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Sonallah Ibrahim: االلجن وردة (Warda)

This book has two narrators. The first, who starts us off, is Rushdy, though we do not learn his name till well into the book. He is clearly, at least to some degree, the author’s alter ego. Like Ibrahim, he was a communist and opposed to the Egyptian government. However, what is somewhat interesting, is that the left-wing opposition, at least in the Nasser era (1950s and 1960s), was somewhat torn. Nasser was fighting imperialism (the US, UK and Israel over Suez and Israel and the US over Palestine). He was also aiming at a Pan-Arabian Union (which would, of course, stand up to the Western imperialists). Accordingly, he was to many on the left, something of a hero though when he started arresting communists many views changed.

We first meet Rushdy in 1992, when he is visiting his cousin Fahdy and his wife, Shafiqa (both Egyptians) in Oman where they now live and work. Fahdy is working on recording traditional music and Rushdy accompanies him on his travels to the rural areas of Oman. Oman had been a British colony but became a Sultanate, albeit with strong British influence because of the oil. A rebellion – the Dhofar Rebellion broke out against the Sultan’s rule but was finally put down with the aid of the British. Rushdy is interested in meeting people who were involved ,as he knew a couple of people involved. He is told There are no more Front members or sympathizers. Socialism is dead now, and money is all that’s left. Money and riches are the only spice of life.

He meets a Saudi journalist who is investigating what contemporary Omanis think and he tells Rushdy It’s still not clear,” he said. “There seem to be two groups. One won’t say a thing; the other agrees with the Sultan straight down the line. However, Rushdy finds out more and is given the diaries of the one participant he is interested in.

We go back in time and learn that Rushdy had got to know a brother and sister in Cairo, Yaarib and Shahla. Rushdy falls for Shahla but she has a Jordanian boyfriend, Shehab. Rushdy learns that brother ansd sister are interested in events in Oman and went off to help the rebellion. Rushdy, however, is sent to prison and loses touch.

The diary he has been given is Shahla’s. It describes her left-wing views, her relationship with Shehab and how she went off to Oman to fight in the rebellion. She seems to follow every major event involving left-wing activities, such as Algerian independence, Aden and Yemen, Indonesia, the Vietnam War and so on. At time she seems to be on the wrong side of history, favouring the Chinese Cultural Revolution and the Soviets repression of the Czech revisionists in 1968.

We also learn, though we were aware of this from Rushdy, that she has gone to Oman to fight for the rebels, under the code name Warda (it means Rose. We follow her activities in Oman, attacking the British and being attacked by them. We will see later diaries and continue to follow her activities in Oman as well as her comments on what is happening in the rest of the world, including the Vietnam War, Palestine, Sudan, Yemen, the Soviet bloc, China and elsewhere. While many of the people she mention may be unknown to many Westerners, some we definitely know of, as we follow the rise of Saddam Hussein and Gaddafi. She and others are optimistic that things are changing for the better. History is definitely on the move over all of the Arab lands. No act of imperialist tyranny will stop the triumphant march forward. She will be as disappointed as the proponents of the more recent Arab Spring.

We also follow Rushdy as he travels round Oman and learns, gradually, what is going on there and what has happened there and what might have happened to Shahla/Warda. While things might seem OK in Oman, they are not really. For example every day, hundreds of Filipina women sneak out of their workplace and take refuge in their embassy, which helps smuggle them out of the country. They’re pushed here by poverty, wanting to escape the sex trade. But they find themselves in slavery instead. One of the many interesting things about this book is that it definitely takes a feminist stand and is critical of the treatment of women in the Middle East.

Rushdy continues to get successive copies of Warda’s diaries from various sources and we gradually get a chronological story of what happened to her. We learn that the Dhofar Rebellion failed and we learn not only Warda’s role in it but how and why it failed. Qaboos bin Said deposed his father as sultan and skilfully coopted the opposition, by pardoning those involved in the rebellion and calling for modernisation of the country. Warda and her troop keep on fighting but people gradually leave, not wanting to fight a losing battle or, in some cases, joining the other side. The Sultan is supported militarily not only by the British but also by the Iranians and Jordanians. Warda is not, however, about to give up.

Back in the present (i.e, 1992), Rushdy continues his somewhat obsessive search for Warda and her brother and gets embroiled in contemporary Omani politics which are more complicated than they had seemed to be at first sight.

This is a book about two common themes, namely politics and finding a lost love. When asked, Rushdy admits that he had loved Warda, even though they had no romantic relationship and he had only limited contact with her. (We know that Rushdy is divorced.) He becomes quite obsessive in his search for her.

However, much of the book is about the political situation, both in the region and throughout the world. Warda listens to the radio and reports on every bit of news. While many Westerners will know some of these events (though most likely from a different point of view) – Vietnam War, Soviet Russia, Mao’s China, Saddam Hussein and Gaddafi and so on, I for one learned a lot about the situation in Oman, Yemen, Sudan and Egypt which I knew little about. Warda’s naive (to us) optimism is touching even if we know that Saddam Hussein, Gaddafi,the Soviet Union, Mao and others were not, at least by our standards and probably by hers once the truth came out, forces for good.

We also learn that various events in the Middle East involve considerable duplicity, treachery, brutality, slaughter, tribalism and generational (primarily father-son) antagonism. Rushdy, for example, is shown a video of one government toppling another by killing the opposition at a cabinet meeting. However, we get a lot of details about various unpleasant events.

Some readers may feel that there is too much politics but I have to admit that I was fascinated to learn about what went on in a part of the world about which I only knew a little and to learn how horrible the British (and US) were. However, the main story is the search for a lost love, a search that that takes Rushdy to various obscure places and gives him interesting lessons on his own culture.

Publishing history

First published in 2000 by Dār al-mustaqbal al-ʻarabī
First English translation in 2021 by Yale University Press
Translated by Hosam Aboul-Ela