With his bestselling debut novel “Taxi, Khaled Alkhamissi emerged as a compelling storyteller in command of the world of colloquial Arabic, while his newspaper articles left readers in awe of his poetic language and eloquent analogies. The anticipation for his sophomore book was charged with high expectations.
The wit that characterized Alkhamissi’s compilation of conversations with taxi drivers in “Taxi would shine even more with his masterful use of standard Arabic.or so I thought. Unfortunately, “Safinet Nooh (Noah’s Ark), which currently tops El-Shorouk’s bestsellers list, turned out to be rife with false expectations.
First, Alkhamissi should be lauded for trying to take on the beefy topic of migration from different angles. It’s not just illegal immigration he tackles, Alkhamissi ventures into the other factors that drove more comfortable Egyptians out of the country. The usual suspects – unemployment and financial problems – are presented hand in hand with the brain drain.
There are the fresh-grad lawyers looking for an escape through online chat rooms; the businessman who flees the country to evade paying millions of pounds in debt; the academic who can’t cope with security interference at universities; the prostitute looking for more work abroad, and the group of wealthier Egyptians who take a second nationality as a plan B in case anything goes wrong in the country.
The research that went into this book is evident. Various immigration routes (legal and illegal) are mapped out, from the trek through South America to the United States and the movement between Eastern European countries with fake passports, to the infamous boat from Libya to Italy. Marriage to a foreigner is portrayed from different angles: one as a way of acquiring a nationality and another as a progression of a relationship, where the new nationality is a byproduct.
The stories taking place in Egypt are also rich with information, especially the chapter about the Nubian family, which provides a brief historical study of the concerns of Egypt’s Nubian community.
But in doing that in addition to including all this research, Alkhamissi filled his 400-page book with characters. The index alone looks like the ship’s passenger log book (12 chapters and 11 title characters). And in each chapter, the title character battles for the readers’ attention with even more secondary characters and sub plots.
The technique of switching voice between the articulate narrator (standard Arabic) and the standard characters (usually in colloquial Arabic, some less sophisticated than others), which seems to be working at first, contributes to the confusion.
Gradually, it becomes tiresome to keep track of all the characters, to figure out who’s talking, and then remember who went where. And when it suddenly sounds like some of the characters are talking to a woman, as if the whole story is a conversation with a mysterious female narrator, it gets even more confusing. (Don’t worry, the narrator issue will be explained in the last chapter).
But the problem persists throughout: All the little details distract from the narrative itself, to the point where sympathizing with the suffering of the characters becomes impossible.
That’s partially because some of the stories don’t end – or to be fair, don’t appear as if they have ended.
In the first few chapters, Alkhamissi gives the impression that he is going to portray the same incident from the perspective of all the characters involved in it. As a fan of Milan Kundera’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being, where this technique was masterfully employed, I was initially excited to see how Alkhamissi would shape the story into this mold.
But while Kundera kept going back to the two protagonists to build up the story to its closure; in “Noah’s Ark, characters only seem to share one date: Jan. 1, 2005 at noon – and even that connection fades away later on in the book.
Chapters end without a satisfying closure to the stories of its title characters. Sometimes the completion of the narrative is sacrificed for the sole purpose of showing the migration scene, or the mulling of the migration decision. The expectation that these stories would be addressed in later chapters is only fulfilled in fleeting glimpses towards the end of the book, when it is too late for the reader to care or sympathize with the characters.
Even the usually fascinating notion of unrelated characters crossing paths in unthinkable ways loses its impact here, mainly because paths only cross too late into the book, where it seems like the author only attempted to connect the threads to reach a hastened closure.
In the beginning, the book promises to be a fast, enjoyable and informative read. But without a clear storyline to guide the reader through the narrative, it gradually falls flat. It might have been better to release it as a collection of short stories with a migration theme and play on the disjointedness of it, rather than the current state where it’s neither a collection of punchy memorable shorts nor a powerful long narrative.