The Book of the Sultan’s Seal

The Book of the Sultan’s Seal: Synopsis

Kitab at-Tughra or The Book of the Sultan’s Seal, set over three weeks in the spring of 2007 and completed at the start of 2010, was published less than a fortnight after the then Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak stepped down, following mass protests, on February 11, 2011, ceding power to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces of which he was technically in charge.

Modeled on a medieval Arabic manuscript in the form of a letter addressed to the writer’s — in this case, the hero’s — close friend, a London-based psychiatrist, Kitab at-Tughra is made up of nine long chapters, “epistles” or “books” (the two words can be interchangeable in literary Arabic), each centered on a journey by car in greater Cairo. They are preceded by a khutba or address, which doubles as an extended table of contents and statement of intent; several appendices, including a quasi-bibliography and a glossary of colloquial and foreign terms, are attached at the end.
Each journey, while developing the storyline, is a personal monograph on a topic; respectively: matrimony, sociology, psychology, the paranormal, history, friendship, love and erotica (the ninth, a compilation of fragments from the hero’s journals and notebooks made after he has left Cairo for Beirut — the last journey and the only one by plane, is a series of eight musings on the previous chapters emulating the format of ibn Arabi’s Epistles).
The text is interspersed with quotes from Arabic sources, many of them medieval; some chapters are not so much parodies as miniature, post-millennial versions of specific canonical classics: ibn Khaldun’s Prolegomenon (5), al Jahiz’s Book of Misers (6), ibn Hazm’s The Ring of the Dove (7), ibn al Farid’s Diwan (8). To a degree, all benefit from The Travels of ibn Battuta, The Thousand and One Nights and al Maqrizi’s Khutat.
Written in numerous registers of Arabic, the book attempts to produce a contemporary equivalent of the “middle Arabic” in which the great Cairo historians Jabarti and ibn Iyass both wrote: a language that juxtaposes fixed formal grammar with an idiomatically distinct contemporary vernacular, rich in non-Arabic vocabulary.
Kitab at-Tughra is in a portrait of Cairo, city of (post-9/11) Islam. Focusing on the Ottoman Empire as the last seat of the Caliphate, it is also a mystery-detective thriller that at the same time subverts and substantiates conspiracy-theory accounts of Muslim demise, suggesting that the way to a renaissance has less to do with dogma and jihad than with such things as love poetry and calligraphy and the cultural heterogeneity inherent in Islam.
The story is told alternately by and from the viewpoint of Mustafa Çorbaci, its British-educated, hero, who has solicited a Beirut-based Egyptian to help him to write an account of his strange experiences, referred to in the rhymed-prose subtitle of the book: gharayib at-tarikh fi madinat al marrikh, or The Oddities of History in the City of Mars (the latter reference being an allusion to the story that Fatimid Cairo, the second, initially royal-military settlement to form the city, was built by mistake while Mars was in the ascendant).
The book also includes sketches made by Mustafa. Like giant punctuation marks, they illustrate his cartographic attempt to retrieve a Cairo that, by the time the story starts, he feels he has already lost completely. By the end Mustafa’s map of Cairo, made by matching drawings he has made with his eyes shut, has the shape of the Ottomans’ best-known calligraphic emblem, the tuğra in which the names of the sultans were inscribed.

