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Ziada displays longings of many dervishes
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Ziada displays longings of many dervishes

 

Hammour Ziada's award-winning novel The Longings of a Dervish is constructed as a story of vengeance around which its Sudanese author discusses a number of themes depicting the rise and fall Mahdi movement as its background. The story of vengeance is sparked by a lovelorn man, and is what one critic referred to as love in the time of bigotry.

 

Using retrospective flashbacks, Ziada narrates the events behind the protagonist, Bakhit Mandeel's determination to take revenge for the death of his beloved, Theodora/Hawa'a. After languishing in Al-Sayer Prison for seven years for being caught drunk in the streets, he traces his way to six people he considers responsible for the crime, one of whom he tries and fails to kill in prison. His revenge is exacted on the remaining five in a most harrowing way, and done in a way that he believes satisfies his beloved.

 

Longing plays a pivotal role in the novel and can be applied on many levels. Bakhit yearns for Theodora/Hawa'a, while she yearns to serve God. Egyptian prisoners yearn to return to their country while Fadl Al-Aziz, a Sudanese matron, yearns for the emergence of Mahdi to remove injustice. Lastly is Hassan Al-Grifaway, a Mahdi follower, who yearns to be a martyr.

 

The second theme is that of faith and infidelity. In this respect, the author inserts a number of biblical quotations as well as Quranic verses, as if he aims to say that there are others who believe in a different holy book and have the same right to live in peace since they have not done any harm. Mahdi followers waged war in 1884 against all they considered unbelievers; killing and enslaving non-Muslims and later attacking Al-Matamma, a Muslim Sufi town, for not joining them to fight other Muslims. Theodora was an Egyptian-born Greek nun who was enslaved in the aftermath of the Mahdist army sweeping through the capital city, Khartoum following a long siege. She was bought by a wealthy merchant (one of Bakhit's six enemies) who compelled her to convert to Islam and changed her name to Hawa'a (Arabic equivalent for Eve).

 

The novel’s eighteen chapters contain alternate passages that unveil the humblest, most delicate, submissive, sublime form of unrequited love (Bakhit's waiting for days to see Theodora/Hawa'a in front of her house and in the market) and others exhibiting violence in its most graphic manifestation (the circumcision scene of Theodora/Hawa'a as a retribution for not giving in to her master, cutting off Al-Taher Jibril’s fingers and slitting the throats of others).

 

Another pivotal theme throughout the novel is the self and the other. First, there is father Boulos stating that Noah called his son Ham to be the slave of his siblings and that his offspring will be their slaves in reference to the blacks. Dorota, a nun friend of Theodora, says that the Sudanese have a foul, rotten smell and their sweat is poisonous. Laskarina, Theodora's mother says that they are treacherous savages. On the other hand, the Sudanese are amazed as to why God distorted the Europeans with such whiteness as if "their bodies were flayed and covered with redness, their eyes like malicious cats; their odour is of rusty copper!”  

 

The theme of slavery and freedom is also evident on dual levels. The first level is the common, material kind which the protagonist suffered from throughout his life (having three masters, a German, a Turk and an Egyptian) as well as his beloved Theodora/Hawa'a until her murder. The other is the more sublime, mystic kind which the protagonist endured willingly in his adoration of Theodora/Hawa'a. Bakhit first witnesses this as displayed by his Egyptian master Youssef Effendi Saeed towards his reluctant wife who eloped with their neighbour. Then Bakhit tasted this adoration firsthand towards Theodora/Hawa'a. Theodora was also planning to escape Sudan only to be betrayed and killed by her Sudanese master. Bakhit ignored meeting her for the first and last time after knowing what she really thinks of him through reading her diaries; "if only he wasn't black, if only he wasn't a slave of the dervishes.” Ironically, this incident was when Theodora/Hawa'a needed Bakhit most, as she was brutally killed afterward. Even more ironically, Bakhit was the grave-digger who unknowingly buried her body.

 

An unforgettable element is that of magic, metaphysics and mythology. This is represented in a secondary character, Marisela, who is both a byproduct of magic (her mother was impregnated by a jinn and delivered her after three months) and a sorceress (making amulets, charms and talismans). Moreover, a number of Sudanese people said they found religious phrases written on the eggs shells indicating the Mahdi's advent. Furthermore, is Theodora/Hawa'a's apparition who kept appearing to Bakhit urging him to stop the vengeance cycle.

 

Through Hassan Al-Grifaway's character, the author sought to portray how Mahdi followers are transformed. We see him as a devout Sufi, full of spirituality turned into a murderer in the name of religion at the hands of power grabbers and fanatic leaders. His doubts gradually devour his faith after killing unarmed people, even children, one of whom is a girl kept who keeps visiting him in his dreams and tormenting his conscience.


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