The guard at the Temple of Alexander showing off some of the stray finds to me and my Bedouin driver
In my last post, I talked about the Egyptian tombs at Bahariya Oasis, some 340 km southwest of Cairo. The oasis was on the fringe of civilization in those days, but became more important during the Greco-Roman period because its well-watered soil didn’t flood like the Nile valley and thus was a good place to grow grapes to make wine, something the Greeks and Romans couldn’t live without.
The oasis became prosperous during Greek and Roman rule. It gained significance right from the start when Alexander the Great passed through here on the way to Siwa Oasis further to the west, where he had his famous meeting with the oracle of Amun at the sanctuary there, where he was proclaimed the son of the god and thus pharaoh. The temple honors his visit to the oasis and is the largest in the Western Desert, with a two-room sandstone chapel and a temple enclosure with at least 45 rooms and a surrounding wall.
On a recent writing retreat in Tangier, Morocco, I was going through back issues of the Tangier Gazette, an English-language newspaper from the International Zone era. During this time, which lasted from 1924–1956, Tangier was run by several different European nations plus the United States. The governments gave people a free hand, and Tangier became notorious for allowing things that were illegal everywhere else — drugs, homosexuality, and prostitution. That attracted writers such as William S. Burroughs, Paul and Jane Bowles, and many others.
The April 6, 1956, edition of the Gazette has this little tidbit about Mack Reynolds, a prominent science fiction author of his day. His career got started shortly after World War Two in the detective pulps, and he soon branched out to write science fiction. Reynolds had a taste for travel and moved to Mexico in 1953. He and his wife soon pulled up stakes and set off on an epic ten-year trip through Europe, North Africa, and the Far East, supported by his science fiction and travel writing. The trip finally ended with their return to Mexico.
During his time in Morocco, he and his wife struck out into what is now Mali to visit Gao and Timbuktu. This is not an easy trip now, and back then it was an epic journey few attempted. Just look at what happened to Kit Moresby in The Sheltering Sky.
Here’s a random treasure I noticed one day while strolling past my local kiosk in Cairo. These little books of science fiction and horror can still be found in Egypt, although they were more common back in the 90s when I first started coming here.
I’m not sure what they’re called in Arabic, but in Spanish they’re called bolsilibros (“pocket books”). These bite-sized paperbacks measure roughly 15 x 10 cm (6 x 4 inches) and run 90-120 pages. In Spain, the main genres were romance and western, although there were a fair number of horror, science fiction, war, and various other genres as well. Several publishers churned out a huge variety of lines. Now only a few reprints of the big western and romance writers can still be found at the kiosks.
In Egypt, judging from what I’ve unearthed in Cairo’s wonderful used book market, the most popular bolsilibros were cop thrillers, although science fiction and horror appear to be the only genres that are still being published in that format. Other genres are now found in trade paperback, like the more serious science fiction.
Mummy portrait from the 2nd century AD of two brothers who appear to have died together
The Egyptian Museum in Cairo is an addictive place. On my two writing retreats in Egypt last year I found myself returning again and again. The collections are so vast, the displays so stunning, that no matter how many times you go you always find something that bowls you over.
Much of the museum is laid out chronologically, from the predynastic era all the way up to the Greco-Roman period (332 BC – 395 AD). This last period of ancient Egypt is often overlooked except for the famous mummy portraits like the one pictured above, lifelike paintings of the deceased. The rest of the art from this time is less compelling. Some of it is overdone, almost cartoonish, but that doesn’t make it any less interesting. Here’s a small sample of what the museum had to offer.
I apologize for the quality of some of these photos. The Egyptian Museum is poorly lit and many of the cases are dirty, making good photography difficult. Hope you enjoy them anyway!
I’ve always loved vintage travelogues. The world was bigger a hundred years ago, its cultures more distinct and isolated. Travel was hard and sometimes dangerous. Accounts of old journeys bring me back to a time when people could go to places like Africa and not be able to text home.
But there’s always been a problem with the genre. The vast majority of the books available in English are from the Western perspective, especially the Anglo perspective. So The Lost Oases, written by Egyptian Ahmed Hassanein Bey and published in 1925, came as a welcome change. It’s an Arab account of discovering two remote oases in the far southwest of Egypt, hundreds of miles from the nearest habitation.
Ahmed Hassanein Bey was a wealthy Egyptian of Bedouin stock who was educated at Oxford, so he is good at explaining his own culture to the Western reader and yet remains enough of an outsider that we can enjoy watching his learning curve as he visits his country cousins.
He was already an experienced desert traveler when he set out on this mission, and we’re carried through a detailed description of his preparations and planning. When all is ready, he goes to his father for a moving scene where the old man blesses him and the baggage for a safe journey.
After skirting the coastline, the caravan heads south along the Egyptian/Libyan border. At this point in history, Egypt was administered by the British Empire and Libya by Italy. The main group along the border, then and now, is called the Senussi. I mainly knew of them from their attempt to invade Egypt during the First World War at the urging of the Germans and Ottomans.
One pleasant stop on my recent trip to Cairo was the American University’s bookshop near Tahrir Square. It’s a treasure trove of books on Egyptology and Egyptian fiction in translation. Among the titles I picked up was the dystopian novel Otared by Mohammad Rabie.
