The events of Karim Alrawi’s Book of Sands take place in the unnamed capital of an unnamed country. This is a deliberate choice, as the conditions plaguing residents—corruption, authoritarianism, human rights violations—are ones that could be found in any of the dozen countries involved in the Arab Spring uprising.
Book of Sands carefully blends magic realism with the harsh realities of a totalitarian regime. The world of the novel is poetic and political. The book opens on a city swarmed by birds as the military erects walls on city streets, an ominous action that has citizens wary of coming events. In this tense period of protests and arrests, another strange occurrence is underway. Pregnancies seem to be suspended indefinitely, and the question is divided along religious lines whether babies are refusing to be born or women are withdrawing from their duties as mothers.
Navigating this upturned world is Tarek, a young father and puppeteer. Tarek, who has previously spent time in prison for political activities, is forced to leave the city with his daughter Neda when the police knock on his door. He is forced to leave behind his wife Mona, nine months pregnant. As Tarek travels through villages, desert and mountains, awaiting news on the impending birth, the baby never arrives. Unsure of where he is going, he knows simply that he must stay away until his safety in the city is secured. Tarek and Neda’s travels give the reader a wide scope of the war-torn country and how old ideals of duty and new ideals of freedom conflict. Salt sellers and gnawa musicians share the vivid landscape with phone towers and tanks.
The novel delves into Tarek’s past as a political prisoner, but it goes back further still. Time is not linear in Book of Sands. The structure of the book mimics the pattern of governments rising and falling, corruption deflating and inflating, old ideas reappearing after long absences. Corruption moves in cycles across generations, with strong traditions holding the pattern in place. In Book of Sands, fables act as prophecies.
Alrawi successfully walks the line between a romantic and critical view of the region. A native of Egypt, Alrawi has first-hand experience with the abuses of a totalitarian regime. After state censors banned his plays, Alrawi began working with the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, monitoring censorship and recording human rights violations. This led to his arrest and interrogation by state security officers. In 2011, after living and working in the United States, Alrawi returned to Cairo to participate in the uprising against Mubarak’s dictatorship.
The characters in Book of Sands represent a wide sample of Middle Eastern society, from Omar, Mona’s conservative and devoutly religious brother, to Tarek, a liberal forward-thinking mathematician. Each of these characters is handled with empathy, though the author’s own preference for liberalism eventually comes through. Alrawi pays special attention to female characters, who, particularly in sections set earlier in time, are often under the scrutiny and control of men. These women are aware of outside limitations and nonetheless control their fates. In a section of the novel set in the past, an older sister protects her younger from an entire village as they demand circumcision. Two older wives conspire with spells to control their mutual husband’s desire for his new young bride. A woman gives up her prominent position in the village to usher a young girl to safety from an angry mob.
Book of Sands, Alrawi’s first novel, won the inaugural HarperCollins/UBC Prize for Best New Fiction, and it’s easy to see why. The end of the book leaves the reader with an intimate view of the political situation in many Middle Eastern countries. An analysis that is lacking in mainstream media can be found here in character-driven detail.
Jen Neale is a graduate of the MFA program at UBC. Her work can be found in The Impressment Gang, Little Fiction, and the collections of short fiction Writing Without Direction and Joke Time. She was the winner of the 2012 Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers, and is currently working on her first novel.