I met Guy and Harriet Pringle in the winter of 1987. In those days, Turkish public television had a rather ingenious arrangement with public radio; they would show the dubbed series, and the radio would play the original soundtrack. I do not remember who had alerted me to the fact that a new series called Fortunes of War was to go on air that week, but there I was, placing the radio right under the TV set, turning down the volume of the latter, and shushing the whole family who had gathered in the one stove-heated living room for the winter evening.
I must have been learning English for a couple of months. Being a diligent student and wanting to get ahead in class—I was at the language prep year of a high school that had most of its curriculum in English—I did all I could to fill my head with English words. British Council Library (now defunct), BBC World, and BBC series on Turkish Television. I was doing this “for school” and so my family indulged me as I watched Guy and Harriet Pringle travel through the Balkans and the Middle East. It was a very strange feeling, traveling with them to places that I had been taught used to “belong to us.” What kind of connection could a British couple possibly have to lands where songs began with “aman” and the men played backgammon? This, to me, was the central mystery of the plot, and with its very delicate hands Fortunes of War would lead me through the history of the British and Ottoman Empires, in a language that I was only newly beginning to understand. The characters I got to know through its seven episodes have stayed with me, and I still come across their avatars both in England, and the places where the English like to travel. Guy Pringle, Prince Yakimov, Dubedat, Aidan Sheridan…Watching the series again to write this piece, I am once again struck as to how perfect and lean the production is—the acting, the dialogue. (Also, how sweet Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson playing the young Pringle couple are—I still resent their divorce).
Fortunes of War was adapted from a series of novels written by Olivia Manning under the titles The Balkan Trilogy (1960-65) and The Levant Trilogy (1977-80). The books were in many ways fictionalized accounts of her travels with her husband Reggie Smith, who worked in the British Council. The story starts with Guy Pringle, having just been married in London, returning with his wife, Harriet, to his English Literature post at the University of Bucharest in 1939, as Nazis are advancing in Europe. We first see a shot of a train traveling through Mitteleuropa, with a beautiful arrangement of a Romanian song in the background that becomes the series’ theme tune, a tune that has accompanied me on the pilgrimages I have made to the Pringles’ various posts. I don’t remember how much of Fortunes of War I understood back in 1987, but I know I absorbed the whole thing like a sponge, and to this day I have déjà vu moments when a place, a song, a bit of a conversation will take me back to the story of Pringles. This could of course mean two things: that Manning was a brilliant observer of character and situations, and/or I have actively been seeking the company of Pringles’ reincarnations and their milieu. In fact, I have managed to do almost all the legs of Pringles’ journey except for Bucharest, where it all begins.
After the shot of the train going through the Balkan countryside, the camera goes inside a compartment where Guy Pringle is sharing a German joke with another, elderly passenger, and Harriet Pringle looks on bemused, setting the tone of their relationship. The atmosphere of camaraderie dissolves when soldiers come into the compartment and ask for the passengers’ papers. The old man claims he has lost his, along with his wallet, and is forcibly removed from the train. Guy gives him all the money in his purse as Harriet looks on incredulously. When Guy explains that the old man is probably Jewish and without papers, Harriet asks what will become of him. Guy’s “What is to become of any of us?” now rings a bit “all lives matter” but I am constitutionally incapable of finding fault with Guy Pringle.
Fortunes of War is, at its heart, a story about people trying to find a safe place to live—only, in this story it is Europeans going eastwards, looking for a place where the war has not yet arrived. The Pringles are hounded by the Nazis through Bucharest, to Athens, to Cairo. But of course, they are among the lucky few who can actually leave. There is a scene that I had not thought about much in 1987 but that has come back to me in recent years. Europeans scrambling to get on a ship from Athens to Cairo to face a perilous journey across the Mediterranean, threatened by German submarines. The Nazis almost catch up with the Pringles towards the end, and the ship Harriet is supposed to have been on from Cairo is torpedoed while she is safely sightseeing in Damascus.
In Bucharest, the Pringles get a flat in one of those turn-of-the-century apartment buildings that haunt world literature like The Yacoubian Building and The Flea Palace. We are in ex-Ottoman territory after all—a fact that the book, but not the series, fleetingly touches upon—and the aesthetic stretches all the way to Bucharest. Like the Yacoubian Building, this Levantine apartment has a rooftop with a shed, which becomes the hiding place for Guy’s Jewish student Sasha, whom they manage to protect only for so long. It is also in Bucharest that we meet Dobson, head of the British Legation, played by the perfectly cast Charles Kay; the stiff upper and lower lip, forever the face of British Foreign Office for me. Guy spends most of his time with his students and rehearsing for Troilus and Cressida, and when we see the poster hanging from the National Theatre in Bucharest, I learn my first (and hitherto only) Rumanian word, “şi,” meaning “and.” After the performance, dressed as they are in togas, and in heavy stage makeup ready to party, the British contingent in Bucharest learn that Paris has just fallen to the Germans.
