31 Aug / Gazelle Tracks by Miral Al-Tahawy, translated by Anthony Calderbank
The slim, startling volume begins with an aged, family photograph which essentially contains the contents of the pages that follow … that is, the single picture holds the thousands of words that circumscribe Muhra’s story, past and present.
Muhra, a young woman of Bedouin descent, is one of the last of a sprawling family who for centuries once controlled vast holdings throughout the Egyptian Delta, including slaves whose descendants are still referred to by older family as “the slave of Clan Minazi,” regardless of the generations-ago abolition of human ownership. With political and cultural shifts, the Minazi family that once enjoyed the company of the powerful and royal, has dwindled to but a few members, some scattered, some lost.
With the remaining photographs that tenaciously hang on the walls of her grandfather’s ancestral home, and later her mother’s, Muhra tracks her own history through the voiceless faces of her ancestors. She shares the tragedy of her enigmatic mother, who is perhaps not the woman who gave birth to her, and to her estranged father whose memories of glory and influence as a world-class expert on birds of prey become both myth and tragedy.
To read Gazelle Tracks is a lyrical experience of discovery on at least two levels: its sparseness belies an important historical glimpse into a little-known (especially in the West) once-powerful Arab society, as well as a delicate unraveling of a family saga preserved in printed photographs but mutely trapped in dying memories.
Miral Al-Tahawy’s latest title, Brooklyn Heights (scheduled for publication in English translation in January 2012), recently won the prestigious 2010 Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature, and is currently shortlisted for the 2011 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, also known as the Arab Booker and considered the most important literary prize in the Arab world. Without a doubt, Al-Tahawy is a major Arab voice to play close attention to, and surely one we will be lucky to (need to) continue to hear from in the West.
Published: 2008 (United States)