This novel, originally published in Arabic in 2014 and published in English in 2016 by Hoopoe, the fiction imprint of the American University of Cairo, is a grim dystopian tale of Cairo in 2025.
After several botched revolutions in which the people repeatedly fail to effect real social and political change, Egypt is invaded by a foreign power. The army crumples, most of the police collude with the occupiers, and the general public doesn’t seem to care. A small rebel group decides to take back their nation, and one of its agents is former police officer turned sniper, Otared. The rebels basically become terrorists, deciding the only way to get the people to rise up is to make life under the occupation intolerable, which means killing as many innocent civilians as possible.
The world Rabie paints reminds me very much of the insane landscape in Paul Auster’s In the Country of Last Things, with its violence, its cruelty, and its bizarre customs (in Otared almost everyone wears a mask) that begin to make sense once you learn more about the world. Throw in a nightmarish disease that affects only children, plus a national death wish, and you have a grim but compelling read. No science fiction novel has gut punched me this hard for a long, long time.
Mohammad Rabie is an emerging force in Egyptian letters. Born in 1978, he graduated from the Faculty of Engineering in 2002. His first novel, Amber Planet, was released in 2010 and won first prize in the Emerging Writers category of the Sawiris Cultural Award Competition in 2011. His second novel, Year of the Dragon, came out in 2012. Otared was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2016 (popularly referred to as the Arabic Booker). Curious to learn more, I sat down with Rabie (OK, I shot him an email) to speak with him about his writing.
From January 25 to February 11, 2011, the world watched as Egypt convulsed in a mass uprising. Across the country, protesters from a wide range of backgrounds vented their anger at the regime of President Hosni Mubarak, which they accused of corruption and police brutality. They also protested against rising prices, high rates of unemployment, and a host of other grievances. Everyone from students to labor unions to feminists to Islamists marched to topple the regime.
On my last trip to Tangier I purchased a 1925 edition of Beau Geste, one of those classic novels that I’ve always intended on reading but never had. It’s a swashbuckling tale of three brothers who join the French Foreign Legion a few years before the start of the First World War.
The novel opens with a mystery. Mild spoilers follow. A French officer in the Legion leads his troops to an isolated fort, responding to a call for help. Once there, he finds all the legionnaires dead inside, apparently shot by the warlike Tuareg. The commanding officer, however, has a French bayonet sticking out of his chest and the private beside him, although shot, has been carefully laid out with his hands across his chest. The private’s hat rests nearby, torn open. In the hands of the dead officer is a mysterious letter in English that contains a confession. . .
From that tantalizing beginning we cut to England, where three rich brothers have to flee home and end up in the French Foreign Legion. Add a cruel officer, hordes of Tuaregs, and some boon companions and you have the recipe for adventure. Author P.C. Wren writes in a breezy, wry style halfway between pulp pulse pounders and more highbrow literature. The style never feels dated although Wren’s worldview certainly does. There’s a definite hierarchy in this book, with the aristocratic Englishmen firmly at the top, the various Europeans and Americans they meet ranged further down depending on their social class, and the Arabs and Tuaregs right at the bottom. Women hardly figure in this book at all which, considering how agonizingly maudlin the one love scene comes off, is probably for the best.
Last week I wrote about how I spent a month living in Tangier working on my next novel. Luckily my family came down with me for part of the time, and since it was my son’s first trip out of Western Europe I wanted him to enjoy himself and open his eyes a little. So what do you show a ten-year-old in Morocco? Well, besides the Casbah and the medina market, what better than an old pirate port?
Asilah stands on Morocco’s Atlantic coast and like many of the country’s ports started out as a Phoenician trading center about 3500 years ago. It’s most famous as the last base of the famed Barbary pirates, who started being a menace in the early Middle Ages. Their heyday was from the 15th to 19th century, when they terrorized shipping in the Western Mediterranean and the Strait of Gibraltar. Several European interventions, including the United States’ first overseas adventure, failed to stop them. The rampant piracy was one the excuses the French and Spanish used to establish colonies throughout North Africa.
Hello again, Black Gate readers! You may have noticed that I dropped off the blog, and indeed the rest of the Internet, for all of October. You did notice, didn’t you? You didn’t? Well, I was gone. I spent the entire month on a writing retreat in Tangier, Morocco. I’ve written about visiting Tangier before on this blog, but this time I decided to dedicate a longer time in the city to some writing. My current project, The Last Hotel Room, is a novel set in contemporary Tangier, and I thought it a perfect opportunity to try out my own version of a writing retreat.
Through local contacts I was able to rent a house in the medina, the old historic quarter. My house was a traditional building of northern Morocco — two stories and a rooftop terrace surrounding an airshaft topped with glass. Sunlight and ventilation came courtesy of the airshaft, the only other windows being small ones in the downstairs kitchen and upstairs kitchenette. The interior was cleverly designed so that each room felt open to the sunlight from the airshaft while remaining out of view of the other rooms, providing openness and privacy at the same time.
This sort of architecture has an unusual acoustic effect. Noises next door and on the street just outside sound like they’re coming from inside the house. Your neighbor’s door opening sounds like your door opening. It’s a bit weird at first, but it never makes you nervous because your house is a fort. Doors are made of metal and secured with heavy bolts. The airshaft has a cage-like barrier to keep people from dropping in unannounced. My two windows were both well above street level and protected with iron bars.