March 7, 2023
Foreign literature: books not to be missed – By Maya Kergall and Olivia Phelip, Via Books

Foreign literature: books not to be missed – By Maya Kergall and Olivia Phelip, Via Books

A review by Maya Kergall and Olivia Phelip, for Via Books, February 19th, 2023

At the start of 2023, many publications give pride of place to foreign literature. We find some heavyweights like the latest books by the late Javier Marias, Colson Whitehead, Joyce Carol Oates or the reissue of a major text by Vassili Grossman. These giants rub shoulders with a few novels whose authors are to be discovered without delay: thus the young Iranian Nassim Marashi, the American Ash Davidson, the Egyptian novelist Mansoura Ez-Eldin or even the American of Filipino origin Daphne Palasi Andreades.




The Orchards of Basra by Mansoura Ez-Eldin, ed. Sindbad, Actes sud, 224 pages

What’s the story ?

Hishâm is passionate about ancient manuscripts and has made his profession from trading them. He is haunted by a strange dream in which he sees angels picking all the jasmine from Basra. This dream (of falling jasmines) is listed and interpreted in a very old book that he loves. According to this book, this dream is a premonition of the disappearance of all the thinkers of the city. In the grip of hallucinations, he never ceases to navigate between two worlds: contemporary Cairo where he lives and 8th century Basra, a fascinating city where Islamic thought is, at the time, in the making. In this parallel world, Hishâm meets a character in whom he recognizes his double, a man named Yazid, who is part of the circle of rationalist theologians, who were later harshly opposed by orthodoxy. A solid friendship immediately binds him with one of their disciples.

Why this book?

The author alternates paintings, eras and interior monologues. She masterfully handles language levels, giving her story a polyphonic dimension. She manages in passing to delicately approach certain theological questions debated at the time, in particular the creation by God of human acts. Perhaps a message emerges here, resonating with Hisham’s dream: if there are no more jasmine flowers in the orchards of Basra, it is because with the closure of the sacred texts on themselves, Muslim religious thought has gradually become sclerotic. A fine reflection on the meaning of a religion standing the test of time. Or rather, times.