Houses behind the Trees

Dialogues

Houses behind the Trees is a novel set in a small village in the Egypitian Delta. Mohamed El-Bisatie is its author, and is brilliant in his description of life, culture, and gender bias in post-colonial Egypt. It was translated from Arabic into English by Denys Johnson-Davies in 1998. The story is about a husband and wife seperated by many years of age. He comes home one day to catch his wife cheating on him with one of his longest friends sons who is of a similar age. Mussad, a butcher, is enraged and vows to track the boy down and kill him, and after doing so he plans to kill his wife. The book gives an amazing look into the gender role crisis and male dominated culture of Egypt, and adds a womens perspective to it to show the contrast in thought.

The central woman figure's name is Saadiya, and she is the wife of Mussad. Amina, Mussad's sister, complicates the plot by siding with her brother and not defending Saadiya when she is sent for by her brother to look after his wife. She at one point even slaps Saadiya accross the face and tells her what a disgrace she is to women everywhere in the country. Amina perpetuates the stereotype by not realizing Saadiya's revolutionary standpoint, and rebukes other women in the village for showing sympathy and compassion for Saadiya. She also veiws herself as a submissive woman to men, and fells that all women should be this way. This is why she is so furious with Saadiya who,in her eyes, disobeyed her husband.

Saadiya's lover, Amer, runs for his life and his father sends him to the countryside to hide out at his uncle's house. Mussad and his nephew Antar track him there and try to kill him but their plan gets foiled and Mussad gets fatally wounded.

The entire book deals with how people interact, and the societal structure that makes and destroys families. Throughout the book is backstabbing, deceit, and rumors running through the village, and this is accepted as the norm. Window peeking, nosey neighbors, and good old fashion jealousy are a huge part of this villages culture, and that is part of the problem as to why the climax of this book comes to a head. But most importantly, the central theme of the novel is how women interact, and how gender decides your fate in social ranking and as a part of society.

Mohamed El-Bisatie is well know among a wide audience, but especaially among his native audience of Egypt. He was born in 1937 in el-Gamalia. He attended Cairo University and graduated in 1960 from the School of Commerce. He took a job for the government as an accountancy inspector where he stayed until he retired.

Traditionally a writer in Arabic, he began publishing in 1962 with stories such as: al-Masa', al-Katib, and Rose el-Youssef. His first work, al-Masa', was published in August 1966.

El-Bisatie is a member of exclusive writers know as "Gallery 68." "Gallary 68 is an avant-garde literary magazine which was the brainchild of a core group of 10 writers...publishing in its eight issues." (from arabworldbooks.com)

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  Dialogues

Many conclusions can be drawn from this book, and be compared to those of other Middle-Eastern writers. One of those is Men in the Sun by Ghassan Kanafani. Throughout Houses behind the Trees,the characters struggle with immagrants fleeing their area of residence due to the war raging in their homeland. The entire plot of Men in the Sun is men leaving to go find work somewhere else so they can send money back home to support their families.

In Houses behind the Trees they call these people "evacuees." They were in the market place trying to scare up enough money selling their goods to buy food to feed their children. Granted, the three men in Men in the Sun were not this desperate but, the premise is still the same: trying to make a better life for themselves.

Mussad refuses to let Saadiya leave the house until nightfall because he thinks that men will recognize her anckles and will stare at her. There are many occassions where other characters place restictions on their wives, and this is considered acceptable and what is practiced. Mussad's view is that only he is allowed to see any inch of her skin, and it will not be tolerated if it is shown outside the bedroom walls.

 

  Notes

In the words of Denys Johnson-Davies, "El-Bisatie is a writer's writer, which is to say a writer that makes no concession to the lazy reader. He stands back from his canvas and sketches his characters and events with a studied detatchment. While there is drama in his stories it is never highlighted. The menace lurks almost unseen between the lines."

This book is not an easy read, and I would reccommend it to be for seniors in high school going on to college. It is a challenge, but a good one and one that will be rewarding at the end.

Another interesting point is the way that women communicate in the novel. Gossip and jealousy are an important part of their relationships. The women in the novel are always trying to one up their female friends.

Wealth is an important part of their society. Many of the women character bring their other friends in to show off their material posessions. They like being able to show what they have. An example is the carriage rides. Only the wealthiest of people get to enjoy this luxury, and Mussad tries to take his wife on many occassions through the steets to show his wealth. She cover up her face extra carefully so not to be seen by anyone they pass by in the carriage.

  Links

**www.arabworldbooks.com/authors/mohamed_elbisatie.htm

Here is the place where you can find a list of his works, and a description of style and life.

**www.utexas.edu/utpress/books/elbhop.htm

If you want a copy of the book, then here is the place to get it. It is also available on Amazon.com

*** http:web/ahram.org.eg/weekly/2001/529/bo4.htm

Here is an excellent site on the life and history of the author. It also gets into some professional components of his career as a writer.

  Teaching

Teaching this book could lead to a lot of interesting discussion, but can also be used as a springboard to many other issues. Some study questions that might want to be used to start is:

What do we know about Middle-Eastern culture? What is false, and what is just plain stereotyping?

How does the history of this area play a part on the culture that exist today, and how has it changed?

How does the role of women play a part in this culture, and how is it different from American culture? How is it similar, because in some cases it is?

How has the government affected the lives of the people living there, and how is the government viewed by the people? Is there open hostility and why?

Some of these questions can lead into a lot of key points touched upon in this book. Government is continually mentioned and is considered to be a negetive aspect. Many character in the book express their views, and it is interesting to draw those paralels with the conflict going on today.

 

  Citations

El-Bisate, Mohamed. Houses behing the Trees. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 1998.

 

Colonial & Postcolonial Literary Dialogues

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Last Updated: 5/6/02