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Reem Bassiouny, the author of The Pistachio Seller, and an acclaimed contemporary Arabic writer, has published five novels to date. Currently an assistant professor of Arabic at Georgetown University, Bassiouny has repeatedly shown a determination to grapple with the complex, and often irrational layers of Arab culture through her writing. The Pistachio Seller was first published in 2006 in Arabic, .the translation is by Osman Nusairi, published by Syracuse University Press and The King Fahd Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies (2009 Translation Award Winner). Its plot fits well within Bassiouny’s literary focus, and reveals her intimate familiarity with the silent or rather silenced aspects of Egyptian culture.
Set in the 1980s- and 90s, The Pistachio Seller is a fictional love story, loaded with political undertones. The book chronicles a traditional Egyptian adolescent-, Wafaa’, as she pursues her cousin- Ashraf- whom she adores passionately. While Wafaa’ awaits her cousin’s marriage proposal, he unexpectedlyy falls in love with Lubna Thaabit, a communist journalist living in Cairo. The ensuing event molds the book into a theater that creatively displays issues of love, identity, and politics.
In The Pistachio Seller, love unfolds in parallel with political events. The book opens with a question posed by Wafaa’: “How does a woman fall in love?” To Wafaa’, love is the consequence of a change in vision. On a mundane Saturday, this is how she fell in love with Ashraf. She simply saw him from “‘a different angle’..” His white shirt, height, and the veins running through his hand suddenly attracted her, and she found her heart pounding in tune with a shy desire for him. Just then, two pistachios fell from Ashraf’s pocket, abruptly diverting her trailin of thought. “The sound startled me,” – Wafaa’ recounts. In contemplating the effect the pistachios had on her, Wafaa’ says:
‘The first pistachio peeked cautiously from its shell. It was beautiful, and its green color revealed its innocence. The second pistachio looked pale and terrifying. It was as if it were the counterfeit currency, antiquated laws, and policies: democratic, capitalist, and radical all in one, it was like all subversive and arrogant ideas. It was as if it were the pain of the days past and the days to come. It was a cheap pistachio, as cheap as modern civilizations and as rotten as ancient ones. It was exorbitantly priced and of unknown origin. Was it originally from the East or the West? Was it from one of Ashraf’s various countries? Or from the Zionists, the Americans, the Iraqis, the Syrians, the Iranians, the Turks, or the English?’
In these lines, the reader first senses the politics embodied by the pistachios. Capitalism, radicalism, and the enigma surrounding the origins of these pistachios all seem to be interlocked in a love story.
In a way, pistachios, as described by Wafaa’, invoke the memory of Latin American bananas. They too came to represent a political reality, which involved capitalism, submission, and arrogance. Yet, bananas were popular fruits in Latin America, whereas pistachios have never been of any pivotal importance in the Egyptian market. This makes the reader ponder Bassiouny’s odd choice-—why pistachios? Regardless, the idea itself is an interesting metaphor; a welcome digression from the typical way of painting reality.
As events unfold following Wafaa’s change of vision, we see the protagonists making love in ways that expose the inner workings of their personalities. Wafaa’s love for Ashraf is enveloped within folds of fear and violence. She has grown up in Mansoura, in a household that strictly observes religious practice. The conservative culture she was born into has taught her to fear God, so she has learnt to tip-toe her way through life. When she unexpectedly finds herself infatuated with her westernized cousin, she is frightened because “‘([she]) has always been afraid of everything.”’ Wafaa affection is thus always tightly connected to fear.
Wafaa’s idea of God leads her to believe in the presence of an innate conflict between good and evil. Within this framework, she views Ashraf’s passionate love for Lubna as dishonourable. She believes Lubna could never ‘“win”’ Ashraf, because she is supposedly a cheap degenerate. In fact, Wafaa’ takes pleasure in being the antithesis of Lubna; a devout worshiper, a pure woman, honourable, traditional. Yet, interwoven with the virginal shawl she proudly wraps around her, is a craving for violence. ‘“Cruel…’, ‘strong,”’, and ‘“in control of me;’” – this is how she secretly imagines Ashraf in her dreams. The twin spirals of violence and utopia in Wafaa’s personality are adeptly illustrated, and effortlessly realistic. It would not be surprising if Bassiouny was inspired by Karl Popper, a 20th century philosopher who closely examined the relationship between utopia and violence. Ironically, in The Pistachio Seller, Wafaa is far from a philosophical character. If anything, the reader finds her amusing. The contrast between Ashraf’s actual carefree personality versus the one Wafaa’ envisions of him is a source of witty irony to the reader. Her coquetry is pitiful, nagging, and naive. Utopia, a sense of violent lust, and consistent fear disillusion her, completely stripping her away from reality.
