Review: Ebola ’76, by Amir Tag Elsir (2012 / 2015)

~ Ebola ’76 (2012), by Amir Tag Elsir. Translated from Arabic by Charis Bredin and Emily Danby (Darf Publishers, 2015). ~



Ebola ’76 is a book by the Sudanese author Amir Tag Elsir, and though written originally in Arabic it situates its narrative beyond the (often quite restrictive) confines of the “Arabophone” context. The story is primarily that of Lewis Nawa, a factory worker who returns from Zaire / Democratic Republic of the Congo to his hometown in southern Sudan carrying the Ebola virus after a visit to his (now-dead) mistress. An outbreak ensues, claiming the lives of many locals including Lewis’s somewhat-estranged wife, while others who find themselves in the area try to weather the disease as best they can, in a desperate panic to avoid infection and (likely) death – with no help (internal or external) evidently forthcoming.

The topic is grim, but the darkly satirical way in which Elsir deals with it makes for compelling – if morbid – reading. The cast of supporting characters is also fascinating, and includes a maverick magician, a hysterical blind guitar player who fancies himself an international star, and the owner of the factory in which Lewis is employed who does his best to squeeze out any advantage he can out of the situation. One technique I especially liked was assigning narrative agency to the virus – “Ebola did this, Ebola did that,” etc. – which one could make interesting comments about in the context of post-humanism and sociological theory that assigns agency to non-humans. It is also a riff on the largely depersonalized concept of a “disease vector”: Lewis is a fully realised, if not especially nuanced, character, with his own hopes and fears and relationships, and though these might not ultimately influence the course of the outbreak they still form important aspects of the story that made it happen.

It’s a short novel, though, and one gets the feeling there is a scope for more exploration of its ideas. Perhaps necessarily, it’s also without a firm conclusion: the situation becomes bad, and stays such, and the possible outcomes – the virus clearing out, or continued suffering, or something in between – are only hinted at hypothetically. Still, it’s an important book to read especially in translation, even if just for its picturing of transnational circuits and concerns that often fall off the radar of readers of English-language literature. Not a gripping yarn, but certainly one that makes you think.

Verdict: recommended.



Review: The Bride of Amman, by Fadi Zaghmout (2012 / 2015)

The Bride of Amman (2012), by Fadi Zaghmout. Translated from Arabic by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp (Signal 8, 2015). ~


(Disclaimer: This review is based on an ARC of the forthcoming translation, kindly provided by the publisher, though I had previously read the novel in the Arabic original as well. For my review of Zaghmout’s recently published second novel [on Arabic Literature (in English)], see here: LINK)



Fadi Zaghmout’s The Bride of Amman (‘Arūs ‘ammān; Arabic original 2012, English translation by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp 2015) follows the personal trajectories of five young Jordanians – all of whom struggle with the mismatch between their own relationships and sexual preferences, and those imposed as an ideal model by the society around them. It demonstrates, through an intense, straightforward narrative, the struggles and paradoxes that come from trying to fulfill normative sexual and gender roles. For what it might lack in literary artistry, the novel makes up for with its themes, by touching upon issues that are acknowledged though rarely debated in the prevailing public discourse in Jordan (and perhaps the Arab Middle East more generally). For that reason alone, it deserves attention – though its narrow thematic focus and plain expository style might not be for everyone.

Bride follows five different characters – the university students Leila, Rana, and Hayat, Leila’s sister Selma, and the (wealthy) Iraqi immigrant Ali – as they deal with issues of love, sex, and marriage during their lives in Amman, Jordan. All the characters are in their twenties – finishing their university studies, or just embarking on their professional and individual life paths after it. For all of them, the normative form of this path involves marriage; this they all achieve, by the end of the novel, though perhaps not in the way they initially expected (and with some very traumatic experiences along the way). Premarital sex, family sexual abuse, and non-heteronormative sexual preferences all enter into the mix, as factors detracting from the ideal image promoted by familial, social, and broader cultural expectations – especially (though not exclusively) on women.

