Khairy Shalaby: The Time Travels of the Man Who Sold Pickles and Sweets
The Time Travels of the Man Who Sold Pickles and Sweets by Khairy Shalaby tells the story of Ibn Shalaby, an
ordinary modern-day Egyptian man who can travel through time. He has no control
over when he is thrown into the past or the future; instead, he must consult
his wristwatch to find out what year it is.
In his travels throughout the
Fatimid, Ayyubid and Mamluk eras and his meanderings around Cairo, Ibn Shalaby
meets many rulers, historians and other famous people. His real adventures take
off when he presents a cassette recorder to a Fatimid caliph, who of course has
never seen such an advanced device before. Unfortunately, the recorder fails to
function, angering the caliph and his assistants.
Originally published in
Arabic in 1991, the novel was translated into English in 2010 by Michael
Cooperson. At parts, the writing style seems stilted and verbose, probably
because the translator stayed very close to the original Arabic text. The
translator’s afterword is worth a read as it explains the difficult
decisions that the translator had to make in order to keep the translation
faithful to the original while making it appealing to English readers.
The Time Travels of the Man Who Sold Pickles and Sweets is not really a historical novel, despite what you
might expect from the book’s premise. Instead, it is a fantastical and
surreal story. The novel can be disorientating as new characters constantly
appear and disappear, and Ibn Shalaby bounces through time and space without
warning. The story is not particularly gripping; and The Time Travels requires careful, thoughtful reading in order to
pick up on the subtleties.
Perhaps the best part of the
novel is the main character, Ibn Shalaby. He is constantly surrounded by chaos
but manages to observe all the details in his surroundings. He is a witty,
amusing character who repeatedly confuses historical figures by mentioning
modern-day phenomena such as pharmaceuticals and electronics. Ibn Shalaby’s
humour and clever jabs make parts of The
Time Travels a joy to read.
On the whole, the story can
be disjointed and confusing; although this could have been the author’s
intention. One of the book’s most central ideas – time travel – was not emphasised
as much as it could have been. Though it can be difficult to become engrossed
in this book, The Time Travels is recommended to the
more persistent readers.