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Review: "Superior writer of fiction"

Ottawa Review of Books, by Ian Thomas Shaw

Leila Marshy's The Philistine is a rich portrayal of two young women's passionate love affair in one of the world's greatest cities. Set in Cairo in the late eighties, it is the story of Nadia, a Canadian with a Palestinian father, and Manal, a young Egyptian artist. Each woman struggles with deep-set wants. For Nadia, it is to be reunited physically and emotionally with her Palestinian father who left Montreal when she was a child. For Manal, it is to obtain a much sought-after scholarship to escape Cairo and study art abroad. The dichotomy of Nadia's quest to re-find her Palestinian identity and Manal's desire to escape the stifling confines of her Egyptian identity pervades the book and is perhaps at the very basis of the passionate attraction that each feels toward the other. For Manal, Nadia is a free woman from a free society with unlimited opportunity for women. For Nadia, Manal is a quintessential strong Arab woman, through whom she can embark on her own journey of self and sexual discovery.

The plot is not overly original. Girl seeks absent father. Girl falls passionately in love in a distant land. Girl finds her roots. However, it is eloquently told in impeccable prose. In it, Bishara (Bob) Eid, a Palestinian refugee who has many years lived in Canada, has taken a well-paying job in Cairo after failing to find suitable work in Montreal. Leaving his wife and daughter behind for what was to be a temporary situation, Bishara has gradually faded out of the family portrait. His wife, Clare, has moved on, but his daughter Nadia harbours a sense of abandonment and decides one day to visit her father in Cairo. While waiting for her first meeting with her father, Nadia attempts to dispell her anxiety with a little sight-seeing. She stumbles across a vernissage at a local art gallery where Manal works. The two are immediately attracted to each other although at first not necessarily in a sexual way. When Nadia discovers that her father has also moved on, acquiring a new family, Nadia's sense of abandonment intensifies. She finds solace in Manal's arms, who also becomes a conduit for Nadia to reconnect with her Arab roots and learn more Arabic than the few words her father had taught her as a child.

Although the novel is not highly political, Marshy does build through some of the secondary characters a rudimentary understanding of the tumultuous events of the late eighties in Egypt and the Palestinian territories. Tewfiq, who also works at the gallery, comes from a poor Cairene family. Slowly he is drawn to the preaching of the Muslim Brotherhood that Islam is the solution, and runs into trouble with President Mubarak's high-handed police. Nadia's father, Bishara, leaves his well-paid job to join the Palestinian Red Crescent Society with a view to returning to the Occupied Territories to assist the injured of the first Palestinian Intifada. Through a number of medical reports on the injured, the readers become sensitized to the brutality of the Occupation. But Nadia, who is herself quite apolitical, serves primarily as a blank canvas to record these political developments.

As a debut novel, The Philistine is a very good effort. Its flowing prose makes it eminently readable. Its descriptions of Cairo are enjoyable, although perhaps more so for readers who have already visited the city and can fill in the details. The novel does not have much of a story arc to it though and definitely lacks in suspense. Some of the elements of the story, i.e. an illicit love affair, anti-government activity and the Palestinian conflict itself, offered missed opportunities for dramatic impact and a quicker tempo. The few dramatic confrontations in the novel are limited to short outbursts of emotion and are not particularly memorable. Still, as a whole, The Philistine demonstrates Marshy's potential as a superior writer of fiction and author to watch in the coming years.

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