Ben Barka Book Review by Issa Ballouta

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Ben Barka Book Review by Issa Ballouta

Postby Mahmoud Saeed » Tue Jan 28, 2014 5:09 pm

Ben Barka Lane
By: Mahmoud Saeed
Translated By: Kay Heikkinen
Northampton, MA: Interlink Books, 2013. 276 pp. Pbk.: $15.00. ISBN 978:1566569262.
Volume: 1 Issue: 3
July 2013

Review by
Issa J. Boullata, PhD
McGill University
Mahmoud Saeed is a well-known Iraqi novelist and short-story writer with more than 20 books to his name. A political dissident, he was imprisoned several times in his homeland and some of his writings were banned. He left Iraq in 1985 for the United States, where he is now an Arabic language instructor and author-in-residence at DePaul University in Chicago.
His novel, Ben Barka Lane, originally published in Arabic in 1970 as Zanqat Bin Barakah, was immediately banned in Iraq, but it was later published in Cairo, Amman, and Beirut. It won the Iraqi Ministry of Information Award in 1994 after Iraq underwent regime change; and it is now translated into English by Kay Heikkinen, who teaches Arabic at the University of Chicago and is the translator of Naguib Mahfouz’s In the Time of Love.
It may not be Mahmoud Saeed’s best novel, or as gripping as his autobiographical novel Saddam City-about an Iraqi teacher tortured in Saddam Hussein’s prisons―but it is certainly one of the most poetic of his novels in describing the feelings of the fictional characters and their reactions to events and to each other. To be noted particularly is his account, in the passionate words of this novel’s narrator Sharqi, of the beautiful and enchanting Ruqayya with whom Sharqi is enamored—not ignoring the charming effect on him of her melodious voice, her elegant movements and glances, her intelligent conversation, her very presence that elevates his soul and transports him to heavenly existence.
Sharqi is a political refugee from Iraq in Morocco of the late 1960s and works as a high-school teacher in the small town of Mohammadiyya, not far from Casablanca. He becomes acquainted with several young Moroccans of both sexes, among whom Habib is his special friend, a comrade of Mahdi Ben Barka, the leader of the leftist opposition to King Hassan’s government which is cracking down on all opponents. Sharqi lives in an apartment in the same building where Ruqayya lives, and both he and Habib admire the beautiful woman without either of them telling her so, until one day she expresses her friendship to Sharqi in the form of embraces and kisses with no commitment, still guarding her overpowering independence.
Sharqi gets to know Si Idris, a very rich and pompous man of poor origins, and he visits him in his sumptuous palace where he has maidens he calls “insects”. Si Idris, who is also a gambler, thinks that money can achieve anything one wants and that all women are easy to possess, including Ruqayya. He boasts of his generous treatment of his farm workers and his servants, and believes they like him when, in fact, they hate his presumptuousness and live in poverty. When he is found murdered in Sharqi’s building, the police conduct investigations with Sharqi after reading his diary that mentions his love and admiration for Ruqayya. He is not arrested, but Ruqayya thinks he killed Si Idris for her sake, which he continues to deny.
The novel’s action becomes fast towards the end, but is very slow in the earlier chapters where the reader is made to follow Sharqi and his young friends, men and women, in their various activities where alcoholic drinks and permissive behavior are abundant in a manner not usual in Morocco. The plot of the novel is obfuscated and may confuse readers until the end is reached. The translation is very good except that, in reporting conversations where the Arabic text says: he said or she said, the translator invariably says: he cried or she cried. But on the whole, it is good to have this novel of Mahmoud Saeed in English translation.
Mahmoud Saeed
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