‘They’re the heads and we’re the bodies’ [book review]

A review of Here Is A Body by Basma Abdel Aziz, translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright

Basma Abdel Aziz’s Here Is A Body begins, appropriately enough, with a chapter that is all about the corporeal. In vivid, fast-paced prose focused on immediate sensations – sound and smell in particular – the reader is plunged into a story that will remain consistently sharp around the edges, always ready to remind us of the brutal realities of a world not at all dissimilar to the one in which we live. Deftly exploring state oppression, political machinations and the use of media and rhetoric to manipulate entire groups of people, this novel showcases an imaginative and impactful voice in contemporary Arab women’s literature.

Cover image - Here Is A Body

In its assured English translation by Jonathan Wright, reading Here Is A Body feels not unlike stepping back slowly from a painting. From the intimate perspective of that opening chapter, in which a group of street children are rounded up and abducted by night, Abdel Aziz slowly expands her narrative, allowing her readers to see more and more of the bigger picture. Crucially, this is a privilege not afforded to her characters, who despite their often violently first-hand experience of events remain unable to comprehend fully what is happening around them – or, worse, being done to them. It thus becomes clear to the reader that the ‘rehabilitation program’ to which our young narrator is subjected following his kidnap, a course of complex political lectures delivered by eloquent men combined with a punishing regime of physical activity, is in fact a form of militant training camp organised by an authoritarian regime. Powerless to protect a boy who is wise beyond his years yet still so terribly innocent, we are forced to watch on with mounting horror as the events of the novel unfold.

As the street children of the unnamed city (located somewhere in Egypt) are forced to give up their identities and become simply ‘bodies’, conditioning themselves and learning how to fire a gun at the behest of men referred to as ‘the titans’, alternating chapters deal with the flipside of this rabid dehumanisation of people whom the powers that be have deemed expendable. In an area known only as ‘the Space’, a large square surrounded by shopping malls and residential buildings in the middle of the city, a sit-in protest is being staged by supporters of the recently deposed president. When a young, well-to-do family – Murad, a doctor; his wife, Aida, a teacher; and their son Adam – arrive to throw their lot in with the demonstrators, we are given a close-up look at how a different kind of rhetoric (in this case, religious) can capture hearts and minds and sustain civil movements through even the most trying of circumstances.

Told mainly from Aida’s point of view, the sections of the novel set within the Space take the reader on an emotional journey from slight scepticism (Aida is, quite convincingly, wary about giving up the everyday comforts of her normal life) to utter conviction and then, slowly, disillusionment with the true aims of the protest. What at first appears to be a peaceful, inclusive movement begins to veer dangerously towards extremism – in one of many troubling incidents, a parentless child who strays into the Space is ostracised for having a cross tattooed on his wrist – just as ‘the titans’ in charge of the street children ramp up the rhetoric to whip their unwitting recruits into killing machines. The convergence of the two opposing fractions is inevitable and bloody, narrated in a powerful scene that once again chooses to focus on sound, smell and all manner of bodily fluids. Even though the reader has been able to see for quite some time the trouble that is brewing, Abdel Aziz’s eye for detail and reserved handling of emotions is a potent concoction that delivers us a series of crushing blows.

Following this climax of ‘irresponsible freedom’, the novel continues for several chapters as a semblance of stability returns to the city and the surviving ringleaders of the protest are put on trial. Here, Abdel Aziz turns a critical gaze on so-called peace processes and also offers a rather depressing look at the way in which women’s suffering is so often sidelined in conflict. Though doubtless an accurate reflection of the deflation and despondency that follow the brutal crushing of revolution, the novel loses a considerable amount of its drive here, rallying only in the final pages for an ending that dispenses yet another gut punch to the reader. Having felt absorbed but not overly invested for most of the novel, perhaps thanks to the generally cool tone of Abdel Aziz’s prose, I was somewhat surprised here to find just how much I cared about the characters.

Sharply critical of state power – but also of manipulation on the other side of the fence – Here Is A Body makes no secret of the fact that it trades heavily in metaphor. Even as some of the street children make a secret pact to remember each other’s names, they are well aware of their position within the new society: – not just names but also independent thought is banned in a world where so-called titans are ‘the heads and we’re the bodies’, while ‘the camp itself is part of the larger body that is the country’. Likewise, the intelligent Aida almost willingly allows her thoughts to be clouded by the speechifying she hears on a daily basis, giving herself over to the flow of events in the Space and only too late thinking to question them. As the city slides into anarchy, Abdel Aziz creates a universally applicable allegory of the way in which ideals can all too quickly take over from rational thought.

Crafted to shock, deliberately thought-provoking, yet with a plot and characters that are compelling in their own right, Here Is A Body is a novel that manages to be both furious and considered at the same time. A bold writer who employs language and metaphor to considerable effect, Basma Abdel Aziz is a fresh literary voice of which to take note.

Here Is A Body by Basma Abdel Aziz, translated by Jonathan Wright, is published by Hoopoe Fiction, an imprint of The American University in Cairo Press. Many thanks to the publisher for so kindly providing a review copy.

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