African Library: The Sinners

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The Sinners
Author: Yusuf Idris

Yusuf Idris is considered one of the great authors – particularly as a short story writer – in the Arabic literary world. Born in an Egyptian village, he became a doctor and later on a health inspector in the civil service; he drew on these experiences for his vivid, kindly, albeit ironic depictions of all classes of people and of rural societies as in this, his most famous short story. At 113 pages, it is really a novella, though it has the concentration of a short story. Idris also wrote novels and plays. Idris’s tale was first published in 1959; it is set on a huge agricultural estate and centres on the class tensions between the settled, mainly peasant population of the estate and the seasonal migrant workers from the province of Gharbiya (who are known as Gharabwa). The English translation used in the present discussion is by Kristin Peterson-Ishaq and was published in 2009.

The tale opens on a silent, slightly eerie morning scene in the Nile Delta region, where the estate is located. The sun has not risen and the sole human presence is that of an energetic swimmer splashing and diving in the pre-dawn stillness. After dressing, praying and donning his rifle, the swimmer becomes recognisable as the estate’s nightwatchman. As he marches off to complete his duties, the Abd el-Muttalib spots a white bundle on the ground. On closer inspection he sees that it is a new-born baby – a dead baby! He feels terrified; his first impulse is to cast the little corpse into the canal since, in this conservative and pious Muslim community, a cast-away dead infant immediately signifies dark doings – that which is haram, or forbidden. (The Arabic word for sin, alluding to the title, is al-haram.) But he is joined by the estate layabout and then by a third man, the unofficial “news broadcaster” on the estate, who notices evidence that the baby was suffocated.

The discovery of the dead child is the single, crucial event that throws the entire population of the estate into disarray. Idris concentrates in the main on two male characters who are officials on the estate – the first of them being the Agricultural Commissioner, referred to generally as Mr Commissioner or Fikri Afendi. (Afendi is a title indicating his gentlemanly status.) Even though Fikri is portrayed as somewhat naïve and highly conservative in his views – “scarcely able to believe that forbidden, shocking, and serious events such as rape or illegitimate pregnancy could actually occur” (7) – and immediately begins the zealous and obsessive quest to track down the figure who in his mind’s eye is the epitome of appalling sin, he is a good if limited man whose views will be tempered as the tale proceeds. Initially, however, Fikri gives no thought to who might have fathered the smothered baby. Like almost everyone else, he has in his mind’s eye a real “scarlet woman” who, having indulged in her fleshly desires, was too cowardly to face the consequences and ruthlessly dispatched the fruit of her sin – cunningly escaping her rightful punishment and contaminating society with her secretly sinful presence. Fikri Afendi maintains strict marital discipline over his pathetically intimidated wife, Umm-Safwat, who is of peasant stock and can never properly manage the social role of the “consort” of the estate’s most important official. Their eldest son, Safwat, however, is indulged by both parents: a dandy who dawdles about the estate hunting game and (in a sort of failed Romeo and Juliet romance) believes himself profoundly in love with the only young woman on the estate of appropriate status – Linda, the Chief Clerk’s daughter – even though he has never spoken to her. Linda is considered the estate’s beauty and is of marriageable age, but is kept under strict home supervision. Her family is Christian, in contrast with the predominance of Muslims on the estate, but this does not appear to cause tension and the religious difference is not highlighted at all.

The Chief Clerk mentioned above, Linda’s father, is another disciplinarian, but more towards Linda than towards his well-bred wife. Mesiha Afendi too is deeply shocked by the discovery of the apparently murdered infant. He is better able than Fikri to articulate affectionate and tender feelings towards his family, however, especially towards Linda – who is the apple of his eye. He is very ambitious, having begun his life as one of the peasant children on the estate and being one of the very few who manage to work themselves up into a higher status. He is also something of an intriguer and at one point seriously considers revealing irregularities around the eventual identification of the dead child’s mother; however, in the end he gives up this plan because more humane considerations (almost unexpectedly) overwhelm him.

The estate used to belong to a princess. During the time of the narrative, the owner (who comes intermittently to check on its activities with his eagle eye for mistakes and his harsh attitude) is a hugely wealthy man with a French wife with whom he lives like royalty. The Commissioner is in charge of the daily running of the estate; the Chief Clerk manages its finances. The other office worker featured in the tale is one of the establishment’s very few bachelors: a worldly young man named Ahmad Sultan, who is employed as a clerk under Mesina Afendi. On the estate there is an agricultural overseer (its main business being the cultivation of a seasonal cotton crop) who is a permanent resident; the migrant workers are – more immediately – the charges of Arafa, their head foreman who, like them, comes from the distant village of Gharbiya from where they were recruited. The peasants who are settled on the estate are in general quite comfortably off; the migrant workers, on the other hand, are extremely poor. Even though they are very badly paid, to them the opportunity to do the back-breaking work required for cotton cultivation is considered heaven-sent. The small amount paid, much of which they save because they live so frugally, is enough to keep them and their families fed for the rest of the year. Their ways are different from those of the settled peasants (many of whom are share-croppers on the estate). The peasants utterly despise and mock the migrant workers – even their different regional accent is a matter of ridicule for the locals, who see the annual short-term workers as scarcely human; alien creatures.

