The Sultan’s Seal reviews one of Darf Publishers’ recent titles: the Eritrean writer Abu Bakr Khaal’s African Titanics, translated from the original Arabic by Charis Bredin
Photo by Alex Majoli, source: magnum photos.com
I immediately began to suss out the reputations of all the local smugglers, remaining in a state of anxious indecision as to which of them I should do business with. There was ‘Fatty’, known for his reliability and the care he took of those who travelled aboard his Titanics. His reputation extended all over Africa and travellers from Eritrea, Sudan, Somalia, Ghana and Liberia would hunt him down as soon as they arrived in [Tripoli]. Other smugglers were known for how swiftly they could arrange crossings. Every week, one of their Titanics would leave for the far shore, completely devoid of safety precautions, and likely to sink a few miles out to sea.
Like Samuel Shimon (An Iraqi in Paris, 2005), and Hamdi Abu Golayyel (A Dog with No Tail, 2009), Abu Bakr Khaal writes reportage with fictional license. Though a Tigré-speaking Eritrean with no apparent connection to the Arab literary scene, he belongs in a recent Arabic tradition of confessional narrative that benefits as much from its authors’ down-and-out credentials as their distinct vernaculars. Whether Khaal’s language is interesting because of influence from his mother tongue, I don’t know.
In Charis Bredin’s decidedly British English, African Titanics is a breezy read, worthwhile for its first-hand take on an essential topic and its pseudo-mythology of pan-African wanderlust.
I begin the ascent at 4p.m. After leaving my personal details at the Tourist Police Office and convincing the officer that no, thank you very much, but I do not need a Bedouin guide, I set off on the dusty road to St. Katherine’s monastery. The monastery lies at the foot of a winding path that leads after a two to three hour strenuous walk and hike to the summit of Mt. Sinai, or Moses as the locals call it. A strange mood has taken hold of me the past hour or so; a vague paranoia, a slightly heightened self-awareness. Perhaps it is the alienation of passing through a dozen checkpoints on my way here from Cairo, or the Army conscript and Police detective who requested a hike and whom I had taken on board at a checkpoint a hundred kilometres before St. Katherine’s. Maybe it is my botched sleep the past couple of nights, or the unsettling bizarreness of returning to Egypt while most of my family are elsewhere for the first time in my life. I don’t know, but I feel ill at ease. So it is with a sense of relief that I leave the Monastery behind and take the first steps to the summit. I really want to be alone. To tell you the truth this is the reason I am here. I have compulsively and hurriedly left our home in Cairo and drove 500 kilometres into the middle of the Sinai Mountains because I need to be alone. Since arriving to Cairo on the 24th of December, I have been avoiding answering the phone or talking to anyone unless it is absolutely necessary. I am starved of my own company; I am hungry for loneliness.