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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



Sonallah Ibrahim

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Zaat

Title: Zaat
Author: Sonallah Ibrahim
Genre: Novel
Written: 1992 (Eng. 2001)
Length: 345 pages
Original in: Arabic
Availability: Zaat - US
Zaat - UK
Zaat - Canada
Zaat - India
  • Arabic title: ذات
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Anthony Calderbank
  • Includes a Glossary

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Our Assessment:

A- : very sharp writing, effective portrait of (part of) modern Egypt

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Hindu . 14/3/2012 Deepika Sarma

  From the Reviews:
  • "The novel is brutal and bleak, but is written with a sense of mischief, presenting the world that Zaat lives in as both horrible and funny. And while the novel is deeply concerned with gender and the individual, it is also a book about the limits of journalism and fiction, searching perhaps for a way out in the fusing of the two. You may find that Zaat has a funny effect on you: although it is set in Egypt, the world of the novel is alarmingly familiar, and the more you read, the names of Egyptian politicians, business people and religious figures are effortlessly replaced by Indian ones." - Deepika Sarma, The Hindu

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Zaat is presented in alternating chapters, one set focussed on the life of the eponymous protagonist, the others offering brief contemporary (late 1980s, early 1990s) newspaper clippings, headlines, quotes, news summaries and the like. The Zaat-chapters focus on a more or less typical middle class woman's life in modern Cairo, very much centred on personal experience, while the clipping-chapters provide a much broader look at Egyptian society -- in particular the corruption of the political and business classes.
       Zaat works, first in a newspaper's Department of News Monitoring and Assessment and then in the Archives, and is constantly surrounded by the news-bits that fill the other chapters, yet she concerns herself with relatively little of it. The excerpts of the news of the day are, for the most part, examples of horrific incompetence and corruption. Ibrahim presents the material well, generally following one or several stories in a chapter -- a sequence that almost invariably begins with great promises (by a businessman or politician), then assurances that everything is o.k., then denials of reports to the contrary, concluding with yet another well-connected person fleeing the country with enormous sums of money ..... There are also government contracts that go awry, business deals with foreign governments and companies that promise the sky and deliver at best shoddy goods, as well as a bit of national and international politics. The ruling and business class are shown at their corrupt worst, and several religious figures don't come off well either. And the costs of all this to society at large is simply staggering.
       The chapters describing Zaat's life recount day-to-day life, and here, too, the consequences of endemic Egyptian corruption figure throughout. Zaat is a somewhat hapless figure, early ambition thwarted after her marriage to Abdel Maguid who turns out to be something of a dud, never completing his degree and thus with limited career prospects. Maguid wanted his wife to stay home and focus on "operating the incubator" (specifically in the hopes that she'll produce a son), but they soon find they need to be a two-income family, and she goes to work too.
       Ibrahim relates her life-story chronologically, but in spurts and jumps, quickly dealing with some of it, lingering over other parts. The children, for example, -- two daughters and then finally a son -- are only occasionally part of the story. It is other everyday issues that get much more attention: the family apartment (real estate and living conditions are major issues in the city, as also made clear from some of the newspaper clippings), medical care (Zaat has a breast cancer scare), dealing with bureaucracy (Zaat lodges a complaint about a sticker altering the expiry date of a tin of Greek olives, which turns into a Kafkaesque endeavour demonstrating how hopeless it is to get anything done in this country), as well as her relationship with her co-workers.
       Much of the book is about "transmission" -- communication, basically, but also specifically the sharing of news and gossip. One of Zaat's difficulties is that she has trouble with transmission: she doesn't quite fit in with (and certainly isn't welcomed by) most of her co-workers. And though she can be enterprising and get things done on her own, it definitely weighs on her that she's not really part of the circle at work -- even as they occasionally seem to accept her, only to then boycott her again.
       Sonallah Ibrahim's prose is sharp, clear, and dense. Zaat isn't laugh-out-loud satire, but it is frequently funny -- but Ibrahim's tale is also more serious in purpose. He shows all aspects of contemporary middle-class Egyptian life, the family at the centre struggling but basically secure, weighed down not so much by existential fears but the burdens of everyday life, which is needlessly complicated and fraught with a seemingly endless series of small annoyances. The characters are very well drawn, and without pointing too obviously at them Ibrahim conveys many of the small personal issues -- faith, workplace politics, male versus female ambitions and hopes -- particularly well. The sex-issues are handled and conveyed very well too, from the brief mentions of female circumcision (Zaat was operated on, her daughter wasn't) to Maguid's resorting to masturbation (along with his neighbour ...). And Ibrahim's prose impresses throughout -- oblique where it has to be, but also very precise, sly and knowing but not condescending towards his characters.
       The mix of stories -- bits of Zaat's life, and not always the episodes one might imagine would be most significant to her -- is a bit unusual and does leave some open questions (one wishes to see more of her in her role as mother, for example), but it's fairly skillfully done and offers good entertainment. Certainly, it captures life in this society and class very well (right down to the misguided sense of pride that gets Maguid tossed in jail). The other chapters, of newspaper-clippings, are also fairly effective -- and also tell some horrifying (as well as some amusing) stories. While almost all the bits are readily comprehensible even to those not familiar with the Egyptian figures and events that are mentioned, there is a sense of over-simplification here (as well as the difficulty that there's no way of judging the accuracy of many of the 'facts' that are presented). It makes for a convincing enough big picture, but leaves too much uncertainty about the small pieces that form it.
       An impressive and well-written book, presenting a good picture of modern Egypt. Well worthwhile.

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Zaat: Reviews: Sonallah Ibrahim: Other books by Sonallah Ibrahim under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Egyptian author Sonallah Ibrahim (صنع الله إبراهيم) was born in 1937.

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© 2006-2012 the complete review

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