It is against this background that the mystery of the dead baby occurs. Fikri Afendi, who has “appointed” himself to be the chief investigator of the affair, pronounces with great confidence that the woman who gave birth to and killed the child must be one of the Gharabwa. While all the other men of lesser rank crowded around him have been saying the same thing, the moment he considers another possibility – a vivacious, widowed woman who sells eggs on the estate to keep herself and her three children – the others parrot and embellish this remark. When he then reiterates his original theory they are all silenced. What he now has to do, he sees, will involve much closer interaction with the migrants than he is used to having. True, he is the one who goes every year at the end of winter to a village of his choice to negotiate with the local recruiting agent about the wages to be paid to the around five hundred dirt-poor villagers who, along with their immediate necessities, are then driven away to the estate in huge trucks. But he has always seen and treated them simply as labour units to be spied on lest they slacken their efforts to collect cotton worm eggs, remove the crop destroying cotton worms or harvest the cotton, and to be lashed with a switch and told to bend lower at their work in the fields. He now has to start thinking of them as human beings capable of desire and intrigue. All the same, he is convinced that he will track down and expose the culprit among the Gharabwa, since the guilty woman would need to recover from the birth process and so be identifiable.

Fikri sets off confidently on his prized white donkey, with a crowd of fascinated local male busybodies hard on his heels, towards the field where the migrants are labouring. Contrary to his expectations, every single Gharabwa woman is working – Arafa, their foreman, counts them twice over in his presence. He then requires the migrants to file by him so that he can inspect them for signs of recent childbirth, but can find no woman who seems to be in that state. Letting his imagination run with both “pleasure” and “no little embarrassment” (23) in picturing the details of the relationship that led to the birth of the baby leaves him in a confused kind of indignation, because if the guilty woman is not among the Gharabwa, she must be one of those who live permanently on the estate – a shocking thought!

Fikri Afendi shouted to Arafa to return the laborers to the field as he damned their fathers and Arafa’s, too, this time in spiteful earnest. As he placed his foot in the stirrup and prepared for the leap that would lift him onto the donkey’s back, he racked his brains over two impossibilities. For, it was impossible that the bastard’s mother was anyone but a migrant woman. And it was just as impossible that she was one of the laborers he had examined. (29)

Returning, baffled, from the fields, Fikri encounters the elderly estate layabout, who tells him a rambling story about a young man’s corpse in a distant city in ancient times; the murderer was discovered on the theory that it was a woman whose identity would be revealed after nine months, when an out-of-wedlock baby would be born, showing that she had been raped by the now dead man and had killed him in response. Although hearing this tale might have led to understanding of the possibility that the dead child’s mother on their estate might also be a victim more than a perpetrator, no such inference is drawn here.

As a next step the county authorities are summoned – the police, the health inspector, even the prosecuting attorney. Every one of the migrant women as well as the widowed egg-seller is called to appear before and be examined by them, but to no avail – the mystery remains unsolved. The visitors are, however, treated to a lavish banquet set up for them by Fikri. But now that even the official investigation has ended without a resolution, all those who live permanently on the estate are even more troubled than before. If this heinous sin was not brought into their midst by the Gharabwa, the culprit must be someone among their “own” women – a horribly disquieting thought.

It was as though a huge rock had been thrown into brackish, stagnant water. Doubts and accusations began to rain down from every direction until not a farm woman remained who was safe from suspicion, even though they all knew their women were innocent. But every sin has a sinner, and every crime, a criminal. This crime was no exception. They knew exactly what the crime was; but who was responsible? (32)

The estate’s mailman is a worker of stunted stature who is rumoured to have conveyed love letters exchanged between Linda, the Chief Clerk’s only daughter, and Safwat, the son of the Commissioner (Fikri). Although on numerous occasions he both stopped and searched the mailman, Mesiha (the Chief Clerk) had never been able to find such a letter on him. Indeed, the two young people have only ever exchanged moonstruck glances. A meticulous and usually balanced man who knows all facts and rumours circulating around the estate, Mesiha subsequent to the failed investigation becomes unreasonably convinced that there is more to Linda’s sudden indisposition (revealed on his return home after work) than the stomach ailment to which his wife ascribes it. He attempts unobtrusively to examine Linda for signs of guilt, both by staring narrowly at her and by feeling the sore stomach; yet, even though there are no clear indications of her having recently given birth, Mesiha lies awake most of the night plagued by thoughts that his whole respectable family life might be a charade hiding wickedness under his nose – in which his wife might be complicit. He even tries to cross-examine his brother, who has the mental age of a little boy, and when this predictably proves fruitless, for the first time ever he harshly scolds the brother, causing him tears and sorrow.

