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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Theocrat

Bensalem Himmich

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To purchase The Theocrat

Title: The Theocrat
Author: Bensalem Himmich
Genre: Novel
Written: 1989 (Eng. 2005)
Length: 202 pages
Original in: Arabic
Availability: The Theocrat - US
The Theocrat - UK
The Theocrat - Canada
Le Calife de l'épouvante - France
  • Translated by Roger Allen

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Our Assessment:

B : interesting if not always easily approachable historical fiction

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The Theocrat presents the life of the Fatimid caliph and ruler of Egypt (from 996 (when he was only about eleven) to 1020) al-Hakim bi-Amr Ilah. Apparently mentally ill, his rule was certainly unbalanced, with his odd whims and often contradictory orders causing great harm. As the character at one point admits:

"Every century has its own disaster.
"For this quarter-century I am that disaster.
       The Arabic title of the novel literally translates (so Roger Allen) as: "he who is crazy in rule", and that certainly describes al-Hakim and his actions. Nevertheless, he managed to hold and wield power for a quarter of a century, and Himmich's novel tries to convey all the consequences of this.
       Rather than merely a fictionalized (auto)biography, The Theocrat presents a broader picture. Indeed, the longest section of the book is centred around Abu Rakwa, who led a rebellion against al-Hakim, and in it Himmich focusses largely on the person and history of Abu Rakwa himself.
       The presentation of the novel is unusual. As translator Allen notes in his Introduction, much of the presentation and the way the text is arranged is reminiscent of works of adab:
the many and often enormous collections of information and anecdote which the intellectual elite (and especially the bureaucrats and scribes of the court) prepared for their own reference and edification.
       Each section begins with quotes from historical works, and throughout there are references and quotes from other books. The narratives themselves are often also not straightforward; instead, Himmich offers examples, anecdotes, or al-Hakim's own ravings -- though parts (such as the long section 'The Earthquake Caused by Abu Rakwa') are presented in fairly conventional story-form.
       The book begins with 'Prelude to "The Smoke" ', a reference to the verse in the Qur'an that al-Hakim and his followers believed "foretold his coming". It offers a summary of his life and rule, as well presenting some of his surviving sayings (which give a good sense of how deluded he was). Among his beliefs:
     There will be no peace for the caliph if he is not permanently suspicious of everyone; he must lop off his own shadow if it seems strange to him.
       And he helpfully explains:
     You ask me about the reasoning behind my penchant for destroying monuments and values. My response (take it away and reflect on it) is: anyone who does not destroy does not know the meaning of building; anyone who does not practice evil cannot do good.
       The quotes at the beginning of the chapter sum up his rule, and it can be reduced to a single word: contradictions. He was not solely evil, but his unpredictability had disastrous results. As one writer puts it:
The best thing ever said about him is: his actions were inexplicable, and his fantasies and obsessions were undecodable.
       It makes for rich material for a novelist, and Himmich does present a riveting (if still frustrating) portrait of the man. Himmich manages to convey the mental anguish al-Hakim goes through -- the ruler aware of something wrong inside his head, but so used to always being 'right' (since few would dare suggest he isn't) he can rarely and barely differentiate between sanity and his own little madness. Since his every whim is indulged in (since he is the all-powerful ruler) his madness is allowed almost completely free reign -- with predictable results. Increasing unrest among the dissatisfied people feeds his own increasing paranoia and make for an unhappy situation all around.
       As compelling as the regent's mental anguish is, Himmich fortunately does not focus on that exclusively, and the more straightforward narratives (focussed also as they are on more able-minded characters) -- Abu Rakwa's rebellion, and then al-Hakim's demise -- are a welcome contrast. Here Himmich also demonstrates that he can also simply tell a good story -- and one is led even to feel some sympathy for al-Hakim when, for example, he complains about his subjects: "They're busy erasing me from their memory."
       The 'smoke' finally dissipates, but the novel also has some direct relevance to this day, as one of al-Hakim's "senior missionaries" escaped to Syria, and there:
He kept proclaiming al-Hakim's divinity and suggested that the Holy Spirit had entered al-Hakim from Adam through the mediation of 'Ali ibn Abi Talib. He used his eloquence and oratorical skill to convince people that al-Hakim would soon be returning from occultation; he would then restore justice to a world filled with oppression.
       The missionary was Muhammad al-Druzi, who gave his name to the group of followers that are still known as the Druze .....
       The Theocrat is a lively, varied work of historical fiction. Much of its appeal is in its unusual (at least for Western readers) presentation, but that also presents a considerable hurdle. A Glossary and endnotes help in explaining parts of the text, but with so much that is unfamiliar it is not an easy read. Still: certainly worthwhile.

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The Theocrat: Other books by Bensalem Himmich under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Bensalem Himmich (بنسالم حميش) is a leading Moroccan author. He was born in 1949.

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