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

The Lamp of Umm Hashim

Yahya Hakki

general information | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Lamp of Umm Hashim

Title: The Lamp of Umm Hashim
Author: Yahya Hakki
Genre: Stories
Written: (Eng. 2004)
Length: 93 pages
Original in: Arabic
Availability: The Lamp of Umm Hashim - US
The Lamp of Umm Hashim - UK
The Lamp of Umm Hashim - Canada
  • and Other Stories
  • Originally written between 1944 and 1955
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Denys Johnson-Davies

- Return to top of the page -

Our Assessment:

B+ : small but appealing collection

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The Lamp of Umm Hashim contains only four stories by Yahya Hakki, presented in order of size -- from the first (only five pages long) to the title story, which takes up about half of the volume. It makes for a limited introduction to the author, but is enough to showcase his talents.
       The first piece, 'Story in the Form of a Petition' presents an amusing story in the unlikely form of an official petition registering the loss of some items by a friend of petitioner Hakki (with the twist at the end that he has, in fact, lost considerably more than the few items enumerated). Simply done, it works very nicely -- and, in its compactness, is almost perfectly presented.
       'Mother of the Destitute' tells the story of Ibrahim Abu Khalil, scraping by however he can, in a variety of jobs over the years, taking the cruel twists of fate as they come (and without enough ambition to truly assert himself, preferring simply but more or less honourably to make do). As also in the more exotic 'A Story from Prison', Hakki manages to sketch scenes of Egyptian life very effectively, conveying a rich picture surprisingly economically.
       The centrepiece of the book is the considerably more ambitious 'The Lamp of Umm Hashim' -- though here the occasional sketchiness gives it a feel of being more an outline of a novel than a short story. The narrator recounts the story of his uncle Ismail, who grew up in the precincts of Umm Hashim. The neighbourhood dominates his life: it's been good to his family, and for a long time: "His life did not take him outside the quarter itself and the square". A bright boy, he does well at school until the time of his baccalaureate; he passses, but his grades aren't good enough to get him into the Facuklty of Medicine, as the family had hoped. So his father makes a great sacrifice and sends the boy abroad.
       Ismail spends seven years in England, studying ophthalmology with great success. He suffers a crisis there, but finds himself -- and "this new self had cast aside religious belief, it had substituted for it a stronger faith in science" (a change that also means a break with Mary, the woman who had been so supportive of him). When Ismail returns to Egypt this, especially, is a cause of conflict -- in particular in the person of Fatima, the girl who had long been promised to him.
       Fatima suffers from trachoma, and it has gotten worse and worse. Ismail's parents treat her with oil from the lamp of Umm Hashim -- a caustic substance that Ismail is certain does far more harm. So he undertakes her treatment with all the appropriate medicines -- and, of course, fails miserably, blinding the girl.
       No fear: he eventually sees the light, embraces superstition once again, and then doses Fatima's eyes with the holy oil (leading -- no surprise -- to a miraculous recovery ...). Having seen the light, he sets up shop in a poor neighbourhood and lives quite happily everafter (with Fatima bearing him five sons and six daughters ...).
       The turn of the story is disturbing in its simplistic claim of faith's superiority over reason. Miracles are easy to offer in fiction, but offer feeble support for what is a very bold argument to make. Despite that, 'The Lamp of Umm Hashim' is an impressive story, particularly in its descriptions of Ismail's changing feelings, from the first surges of confusing adolescent sexual longing to his varying feelings about and attitudes towards his family at the various stages in his life. The Egyptian/European clash of tradition and modernity is quite well presented too -- though only in flashes, with Ismail's life in England, in particular, underdeveloped. Certainly, there is enough material here for a much larger novel, but Hakki's style makes it enjoyable even in this compressed (as far as the events go) presentation.
       The Lamp of Umm Hashim is an enjoyable small collection, well worth reading -- and one hopes to find more of this obviously talented storyteller's fiction eventually available in translation.

       (Note: In our edition of the book the first page of two of the stories are misprinted -- page 23 where page 45 should be, and vice versa. A minor irritant, but it shouldn't put you off the book .....)

- Return to top of the page -


The Lamp of Umm Hashim: Yahya Hakki: Other books of interest under review:

- Return to top of the page -

About the Author:

       Egyptian author and diplomat Yahya Hakki (Yehia Haqqi, etc.) lived from 1905 to 1992.

- Return to top of the page -

© 2007-2010 the complete review

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