These are all issues highly resonant with young Jordanians today, and it is easy to see how this might have contributed to the novel’s popularity. They also form the core of struggles against gender and sexual discrimination, something which Zaghmout (also an active blogger and activist) is himself deeply involved in.

The novel’s focus is rather narrow, centered on gender norms and relationship taboos. Zaghmout does not touch at all on economic, political, or other social issues. This is not necessarily a weakness – though with so much hinging on a single theme, there is always the risk of essentializing the Jordanian social context as one marked only by what are considered to be (by the author, as well as the novel’s characters) oppressive gender norms, and idealizing other contexts where this might not be the case. Zaghmout’s characters do, in fact, make judgments like this; and, knowing their stories, this is perfectly understandable – which also make such pronouncements sound less like authorial tracts than they might have under the pen of a less crafty writer.

While Zaghmout’s personal convictions certainly shine through – in choice of characters and narratives if nothing else – the novel does not offer any easy solutions to the issues it identifies. Though ‘happy,’ in an absolute or utilitarian sense, the novel’s ending is far from neat – which reflects the ‘messiness’ of real life experiences that Zaghmout’s characters speak towards, and contribute to the novel’s sense of societal realism.

The narrative feels fragmented at times, told as it is from five different viewpoints, and also reflects the novel’s genesis via series of blog posts. The language is straightforward, the style accessible; sometimes almost too much so – characters often make their thoughts or convictions completely explicit, leaving little room for reflection or ambiguity. Given the Arabic context of the original, though, this can be seen as at least in part a strategic choice on the writer’s part, orienting the novel away from wordy literary traditions (which are often obscurely formal / classical in their form and choice of vocabulary), and more towards a transparent style aimed also at a public that does not normally engage with ‘high literature.’ Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp’s translation is excellent; it inevitably loses some of the flavour of the original – most notably, the dialogue, written in distinctly Jordanian / Levantine colloquial Arabic whose particularities are impossible to replicate in English – thought it more than makes up for it in other respects. It’s smooth and idiomatic, and perfectly digestible as an English text.

The novel’s array of voices – four of which are female – could perhaps be turned to better use, and made more distinct in literary / narrative terms than only through their plot trajectories. (There are traces of distinct personalities – Leila’s self-centeredness, Hayat’s introversion – but they are more sketched outlines than proper impressions; character descriptions are for the most part stated explicitly, rather than shown.) Some of the characters also feel like a catalogue of ‘validated’ social identities in Jordanian – there are a number of Christian characters, a Circassian character, a wealthy Iraqi refugee – all of which are social groups that in political and economic terms in Jordan are relatively secure. Again, such issues fall outside of Zaghmout’s purview – though their absence, in a way, also reinforces the novel’s central theme: even young, wealthy Jordanians, of relatively good social standing, cannot escape the pressure of ideal gender relations, and dire consequences when such norms are not fulfilled.

In the end, though, the protagonists’ individuality shines through. it is via their own strength and inventiveness – as well as a handful of supportive others – they are able to endure. At its heart, Bride is a story of individuals battling for dignity, freedom, and respect, a way not to let their lives and convictions be choked under the judgments of others. In that, it should be seen as a novel specific to the Jordanian context, or more generally that of the Arab Middle East; and it speaks in particular to a generation that is more and more eager to discuss such issues – primarily, rights to gender equality and sexual freedom – as they struggle with them in their daily lives.

Bride is, in the end, a rather straightforward read – though not always a comfortable, or comforting, one. It provides a realistic portrayal of the problems and obstacle young people in Jordan face today when it comes to negotiating their social and sexual identities. Gender relations and the position of women are its primary concerns, and it does not stray far from them either narratively or thematically. Still, these are subjects worthy of discussion, and especially relevant for younger generations of Jordanians and Arabs to whom (and for whom) Zaghmout aims to speak.

Verdict: recommended.