Book recommendation: Abdel-Hakim Kassem's "The Seven Days of Man"

This is part of new, hopefully ongoing, completely arbitrary series of book recommendations.

Abel-Hakin Kassem's "The Seven Days of Man" (available in a good English translation from Hydra Books, Northwestern University Press) was written in 1969 and is largely autobiographical. It is in some senses a classic tale of the shocks of modernization--it sets a rural milieu (in which the narrator's father is the head of a local Sufi tareeqa and a prominent man in the village) against an emerging urban environment (in this case Tanta, where the narrator eventually goes to study and where his father and his friends go every year for the Mulid of Ahmad al-Badawi).

But this is to simplify a novel that is both formally and conceptually sophisticated. The novel's structure is made of, yes, seven parts, which coincide with seven stages in the trip from village to city and back, but also with seven different points in time. There are some cliches and some melodrama (particularly the narrator's near-hysterical repulsion at the habits of his rural acquaintances after he has become more "modern") but there are also many lovely evocative descriptions, from the economies of the village households to the atmosphere of the moulid.

For anyone interested in the spiritual/religious life of Egyptian rural life at the time it's invaluable. A pointed description of state violence--villagers getting beaten by police as they arrive at the Tanta train station, for no discernible reason other than the assertion of authority--seems as relevant as ever. And the author ultimately resists a  pat resolution or an appeal to nostalgia, closing his story on an ambiguous and open-ended note.

Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.