Set in the countryside of Upper Egypt, "Astasia” centers on a murder where everyone is a suspect. On the surface of the latest novel by Egyptian Khairy Shalaby (Dar Al Shorouk), the book seems to share some elements with Tawfik El-Hakim’s classic “Diary of a Country Prosecutor,” but, as the events of the novel take unexpected turns, the distinction between the two works becomes obvious.
Astasia is the bereaved mother of Mahfouz, the victim of a mysterious murder. She’s a Copt living in a Muslim-populated village, in which she is fully assimilated. Right after the dawn call for prayer, Astasia begins her sad lament, mourning her deceased son and pleading a divine revenge against his killers.
Since Astasia lives up in a hill, her wailing acts like a morning mist covering the whole village, caressing each and every one of its inhabitants, whether innocent or guilty. The air of the village is charged with sadness and grief as Astasia’s daily screams reprimand the inhabitants’ consciences, reminding them that they were all part of the crime, directly or indirectly.
Etymologically, Astasia is a Coptic word derived from the original Greek word, astamata, which means to stand or to take a stand. From the same word also came the name “Anastasia” which means resurrection. The same word can also be found in the Coptic Easter rituals, Xristos Anesty, which means Christ has risen.
The narrator of the story is Hamza El-Barrawy, a member of the most affluent family in the village; his uncle is in fact the mayor of the village. Hamza is a law school graduate, but failed to join the judiciary because of the notoriety of his family. Yet his late father was a good, God-fearing man, respected and loved by everyone in the village.
On the other hand, Hamza’s two uncles are known for indiscreet involvement in many of the dirty work that ruined the reputation of the village, including the murder of Astasia’s son. Unable to escape the familial disgrace ignited by Astasia’s daily wailing, Hamza decides to uncover the murder and clear his family’s name.
While Astasia’s wailings continue to echo in the background throughout the story, the storyline moves through different layers. The village, in many ways, is a scaled maquette of Egyptian society, with all its corruption and injustice. Khairy highlights the misuse of power by the mayor’s bribery and manipulation of law; Hamza sums up the present as “the boom era of corruption.”
Gradually, Hamza realizes that Astasia’s prayers are hitting their targets, and everyone involved in the murder of her son eventually pays the price. Hamza reaches the conclusion that justice can still be attained through persistence. “God’s court pronounced its decision in favor of Astasia, and in favor of every Mahfouz murdered with injustice and aggression,” he declares.
This conclusion gives Hamza hope that there is still something to be done and thus, he decides to become a lawyer to defend the rights of powerless people like Astasia against rising waves of evil and corruption, even if it requires standing against his family (hence the choice behind Astasia’s name and the title of the story).
Although the novel was originally written in 2008, one can’t dismiss the eerie resemblance between the story’s events and the recent massacre in Nagaa Hammadi in Upper Egypt that took place on the eve of Coptic Christmas earlier this year.
“Astasia” doesn’t explicitly address sectarian tensions in Egypt, as much it tackles problems plaguing Egyptian society in general. Yet it’s quite difficult not to draw parallels between the murder of Mahfouz, the Copt, and the six victims of Nagaa Hammadi, especially with regard to how the controversy behind both murders unfolds and escalates.
Khairy Shalaby is one of the most prominent novelists in the Arab world, withover 70 books, including 12 novels, to his name.
Shalaby’s novel “The Lodging House” was awarded Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature in 2003. He was also awarded the Egyptian National Prize for Literature 1980-1981.
From : Sherif Azzer / Special to Daily News Egypt