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al-mahdi

"What inferno, what terrible plague or huge massacre or catastrophic earthquake is needed to make those people stop and look around them, to contemplate in silence what terror had wrought; then start afresh, more quietly, sadder, wiser, and more simply."

With his novella 'Al-Mahdi' (1977), Egyptian novelist Abd al-Hakim Qasim, who wrote most of his works in exile in Berlin, delivered an elegant and heartfelt parable on the damage wrought by religious fanaticism. Needless to say it is rather relevant in today's climate.

Set in rural Egypt, 'Al-Mahdi' contrasts the rising power of the dogmatic, militant Muslem Brotherhood with the waning influence of the more tolerant Sufi Brothers of the Path. The story has such a universal quality, however, that it might just as well have been about Christian ideological struggles in, say, the United States.

Caught between these two Islamic currents is a poor Coptic umbrella maker, Master Awadallah, who along with his family wanders the countryside looking for work. When the charitable Ali Effendi takes Awadallah and his family into his house and introduces him to a member of the Muslem Brotherhood, events are set in motion which soon grow beyond anyone's control.

In a simple style, somewhat like an Arabian Steinbeck, Qasim paints all characters involved in the ensuing tragedy with a great compassion for human weakness. By using different perspectives and introducing several subplots, Qasim shows that the question of guilt is more complicated than blaming one group. Rather, it is made up of countless individuals who, actively or passively, create the circumstances for what happens.

Zealously and efficiently, the Muslem Brotherhood sets out to 'help' the destitute Awadallah. They give him work, a house and the Koran, massaging him into converting to Islam. Under their pressure, Awadallah is reduced to impotently looking on while his whole identity is stripped from him. His wife pleas with him to leave, but Awadallah knows it is too late.

"Father, the hour is come, the glory of Your Son, may Your Son also be glorified." This is what Master Awadallah shouted in a tremendous voice that no one could hear, none of those who had come to him, as he stood bareheaded and bare-chested in the courtyard of the house, in a simple woven nightshirt. His face was hot with fever, and a white froth collected at the corners of his mouth.

While his Muslem Brotherhood benefactors are busy preparing festivities for his conversion, Awadallah, with a Christian propensity to suffering, is starting to lose his mind. Meanwhile, the Sufi community of the town remains passive. Ali Effendi feels guilty, though, and raises the issue with the blind old Sheikh Sayid al-Hasari. Modestly but eloquently, the wise Sufi voices what they all know is happening.

"Yes, my brother, I see coercion in their spectacle. I see coercion when your brother greets you in a voice louder than is needed for you to hear him, to test your intention toward him. I see it when someone invites a guest to shame him, to prevent him from refusing. I see it when a wrongdoer overdoes his apologies, to shame the man he has wronged out of showing his pain."

But Ali Effendi isn't prepared to see it yet, and counters:

"Sheikh Sayid, the man was not coerced into committing some crime, after all. He found his way to God."
The Sheikh paused uncertainly before saying slowly:
"His way. I do not know if it was his way."
"You don't know?" asked Ali Effendi worriedly. "You do not know, Sheikh Sayid?"
"Yes, I do not know," the Sheikh answered firmly. "But I believe that God's servant finds his path to godliness through a Lord that he knows, with whom he is content, and whom he loves."

It becomes apparent that Awadallah is dying. But the town has worked itself up into a frenzy, hailing the converted umbrella maker as the Mahdi, the Islamic equivalent of the messiah. He is paraded through the streets, feverish and hallucinating, with images of the Passion of Christ flashing before his eyes. All the connotations of the Mahdi are present here, and one gets the sense that Qasim did so with subtle mockery: the exultant Islamic crowd, the dying Copt, his wife weeping over his body and crossing herself.

The Sheikh and Ali Effendi, however, do not witness Awadallah's end. Disgusted with the spectacle, they have left the town, bearing the guilt of the tolerant, silent majority.

"Sheikh Sayid, I am in torment. Sheikh Sayid, I turned my guest over to them. If I spend my whole life praying, God will still never forgive my sin."
"Yes, yes," Sheikh Sayid al-Hasari quavered, "We all handed the man over. We all did it, Ali Effendi."
"Yes," sighed Ali Effendi.
"We handed him over," Sheikh Sayid al-Hasari continued. "And now we have no power over their madness."
They walked, silent and defeated, looking for another town in which to pray.

'Al-Mahdi' appears in a collection titled 'Rites of Assent', along with 'Good News from the Afterlife' (1981), both translated by Peter Theroux. See also the introduction (PDF) by Samia Mehrez.

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