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IN BRIEF

Fiction

June 23, 1996|MICHAEL HARRIS

THE SEVEN DAYS OF MAN by Abdel-Hakim Kassem, translated from the Arabic by Joseph Norment Bell (Northwestern University Press: $24.95; 220 pp.). "The road to the Egyptian village will from now on pass through the works of Abdel-Hakim Kassem (1934-1990), just as the road to Cairo passes through the works of Nobel Prize-winner Naguib Mahfouz," Egyptian scholar Ahmed Abdel-Mu'ti Higazi says in the introduction to this novel. Kassem's book tells the story of poor farmers' pilgrimages to the city of Tanta in the Nile delta to honor a Sufi saint; religion permeates their lives. Each pilgrimage, or moulid, takes seven days, echoing the seven days of the creation: An evening gathering, a day of baking, a day of travel, a day to secure lodgings in the city, "the big night" when villagers whose skin is "spotted by malnutrition" for once feast lavishly, a day of farewell and the return home.

Kassem's novel follows this schedule day by day, but it's no mere account of exotic customs. The age of the narrator, Abdel-Aziz, changes with every chapter. At first he is a little boy, awed by the rituals of the local dervishes led by his father, Hagg Karim. Later he is an adolescent, more interested in girls than in saints. Still later he is a student in Tanta, half-ashamed of the pilgrims, who are treated as bumpkins and bullied by the police. Meanwhile, the larger-than-life figures of his childhood sadly dwindle, as Hagg Karim's otherworldly generosity proves to have bankrupted the family. "Kennedy and Khrushchev" replace traditional topics of coffeehouse talk, and at the end of this simple-seeming yet sophisticated novel, Abdel-Aziz is caught between the dying world he loves and a future he can't imagine--a victim of time having moved on even in this timeless place.

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