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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Mohamed El-Bisatie

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To purchase Drumbeat

Title: Drumbeat
Author: Mohamed El-Bisatie
Genre: Novel
Written: 2006 (Eng. 2010)
Length: 123 pages
Original in: Arabic
Availability: Drumbeat - US
Drumbeat - UK
Drumbeat - Canada
  • Arabic title: دقّ الطبول
  • Translated by Peter Daniel

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Our Assessment:

B : great premise, but doesn't do nearly enough with it

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Al-Masry Al-Youm . 25/3/2010 Ursula Lindsey
The National . 29/4/2010 Peter C. Baker

  From the Reviews:
  • "In Drumbeat, El-Bisatie's lyricism is mostly absent. Instead, El-Bisatieís narrator describes his surroundings in sparse, affectless language. This bland style effectively conveys the alienation of maids, drivers and "companions" trapped in gleaming suburban villas, subsumed into their mastersí lives. But it works less well in the scenes that are supposed to convey the excitement of the foreign workers taking over the city (.....) Drumbeat is one of those stories one canít help wishing had been told differently -- with more humour, detail, and action. Some of the storylines peter out inexplicably. The bland narration is positively vivid compared to some of the characters, who are often little more than narrative placeholders." - Ursula Lindsey, Al-Masry Al-Youm

  • "The most generous reading of this anticlimax -- everything changes, causing everything to stay the same -- is that el Bisatie is offering a meditation, as the bookís jacket proclaims, on the "psychology of control". (...) A less charitable take on Drumbeat is that el Bisatie simply didnít think his allegory through -- that, moreover, he isnít much interested in working-class lives in the Gulf, or in the complex power dynamics that structure life in the region." - Peter C. Baker, The National

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Drumbeat is narrated by an anonymous Egyptian, a foreign worker employed as a driver in a small, nameless Arab Emirate where he has lived for the past five years. He is part of a huge number of foreign workers who seem to do practically all the actual work in this wealthy Emirate, while the actual locals live comfortable lives in great luxury.
       The premise of Drumbeat is an inspired one: the Emirate football (soccer) team qualifies for the World Cup, which is held in France that year, and:

His Royal Highness proclaimed that Emirati citizens should travel to France to support the team and that the government would foot all travel and accommodation costs. He further decreed that all citizens currently residing abroad should head to France to receive the team. This was a national duty of the first order, the emir stated.
       So, like in some mass-pilgrimage, a sporting Hajj, all the Emiratis abandon their homeland. (There are only some thirty-thousand in this city-state, so it's even fairly feasible.) Suddenly, the workers, these second-class citizens who are there only to serve, have the run of the place.
       The possibilities seem to be endless. Indeed, the first thought that the narrator has after he sees his employers off is that:
The whole country was now in the hands of the foreign workers. If they took over the Emirate, closed the ports, and broadcast an impassioned message to the world demanding recognition for the new regime, on the grounds that everything in the country was built with their toil and sweat, they could well receive some international recognition.
       Here, however: "Nothing changed. Life in the city continued as usual" -- as though this kind of life were usual !
       The servants are fairly obedient, and are careful with the liberties they take. Life does become a bit more of a party and street-fair, and, sure, the prisoners are let out of their cells -- but they aren't really dangerous criminals anyway. The stadium, with the big screens showing the games from World Cup, becomes a focal point, and there's lots of sharing of food and taking it easy, but no limits are tested.
       Trust is a big thing in the Emirate, where everyone knows their place and duties: the narrator mentions going into a store where the register is unattended and customers are simply asked to leave behind the money for their purchases (and to take change if they need it), and no one would think to steal anything. Some of the foreign workers are worried that any misdeeds would be reported to their employers when they return, as secrets are impossible to keep in the Emirate. One of the dilemmas the household in which the narrator works faces is how to help one of their own spend some time with her husband, who has also been working in the Emirate for a while now, but whom she has never even gotten together with because her employer would immediately fire her if she found out she was married (the woman had lied about it when she was hired).
       The narrator is mostly an observer (and then listener), trying to stay on the sidelines. He remains largely uninvolved, letting the crowd carry him along occasionally (and joining the band ...), but not letting himself get too swept up by things. This has been has attitude his entire time here, as he has tried to deaden his feelings, to avoid the dangers of lust and temptations. He's been successful, too: "Nothing excites me anymore", he notes -- though when he mentions visiting his wife in Egypt after four years away he notes he did find himself overcome.
       Drumbeat centers in on a surprisingly small, personal tale, as the narrator comes to get to know an Egyptian woman, Zahiya, working in a neighboring house -- whom he has, of course, had practically no contact with previously, as the servants live largely as islands, isolated from everything but that which their employers permit. Over time Zahiya comes to share her story, of the fat woman she kept company, who always had her own stories to tell, and of what was ultimately demanded of her. Zahiya's tale takes a very poignant turn, as she proves to be the ultimate example of what foreign workers have been reduced to in this Emirate. El-Bisatie lets her unfold her story fairly well, but in focusing increasingly on it wastes most of the advantages his great premise would have offered: other than the fact that it allows the narrator and Zahiya to spend time together in this way the fact that the Emirate has been emptied of Emiratis doesn't play much of role.
       So Drumbeat joins two very different stories, the one a tragic-realistic personal tale, the other a potentially grand satire, bridged by the narrator who tries to stay above the frays. It's fine, but it's hard not to think that it could have been a whole lot more.

- M.A.Orthofer, 7 April 2010

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Drumbeat: Reviews: Other books by Mohamed El-Bisatie under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Egyptian author Mohamed El-Bisatie (محمد البساطي) was born in 1937.

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© 2010 the complete review

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