Sunset Oasis, By Bahaa Taher trans Humphrey Davies

A vision of freedom in Egypt's colonial wilderness
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The Independent Culture

When Mahmoud Azmi is sent to govern the Siwa Oasis by the British Protectorate occupying Egypt at the turn of the 20th century, he knows the assignment is not so much a promotion as a punishment for his inglorious record in the police force. He goes to the desert, braced for the worst. Two of his predecessors have already been murdered in this obscure and hostile recess of a country which seethes with internecine conflicts.

Once Mahmoud is in Siwa with his Irish, Orientalist wife, Catherine, this brooding, volatile corner of Egypt triggers a journey inward. This catastrophic introspection ultimately leads to his undoing, not the hostile locals outside.

The trek across the desert dunes is a journey back to the past - his early allegiance to the nationalist, Ahmad Urabi, his betrayal to the cause in occupied Egypt, his passionate memories of the servant, Ni'ma, whom he loved but did not have the courage to marry. These ghostly figures emerge in "another desert stretching inside me, with nothing in it of the silence of this desert we are crossing - a desert full of voices and people and images."

Cairo-born Bahaa Taher, one of the best-read contemporary novelists in the Arab world, won the first International Prize for Arabic Fiction - the "Arab Booker" - for Sunset Oasis . He is adept at taking readers into the crumbling mental states of his politically disillusioned anti-heroes. Here he has created another poetic yet tragic figure, not unlike the self-flagellating government bureaucrat in As Doha Said, consumed by existential uncertainty and self-loathing.

"I was a supporter for a time of the nation and the revolutionaries," he says, "and when it came to the test I denied them. And then I did nothing. Never was I one person, complete on the inside... Even in love I was happy to settle for pleasure, then stop and not go to the end of the road."

The story of Mahmoud's downfall is simply told but his emotional unravelling contains a series of clever inversions and ironies. He goes to Siwa with a sense of doom but lurking within this death-wish is an ambition to be a great man yet. His crisis brings him closer to the hero he would like to be, and in the end fills him with a reckless desire to make his last (and first) grand gesture on behalf of the nationalists.

While Taher's novel is not ostensibly about politics - his previous works have taken on such thorny subjects as the Sabra and Shatila massacres and President Nasser's nationalisations - he weaves them subtly into his characterisation, even of satellite figures. The young Captain Wasfi who comes to the oasis is hungry for promotion and quick to betray Mahmoud to the British; the kindly Sheikh Yahya represents the old world and the beautiful Maleeka, a bold, transgressive character, is the perfect rebel.

The oasis may be far removed from Cairo but the politics of the nation are most discernible here, on the desert's fringe. Mahmoud becomes politicised in this wilderness, evolving from a coward into the disenchanted Arab intellectual whose final, enraged action could be seen to re-enact Urabi's fight, and prefigure the 1952 revolution which brought an end to British rule. Even his marriage to Catherine - a picture of inter-racial harmony at the beginning - begins to crack as it is informed, to some degree, by the politics of occupation.

The one "true" event on which the fiction is based, and which Taher mentions in his author's note, is revealed, explosively, at the end. This devastating act, committed by Mahmoud, represents an anti-hero's desperate desire to become a hero. The only way that he can achieve this is to become a martyr.