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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Cities without Palms

Tarek Eltayeb

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To purchase Cities without Palms

Title: Cities without Palms
Author: Tarek Eltayeb
Genre: Novel
Written: 1992 (Eng. 2009)
Length: 90 pages
Original in: Arabic
Availability: Cities without Palms - US
Cities without Palms - UK
Cities without Palms - Canada
Cities without Palms - India
Villes sans palmiers - France
Städte ohne Dattelpalmen - Deutschland
Una città senza palme - Italia
  • Arabic title: مدن بلا نخيل
  • Translated by Kareem James Palmer-Zeid

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Our Assessment:

B : solid but underdeveloped

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Cities without Palms is narrated by Hamza, a young man who has spent all his life in a small Sudanese village who eventually sets out first for Egypt and then Europe in the hopes of being able to provide for his mother and young sisters. His father abandoned the family, and left them behind it wretched Wad al-Nar, a place where:

The desert kept growing, and sorrow, not rain, is all that comes to us. Drought and disease, agony and death: we are the dying, the living dead.
       Yes, it's a bleak place, with little hope for much future, where even the palm trees have almost all died. Hope must lie elsewhere -- but in leaving his mother and sisters behind here, Wad al-Nar also remains the home and hope he looks to.
       Hamza's odyssey takes him first to the next village -- a place he hasn't been to in several years -- and then onwards, to bigger cities, and eventually to Europe. Cities without Palms becomes a novella about the rural youth trying to get by in foreign environments; Eltayeb handles this quite well, but glosses over much. Only to a limited extent is Hamza overwhelmed by all the novelties -- from trains to city-life -- and while he endures some hardship he manages to get by wherever he goes. Eltayeb decsribes some of his money-making schemes, which includes smuggling goods into Cairo from Port Said and working in a French vineyard. Aside from some petty theft, illegal border-crossings, and working without a proper permit, Hamza is mostly able to stay on the right side of the law, and he never has any real problems.
       Few disasters befall Hamza. He loses his luggage at one point, but apparently recovers it, and it is another foreigner that gets robbed blind, not Hamza. And he is able to send some money back home, too.
       After a year and a half Hamza returns home, but it is not a happy homecoming. He's welcomed with the news that:
"Things have gone from bad to worse ever since you left Wad al-Nar. We'd never seen anything like it, we'd never even heard of such horrible things, not even in the old tales.
       Cities without Palms reads very much like a practice-piece or first novel, Eltayeb not quite certain what he wants the book to be or how to come to grips with his material. The misery of Wad al-Nar is almost suffocating, yet Eltayeb seems to realise that a litany of horror only gets him so far. It also stands somewhat at odds with Hamza's odyssey: despite all the hardships he faces it feels ... encouraging throughout. But with his limited and unclear goals (beyond wanting to send some money home), Hamza's wanderings -- and even his return home -- have a slightly aimless feel; indeed, the book as a whole truly feels neither here nor there.
       Eltayeb has a decent writing touch: there's not much that is exceptional to Hamza's travels, yet they make for an appealing enough read. Occasionally, the lack of detail is noticeable: it's hard to imagine that first encounters with various modes of transport, urban centers, and city crowds wouldn't elicit a much stronger reaction. Hamza gets well into Egypt before he sleeps in a bed for the first time in his life, for example, and so from shoes to the European weather there is much more material that Eltayeb could have mined at considerably greater length -- and that feels conspicuous by its almost complete absence.
       Still, this is writing that shows promise, an author whose progress one might want to keep an eye on. Cities without Palms is fairly unexceptional, but it has some charm and poignancy and is a solid if somewhat lacking novella.

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Cities without Palms: Tarek Eltayeb: Other books by Tarek Eltayeb under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Tarek Eltayeb (طارق الطيّب) was born to Sudanese parents in Egypt in 1959. He has lived in Austria since 1984.

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