qus, well down the Nile from Cairo. Amr is a hardworking and ambitious judge; it hasn't hurt his career that he married the daughter of the chief judge of Cairo, and being appointed judge of Qus is yet another big step on his career path. The story opens with appeals coming to the him regarding two separate situations, and his involvement in them affects much of his future.
One involves the son of the governor of Qus, a Mamluk, Amir Fakhr ad-din. The young man, Jamaq, is a well-know pedophile wo preys on young boys ("Every mother hides her boys before sunrise because she is afraid they are afraid of Jamaq"), and a mother comes to the judge seeking justice for her son, whom Jamaq abused and then killed. The usual way of settling something like this, a hush-money payoff, isn't good enough for the woman, but arresting and punishing such a well-connected person is well above Amr's pay-grade as well. Still, he vows justice -- and achieves it -- but then also pays a heavy personal price for it.
The second case involves a woman with an abusive husband named Ridawi. Ridawi has married off their daughter, Dayfa, but the would-be husband hasn't ever even seen the girl -- "He's left her hanging for four years" -- and the mother is worried about her now seventeen-year-old girl's life wasting away ("all her friends already have a son and daughter"). Amr then comes to repeatedly meddle in this family's affairs -- and finds himself falling for the intriguing Dayfa, who also sets her sights on him. In Ridawi the judge makes another enemy who causes problems -- though given his position, the judge is able to outmaneuver him, and while it takes quite a while, he is eventually able to marry Dayfa.
Along the way, power shifts back and forth -- affecting also the judge's situation. He remains ambitious, and craftily positions himself, where he can, but does also try to be true to himself and his sense of justice. Among his great concerns is also the welfare of the two sons he had with his first wife.
Much of the story takes place in Qus, but Cairo remains the power-center of the country, and some of the action is set there. The Sultan Hasan Mosque does figure some, but largely only incidentally -- though some of the incidents are quite spectacular (if not presented in great detail), as in the times when:
The joyful celebrations in Cairo eventually calmed down, to be replaced by the burden of taxes and the cruelty of the amirs. This time, the war in Cairo did not stop. The Sultan Hasan Mosque became the primary focus for fighters and goal for adventurers and mercenaries. In the mosque's different parts, blood poured from countless dead and wounded living. Arrows hit both friend and foe. Egyptians carried on with their daily lives.Amr's up and down relationship with Sultan Barquq -- with whom he shared a prison cell for a year -- comes to a head when Barquq challenges tradition and Amr's authority by installing a (corrupt) 'supervisor of endowments' (i.e. someone who controls the purse strings, an appointment that has always been for the chief judge to make). Barquq's explanation for his actions is revealing:
I can handle corruption and understand it. But vanity and stubbornness are dangerous, Amr.The judge manages to wiggle out of that situation, too -- by asking the sultan to appoint him as: "Supervisor of instruction in the Sultan Hasan Mosque". It is a big step down from his powerful position as judge, but he seems willing to turn to a life of scholarship and teaching -- though the locale is something of a challenge, given that the mosque has long not served as a house of worship or study, and is difficult to even get into (the first time Amr takes his students there they have to climb in through a window). Among those in attendance when Amr teaches is a Mamluk soldier named Shaykh, sent either to protect or to spy on him but who also pays attention to the lessons and goes on to become sultan himself. (His name also makes for some amusement, as he calls Amr 'Shaykh', and Amr of course calls him by his name, Shaykh .....)
The third in the trilogy is titled nothing less than The Final Story and features three narrators. Beginning with these 'Testimonies 1517-22 CE', it is set around the time of the collapse of the Mamluk Sultanate and the fall of Cairo and subjugation of Egypt to the Ottomans.
The story begins with 'Hind's Testimony'. Born into an affluent household, she begins by recounting chasing after her young brother who had run into the streets, fearing that he will be snatched by the Ottomans -- only to find herself snatched up by them as well. A man does save the then eighteen-year-old-girl and her brother, paying off those who had captured them -- but he then insists that she is his slave, and keeps her and her brother as such. The man goes by the name Husam ad-din, though Hind eventually learns his real name is Salar, and he is a Mamluk amir. Salar won't listen to her entreaties and bring her back to her family; instead he makes her part of his household -- insisting also on his right of complete dominion over her and repeatedly raping her.
Salar is the second of the narrators, and his testimony is focused on his efforts to save Egypt. Among them is the installation of a reluctant Tuman Bey as sultan -- but despite the best efforts of Salar and his colleagues -- "three drum majors" --, and the personal toll it takes on each of them, the Ottomans can not be stopped.
Salar's testimony is addressed to the historian Abu al-Barakat Ibn Iyas, as is that of the third narrator, Mustafa Pasha al-Uthmani, the official translator for the Ottoman sultan, who offers the perspective from the other side of this conflict. (Readers eventually learn that there's a good reason why these two men, and especially Salar, are telling Ibn Iyas their story).
Salar was married when he bought Hind, to the daughter of the powerful Khayir Bey, but ultimately he wants only Hind. Like the men in the previous stories, he would ultimately be happy only with a single woman -- though it takes a while until that might be a possibility. (Like the women at the center of the previous two stories, Hind is also educated, explaining to Salar when he asks why she isn't yet married: "I've always preferred knowledge and learning".)
Hind struggles with her feelings, eventually won over by Salar only then to think she has lost him. As she puts it:
He had wronged me twice, and the second time was even more cruel, if only you realized. The first time, he subdued my body in spite of me; the second time he subdued my heart, again in spite of me.This final story is also about the recording of stories and history. As the translator asks Abu al-Barakat: " Do you want to record the truth ? Then listen to what I have to say" -- but he also admits, later in his account: "That is what happened, Abu al-Barakat, or almost so". In a sense, this fianl story is also, in part, the (imagined) story-behind-the-book, Ibn Iyas' actual historical chronicle, translated as An Account of the Ottoman Conquest of Egypt in the Year A.H. 922 (A.D. 1516).
Sons of the People is an historical novel -- or a trio of them -- but it is more sweep and tides than account of specific events, with Bassiouney only anchoring her stories to a very few actual points in history. Much of the action and story is away from any frontlines (though admittedly much of the time there is turmoil pretty much everywhere you look), and her focus is very much on the personal stories, especially of the three women who play such significant roles, as well as more generally the gender/power/social structures of the times. Even as they are limited by both the law and social expectation, the women are strong figures (except, notably, in the flesh) and have all sought out learning; they are all very well-educated, in comparison to most of the population (though their learning only does them so much good).
The differences between Mamluks, 'sons of the people', and Egyptians are played up a lot, but the way all this played out in real life remains a bit confusing. Bassiouney's jumps in time also limit some of the sense of just how the country was governed (and misgoverned), and the forces at work here. And as grand as the Sultan Hasan Mosque is repeatedly presented as being, it is never quite as central to the story as Bassiouney seems to want to set it up as being.
It makes for a bit of a messy book, especially in its shifting focus -- but Sons of the People is still compelling historical fiction, with Bassiouney playing her strong characters very well off one another, including with a good command of dialogue. The way the women are treated is often disturbing from a modern perspective, but their stories are well-told and presented, and Sons of the People is a consistently engaging read.
- M.A.Orthofer, 3 May 2023
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Reem Bassiouney (ريم بسيوني) was born in Egypt in 1973. She currently teaches at the American University in Cairo.
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© 2023 the complete review