March 7, 2023
“Superbly mastered novel” – J.-P. Guirado reviews Ezledin’s novel for Mare Nostrum

“Superbly mastered novel” – J.-P. Guirado reviews Ezledin’s novel for Mare Nostrum

By Guirado for Mare Nostrum, January 3, 2023

It all starts with a dream. A haunting and poetic dream in which angels descend from heaven to pick jasmine from the gardens of Basra – present-day Basra in Iraq. This dream continually monopolizes the mind of Hishâm Khattab who, after brilliant studies in geology which did not lead to any professional opportunities, now earns his living by reselling old books.

Books “seemed like the perfect cemetery to bury my disappointments and my sense of worthlessness,” he says. His father, a whimsical spirit, disappeared without giving any news, somewhere in Libya. His mother, for her part, spends her days lamenting her fate. An unloving woman, she only offers her son coldness and incomprehension.


The origins of Islam
Hishâm, through the rare manuscripts and works that pass through his hands, is passionate about the beginnings of Islam and the great Muslim scholars of the 7th and 8th centuries, such as Hasan Al-Basri who, through his teaching, made Basra the cradle of Sufism; Ibn Sîrîn, the initiator of the Muslim tradition of the interpretation of dreams or Wâsil Ibn Atâ’ who is often presented as one of the founders of Mu’tazilism. The Mu’tazilites approached Islam rationally, postulating that the Quran was created and that reason should take precedence as the source of religious knowledge. Adopted in 813 by the Abbasid caliph al-Ma’mûn, the Mu’tazilite doctrine is today re-emphasized by the proponents of an “Islam of the Enlightenment”. Hishâm, driven by his thirst for knowledge, approaches an intellectual from Heliopolis [ Cairo ] nicknamed “the heretic” whom he helps in his research and of which he becomes in a way the disciple. At the same time, he meets Mervat, whom he nicknames Bella because he finds her to resemble Marc Chagall’s wife and muse, Bella Rosenfeld… The day they met, in the crowd waiting for the passage of the presidential convoy, Hishâm is especially attracted by the work that the young woman holds in her hands, “The Great Book of the Interpretation of Dreams” attributed to Imam Muhammad ibn Sîrin, a book in which  his recurrent dream of angels descended to pick the jasmine of Basra, is precisely commented…

Time travel and memory
After his meeting with Bella, Hishâm begins to be visited more and more often by new dreams: the latter reveal to him in bits and pieces “the chronicle of a life, disappeared and buried under the sands of oblivion, that of a man who seemed to be me, called Yazid ibn Abihi”. The latter, a modest basket maker from Basra, was a disciple of Hasan al-Basri, and then of Wâsil Ibn ‘Atâ’. Himself haunted by dreams which he asks his best friend Mâlik to interpret, Yazîd hides inside the wall of his house, a purse filled with gold and precious gems, and deep in his heart an unspeakable secret. Victim of a betrayal that will cost him his life, his tragic destiny is recomposed through the multiple voices of those who knew him. A choral novel, The Orchards of Basra sketches in parallel the lives of two men who lived more than a thousand years apart, Hishâm and Yazid, who end up almost merging. Alternating points of view, the author thus shows the difficulty of grasping individuals in their complexity and their contradictions. Through its colorful language and its melancholic reflections on time and memory, the novel resonates resolutely with Proustian accents.

Born in 1976, Mansoura Ez-Eldin is one of the most promising voices in contemporary Egyptian literature. Her masterfully mastered novel confirms an incredible talent as a storyteller and makes you want, from the biographical entries that follow the story, to learn more about the often little-known period of the beginnings of Islam.