The foreigners are leaving Bucharest fast, and one of the more persistent among their number is Prince Yakimov, the embodiment of that class of people that get stranded after the collapse of Empire. A general worldliness of having seen better days, frayed at the edges, almost certainly with an alcohol problem (this will forever link him in my mind with Charles Stringham of A Dance to the Music of time and Geoffrey Firmin of Under the Volcano). It is, however, not quite certain which Empire once claimed Yakimov, rumored as he is to be of Russian and Irish extraction. Yakimov comes to represent “old Europe” and when he hears Paris is fallen looks wistfully and says “Such times we had in Paris,”as if he’s had one of Proust’s madeleines. You want an entire series based on his adventures as a young man. Yakimov, slow on the uptake when it comes to geopolitical awareness, asks all the questions we want to ask and becomes the vehicle for background information. While other Europeans are fleeing, he travels to the countryside to pay a visit to one of his old friends who now works for the Germans, pretending he has information he can sell him.
On his way back to Bucharest, a rich lady in a fur coat tells Yakimov “I go to Istanbul. In Bucharest they shoot you.” Yes, I once thought, here is my moment come, they will come to Istanbul, they will have to acknowledge that I live in the centre of the world. “Lush and Dubedat (two disreputable English teachers) have run away to East-anbul” we hear Pringle say, despairing. They’ve probably done a stint teaching at my high school, I fantasize. Even Yakimov leaves: “We had a letter from Turkey this morning. Yaki says he’s weighed down with loneliness and kebabs.” But Pringle will not let go of his castle. “We represent all that is left of western culture and democratic ideal,” he says—a remark my 11-year-old self would have taken as par for the course, but watching in 2018 tastes sour. Back then, I am only interested in seeing them come to Istanbul.
Instead they flee to Athens, and I am heartbroken. But then Harriet goes to the Acropolis and considers whether she can be unfaithful to Guy, who has repeatedly preferred other people’s company to hers through the first three episodes, and her melancholy communes with the Parthenon’s perfect columns. My 11-year-old self vowed to visit the Acropolis one day. And I do. In 2014, after I pay my respects at the Parthenon I look for the Zonar’s Café, and find it is under renovation. Another “site” that is etched in my memory—which I didn’t try to locate—from the Greece episodes is the villa of Gracey, the head of the British School. The Pringles visit this mysterious man in his villa to ask for a job for Guy. The building is perched on a promontory and seems to be populated by life-sized statues. So much of the furniture in my literary imagination has been laid there by Fortunes of War. This villa was the inalterable décor when I read The Magus many years later.
Guy does manage to get the job, but the Germans advance and so the Pringles leave. Surely to Istanbul this time. Or at least to Izmir, which is right across the water. The journey takes forever as Pringle reads John Donne on deck in the inviolable silence as everyone else is terrified about passing German U-boats. The fourth episode finishes. The fifth opens with the sound of the adhan, surely now we’re home, surely now I will see them walk the streets that I walk. But the minarets look wrong. The camera zooms out and we see camels. They have bypassed Istanbul and made straight for Cairo. I feel cheated. People are wearing fezzes, the street vendors are calling out “bordogal” but it gives me no joy.
Then, Rupert Graves appears, in uniform and with long vowels that seem to have several Rs in them. He is playing Simon Boulderstone, a young officer just posted to Cairo. Harriet explains the lie of the land to him when he protests that he is there for something akin to Kurtz’s redeeming idea:
Boulderstone: We’ve brought them justice, prosperity…
Harriet: Prosperity? Nothing’s changed for them for a thousand years.
Boulderstone: But we’re protecting them now
Harriet: We’re protecting the Suez Canal. The route to India. Clifford’s oil company.
All the discourse you need to know about the Middle East in a nutshell. The liberal position of understanding the political aims of Empire, but remaining blind to any local transformation that might have occurred between the time of the Pharaohs and the British protectorate. But I understand the impact of this much later. In 1987, I only admire the graceful way Harriet climbs the pyramids, making another promise to self to climb them just as she did. By the time I arrive in 2008, tourists are not allowed to climb them at all.
