In the Bliss of the Desert by Ahmed Abu-Khunayger, Cairo: General Organisation for Cultural Palaces, 2012. 160pp.
It’s unusual for Egyptian novelists to venture into non-classified genres, and even less common for them to write about their own spiritual experiences with so much purity and depth.
Together with Abu-Khunayger’s other novels in his unique style, this latest book about the Sufi leader Abul-Hassan Al-Shazly adds to his experience as a writer.
Al-Shazly was born in the Hijri year 593, roamed around the Islamic cities of the east and west, fought the Crusaders, and when he felt near death, departed to the Egyptian desert and died there, buried now in the place he chose.
After his death, his followers started an annual festival celebrating him in this remote location, and this festival is held annually just before Bayram.
Egyptian festivals of Christian and Muslim saints are important because they are the common thread for farmers throughout Egypt, and are an important economic component in the livelihoods of many people, especially for the major holy men like Al-Sayed Al-Badawy, Al-Sayeda Zeinab, Ibrahim Al-Desuki and for Christians, Saint Demyna and Saint Mary, which are attended by both Christians and Muslims. They’re mostly linked with the crop cycle and are a significant element in the process of buying and selling goods.
However, Al-Shazly is a special case, being situated in the middle of the desert, unreachable except by driving hundreds of miles on unpaved roads among the mountains and valleys, with his admirers making the difficult trip once a year.
Abul-Khunayger lives in Upper Egypt, and makes the trip every year. His testimony is the result of many trips, but most importantly, it’s not the result of a prior judgment or biased point of view, but rather the result of watching, learning, asking and facing the world that is miraculous in nature. Millions of Egyptians believe in this world and come faithfully and dutifully for the trip, both Muslims and Christians.
Al-Shazly’s festival is full of life and joy; thousands come together, and the common factor is love for Al-Shazly, and willingness to serve others: eating, drinking, celebrating.
Outside the shrine, some people sat down to become part of the general crowd that never ends across the whole area. One woman sat there combing her hair and adding touches of eyeliner, blush and lipstick in front of everyone. A barber was shaving a man while others waited their turn. Some were drinking tea in a little corner, and sitting on the rocks or a small mat. Booksellers, perfume sellers and herb sellers were next to stands selling cheap toys and books and pictures about saints, but the majority were beggars.
Most interestingly, Abu-Khunayger doesn’t act like a tourist who is amazed by what he sees, but rather he keeps a high degree of honesty, not acting like a ‘dervish’ involved emotionally with what he sees.
He tells of a dance during the Zikr (Sufi ritual of whirling or dancing), where the large, long-haired dancer was holding long nails in his hands and dancing on his toes with ecstasy and lightness, making Abu-Khunayger wonder how such a huge body could be so agile and light. He would stick the nails in the bodies of audience members and dancers and bring it out without a drop of blood or a scream of pain. During the sword dance, visitors, some of them children, sleepwalk over them without pain or a scar.
The masses act like a huge family, sharing whatever they have, serving and volunteering to help each other, preparing food and drink for everyone. A man could be a university professor, a rich businessman or a retired general, but at the festival of Al-Shazly, he’s a servant for the admirers of the holy man and for those who made the trip to pay him their respect.