On the other hand, Ashraf’s manner of love reflects his shallow life. Ashraf is a westernized British Egyptian, who has only returned to Egypt temporarily, with the purpose of working for a British bank. He is the human embodiment of the excesses of capitalism; extravagant, petty, and haughtily detached from emotions. Life to him is merely a game. When he senses Wafaa’s yearning for him, he purposely gives her false signs that he harbors feelings for her. In truth, the reader knows he is passionately in love with Lubna. ‘“He did not know why he’d been that cruel. He was sometimes in the habit of attacking the points of weakness of his adversaries’,”- explains Bassiouny. His love for Lubna is also a game, albeit one in which he invests genuine emotions. Ashraf finds Lubna mysterious. The fact that they are on opposite sides of the political spectrum makes her exotic, and difficult to please. One day, he proposes to Lubna, and promises her a rich life, away from her impoverished neighbourhood and unfulfilled political aspirations. She vehemently refuses. Ashraf cannot understand why someone would willingly choose to live in poverty. Despite loving Lubna, he dislikes the poor, and throws frequent derogatory stares at them throughout the novel. His lust for materialism and quick wins ultimately impedes him from marrying the woman he loves. Frustrated, he travels back to England.
Lubna Thaabit is angry, confused, and full of a desire for vengeance. She is a poor journalist from the working class neighborhood of Imbaba, sheltered by her communist beliefs and determination to enforce justice in Egypt. Despite her radical views, she still sometimes worries about society’s perceptions of her. The reader sees a young woman struggling to change state policies, while attempting not to be cast aside as too alien. Her emotions flow in eccentric contradictions, reflective of her struggle with identity and politics. ‘“Her feelings towards ([Ashraf]) fluctuated between possessiveness and hatred, accompanied by jealousy.”’. She is angry at Ashraf’s extravagance, and hates the way he pulls her into the very capitalist culture she has fought vehemently against. Yet, she loves him, perhaps oddly because she hates him. “‘She didn’t know whether this was the fire of her longing for him—- or was it the fire of jealousy, or the flames of her guilt feelings, or the heart of her anger?’ ” Lubna’s love for Ashraf is haphazard, emotional, and adventurous, markedly different from Wafaa’s linear yearning.
The three characters face a series of unexpected events that take place after Ashraf leaves for England. ‘“A catastrophe struck me. Everything is lost… Everything I ever owned was gone ,”- Ashraf writes to Wafaa’, a while after arriving in England. In Egypt, Wafaa is revisiting her identity. She has lost trust in her religious mentors, and is instead blazing her own trail towards understanding religion. In the process, she is becoming less frightened, and more loving. Ashraf is still her childhood love. She sends him letters to consolidate him, while reassuring him that her love for him is unconditional. Meanwhile, Lubna leaves to the United States to study for her doctoral degree in Middle East studies. Serendipity causes Ashraf to encounter Lubna again. This time, he discovers how inauthentic her anger is. He notices the flaws in her logic, and is disheartened. In the midst of his sorrows, he only finds shelter in his exchange of letters with Wafaa’. These letters turn into the gateway to his unexpected return to Egypt; a return indicative of the world turning, and twisting,- but never fundamentally changing.
The book is an interesting blend of romance and politics. Bassiouny paints the characters with talent, bringing them vividly to life. The way they interact with one another is humorous, and realistic. The questions posed on identity, and politics are eye-opening. They invoke the reader to ponder chasms that have long existed in identity politics as reflected in the characters. Nonetheless, the blend between politics and romance sometimes fells too literal and forced. This especially apparent in the plot. The love strands in the novel feel as though they are of secondary importance to the political ideas. Bassiouny frequently uses the characters simply as anecdotes that serve her political thesis. A more subtle interweaving of the two worlds would have left room for more innovative sub-plots, details, and characters. That said, The Pistachio Seller is worth reading not only because it reflects reality, but it also pushes readers to question their own identity.