Omaima Al-Khamis: رواية مسرى الغرانيق في مدن العقيق (The Book Smuggler)
Our hero/narrator is Mazid al-Hanafi, son of Abdullah Thaqib al-Hanafi and Shammaa of the House of Wael, the eponymous book smuggler. We first meet him as he is travelling in the Arabian desert from Basra to Jerusalem, his poor, weak camel laden with a case full of rare books. Given that the year is AH 40 in the Islamic calendar, 1012 A.D. in our calendar, most books were rare.
Mazid is the grandson of a sheikh and the imam of a mosque in the Citadel of Bani Ukhaydar in the region of Hijr al-Ya-mama. He learnt a lot about books from his grandfather, a learned man and a well-respected one,too. Mazid’s father was a different matter. He was a camel breeder and a rough man. He expected his son to get involved, which meant slaughtering animals and the like and when Mazid flinched he would receive a blow around the head from his father. From that day on, I learned the trick of the black curtain. My eyes would be open, but my sight would be absent. Thanks to the curtain I pulled down over my soul, my heart and my faculties would allow my eyes to remain open without injury or nightmares.
Books were his passion. My grandfather’s books shaped who I was and influenced my nature.
We follow his journeys which were fraught with danger. For example, if you went to Damascus, where he wanted to go, you were likely to be attacked, robbed, and branded. Not only could you be robbed but you could be sold into slavery. Indeed, on one of his journeys he plans to go to Damascus but is warned off.
The other problem is one that continues to this day, namely religious differences and, in particular, the differences between the Sunnis and the Shiites. He is a Hanafite Sunii. He wants to go to Kufa but is warned If you call for prayers and peace upon Prophet Muhammad like a Sunni, and pray for his companions, you’ll be chopped into little pieces by the Shiites who live there!
A good part of the early section of the book relates his stay in Baghdad. He has left his home town to travel (to the annoyance of his mother, who is lining up potential brides for him). The final part of his journey to Baghdad is by boat and, when he arrives, he follows the advice of his grandfather and heads for the Great Mosque but he soon finds lodging in the Khan of Abu al-Hassan al-Hashimi. Abu al-Hassan al-Hashimi has set up this khan to provide lodging for scholars and when they find out that our hero is a skilled scribe, he gets a room.
The room is not entirely free – he has to work for it. This involved doing the accounts, which he does well. In particular he becomes involved with the learned Sheikh al-Tamimi and becomes his scribe. The Sheikh is an astute businessman, paying Mazid two dirhams a day but, part of his duties involve transcribing documents which the Sheikh sells at a profit, justifying this by the fact that he has two wives and children to support. Mazid is somewhat resentful.
There are two key issues involved in his stay. The first is that he has access to books, which gives him great pleasure. The khan has them, the Sheikh has them. When the Sheikh is injured and goes to hospital, the hospital has them so while nominally looking after the Sheikh, he studies the books. Even the Persian blacksmith, who perpetually annoys him with questions about Arabic and the Koran, has them and gives him, for example, Aristotle’s Poetics in a good translation.
The second key issue is more worrying and it is politics, particularly religious politics. There are various factions and, in particular, there is a dispute between those that consider God (i.e. Allah) to have no corporeal form and those that do think he has such a form. Disputes over this and other religious issues get violent and the caliph – Al-Qadir – is making things more difficult by clamping down on dissent and declaring that philosophy is heresy.
Mazid cannot avoid getting involved, not least because of his involvement with Sheikh al-Tamimi. However, it is Abu al-Hassan al-Hashimi who calls on him to help. Abu al-Hassan al-Hashimi has a plan to distribute worthy books around sympathetic people elsewhere in the Islamic world and what he plans to do is to send out worthy people to the various cities and sell the books he has (at a reasonable price) to appropriate recipients. Mazid is called on to participate. He is given a crate of books and sent off to other cities in a caravan. In these cities he must contact people known as the Voyagers who are sympathetic to the cause.
