IN SOME cultures children are smeared with mud or kohl to ward off envy. But placating the envious has its hazards; the more you do so the more envious they become. The best course is to stay clear of the envy zone, using the same caution as the funnel-web spider, which has a long jump. In Voices Simone, a beautiful Parisian, makes the mistake of striding into that zone; despite her sensitivity and intelligence she fails to recognise the danger.
In fact it was she who encouraged her husband Hamid to return to the village on the Nile delta from which he had fled as a boy. Now, his chief memory is of being almost perpetually ill because of the bad water.
How adorable she finds the ethnic simplicity, how divine the colours and how photogenic the peasant women in their black robes. But Simone is also a nice, generous woman and works hard putting eyedrops in children's sore eyes. When the village hears of Hamid's imminent return they quake in shock, pleasure and shame.
They begin to doubt themselves, become self-conscious about their habits. Money changes hands at a crazy rate, and people toil to improve things, trimming the grass along the canals, filling in pot-holes, even setting up street lamps. When the teacher reminds them of the wars against the French 150 years ago, when 17,000 villagers died at the hands of Simone's ancestors, they are angry but not vengeful.
The red car hoves into view and they all cheer and mob the return of the hero, the man who escaped their poverty, made a success and married his Parisian. Then Simone steps out, her camera over her shoulder. 'There was a lightness and mirth exuding from her and I felt sorry for all our women when I compared them to her.'
The book is a series of monologues delivered by different characters - the Police Commissioner, the shopkeeper, even Hamid's mother. When she greets Simone she fires into the air a long, shrill and hoarse ululation. But at dinner they all notice 'the long yellow hairs in her armpits' and are shocked. Simone is unclean.
When Hamid has to go away briefly Simone invites a student to accompany her on her explorations. They see the Nile. She walks beside him so casually and freely he is soon over-excited. The catastrophe when it comes has a dreadful symbolic aptness; in a brief, choreographed scene the women cut off Simone's clitoris. They want her to stop flaunting herself, attracting all their men. They want her to be crushed, like them.
Up until this scene the writing, though two-dimensional, has an illuminating starkness; the tale has us in its teeth. But the crime, when it occurs, is too abrupt; the psychology of the participants is not really explored. It's not just Simone: the story itself seems amputated.
The clash between the Orient and Occident is a well-worn novelistic genre in Egyptian literature, but the stories are usually of young Egyptian males who travel to Europe. As the translator says in his introduction, 'These novels inevitably end up asserting through their events the ethical superiority of the East over the technologically advanced but morally decadent West. Structurally Voices is the exact converse to these events.'
Fayyad is a highly respected short story writer in Egypt, and as a short story Voices works brilliantly - a cautionary tale for all those who would flirt with different cultures.
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