The year is 2048. Donia Nour awakes from her nightly sleep along with greater Egypt’s other 124 million citizens as the call for dawn prayer erupts into their minds: “Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar!”
But this is no ordinary Adan distortedly seeping through the windows of a Cairo apartment. This futuristic call for prayer is technologically inserted into the brains of Egyptian citizens through an internal mind-control system, reminiscent of George Orwell’s thought police in “1984.”
Welcome to life in Egypt under Neo-Shariasm — a frightening dystopian society at the nightmarish crossroads of totalitarian theocracy, emerging technology and mindless consumerism.
In his debut novel, “The Thirty-Third Marriage of Donia Nour,” Egyptian author H.Z. Ilmi portrays an alternative, chilling vision of Egypt’s near future juxtaposed against the country’s turbulent past.
Written mostly in 2010 under a pseudonym, and self-published on Amazon this past July, Ilmi’s novel is a bleak and haunting prophecy of what Egypt could become under the grips of religious dogma, capitalistic consumerism and intrusive emerging technologies. The book is currently only available in English, as the author felt the general Arabic-reading public might not be ready for a story that so clearly challenges every aspect of religion.
The false virgin
The book opens up with the introduction of Donia Nour, a data entry technician who is willing to risk her life and soul at the expense of smuggling herself out of Egypt.
Years after the catastrophic suicide of her mother, and in the midst of her father’s worsening dementia, we meet Donia at her most dangerous — a woman with nothing left to lose.
She is determined to flee from the prayer monitoring booths, the incessant public sermons, the “fixation on accumulating computer-tracked good deeds” and the omnipresent surveillance of a neo-capitalistic, theocratic coalition of Islamic forces called the Nezam; but Donia’s desired exodus comes at a brutal price. Her only source of funds comes through a series of “one-night marriages” that require her to undergo painstaking, illegal virginity restoration operations and a life of utter deception and degradation.
But at 22 years of age, and after 32 “one-night marriages,” Donia Nour is ready for her great escape — she is ready for her 33rd and final marriage.
H.Z. Ilmi’s sci-fi philosophical thriller is an exceedingly disturbing alternative reality. With its citizens controlled by “psychic rosaries,” “Shariatainment” instead of satellite television and UV-ray virginity tests, the young author succeeds in portraying a grotesque world with clear traces of the one we live in now.
Visions of dystopian societies are nothing new to contemporary Egyptian literature. In recent years, some more notable sci-fi novels include Mahmoud Osman’s “Revolution 2053: The Beginning” (2009), Ahmed Khaled Tawfiq’s “Utopia” (2010) and Ezzedine Choukri Fishere’s “Exit Door: Ali’s Message Full of Unexpected Joy” (2012).
However, it is no mere coincidence that a burst of dystopian novels emerged in the years surrounding the January 25 revolution. The genres of science fiction and prophetic literature allow writers to examine society through a grotesquely different lens than the present. And in a region so heavily plagued by censorship, Orwellian allegories and fantastical plot lines often times serve as a far better weapon than a direct political assault.
But where the “Thirty-Third Marriage of Donia Nour” truly succeeds is in its portrayal of an alarmingly shocking futuristic society without losing the plot to unbelievable fantastical abstractions. In fact, all of the author’s metaphors, exaggerations and forewarnings are rooted in real occurrences, whether in scenes of Donia Nour having her breasts suckled by her male co-workers in the office, or the reoccurring debate about government induced virginity tests.
While the novel could benefit from deeper character development and more lucidly styled prose, the story is utterly compelling and a riveting read. There are shining moments of satirical humor, and enough philosophical jargon to wage some pretty decent arguments for and against religion, atheism and the inevitable self-destruction of a neo-capitalistic, theocratic system.