Mustafa, an amateur draughtsman, has worked for nearly a decade at the business division of the largest government-controlled press conglomerate in Egypt. Having married “a liberated woman my own age,” as he puts it, “like me caught between two cultures”, he feels sufficiently accomplished and secure until their bond begins, subtly at first, to flounder; and his wife’s pregnancy — she will have an abortion on her own initiative after they separate — only makes things worse.
It is largely through Mustafa’s observations and memories that a context is established for the theme of the book: the contemporary Arab-Muslim’s desperation for a sense of identity which, having been let down by the postcolonial nation state, he (like Osama bin Laden, like millions of bearded young men on the streets of Arab countries) — and who is to say they are misguided? — is driven to seek out in his creed.
This he does, not in reductive, prohibitive and violent registers of the faith, but thanks to Mustafa’s irreverence and love of life, in the unrealistic vision of a possible Caliphate. A vague sort of neo-Ottoman paradise will grant the Umma the dignity and power it deserves without robbing individual Muslims of intellectual and moral freedoms.
Through a range of parallels between Ottoman history and his own life, which emerge against the odds in almost every detail — even Çorbaci, a common enough surname, turns out to be the epithet of a janissary rank — Mustafa grafts that vision of Muslim renaissance onto events and practices of the Anatolian dynasty, notably the early conquests of Constantinople and of Cairo, the consequent, progressive grandeur of Suleiman I’s reign, and, starting with Mahmud II and Abdülmecid I, the last Ottoman sultans’ vision for a multicultural Muslim commonwealth (which was both rivaled and mirrored by Muhammad Ali Pasha’s Cairo- as opposed to Istanbul-centered vision for a Muslim-Arab commonwealth).
Mustafa contrasts this notion of identity with a range of nationalist legacies in his own life — the tendency to see Mameluks as true Egyptians up against the Ottoman invader, for example — and he identifies political Islam in its existing formulations with the same military-minded and insular quasi-fascism that held Muslims back all through the twentieth century.

The book opens with Mustafa’s harrowing separation, after only one year of marriage, from his London-bred but sporadically conventional wife, who remains nameless and absent from the story. His move back to live with his mother in a different quarter of Cairo sets the tone:
Dwelling on the sense of losing his tie with the city while he drives from one house to the other, Mustafa is poised for the next, circular journey: his daily trip from “the family house”, as he calls his parents’ small flat, to “the office”, part of one of the city center’s largest architectural monstrosities, and back. Increasingly, the disintegration of his private life has echoed in the public life surrounding him: social, institutional, moral… On the verge of mental collapse, he begins to have dreams or visions; in the three weeks during which the action of the novel transpires he will make strange discoveries about his coworkers-friends whose fates — typical or archetypal, comically expressive representations of said disintegration — will turn out to be cosmically entwined with his own.
These include: the violently psychotic ex-police officer Amgad Salah who, once a cocaine addict, turned to Salafi Islam after a significant breakdown strangely associated with the most eccentric employee at the office, the hypochondriac graduate of al Azhar, Wahidaddin (Wahid) al Qorani, a religious scholar-turned-exemplar of hidden unemployment with a speech impediment; the rich, loud, American-bred racist and chauvinist Copt Michel Fustuq, the son of a plumber-turned-businessman with ties to the family of Mustafa’s divorcee-to-be and, as Mustafa eventually discovers, her lover prior to the marriage; and the obese, sexually ambiguous Aldo Mantenzica, the son of a Makua émigré artist who, after leaving Mozambique for Portugal, had befriended the famous Egyptian painter Hamid Nada and inexplicably settled in Cairo with his witchcraft-practicing wife.
But it is Wahidaddin’s role as the earthly medium for his namesake, the last Ottoman sultan, Mehmed VI Vâhid ād-Din, that will eventually explain everything, including the Azharite’s peculiar attachment to Aldo: when the sultan first manifested in Wahid’s body, Aldo’s mother attempted to perform an exorcism on him, a procedure that involved Aldo reluctantly penetrating his hapless coworker. In one way or another, as Sultan Mehmed VI reveals to Mustafa, they are all party to a cosmic, centuries-old conspiracy against Muslim civilization. (In a dream towards the end, Wahid appears to Mustafa as the Sultan, Amgad as the Şeyhülislam, Michel as the Grand Vizier and Aldo as the Kızlar Ağası of an Ottoman court.)

