Trigger warning for rape.
A Cloudy Day on the Western Shore, by Mohamed Mansi Qandil and translated by Barbara Romaine, presents two lives. On one side, Aisha lives a life of surprising good luck and appallingly bad luck, pursued by literal and figurative wolves in early twentieth century Egypt. On the other, Howard Carter faces his own ups and downs on fortune’s wheel as he struggles to luck into a big find in Egypt’s ancient necropolises. The characters meet twice in the first two thirds of the novel, bumping into each other purely by chance. In the last third, they meet once more and Carter persuades Aisha to accompany him to the Valley of the Kings, convinced that she will change his luck.
At the beginning of the book, we are given no clue that the novel will culminate with the unsealing of Pharaoh Tutankhamen‘s tomb in 1922—at least until Carter arrives on the scene. A Cloudy Day on the Western Shore opens with Aisha fleeing with her mother to a Catholic (possibly Coptic) convent in Asyut. Aisha’s lecherous uncle will do terrible things to her if she is not taken in, her mother argues. This is the start of Aisha’s drifting through life. Flooding chases her from the convent a few years later and she fetches up at the home of a rich friend from the convent school. Her gift for languages helps her reach a certain amount of independence in Cairo before her past catches up to her. Meanwhile, Carter appears in Aisha’s life in spectacular fashion at a party, during which he points out to everyone how much resembles paintings of a beautiful ancient Egyptian princess. He then pours out his life’s story to her during their two meetings.
Carter’s biography (somewhat altered by Qandil) makes for very interesting reading—as long as one doesn’t mind reading about a white man in a colonized country barreling around arguing with people about the best way to do things. Aisha, on the other hand, became less interesting to me as she faded into a listener. There are times when I thought I understood her, but she mostly serves as a target for other characters’ whims. She has so little agency in this book that I was angry on her behalf. Feminist readers will probably be put off by how this book treats her.
The best part of the book (apart from Aisha’s brief stint as a translator for the Egyptian political newspaper, al-Liwa) is the last third, which contains a counterfactual history of the last part of Pharaoh Akhenaten‘s reign and how Tutankhamen came to the throne. Carter manically searches for a big find while Aisha grows more fearful of the warnings of local Egyptians for them to leave things alone.
Romaine ably captures Qandil’s take on Carter’s story by preserving the long, sometimes fanatical speeches given by characters who are utterly convinced of the rightness of their behavior. Like Aisha, we are expected to listen to all of these ideas and thoughts and left to judge the characters who speak them as guilty, innocent, sane, insane, prejudiced, tolerant, and so on. Qandil’s prose took some getting used to. I hung on because I was so interested in reading an Egyptian version of Carter’s story. Readers who can stomach Aisha’s story may enjoy seeing Qandil’s perspective on the rapacious world of early Egyptology.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 16 October 2018.