Our Big Summer Read this year is a book titled “The Journey of Ibn Fattouma” written by the 1988 Nobel Prize Winner for Literature, Naguib Mahfouz. Mahfouz was born in 1911, in Cairo, Egypt, and began writing at the age of seventeen. An avid reader, writer and philosopher, he has over 30 novels to his credit. He has, as his major influences, a number of Arabic writers, as well as Western writers, particularly the likes of Flaubert, Balzac, Zola, Dostoevsky, Proust, Camus and Tolstoy.
As an accomplished writer of over thirty novels, it is easy to see why Mahfouz is a Nobel Prize Winner in Literature. His work is exceptional and worth reading. THE JOURNEY OF IBN FATTOUMA; WRITTEN BY NAGUIB MAHFOUZ AND TRANSLATED BY DENYS JOHNSON-DAVIES. PUBLISHED BY DOUBLEDAY. The Journey of Ibn Fattouma was first published in 1983 and written in Arabic (translated by Denys Johnson-Davies, eminent Arabic-English translator) and is a powerful parable, set in a mythical and timeless the Middle East. It is the chronicles of a wanderer named Qindil Muhammad al- Innabi but nicknamed Ibn Fattouma by his brothers, who struggle to accept him and his mother, a young wife married by their father at the age of eighty. His boyhood Tutor, a wise and amiable man named Sheik Maghagha al-Gibeili, whose stories of travels outside ‘the lands of Islam’, capture the young Ibn Fattouma’s imagination, particularly the town of Gebel, famed for perfection in all things.
Unfortunately, no traveller has ever come back from the land of Gebel to confirm that it is indeed the land of perfection. All that exists of this place of perfection and wonder, are tales gotten from hearsay. Ibn Fattouma decides that he will be the first traveller that will indeed get to Gebel and return to his homeland and write a chronicle of his journeys, especially about the land of Gebel. Sheik al-Gibeili so extols the virtues of travelling as a way of finding the true meaning of life and the discovery of self, that as a result, Ibn Fattouma goes on a voyage of discovery, after being cheated out of marrying Halima, the love of his life, by a high ranking official of the Sultan. He joins a caravan and sets out to explore the world, leaving his home country to the land of Mashriq, whose god is the full moon.
In Mashriq, he meets and falls in love with the beautiful and beguiling Arousa, with whom he has three children. Forced to leave Mashriq for committing what is deemed a crime, he journeys to the land of Haira. Haira turns out to be very different from Mashriq, their god is their King who is worshipped. A warlike people, they eventually fight against Mashriq and conquer it. Arousa is captured and her children are lost in the confusion.
Ibn Fattouma meets up again with Arousa and has to buy her to get her back. Unfortunately, once again, his love is cruelly taken away from him by a high ranking official, who puts him in an underground prison for almost twenty years. The land of Haira is defeated in battle by the land of Halba and all the prisoners are magnanimously freed. Ibn Fattouma, now a middle-aged man, resumes his search for Arousa, who has left Haira for Halba, called the land of freedom. In Halba, Ibn Fattouma is introduced to Sheik Hamada al-Sabki, the head of the mosque at Halba. He falls in love with the independent and intelligent daughter of the Sheik, Samia. They are blessed with three children and in Halba, he settles down for a few years into a business and married life.
However, he stills wants to see the land of Gebel, so he makes plans to travel there, document his travels, then come back to Halba and take his family back to his homeland. So he joins another caravan and heads off to the land of Aman, and onwards to Gebel. The land of Aman is referred to as the land of total justice, and its indigenes worship the earth, calling it the creator of mankind and the supplier of needs. Ibn Fattouma finds Aman to be a severe place, where everyone works so hard and have little relaxation or pleasures and where everything is owned by the elected rulers for the benefit of the people.
Before long, there is talk of war between Aman and Halba and Ibn Fattoma has to leave Aman in a forced purge of foreigners. He fears for his family left in Halba, but continues his journey on to the land of Ghuroub, after finding out that his first wife Arousa, had previously passed through Aman and journeyed on to Ghuroub, also on her way to Gebel. Ghuroub is the land of safety and peace, a land without guards and where the people spend their time in meditation and peaceful pursuits. It is the last stop to aid preparation for their journey to Gebel, the famous Gebel with which they share a border. The preparation for the journey to Gebel is cut short by an invasion force from Aman.
The invaders have taken over the peaceful Ghuroub, force every foreigner out of the town and annexe it. The journey to Gebel is forced upon them prematurely as they have no option but to move forward. At the border of Gebel, Ibn Fattouma writes and sends the chronicles of his journey thus far, back to his homeland with a caravan going back. He decides that just in case he does not make it back, it is better to have details of his story to Ghuroub and later write about Gebel. This is the last we hear of Ibn Fattouma, as no further communication about whether he gets into Gebel is known. He leaves us to imagine the rest of his story.
The Journey of Ibn Fattouma by Naguib Mahfouz consolidates the mastery of African storytelling. It is an unassailable fact that the best storytellers are from the African continent. The book is a masterpiece of the metaphor and the use of powerful imagery makes it a book that just cannot be put down. The reader is left wanting more and more and Mahfouz, in his inimitable literary way, weaves a story so compelling that the reader is obliged to think deeply about the way of man and his struggles with his Creator, with his religion, with other men, with his destiny and with the world he finds himself in. There is no lack of cruelty, injustice, dishonesty, pride, arrogance, egotism and racism. There is also love, diligence, courage, perseverance and dignity. It is a tale very skillfully woven that it sucks the reader into its vortex; we are vicariously all on the journey to the perfect land of Gebel with our protagonist Ibn Fattouma. It is a masterpiece of prose and worth reading.