On the five hundred and fifth anniversary of the Ottoman conquest of Cairo, at the office, Mustafa encounters, through Wahidaddin, the ghost of Vâhid ād-Din, whose tuğra is emblazoned on a silver ring Amgad almost buys at the mall (drawn to the ring and realizing it fits him, Mustafa buys it for himself in Amgad’s stead; neither friend knows what the calligraphic emblem stands for, but it is on his hand when the sultan manifests). Then, between public libraries and the Internet, doing three years’ worth of research in three days, Mustafa explores the Sublime State.
Not in so many words, the sultan explains to Mustafa that the conspiracy employs both secular military despots (Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, or Nasser) and politicized fundamentalists to quell Muslim glory: by finding one of seven lost sheets of vellum on which Vâhid ād-Din’s father Sultan Abdülmecid I, an amateur calligrapher, wrote Surat Mariam, the chapter of the Quran about the Virgin Mary, Mustafa will contribute in a mysterious, theosophical manner which the sultan cannot explain to him to the unification and revival of the Umma.
This is the task Amgad was offered, and could not shoulder, when Wahidaddin first “got sick” and he had the breakdown that turned him into a bearded Salafi.
Through further journeys across Cairo, Mustafa has a reunion with the married elder sister of another coworker, Yıldız (Turkish for star, it is also the name Abdülhamid II’s palace on the hills) a literary scholar ten years his senior who, living with her family in France, has returned for a brief spell by herself in Cairo; seemingly because of her predestined role of providing him with the first clue on his treasure hunt, they fall madly in love, rediscovering themselves in passion. And it is in her house on the Muqattam Hills the he finds, among the family possession, a handmade reproduction of what he is looking for by a close friend of her father, an old school bourgeois scholar: an old Iraqi calligrapher who, when last heard of, was living in Beirut…

Between Worlds by Mona Anis

The publication of Youssef Rakha’s first novel Kitab al-Tugra: Gharaib al-Tarikh fi Madinat al-Marikh (Book of the Sultan’s Seal: Strange Incidents from History in the City of Mars) coincided with the beginning of the Egyptian popular uprising on January 25.

I am not sure whether this coincidence is fortunate or unfortunate, since a historical event of such wide import as the Egyptian uprising will naturally overshadow the appearance of any new novel, no matter how accomplished. Nevertheless, it could be argued that the uprising itself, especially since it largely took place in central Cairo, an area which Rakha calls in his novel the “Gate of the World” (Bab al-Dunya in Arabic), vindicates much that is included in this particular book, in large part a chronicle of the decay of the city and a call to arms.

This is also a coincidence that befits the Egyptian capital, itself founded as a result of a historical coincidence. In the book’s prologue (Khutbat al-kitab in Arabic), Rakha mentions this, quoting the words of Egyptian historian Ibn Iyas (1448-1522) from his famous book Bada’i al-Zuhur fil Waqa’i al-Duhur.

According to Ibn Iyas, the Fatimid Caliph Al-Muizz li-Din Allah, who founded Cairo in 969, ordered astrologers and fortune-tellers to find the most fortunate place and time to lay the city’s foundation stone. A complicated system of ropes and bells was devised to send a signal to the builders once the place and time had been decided, but a crow landed on one of the ropes, causing the bells to ring and the builders to lay the foundation stone before the appointed time. By then, it was too late for the astrologers to rectify the matter. However, they noted that the planet Mars (Al-Qahir in Arabic) was in the ascendant at the time, and as a result the city was called Al-Qahira (the City of Mars of Rakha’s title).

Also in the prologue to his novel, which imitates the style of Arab chroniclers like Ibn Iyas and Jabarti, Rakha sets out the content of his book:

From the prologue, readers will know that the story they are about to read is in the past tense and that it involves both first-person and third-person narrators. “Wanting to give the story some variety, five sections are narrated by Mustapha and three by an anonymous narrator,” the prologue says.

