Fiction, Am Oved, 2017
In March 1799, during his campaign in Egypt and Greater Syria, Napoleon Bonaparte laid siege to the city of Acre. Had it not been for the staunch resistance of Acre’s Governor, Ahmad al- Jazzar (also known as Jazzar Pasha), assisted by the English fleet and a former French officer, the fate of the region and the whole of Europe would have been very different, as Napoleon himself agreed.
A work of historical fiction, Au Revoir Acre depicts a people caught between a ruthless dictator and a rapacious enemy, in an atmosphere of fear and suspicion. When a ship full of Parisian prostitutes sent to Napoleon’s soldiers by the French state is captured by the English, the women are handed over as gifts to Jazzar Pasha’s soldiers in Acre. The brutal treatment of these “infidel foreign women” exposes the repugnance of war, with its unrestrained misogyny and patriarchy.
The novel sheds light on many aspects of the Arab world, past and present. Ala Hlehel focuses on the relationship between the Christian colonizer and the Muslim colonial subject, and he brings into sharp resolution the thorny, unresolved nexus between West and East.
Along with Jazzar Pasha, other historical characters include his chief adviser and financial vizier Haim Farhi, also known as “Farhi the Jew”; the anti-Napoleonic Antoine de Phélippeaux; and the infamous Abd al-Hadi Amil the Impaler, who ends up a fugitive fearing being impaled himself.
Napoleon enters the novel via Jazzar Pasha’s hallucinations, where the two characters meet in eerie dialogues about life and death, killing and destruction, juxtaposed against lust, sensuality and the enchantments of romantic infatuation. The novel develops an imaginary relationship with Bonaparte spun by Jazzar Pasha inside his own mind, illuminating the inner world of those who send others to their death.
Au Revoir Acre spans the period of the siege until Napoleon abandons his attempt to occupy the city and returns to Cairo. The fictional end that Jazzar Pasha comes to is the final part of a drama whose deft plot twists have made it one of the decade’s most admired novels since its publication in Arabic in 2014.
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