Set largely in Cairo in 1918 and 1919, Tawfiq al-Hakim’s Return of the Spirit, first published in Arabic in 1933, tells the story of a very different era. The stirring, revolutionary conclusion depicts an Egypt where “[i]n the midst of the demonstrations and chants fluttered Egyptian flags that showed the crescent moon cradling the cross.” Islam and Christianity lived in harmony in this faraway period, long ago disrupted by fascist political regimes and religious extremists. Such is the background of al-Hakim’s influential coming-of-age novel, written when the author was still in his 30s. But the book’s climactic revolution, at least to Western readers, may seem like an afterthought, which leaves what for the most part is a vivid depiction of life in Cairo primarily experienced through the eyes of a group of horny young men.

The novel begins and ends with the teenaged Muhsin sleeping in a small room with three uncles and their servant. Muhsin is a fictionalized version of al-Hakim, his experiences mirroring the author’s. Like the author, Muhsin’s parents have sent him to stay with relatives in a small Cairo apartment. While his studies are of primary importance, his fancy is captured by something that any 15-year old boy could appreciate: namely, the pretty 17-year old neighbor Saniya. The first half of the book follows Muhsin’s infatuation with the young woman, with distractions provided by his conservative Aunt Zenuba and their servant Mabruk.

The meat of the plot is a well-worn teenage love story; it’s the details that provide texture and context. The very sleeping conditions Muhsin endures reflects the author’s emphasis on national unity; on the other hand, al-Hakim reveals class struggles within this dynamic. If Muhsin and Saniya generally treat servants with dignity, the sane can’t be said for the elders, especially Muhsin’s parents, who live in a more rural area.

The cultural divide is also evident in religious practice; while there is a general acceptance of Muslim, Jew and Christian in this bygone Cairo, certain beliefs are more frowned upon, as when Zanuba sees a kind of fortune-teller in the hopes of earning the favor of Mustafa, a dashing Turkish neighbor who she sees in the neighborhood coffee shop. This mysterious neighbor becomes the focal point of the novel’s second section, where it turns out that Saniya, on whom Muhsin had put all his young romantic hopes, is in fact taken with Mustafa.

Return of the Spirit fell out of favor for a time, but al-Hakim went on to a long career as a novelist and playwright, variously aligning himself with and becoming a gadfly to politicians, and introductory essays place the novel in context of a volatile national history. But reports that the book found a renewed interest after the 2011 Egyptian revolution may mystify readers not well-versed in the region’s conflicts. What is it about the book that native readers respond to? Most in the West will understandably read this as a young person’s book, portraying Saniya, who may well be a symbol of national integrity, as a woman with breasts like upturned oranges. Well, it’s a universal appeal anyway, and a new Penguin Classics edition will bring this literary culture to a new audience who may find the residents of this distant place are not unlike you and me.

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