Literary Saloon
Site of Review.

Trying to meet all your book preview and review needs.

the Best
the Rest
Review Index




to e-mail us:

support the site

buy us books !
Amazon wishlist

In Association with Amazon.com

In association with Amazon.com - UK

In association with Amazon.ca - Canada



the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Zayni Barakat

Gamal al-Ghitani

general information | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Zayni Barakat

Title: Zayni Barakat
Author: Gamal al-Ghitani
Genre: Novel
Written: 1971 (Eng. 1988)
Length: 254 pages
Original in: Arabic
Availability: Zayni Barakat - US
Zayni Barakat - UK
Zayni Barakat - Canada
Zayni Barakat - France
Seini Barakat - Deutschland
  • First published in serial form 1970-1, and in book form in 1974
  • Translated and with a Note by Farouk Abdel Wahab
  • Foreword by the late Edward Said

- Return to top of the page -

Our Assessment:

B+ : colourful, often powerful

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Zayni Barakat is set in Egypt in the 16th century, chronicling the rise (and semi-fall) of Zayni Barakat ibn Musa during a time when the Mamluk dynasty is on its last legs, and culminating in the conquest by the Ottomans.
       Zayni Barakat himself remains a somewhat shadowy and distant figure, as the story is presented in the form of both official announcements and accounts by others -- which often include hearsay or gossip, as well as spy-reports on him.
       Zayni Barakat is given one of the most powerful positions in Egypt, the Markets Inspectorship. As Muhtasib he not only oversees most aspects of commerce, but is also responsible for safeguarding public morals. The official decree regarding his appointment remarks on his: "virtue and integrity, his honesty and righteousness, his strength and firmness, his revered respectability, his showing no favouritism to the high and the mighty, his piety", and he impresses almost immediately by coyly turning the position down. Of course, eventually he can be convinced to take it -- and proves a firm- and fairly even-handed bureaucrat.
       Wielding a great deal of power, Zayni Barakat tries to implement his own ideas. He addresses the people directly -- something no Muhtasib ever bothered to do -- and promises to control not only Cairo but all of Egypt. And he warns that: "he will have agents monitoring, policing and staking out inequities wherever they occur; and these agents will inform him."
       In a suspicious world, where power is tenuously held, many are concerned about his plans and his powers, and so he is also being spied upon and monitored. There's a pervasive culture of having informants and of turning anyone and everyone into a collaborator -- making for a world with little trustworthy foundation, as everyone shows a false face and double-deals. Zayni Barakat's openness towards the people -- a willingness to address them directly -- is also perceived as a threat by those in power, who never bother having anything to do with those they rule over, relying on their own spies to be their eyes and ears and connexion to the world.
       One of Zayni Barakat's ideas is to light Cairo at night, by hanging lights in all the streets and alleys which his men would light each night. Surprisingly -- or perhaps not -- , many prefer darkness, and it proves a very controversial idea, eliciting some heated objections:

Demand that he ban the lamps, which pierce the veil of modesty, which encourage women to go out after evening prayers. [...] The lamps are a sign of the end of time. They are indications of a world deviating from God's design.
       The reactionary forces ultimately triumph in this case, and the lamps are withdrawn, Egypt stumbling back into familiar corrupt darkness rather than embracing the new and the new possibilities it would offer. Here and elsewhere it is also (relatively) petty obsessions that distract from the true threat, which comes from without: almost before they know it, the Ottomans have come and easily conquered.
       Zayni Barakat is, of course, not merely a novel about backward attitudes and the difficulty of political and moral reform in the 16th century, but also meant to remind readers of the situation in modern Egypt. As Edward Said notes in foreword, Zayni Barakat obviously corresponds to Gamal Abdel Nasser:
Al-Ghitani's disenchanted reflections upon the past directly associate Zayni's rule with the murky atmosphere of intrigue, conspiracy and multiple schemes that characterized Abdel Nasser's rule during the 1960s, a time, according to Ghitani, spent on futile efforts to control and improve the moral standard of Egyptian life, even as Israel (the Ottomans) prepared for invasion and regional dominance.
       Zayni Barakat is not an exemplary reformer: manipulative and willing to employ many of the same methods as those in power (if, arguably, to less nefarious and/or personal ends) he seeks to impose his vision by almost any means possible (and he's perfectly willing to continue doing so under the next regime ...). He wants better for his country -- he is certainly more fair and just than almost all with any power or money -- but it's too radical a departure, and the system won't bear it. Still, his story makes for a very colourful tale, with al-Ghitani effectively using a variety of perspectives to convey the implications of Zayni Barakat's actions.
       Appealingly exotic, and while it may not have the same resonance for Western readers that it might for a Middle Eastern audience Zayni Barakat is also successful simply as a historical fiction. Worthwhile.

- Return to top of the page -


Zayni Barakat: Reviews: Gamal al-Ghitani: Other books by Gamal al-Ghitani under review: Other books of interest under review:

- Return to top of the page -

About the Author:

       Egyptian author Gamal al-Ghitani (جمال الغيطانى‎) was born in 1945.

- Return to top of the page -

© 2006-2010 the complete review

Main | the New | the Best | the Rest | Review Index | Links