In every house the mysterious birth, along with its possible causes and consequences, remains the topic of intense discussion. Safwat (the Commissioner’s spoilt son) is the younger and much more naïve of the estate’s two bachelors. As so often, he is visiting Ahmad Sultan the clerk – inferior to Safwat in status but vastly superior in worldly and forbidden experiences. Safwat, too, is preoccupied and intrigued with the hidden facts around the clearly illegitimate child’s conception. He questions Ahmad, assuming he must know secret details about or even have been personally involved in the affair. For in Safwat’s eyes, Ahmad is the estate’s expert in eroticism. Ahmad mocks him a little and brags about his many conquests, but then the conversation turns to Safwat’s usual favourite topic – Linda. Safwat, too, now wonders whether Linda is as innocent as she seems. Ahmad reassures him, but all this erotically tinted speculation has suddenly hatched an idea in the older bachelor’s head and, with no thought of how he is betraying the younger man’s romantic feelings or trust in himself as a mentor, decides that he wants Linda for himself. Unlike the dreamily ineffectual and weaker Safwat, he knows exactly how to achieve this. He sets off and secretly summons the wife of the estate’s Koran reciter, with whom he had some time ago had a long affair that no one knew about. When she turns up at their usual meeting place – the estate’s small mosque! – Ahmad informs her that he wants Linda, and eventually she agrees to help set the scene for Linda’s seduction.

At the usual evening gathering of the estate’s peasant men, the mystery of the dead baby and the identity of the mother remains the only topic of discussion, but even the wise and usually eloquent Sheikh Abd al-Waarith has nothing meaningful to contribute to their speculations and leaves for his home much earlier than usual. It is only in Fikri’s and Mesiha’s two homes that the topic is as forbidden as the deeds involved – in Fikri’s case it is because he considers even mere talk about the issue as contaminating the sanctity of his home, and in Afendi’s, because he is still unbearably plagued by the idea that his own womenfolk might be guilty or involved, but cannot, of course, raise these ideas (which he actually knows are inappropriate) with them. Mesiha is driven almost into a delirium of anxiety at the thought of the scandal that would ensue were Linda guilty. Eventually he calms himself with the thought of how embarrassed he would be about his suspicions if it were eventually proved that a Gharabwa woman is the culprit after all. Still, he cannot stop himself from going on a pretext to the Commissioner’s office, probably to try and see signs of the latter’s son’s supposed intrigue with Linda – of course, to no avail.

Next, a kind of comic variation on the great male marital fear of wifely sexual infidelity occurs. The estate’s mailman (previously mentioned), who is illiterate, has a literate wife: a huge woman who thoroughly intimidates him. He suddenly suspects that a letter given to him by another woman for posting was, in fact, written by his wife and is proved right when the Sheikh reads it for him. Moreover, the letter makes clear that the mailman’s wife had an affair with a visiting relative, a “gentleman” (52). Somehow, poor little henpecked Mahboob being the dupe here arouses hearty laughter rather than indignant sympathy and righteous anger in the other men – yet another of the numerous examples of sexist and classist double standards and moral hypocrisy in the text. The Commissioner to whom Mahboob (the mailman) had brought his tale of woe detects that a divorce (permitted under the circumstances) is not what the latter has in mind; he undertakes instead to go and give the mailman’s imposing wife the scolding of her life. He even wants to force her to kiss Mahboob’s feet in contrition, but the terrified mailman begs him not to do this since he is convinced that she will avenge herself on him for such a humiliation as soon as they are back home alone! The narrator almost unobtrusively slips in the detail that the couple is childless, although Mahboob’s wife dearly desires to have a family.

Something else that is unchained by the overcharged atmosphere resulting from the still unexplained mystery of the dead baby now occurs. The narrator reveals that the estate’s supposedly impeccably virtuous women have for ages in their gossip speculated whether Dumyaan, the mentally handicapped brother of the Chief Clerk, “[has] what it [takes] to please a woman” (55). Umm Safwat, trapped in the suffocating middle-class respectability of her husband the Commissioner’s home, so different from the much freer life of a peasant in which she grew up, yields at last to her overpowering desire to discover whether Dumyaan, who often visits her home to engage in chatter and help with light chores, has attained sexual adulthood. Umm Safwat contrives to get him into her bedroom where something happens that causes him to run out of her house – more grist to the estate’s gossip mills that are still grinding away.