Regarding what happens to Mustafa Nayif Çorbaci, the protagonist and main narrator, we learn from the first chapter of the novel, entitled “From Dog’s Alley to Dreams’ Bridge,” that he leaves home on 30 March 2007 feeling despondent and bereft, having decided once and for all to separate from his wife – thus begins a labyrinthine journey through the thoroughfares of Cairo.

The author explains in the prologue that each of the novel’s nine chapters deals with an event that takes place while Mustafa is wandering the city trying to make sense of external and internal disintegration. Attempts are made to bring together various partings and to find cohesion in materials having to do with flight and dispersal.

Each neighbourhood is described metaphorically, in order that it can be reclaimed for the narrative, as Rakha puts it in a recent interview. Thus, Dog’s Alley (in Arabic, Darb al-Kalb) and Dreams’ Bridge (Gisr al-Hilm) are the names the author gives to the neighbourhoods of Maadi and Dokky, respectively, the former being the place where Mustafa lives with his wife and the latter the place where his parents’ house is located and where he goes after leaving his wife.

Besides Maadi and Dokky, Mustafa’s itinerary over the 21days covered in the novel includes seven other Cairo districts, each of which is given a metaphorical name. Thus, downtown Cairo is called the “Gate of the World,” the beginning of the Alexandria Desert Road where the vast Carrefour supermarket is located is called “Khan of Secrets” (Khan al-Sirr), the desert on the outskirts of Giza is called “Desert Port” (Mina al-Raml), the area covering Madinat Nasr and Heliopolis up to Cairo airport is called the “Aeroplane’s Playground” (Hosh Tayara), Zamalek is called the “Sea of Japan” (Bahr al-Yaban), the Muqattam Hills is called the “Hill of Trees” (Kom Shagar) and the October Bridge, linking Cairo to Giza, is called the “Dry Nile” (Al-Nil al-Nashef).

In each of these places, Mustafa, sometimes in the company of one of four male characters, colleagues at the newspaper he works for, has a harrowing experience, and each of his colleagues, by virtue either of madness or meanness, is capable of assuming different masks or guises.

In the fourth chapter of the novel, one of these characters takes the form of Mehmed VI Vahdeddin, the last sultan ofthe Ottoman Empire and 100th Caliph of Islam. Vahdeddin assigns Mustafa the task of finding one of seven lost manuscripts that together make up the complete text of the Surat Mariam from the Qur’an. These manuscripts were written by the sultan’s father Abdulmecid, and they are among the few things that Vahdeddin took with him into exile. Mustafa finds a copy of one of the manuscripts in the novel’s eighth chapter in the house of a woman with whom he has fallen in love. She is also the reason why he himself embarks on writing a treatise on eroticism.

In the novel’s final chapter, narrated in the third person by an anonymous narrator, we learn of Mustafa’s desire to become a professional calligrapher. He has drawn his nine itineraries through the city as three separate maps, and as he places these on top of each other he sees that they combine to form a shape like the seal of an Ottoman sultan.

In Rakha’s words, “after each journey he makes over three weeks in Cairo, Mustafa Çorbaci traces his route across or adjacent to the Nile. He draws with his eyes shut, in order to avoid the influence of reality. At the end, having renamed the relevant neighbourhoods the better to reclaim them for his story, he combines his drawings and ends up with a tuğra, or sultan’s seal.”

A tuğra is not only a seal, however, since the word can also mean a stylized drawing, often in the shape of a bouquet of flowers, in Arabic usage. There is much in Rakha’s novel, with its anecdotes written in stylized prose, that resembles such emblematic bouquets.

Indeed, the inter-textual references in this thoroughly hybrid text are astonishing, and, rooted in the classical Arabic tradition of the literature of the criminal underworld and the maqamat, the book shares characteristics with the work of modern Arab writers like Emile Habibi and Yehia El-Taher Abdalla.