It wasn’t all geography, colonialism, and the erasure of the traces of the “receded Ottoman Empire,” as Manning puts it in the book, that I learned from Fortunes of War. It also taught me a lot about a certain kind of relationship, a certain kind of man. “When we first met, you made me feel I was the centre of the universe,” says Harriet as they are having a conversation about an affair Guy may or may not have had with a Rumanian woman. “And so you are,” replies Guy. “But you make everyone feel like that,” answers Harriet. This conversation has often come back to me in the intervening years, when I found myself in the company of a Guy. I think often, also, of the conversation between Harriet and one of Guy’s friends from Cambridge in a café in Alexandria, where Guy is teaching Finnegans Wake at the university, to the two remaining students. Finnegans Wake is a title that would’ve meant nothing to me at the time, but now I think, Alexandria is the perfect Levantine port to teach it, as Trieste was the perfect Levantine (okay, Balkan, if you insist) port that inspired it, with their Babel of languages.
Aidan: Are you waiting for Guy Pringle?
Harriet: Usually, yes.
Aidan: My name’s Aidan Pratt. I’m on leave from Damascus.
Harriet: Damascus? How do you know Guy?
Aidan: Last time I was here somebody told me a story. Two men were shipwrecked on a desert island. Neither knew the other but they both knew Guy Pringle
You know who he’s talking about. Yes, him. The one everyone’s besotted about. The one who organizes the parties and is great in a crowd. Also he whose magnanimity gets him or those around him into trouble. The two Palestinian Jews that Guy recruits to teach at the American University of Cairo turn out to be assassins. I wonder if I paid any attention to the identity of the assassins when I was watching in 1986, but now the subplot seems to be that they might have been related to the Irgun. This is how the Pringles discuss the event:
Guy: The whole thing’s ludicrous.
Dobson: This is the Levant after all.
Harriet: You used to say that about the Balkans.
Watching now, this conversation seems like the coda to the series, a sentiment that falls in line with my initial reaction to seeing these people that really belonged in a Merchant-Ivory production traipsing about in my lands. From Bucharest to Alexandria, I am or know every “native” they speak to. From the demurely made-up middle class women around the dinner table in a banker’s home in Bucharest (several aunties come to mind), to the wistful man in Damascus trying to explain to Harriet the meaning of hijab…When the latter happens, I am at the edge of my seat, thinking, “He’s botched it,” as I often do nowadays, not least when I am the one trying to explain. I was 11 when I watched the scene, and I would have years, a decade to think about it, to work out the perfect explanation, before I would be released upon the English speaking world:
Harriet: You can’t make men chaste by keeping women out of sight
Damascene Man: You are an unusual lady, you have a mind of your own
Harriet: Where I come from it’s not unusual
“But I have a mind of my own too,” my 11-year-old self shouts. “Just you give me time and I’ll come to England and talk to you about how it is not unusual where I come from, either.”
Everyone has their demons. Watching the series again I realize I have spent my entire life writing back to the Pringles.
In Cairo, in March, the city had a surplus of intellectual energy. Literature, it seemed, might just be at the vanguard of Egypt’s social change. Novelists were writing columns for every significant newspaper; the opinions of fiction writers like Alaa Al Aswany were hotly debated on satellite news channels and in streetside cafes, over backgammon.
I spent an afternoon at the Cairo’s Diwan Bookstore, talking to writers about their hopes — and anxieties — about the future. Just across the 6th of October Bridge in the Zemalek neighborhood, Diwan had an extensive collection of contemporary Egyptian novels, essays, and short stories. I bought a half-dozen books.
When I returned to to Portland, Oregon — I noticed the conspicuous absence of these books on the shelves of my city. Even at Powell’s, arguably the greatest (and largest) independent bookstore in the country, I couldn’t find Mansoura Ez Eldin’s first novel, the critically acclaimed, widely read Maryam’s Maze.
More writers from Egypt made the longlist for the $50,000, 2011 International Arabic Prize for Fiction (IPAF) than writers from any other country. And now it was Egypt’s Arab Spring. Where, where oh where, was the work of these men and women, work that was a catalyst for the ongoing social transformation of the largest nation in the Middle East?
Even if you’ve read The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany, here’s a list of six Egyptian Writers you don’t know but you should.
(Hint: None of them is Naguib Mahfouz.)
1. Youssef Ziedan. It’s difficult to argue that there are more neglected Egyptian authors (in America) than the 53-year old Ziedan. Not only has he written fifty books — but he has also created a massive internet archive devoted to the translation and preservation of Islamic public memory. In 2008, he won the IPAF for his novel, Azazel, a highly-controversial reimagination of the life of a 5th-century Christian monk. The novel — which still has not appeared in English translation — angered Coptic Christian groups, who saw it as an attempt to Islamicize a segment of Christian history.