The tone of the text darkens after these semi-comedic events when the dead child’s mother is at last identified. Inspecting the migrants’ work some time later, the Commissioner finds that an illicit shelter has been erected in the field. When Fikri notices a sole prostrate woman underneath it and questions the migrants’ foreman Arafa, he is told: “‘This is Aziza, Mr Commissioner, Sir’” (61). Obtaining further information leaves the Commissioner feeling

a little disappointed now that the picture contained no crime, no whore, and no virgin tricked and seduced by a careless young man – [yet] –, the unsolved puzzle of the woman began to occupy him in a different way. Why would a married woman like that one wrapped in black rags kill her own child? (63)

The Commissioner cannot help relenting from his previously vengeful fervour both against the baby-killer and her fellow migrants (especially Arafa) who have been covering for her to ensure that her wages would continue to be paid, for not only is she dirt poor yet responsible for the survival of her incapacitated husband and three little children, but she is grievously ill and in a state of delirium, unable to explain her deed herself. Even the Commissioner can see that this is a dying woman.

In the next chapter the narrator steps in to tell the life story of Aziza from an appropriately compassionate but unsentimental perspective. Always poor, her family’s life chances had deteriorated markedly when her husband became ill with dropsy, unable even to leave their hut. During the next opportunity for seasonal labour Aziza refused to leave him to go and work on her own, but when the next one came around she was forced to do so to ensure their survival. Some months before this her sick husband had pleaded with her to find him a sweet potato (then out of season) to satisfy a craving and, unable to refuse him, she set off to go and dig in an old field of the local landowner’s. Digging desperately, she could not find anything, when she was surprised at her illegal task by the landowner’s son – a strapping young man. He found her a whole sweet potato, and she thanked him profusely, but as she turned to go, she fell into one of the holes they had dug, as it was getting dark. As the man helped her out he held her, and became aroused, and although she struggled, she ended up yielding to the rape. Only later on did Aziza realise that she was pregnant and that her husband’s impotence was too widely known in her community for her to pass off the child as his. So she hid her condition, went off to the estate as a migrant worker and gave birth secretly one night. The birth and Aziza’s state of mind are described with great delicacy. As she recovers consciousness the baby begins to wail and, terrified of discovery, she puts her hand over its mouth in the dark to silence it, presumably forgetting that a newborn’s nose is clogged with mucus. Next thing, the child is dead, so Aziza crawls back to her shelter and goes to work the next day despite her weakness and pain and seems to have escaped detection. However, she has contracted puerperal fever because of the unsanitary conditions of the birth and begins to hallucinate and talk in her delirium, which is how the broad outlines of the cause of her pregnancy (and what followed) become known.

Strangely, Aziza’s identification as the woman who gave birth to and killed the infant slowly brings about a bridging of the huge social divide between the estate peasants and the migrants. Aziza’s suffering and the way she became trapped into the situation that led to her committing infanticide seem to redeem her in everyone’s eyes; they come to stare at her in compassion and she is almost sanctified. Her body is secretly taken to her home village for burial (to avoid involving the estate owner and the county authorities). Everyone weeps at her death and eventually a willow tree that grew at the place where she gave birth and where she returned to die, becomes a shrine where childless women go to pray for children.

Other eventualities transpire: Ahmad Sultan disappears from the estate, soon secretly followed by Linda, and they are reported to be married. After years of sorrow and fury her father Mesiha reconciles with her and her family. The estate is sold to a Belgian company and then to another hugely rich local man. Fikri is thus displaced from the farm and the local owner sells off the estate piecemeal or rents to the peasants to escape the looming Nasser land reforms of 1952 that limited land ownership. Some peasants prosper; others go under and the entire socioscape has altered almost as much as the estate, on which all the grand homes have been demolished.

Though so short a work, and so briefly told in the preceding account, Idris’s The Sinners remains a memorable text; an evocation most interesting to juxtapose with an Egypt of today, where so many more upheavals in social, political, moral as well as religious beliefs and practices have occurred and are occurring. Perhaps, at a time when we tend to focus so relentlessly on life in the world’s great cities, it bears reminding that all human life ultimately still rests on the twin bedrocks of agricultural cultivation and community cohesion – so vividly and poignantly illustrated in this novelette. Harsh in parts (as in its detailed account of Aziza’s suffering and guilt-ridden demise), humorous in others, empathetic towards natural human inclinations yet contemptuous of the many hypocrisies and prejudices its diverse cast of rural Egyptians displays, Idris’s is a complex account by a clear-sighted analyst of human behaviour.

An especially noteworthy aspect of the text is the fact that even though the author faithfully represents the androcentric nature of the estate’s community, he is unobtrusively sympathetic towards the female characters – for instance noting that Aziza (who blames herself) had been sexually deprived for many, many months before her rape by the landowner’s son. Idris as an author conveys clear understanding of the particular pressures on women in this society, and although the trend of the novel is by no means feminist, it is admirably open-eyed and even-handed in its depictions of men, women and their interrelationships.


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