However, this is also a text that benefits from traditional and modern western culture. Rabelaisian in its satire and robust language, it also includes references to popular horror and zombie literature, notably to George Romero’s 1968 film Night of the Living Dead. All this, and much more, is woven together in a magical realist style that injects things too strange for belief into the realistic setting of the novel.

Kitab al-Tugra: Gharaib al-Tarikh fi Madinat al-Marikh is an outstanding first novel by an author who has a special ability to deal with modern and classical material, both Arab and western, with equal ease. One looks forward to further novels with eager anticipation.

In the canonically inspired prologue to Book of the Sultan’s Seal (khutbat al-kitab, to use the correct term), and as per Arab writerly conventions of the past, the author sets out all that his book contains: “information of what happened to the journalist Mustafa Nayif Çorbaci between 30 March and 19 April, 2007, as chronicled by him in the weeks following that date, and addressed in the fashion of old Arab books to his friend the psychiatrist Rashid Jalal Siyouti, who has resided in the British capital since 2001.”

Quoting Al-Jahiz in a similar context, the author goes on to say that his book is full of ineloquent constructions and departures from correct grammar – it actually celebrates such language, since it aspires to evoking the voices of the people it talks about. Book of the Sultan’s Seal treasures the life that the vernacular can breathe into standard Arabic, welcoming the presence of non-Arabic words in the language, which can absorb them and grow the richer, and such words are therefore not marked in any way in the typography.

As for the structure of the novel, “This text comprises one story divided into nine sections, with each section chronicling one event which took place in the course of a journey within the city of Cairo… And while each of the nine journeys is linked to a specific event in the story, in time Mustapha begins to see each section as a treatise in one specific discipline.” He then proceeds to give a list of the journeys in question – the content of the book, their dates, and the disciplines to which they correspond:

On 30 March, after separating from his wife, Mustafa makes the journey from his marital house in Maadi to the house of his parents in Dokky. This section, according to Rakha, is a treatise on marriage.

  • In 30 March-7 April, Mustafa has a dream that seems to come true, while he recounts his daily journey from Dokky to downtown Cairo, where he goes to work, and back – an occasion to describe the social disintegration around him – sociology.
  • On 7-8 April, Mustapha makes a journey to the mall on the Desert Road, and there – as well as having a strange encounter that seems to be related to the dream – he finds a ring with a calligraphic seal: psychology.
  • On 9 April, while on a journey from town to the Other World, Mustafa meets and is given an assignment by the ghost of the last Ottoman sultan, whose seal the ring bears. This, Rakha describes as a treatise on the paranormal.
  • On 10-12 April, following the encounter with the sultan, Mustafa makes a journey in books and on the internet, finding out about the Ottomans: history.
  • On 13-14 April, Mustafa visits several quarters of Cairo, divorcing his wife and discovering what it is all about: the dream, the ring, his encounter with the sultan. The central journey is to the camel market. It is a treatise on friendship.
  • Further confirming what he has discovered, on 15 April Mustafa journeys through Islamic Cairo and encounters a new lover. This is Rakha’s treatise on love.
  • In 16-19 April, Mustafa makes the journey from the house of his lover in Muqattam to Cairo Airport, having found the object he needs to start undertaking his assignment. This is a treatise on eroticism.
  • After 19 April, Mustafa is in Beirut undertaking his assignment. This is not so much a journey as an event, and replaces the treatise with a series of parables mimicking the eight previous sections.

In the interest of variety, the author goes on to say, five sections are told by Mustafa (1, 2, 4, 5, 7) while the other three are told by an anonymous narrator (3, 6, 8); the ninth and last section is a compendium. The book ends with 40 pages of appendices on different topics, including a glossary of vernacular and unfamiliar terms and expressions.

16 responses to The Book of the Sultan’s Seal

  1. maria grech ganado

    hi Youssef – greetings from Malta – these are wonderful comments. Is there any chance that the novel will be translated into English. I have subscribed to your blog, but unfortunately can’t read Arabic😦. Love to Egypt – maria,

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