Sunset Oasis is set in the 1890s in a location so exotic, remote and lyrical it’s hard to believe it exists. Yet it does. The Siwa Oasis sits about 560 kilometres west of Cairo, a lush, watery haven of olive trees and date palms, surrounded by a sea of sand. This defiant cluster of mud-brick homes and walled gardens has a rich history, even hosting Alexander the Great when he travelled to the oasis to seek counsel from the Oracle of Amun. The Berbers and Siwans who live in this oasis are fiercely independent and have long resisted governance by both Egyptians and British colonisers.
While it’s a challenging road trip from city to oasis for modern tourists it is considerably less punishing than it was in the nineteenth century. Back then, the journey was made by camel caravan, and plucky travellers had to survive snakes and scorpions, weeks of scorching days and bitterly cold nights, and relentless winds that made the sand lash their skin.
This is the arduous journey that Mahmoud Abd El Zahir and his Irish wife Catherine undertake in Bahaa Taher’s novel. Mahmoud has been ordered to take a job as District Commissioner in the Siwa Oasis by his Cairo-based British commanders. The prospect of moving to the oasis causes Mahmoud great concern since the locals murdered the last two commissioners, but the transfer is punishment for his role in the failed 1882 uprising against the British and there is no getting out of it. While Mahmoud, who is already inclined to melancholy, is certain his new position will end in death, Catherine, an amateur historian, is thrilled about exploring a land she has studied with rigour and diligence.
There is no warm welcome for them when they reach the oasis. This does not surprise Mahmoud, but Catherine seems genuinely bewildered, asking: ‘Why are they like this here? Why cannot I gain their affections? Walls around the gardens, fortifications around the town, and a wall around the fortifications – how can the world have wounded them so deeply that they have to curl up on themselves inside all these layers of shell? It’s another puzzle I shall have to try to solve.’
Their life as outsiders pushes the couple towards dark introspection. Mahmoud spends hours berating himself for past wrongdoings while Catherine dreams about how her discovery of Alexander the Great’s tomb, which she is certain is somewhere in Siwa, will secure her the respect she craves. They both spend so much time with their thoughts that they come unstuck, and set off a series of events that have disastrous consequences for the people around them.
Catherine and Mahmoud narrate most of Sunset Oasis in turn, and while they can both be a little gloomy, it’s hard not to care about their welfare. Mahmoud’s midlife crisis reminds us that people have wrestled with the same existential quandaries since time began. He tells us: ‘When I married Catherine, after much hesitation, I dreamt that my unruly self might finally settle down. A family, a house, an intelligent and courageous wife – why did that settledness never come? Why does it remain elusive and out of reach? The only certain thing I know is this uniform that I wear, and this profession that came to me without my wanting it.’
About a third of the way into the book there is a lengthy chapter narrated by Alexander the Great. It’s jarring to switch to another voice, time and storyline just when events are hotting up in the dessert for our outcast couple but it does become an engaging interlude. And like it or not you will come away knowing something about life in the 300s BC. After hearing Alexander’s tale, Catherine’s obsession with him becomes a little clearer too.
There are few moments of lightness in this story, yet it is beautifully poetic and engrossing. And it is ultimately positive because despite colonialism, overbearing natural forces, and centuries of human folly, the Siwa Oasis and its people endure. The place is immutable, a destination of wonder.
Sunset Oasis is the winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, a joint venture launched in 2007 by the Booker Prize Foundation and Emirates Foundation. Hopefully, as a result of the prize, more Arabic literature will be translated for Western markets. For keen readers of fiction, it might be time to clear some space on your bookshelf for new treasures. But for now, it’s well worth seeking out a copy of Sunset Oasis.