Suspect Sojourns: Time as Culprit

By Tomiwa Ilori 


  • Title: The Time-Travels of the Man Who Sold Pickles and Sweets
  • Author: Khairy Shalaby
  • Translator: Michael Cooperson
  • Publisher: Hoopoe
  • Number of pages: 327
  • Year of publication: 2016
  • Category: Fiction

The Time-Travels of the Man Who Sold Pickles and Sweets is set across time. From ancient Egypt till the late 20th century, Egyptian history is served through the use of time travels, catapulting the reader to and from different points in time. Ibn Shalaby, the protagonist, is a time traveller who, with his quaint briefcase, sets out on invitations from past Caliphs and meets with icons of Egypt’s past at different points in his travels.

The novel opens with the protagonist leaping through centuries like a sport. His first adventure is based on an invitation from Fatimid Caliph Mu’izz to break the Ramadan fast. The mention of the Caliph’s name registers the setting of the story as Cairo, and the story itself, how Cairo was founded. Ibn Shalaby’s next adventure is another meeting with the famous British historian of Arab cultures, Stanley Lane-Poole, whom he met at the Caliph’s court. Lane-Poole’s highlights of Egyptian history set the tone for the activation of the protagonist’s travels through the centuries. The author, in this book of alternate history, uses each of these sojourns to restate the essence of Cairo, the city of the world’s oldest university, by drawing on the consciousness of the masses and foregrounding the city as the capital of recurring subjugation.

Ibn Shalaby drags the reader along with morbidly humorous tales of heads leaving shoulders and the sea of blood that runs in the wake of power, all the way from Egypt’s past. In succeeding pages, the narrator leaps again, through centuries, to meet with the 14th-century historian, Maqrizi, but in AD 969. These historians are not the only ones he meets, to lend facts to fiction: his meeting with Naguib Mahfouz, in a way, establishes a connection between these far flung centuries and the present.

The author employs the first person narrative in explaining how Egypt’s past is very much a part of its present, especially in its politics of power and ownership. Censure remains the bold parallel that places present-day Egypt beside its horrid past, but the aristocratic conferment of social worth is what Ibn Shalaby reveals the most through his travels. There is a vast gulf between the poor and the rich today, just as the peasant owed his life to the Caliph. Also, religion is the mortar for social structures in ancient Egypt and in all the time travelled through by Ibn Shalaby, who tells of how the perpetuation of oppression is set in motion by putting consciousness in chains and fettering the tongue.

The most provocative use of the first person narrative is the protagonist’s use of the politics of the past to limn that of the present. The culture of aristocracy based on reigns of terror shows that Egypt has always been a morgue for commonplace freedoms. There is no divorcing the Egypt of today from its history. The timestamps of blood and highhanded aristocracy are yet to be cleared even with the present-day western-styled democracy. As the protagonist explains, ‘News travels as fast as you can fill an Egyptian street with victims of abuse’ (p 114).

Linking that statement to the Arab Spring, which began in Egypt in 2011 is important. The Time-Travels of the Man Who Sold Pickles and Sweets compels the reader to consider that there was never a time in the history of Egypt, until the Spring, when the theology of oppression was not dominant. Aside from the perpetuation of class in Egypt, religion is used overwhelmingly to concretise autocracy within political institutions. The Egyptian masses, tired of this, took to the streets early in the second decade of the third millennium to protest centuries of an imposed climate of fear.

With several news reports pointing to established elitist domination in present-day Egypt, the last elections held in Egypt in 2018, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s government coasted home to victory with more than 97% of the total votes in an election that has also been described as ‘farcical’. This explains the narrator’s seeming obsession with the state of Egypt even several centuries down the line when he says, ‘Patience isn’t the only virtue we have in Egypt. It’s not just the ability to endure pain and suffering, it’s the ability to endure the remedy’ (p 43).

In The Time-Travels of the Man Who Sold Pickles and Sweets, Khairy Shalaby has used humour and an unusual form of creativity to deliver a work that aids the reader’s appreciation of Egypt’s past and present. The reader eventually learns that Ibn Shalaby never set out to sell pickles or sweets but to upset a cart of centuries rotten with oppression.


Photograph: ‘Time Machine’ by Tomais Ashdene


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Tomiwa Ilori lives in Nigeria in the midst of experiences. His views are constantly informed by the dynamism of the society and how that forms the fabric of our continued survival. He is also a firm believer that words can mould the world into form. Email: tomiwailori@gmail.com