Sign in using your account with
Mohamed El Bisatie: Drumbeat
It’s not that often that one can find a novel with an innovative idea, let alone find one in a simple and attractive style too. Drumbeat can be the exception; it’s a perfect blend of originality and imagination.
Drumbeat takes place in a fictional Emirate in the UAE during the national team’s World Cup-qualifying match in France. The ruling Emir orders all nationals to travel on state expenses to cheer for the champions in France, leaving the country empty and in the hands of imported labourers.
Multilingual workers, servants and even police officers start to wonder what they will do with their newfound freedom, as they enjoy wandering freely on the empty streets, driving their masters’ fancy cars and living like they own everything.
The story starts to take shape when the narrator meets Zahiya, an Egyptian who works as a 'companion' in a nearby palace. From her recounting of her life behind walls, the reader gets to see the other side of these workers’ lives in the Gulf, the secrets and the hardships that they face but can’t speak of or they’ll be sent back home.
The novel is not set to motivate or inspire; it’s a story as a story should be: a sheer telling of fictional events. The plot unfolds in such a gripping and compelling way that the reader will become intrigued and desperate to know what will happen next. Fortunately, it’s not a long book; so you’ll find out soon enough.
What adds to Drumbeat’s charm is the author’s attention to the little details; so much so that the reader feels the scene and can almost see it.
What separates it from perfection, though, is that it sometimes feels rushed with some plot holes left unfilled. The character of Zahiya may also raise questions as to her authenticity: to some, the character may seem forced and awfully exaggerated, especially considering what she had to do and hide to keep a job.
It may have some flaws; but that doesn’t compare to how realistic the story’s events are. Drumbeat is one of those novels that pull you in; a simple and fast read with riveting characters and a storyline that won’t leave your hands until it’s finished.
The structure of the book is difficult to map out. While the story is chronological in the bigger sense, events tend to jump back and forth, where each child slave’s full story is only revealed the further you read. We do not know exactly how either of them came to be until to the end.
Other distractions from the story line are religious references. Using Biblical references, verses from the Quran and the history of Moses and Adam, Thompson uses mythical tales to reflect on the characters at hand and the trials they face. He even has a character and element that bears an uncanny representation of Noah and his arc.
Apart from his use of history and religious fables, Thompson also tells a very aggressive, and often times, dark story. Dodola is married off as a child and upon turning to prostitution is subjected to rape and mistreatment. Zam is a slave who sacrifices his manhood out of a loss of a better life. They are both abused time and time again and having their misfortunes sketched out for the eye to witness adds a shocking element to the novel.
This brings us to what makes the novel so wonderful at the same time; the illustrations. The detailing of the sketches and the exemplary hand-work at play is extremely commendable. Action scenes have your eyes rushing through the pages as frantically as one seen on a TV screen. The beauty in the details is endless; the graphics are looming and grand but also sensual and precise. There is a lot of calligraphy incorporated, which makes for an interesting experience for those who can read Arabic.
Another interesting aspect is his combination of the new and the old. Though the story takes place in today’s world, a lot of the prevalent ideologies are from nomadic times; primitive and beastly.
There is indeed something quite poetic about the story he tells – and the manner in which it is told – regardless of the gruesome, harsh aspects; on the contrary, it is these parts that make the novel that much more meaningful.
Born and raised in Texas, Gretchen McCullough's teaching career has taken her to Egypt, Turkey and Japan; currently, McCullough teaches writing in the Department of Rhetoric and Composition at the American University in Cairo.
Released earlier this year, her latest publication is titled ‘Shahrazad’s Tooth’; a compilation of short stories revolving around a host of eccentric individuals and their experiences in Cairo. A large bulk of the stories are driven by the thoughts rummaging through the characters minds and, more often than not, they transpire to be both charming and relatable.
‘Shahrazad’s Tooth’ has a colourful team of characters with strong presence, charisma and an air of familiarity. Digging deeper into their personal lives and problems, her writing style is distinct, bringing an American charm and non-linearity to her stories, which builds a pleasant intricacy.
With many of the characters connected by a single building in Garden City, McCullough allots the main characters in her stories as small cameos in others, spreading the characters' presence and allowing for further development.
In ‘A Little Honey and a Little Sunlight’, we are given insight into the raging nature of Professor Gary by his dying neighbour, Joe Pulaski - a poet - reminiscing his days spent living in Cairo. Many pages later in ‘Pure Water’, we find ourselves reading from the eyes of Dr Gary as he spends time with his bulky Greek friend, Kolombos, in a mental asylum before the uprising of January 25th. The title story, meanwhile, sees two main protagonists; journalist and teacher, Mary Beth Somers, and her dentist, Dr Samy. Far from sappy, the two fall into a love which avoids the overt romantic notions seen in cliched literature, despite ending on a melancholic note.
Aside from the characters, Cairo as a city is portrayed as an integral player in the stories. On regular occasions, vivid descriptions of popular places in the city are given, such as El Horreya, Windsor Bar, the Gezirah Club and Koshari Abou Tarek. Having visited all these places ourselves, it's obvious that McCullough has immersed herself in the city, and amongst its people, well beyond the point of a touristic escapade. She’s become a sort of semi-native, in touch with Cairene culture, but maintains enough outside insight to give a new perspective to those who’ve been living in the city for too long.
With its mix of emotions and interesting character troupe, ‘Shahrazad’s Tooth’ promises an entertaining, comforting read for both locals and foreigners alike.