Egypt’s Literary Gems: Mansoura Ez-Eldin’s The Refuge of Absence
The Self as a Collage of Short Stories

Mansoura Ez-Eldin’s Ma’wa al-ghiyab (The Refuge of Absence, 2018), a collection of interconnected short stories, is a captivating and strange book. It is made up of fifteen short stories with well-architectured layers and a fascinating interplay between imagined beings and worlds that revolve around experiences and objects — both real and imagined entities. 

Guiding the reader through her dreams and creating patterns of realistic movement across imagined spaces, Ez-Eldin opens up a myriad of complex inner worlds that at times seem timeless while at others appear to be on the verge of collapsing. Narrated in the first person, Ez-Eldin’s stories take us on an honest, eclectic and endlessly creative tour — from a ruined city, to death embodied as a blind highway robber, to a magical undersea forest, to a mountain wrapped in clouds, and an encounter with endless emptiness. She explores a lake of mercury, the reality of a mirage, and a dream in which the author “was truly a river” but “is now an illusion of a river.” The stories are made up of interactions between multiple aspects of the author’s own self. 

All the keys and clues needed to seduce the reader are in the first short story of this collection, titled Madina Halika (Fallen City).

From behind my closed eyelids, I foresee my refuge. I can see and walk in it, even though nothing connects me to it except words — for it is built from them … I wander about in its streets and run into agonizing writers. Each of them is independently seeking his or her salvation in a place that is continuously oscillating, like a basaltic rock hovering in space. It is cube-shaped and polished. Studying it causes us to bloom like a flower unhurriedly unfolding its contents, secrets, schemes and structure to the eyes. … Only the ones with elusive minds belong to this refuge of mine — the lovers of mystery and ambiguity … those who foresee the footsteps of ghosts in the silence of the night, valuing delusions and despising facts — those who believe in imagination and sanctify illusions and delusions.

Only those possessing selective memory can wander in its streets — those who preserve in their minds the most minute details of fiction and mythical stories, while the memories of real-life incidents evaporate from their heads.

They are not ordinary people. Rather, they’re states of being of other individual writers, with innovative minds and tired souls.

It is clear why the author asserts that her work is an assemblage of interconnected stories: there is no way readers could fully comprehend the depth and breadth of this experimental work without starting with this first short story. It is our essential introduction into the inner worlds of Ez-Eldin, and it is executed with outstanding literary playfulness. Throughout the book, we get to know how Ez-Eldin sees the work of certain authors — their books, ideas or turns of phrase — that constitute her authorial universe and her refuge within. Franz Kafka, Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges and the Roman poet Ovid are all part of the cosmopolitan makeup of her world. 

We also see much more than that: her ideas and impressions about death, the reality of consciousness and nature, and the challenge of containing that reality in writing. Here is a literary work that takes on typical philosophical questions, presenting and assuming a theory of being, but at the same time offers so much more, as it engages with the use of symbols in a refreshingly unconventional manner, intertwining the symbols with a series of captivating emotional and intellectual revelations. Here is a passage from the short story Ghaba Taskun Bahr (A Forest Residing in a Sea), which illustrates how space and spatial relations can be altered in an ethereal way within the author’s perception:

This space manifested itself as though it is the universe reconstructed as a text that I can read. … Space told me effortlessly, wordlessly, “There is no innocent geography. The Earth is loaded with the devastation that occurred on its surface. Its guts are pregnant with memory puzzles.”

… There is nothing in my pocket except guesswork and interpretations — the means of a powerless individual to restore events and people. … Here I realized that if places cannot share their memories and narrate them to others through language, they will invent a way to do so.

Meanwhile, in Ibnat al-sarab (The Daughter of a Mirage), the author reveals her understanding of what constitutes a mirage and her feelings towards it:

I live in the endless emptiness. The expanses empty of humans and the likes of them invigorate me. When they appear, I amuse myself by playing with what they see, transforming from one state to another … I am formlessness in its eternal mutiny against being caged into a final form, defined and lone. I am all the ephemeral forms vanishing into others.

In its childhood, the world was a borderless body of water, only covered with fog that could almost hide and camouflage it. It was a calm concept fermenting in a mind that values transformation, liquidity, and evaporation. When this concept was embodied, however, it fell in love with corporality and disavowed flexibility and formlessness. 

The most rewarding element of this collection is its linguistic character. The language is versatile enough to ease into the constant change of scenes and movements, but also descriptively animated — evocative, yet strangely precise. The stories are infused with spiritual metaphors and diction and are heavy with symbolism, especially mythical and pharaonic. 

From the get-go, the collection highlights the author’s skill in using the reader’s ever-mounting curiosity to see how this odd, almost absurd world will unfold. There are no (real) characters. There are embodiments, imagined beings, ghosts of writers and historical figures. There are no events, just a continuous folding of space and time and magical journeys to and from one imagined setting to another, all put within vividly directed scenes that loosely follow the physical rules of the real world. There is no plot, just carefully designed appearances and disappearances of embodied and abstracted feelings, impressions, experiences and ideas — sudden, cataclysmic ruptures amid slow-paced, atmospheric scenes.  

In a way, The Refuge of Absence can be seen as a stage for its author’s imagination. The secret, however, is not the well-orchestrated and sometimes playful performance taking place on that stage, simulating a deceptively unguided dream. Rather, it is in the slowly crystalized realization that this world of Ez-Eldin is at once — with all its particularity — profoundly personal, as much as it is familiar, in that it is an abstraction par excellence of the postmodern literary and intellectual self and its imagined inner workings — a task that I’ve rarely seen attempted with such honesty and literary precision.

The loosely interconnected short stories, with their calm insistence on being neither fully connected nor fully disconnected — have proven to be a fitting vehicle for the author’s subtly unsettling portrayal. Unlike a novel, no inner self has one clear overarching theme or linear progression. With its eclectic elements and decentered trajectory, The Refuge of Absence is a noteworthy literary experiment. Ez-Eldin’s linguistic and conceptual mastery makes this collection an overall worthy and immersive reading experience; a capably crafted depiction of the various spheres of human, self-referential consciousness.

Tarek Ghanem 

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