“This is my 54th book and I did not imagine it would trigger all this debate,” Ziedan told Egypt’s Dream TV, in an interview shortly after the novel’s publication.
Ziedan has dominated the bestseller lists in Egypt as of late. His nonfiction work, Arab Theology and the Roots of Religious Violence (2010), was one of the more widely read books in Cairo in the months before the January 25 Revolution.
2. Mansoura Ez Eldin. A journalist, activist, and writer, Ez Eldin has published two novels. One, the slender volume, Maryam’s Maze, is a masterpiece of imagination and literary form. Her story, “Déjà Vu,” was also featured in Emerging Arab Voices — the bilingual reader published by Saqi Books in April of this year.
Ez Eldin’s account of the first days of the revolution appeared in The New York Times, in late January of this year — weeks before Mubarak’s resignation. “Silence is a crime,” she wrote. “Even if the regime continues to bombard us with bullets and tear gas, continues to block Internet access and cut off our mobile phones, we will find ways to get our voices across to the world, to demand freedom and justice.”
Maryam’s Maze tackles the issues so central to the experience of modernity in a metropolis like Cairo: Isolation, pollution, bureaucracy, madness. Awakening — like Kafka’s Gregor Samsa — in a world that she no longer recognizes, Maryam struggles to regain any semblance of her former life. It is a haunting book.
3. Bahaa Taher. Arguably the greatest living Egyptian fiction writer, Taher is only now, at the age of seventy-six, gaining the international recognition he deserves. After a lifetime spent as a writer and translator — working on projects around the world — Taher’s novels are gradually trickling into English. AUC Press issued Love In Exile in 2004 — forty years after the publication of Taher’s first short story. And Taher’s novel, Sunset Oasis, won the IPAC in 2008.
After the translation of Sunset Oasis into English, the Times Literary Supplement said: “Taher’s voice is sombre, wise and lyrical.” And The Guardian echoed: “Bahaa Taher is one of the most respected living writers in the Arab world. At 73, he has weathered political purges and a lengthy exile from his native Egypt to carry off the Booker Prize for Arabic fiction. The recognition is long overdue.”
4. Muhammad Aladdin. A young lion of the Cairo literary scene, Aladdin began his career as a graphic novelist — publishing the youth-oriented, serial zine, Maganin (Mad People). Possessed of a mordant sense of humor — as well as an occasional passionate earnestness — Aladdin has begun publishing his work in American magazines.
His story, “New Lover, Young Lover,” appeared in The Cairo Portfolio in Issue 9 of A Public Space.
During the height of the revolution, Aladdin kept his friends apprised of his situation with his trademark wit: “Hello, am fine, just five rubber bullets in my leg but nothing serious.”
Only 31 years old, Aladdin has published five novels and over a dozen short stories.
5. Nawal el-Saadawi. It’s difficult to imagine an author having a more turbulent life than that of Nawal el-Saadawi.
The eighty-year-old Egyptian women’s rights advocate has written a memoir about female circumcision — as well as numerous novels dealing with religious fundamentalism, abortion, sexuality, child abuse, and women’s oppression. A doctor by training — getting her medical degree in an era of deep discrimination against female physicians — el-Saadawi was named as Egypt’s Director of Public Health in 1972 — only to be stripped of that post several years later because of outrage surrounding her writing.
In the 1980s, el-Saadawi spent time in jail, and then fled to the United States, where she taught at Duke University and the University of Washington. She returned from exile in 1996, and stood with the revolutionaries in Tahrir Square in February of 2011.
Her book, The Woman at Point Zero, has long been hailed as an exemplar of the modern Arabic novel. It has been translated into dozens of languages and published around the world.
6. Khairy Shalabi. The Time Travels of the Man Who Sold Pickles and Sweets is a strange and imaginative book, written by a master storyteller. It also has a fascinating title. A quirky appraisal of thousands of years of Egyptian history, Shalabi’s novel concerns a working-class contemporary Egyptian — and his endearing (if somewhat bumbling) travels through time. It’s a readable, enjoyable book.
And it’s not his first. In fact, the seventy-three year old Shalabi has published over seventy books in his lifetime — only three of which have thus far been translated into English.
And here the non-Arabic-speaking individual runs into the problem that looms over much Egyptian writing: Why, why oh why, does so little foreign literature appear in translation in the United States?
But that’s a different story for a different time.