As this article shows, the Islamic world was way ahead of Europe in paper making and therefore, presumably book publishing. We see this in some detail, as Mazid describes the paper he uses and we also see the books he has access to. Presumably, at this time in Europe, books would be limited to monasteries and perhaps the very rich.
He is not sad to leave Baghdad where the situation is deteriorating. We follow his journey. First stop is Bosra, followed by Jerusalem. In Jerusalem he lodges with some Christians (good cover)and Al-Khamis develops the theme of cooperation and understanding between religions, not least because caliph al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah had had the the Church of the Holy Sepulchre destroyed. Despite this, he finds more religious tolerance in Jerusalem than in Baghdad.
Cairo, however, is more difficult, as intolerance reigns. I could see fear and caution on everyone’s faces and in the way they moved. While he has problems everywhere he goes, it seems to be worse in Egypt, at least for now. It is here that he decides that he is going to change profession. Being called a student or scholar brings its own problems so, given that he has studied Galen and Hippocrates and learned of herbal remedies from his mother, he decides that he will declare himself a doctor or, rather he calls himself (to himself) a false physician.
While it does help, the problem with Egypt is the caliph who is brutal and whom our hero and others called the Devil. In particular, women are not allowed to leave their homes and shoemakers are even forbidden from making women’s shoes. He briefly sees the caliph once. That fleeting glimpse of his face froze the blood in my veins, and made me realise that he was the descendant of some strange inhuman line.
However, Mazid is a man and, not for the last time in this book, he has fallen in love. Can he leave her? The answer is clear. How lonely Cairo was! I began to smell dead bodies and blood all about! It is on to Kairouan, al-Madiya, Almería and Cordoba.
This is an absolutely superb book. Firstly, it is wonderful story, full of the colourful adventures of Mazid, the many problems he faces, the political and religious upheavals, the various stories he and others recount, the problems of travel in the eleventh century and the struggle to get his books to the right people.
Secondly there are two interesting main themes. The first is quite simply the desire to learn and study but also to spread learning and knowledge throughout the Islamic world during a period when non-Islamic Europe was still in the Dark Ages and not only was the learning of the Islamic world unknown, much of the learning of the classical world, particularly Greece, had been lost and, indeed has only passed down to us because the Islamic world preserved it. Mazid and his fellow voyagers are eager to make sure that books and book learning are preserved and passed on both to other parts of the Islamic world but also to future generations. For book lovers, and if you are reading this you presumably are, the idea of preserving books and passing then on to others is wonderful. Many of the books he mentions have survived to this day (though not all have been translated into Western languages) though some have been lost.
The second key theme is the idea of tolerance and understanding for different points of view. We see it (as we still do) with the Sunni-Shi’ite schism but also on the issue of the nature of God and other (to us) arcane religious disputes. Mazid makes the point about how people seem to be more tolerant in Jerusalem than in Baghdad though when he gets to Egypt and then Cordoba, intolerance reappears.
The other interesting idea is, for me at least, learning of the history of an era about which I knew very little. Reading this book has meant frequent Internet searches to learn about various caliphs, books, religious leaders and places. Of the towns he visits, I have only visited five (Jerusalem, Cairo, Kairouan, Almería and Cordoba) and had not even heard of some of the smaller ones.
As well as the broader history, as mentioned, we also learn of the various religious and political issues, which are many. Al-Khamis has clearly done her homework and goes into some detail (but not too much) on the various disputes and the behaviour of the political and religious leaders.
Finally, I am very glad to have a book on my site by a Saudi woman. While I do have a couple of other novels by Saudi women, this is the first one I have read and reviewed and clearly shows that Saudi women are equal if not superior to their male counterparts.
First published in 2017 by Dār as-Sāqī wa-al-Nashr
First published in English in 2021 by Hoopoe
Translated by Sarah Enany