Saturday, July 13, 2024

Give the Jew a Muslim Burial


By Tolu Akinwole

  • Title: Menorahs and Minarets
  • Author: Kamal Ruhayyim
  • Translator: Sarah Enany
  • Publisher: Hoopoe
  • Number of pages: 256
  • Year of publication: 2017
  • Category: Fiction

‘They could hardly believe what they were seeing: a dead Jew, and a Muslim funeral’ (p 249).

These are good times for readers; novelists are boldly taking on issues of immense socio-political significance, and novels are igniting lively debates. Kamal Ruhayyim is one such novelist; Menorahs and Minarets is one such novel. Days in the Diaspora (2012) and Diary of a Jewish Muslim (2014) heralded Menorahs and Minarets, which concludes a compelling trilogy. Menorahs and Minarets does not merely paint ‘an uncompromising portrait of an older generation dictating how their children live and love’ as the blurb proclaims, it is an insightful x-ray of the socially significant effects of the clash of menorahs and minarets on the private life of a man caught in that conflict.

After ten years and the death of his wife in Paris, Galal, born of a Jewish mother and an Egyptian father, returns to Cairo in search of some spiritual connection with his homeland. To find his footing, he rekindles old acquaintances and worms his way into the homes and hearts of his friends and neighbours. He resolves to start a business with a childhood friend, a venture that brings him to the doorstep of his uncle, a tight-fisted landlord in charge of the family land, to claim the portion of land that belongs to him. In this quest, he reunites with his half-sister, Leila, who encourages him to fight for his inheritance. But Galal is at a disadvantage: his Jewish blood does not seem to confer on him the full status of a son in the view of his other paternal relatives.

When alone, Galal nurtures the hope of winning back his first love. Before he left for Paris, he was in love with Nadia, a Muslim girl, and their love grew. When Nadia’s uncle, Sheikh Mustafa al-Subki, got wind of the affair, he advised Nadia’s mother to relocate to Abyssinia, for he would not want Jewish blood to smear the family tree. Now that Galal is back in Egypt and Nadia’s husband is terminally ill, Nadia may soon become his, so he expects.

As Galal struggles to wrest his piece of land from the tight fist of a dying uncle, his reluctance to return to Paris drives a wedge between him and his mother. At the behest of his imperceptive business partner, he returns briefly to Paris to finalise a business deal with a group of businessmen who eventually prove to be fraudsters. It is on his second return that he reaches an agreement with his cousins on his piece of land and makes decisions that would keep alive his ties with Egypt.

Just as he acquires the piece of land, Nadia’s husband dies. But Sheikh al-Subki’s presence at Nadia’s when he goes to offer his condolences deals his intentions a deathblow. The goodbye note from Nadia concretises his fear: Nadia is gone from him, ‘leaving behind a discontent with life and a heart that beat in vain’ (p 234).

The suggestive title, emblematic of Jews and Muslims, underlines the obvious summary of the novel: the travail of a man ‘caught between his two identities’. As far as getting embroiled in a raging cold war between two cultures goes, Galal has no respite, and it is not Ruhayyim’s intention to create one for him. The apparent authorial intention is to present, most subtly, the intricate layers of the quiet animosity rather than recommend ways of resolving it, for how does one resolve an age-old, complex tension? The answer is not any easy, and Ruhayyim cannot claim to have it. It is thus fitting that he creates a character who is a product of the uneasy relationship between Jews and Egyptian Muslims. The novel’s antithetical formation is heightened by Galal’s rejection by his paternal family, but the author’s handling of the matter does not degenerate into a sentimental harangue against any of the warring sides.

Ruhayyim’s remarkable control of the narration facilitates the illumination of the nuances, chief among which are the growing decay of Cairo, the usurpation of the inheritance of women in a patriarchal, rural community, the interdependence of Jews and Egyptians, who have lived together long enough to take a somewhat symbiotic relationship for granted. Of course, Cairo’s decay is Africa’s narrative. Rather than dwell on it, Ruhayyim summarises it in one simple statement: ‘“I am Egypt, with all that is fair and foul!”’ (p 41), but he allows it in the backdrop against which the life of the protagonist is revealed.

The characterisation of Leila is evidence of Ruhayyim’s effort to create complex characters, even if the characters are minor ones. Her wily uncle has cheated her out of her inheritance, but she does not relent until she ensures that Galal gets his own share, or at the very least, he gets something very close to his share of the land to which he has a right. While she does not wield any moral or social power in her society, she exerts authority over her husband, Mourad. Leila exemplifies the feminine strength rarely acknowledged in male-dominated societies, and Ruhayyim limits her influence to her home.

The history of the Jews in Egypt is long and complicated and volatile. Long before and since the biblical parting of the Red Sea, Egyptians and Jews have had much to do with one another. By 1947, a year before the Arab-Israeli War, over 65,000 Jews had settled in Egypt and had been integrated into Egyptian society. There were occasional rumbles in the calm sky, some of which arose from the sentiment shared by some Egyptians that Jews were taking their jobs (a common excuse for xenophobia these days!). Add the Quran’s injunction: ‘O you who believe! Take not the Jews and Christians for helpers (and protectors). They are helpers (and protectors) one to another. He among you who takes them for helpers (and protectors) is (one) of them’ (Quran 5:51, Pickthall’s Translation), and Egypt does not seem a good place for Jews to settle. Within Islam, surely, the literal reading of that verse is contested. Jews have continued to prosper in Egypt. Some of them – Murad Beh Farag and Yaqub Sanu, for instance – have even had cause to prove their commitment to Egypt.

One would conclude that Ruhayyim calls his readers to rethink the Diaspora. The cord connecting the exile to their ‘root’ often grows tenuous, and the land of exile easily becomes home. If so, the Jew may always get a Muslim burial if the Muslim land has nurtured him. It is as Galal says of his Jewish uncle: ‘My uncle’s an Egyptian through and through. He talks like an Egyptian; his blood’s Egyptian. He even thinks in Egyptian when he’s abroad, and that’s landed him in trouble lots of times’ (p 218). Ruhayyim points out that rather than overlook the complexity of the Jewish-Egyptian coexistence, the best of both worlds may be embraced and the result may be a monumental lesson on human cooperation, the type that overrules age-old intercultural animosity and brings Muslims to mourn a Jewish death.

Menorahs and Minarets is not a racy narration nor is it a sentimental piece, even though the narrative mode would otherwise lend itself to melodrama; it is rather a gentle unraveling of the heart of a man in search of existential balance. And there is no belittling Sarah Enany’s effort to render the story in English. She blends simple sentences with complex ones dexterously with careful word choices that moderate the tempo of the narration. The result is an easy, calm narrative, witty but not sneering, elegant but not showy.

All told, Menorahs and Minarets lends credence to Hoopoe’s commitment to engaging ‘open-minded readers hungry for outstanding fiction that challenges headlines, re-imagines history and celebrates original storytelling’.

Photograph: ‘Synagogue and Mosque, Whitechapel, London’ by Cory Doctorow

Comments should be sent to Please use the appropriate review title in the email subject line.

Tolu Akinwole
Tolu Akinwole
Tolu Akinwole is a student of literature. Because talk is cheap, he writes.

Related articles

Recent articles