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Edwar al-Kharrat: ترابها زعفران (City of Saffron)

This is not a novel but rather a series of interconnected stories, all linked by the narrator, an Egyptian child called Mikhael (but clearly al-Kharrat himself). The stories show glimpses of his life in Egypt, primarily in the 1940s and 1905s, though he goes beyond with indications of what happened to him later on. It is, of course, the story of how a young boy sees life and how the behaviour of adults is often mysterious and inexplicable, including sex, value judgements passed by one person on another (particularly on people of apparently loose morals, all of whom Mikhael seems to take a shine to) and his father’s career (or, rather, lack of career). Hovering in the background are the politics – the Italians in the War, the British and Suez, the Israelis and Palestinians and Mikhael/al-Kharrat’s subsequent involvement in left-wing politics. Mikhael’s family are Copts and, though this is mentioned, there seems to be little conflict with the Muslims. The charm of the book is the innocent eyes of Mikhael into the adult world but also his gentle enthusiasm for everything and everybody, despite the squalor of his life (his father is all too often unemployed) and the dullness of his existence. Yet young Mikhael manages to make the ordinary seems special through his eyes and we can ask no more than that of a book.

Publishing history

First published in 1986 by Dar al-Mustaqbal al-‘Arabi
First English translation in 1989 by Quartet Books
Translated by Frances Liardet.