Ibrahim al-Faqih | Excerpt from the Book of the Dead
Excerpt from the Book of the Dead
Ibrahim al-Faqih’s Short Story ‘Excerpt from the Book of the Dead’ — An Analytical Study
‘Excerpt from the Book of the Dead’ is a Libyan Arabic short story written by Ibrahim al-Faqih (1929-2009). It is a psychological short story. The main theme of the story is a mental conflict regarding the presence of a girl student in a secondary class of boys’ school.
One day the teacher Abd al-Hafiz noticed a girl student. He was astonished to see her in a boy’s school. As a custom of the land, the girls cannot read with the boys in the same school. There is a separate school for the girls. The teacher Abd al-Hafiz was a man of the conservative mind. He could not bear the presence of a girl student in his class. So his mental conflict began regarding the presence of the girl. She was a nubile daughter of a Minister who was transferred to that remote region of the land. As there was no school for the girls, so the minister sent his daughter to the boys’ school after an understanding with the school authority.
The teacher Abd al-Hafiz was a man of a cynical mind. He always doubted that the school authority was in a conspiracy against him. He thought that the school authority was unfavourable to him and wanted him to leave the school. He thought more that the presence of a girl student in the class was actually a challenge to the teacher designed for the teacher to leave the school.
The name of the girl student was Zahra Abd al-Salam. She was a calm and quiet girl and took a seat at the back bench with the boys. The teacher noticed that there was a defiance and superiority in her voice. The teacher also noticed that there with the presence of the girl the class seemed to be very calm and disciplined.
The next day he decided to ignore the girl. There was no doubt that the best thing to do was to pretend to forget about her, to ignore her and to teach his class as though she was not in the class at all. Mr Abd al-Hafiz made up his mind that he would not direct any question to her, nor would he collect her copybook or refer to her presence or absence. He would disregard her with contempt until either she or whoever brought her there became ashamed and she returned whence she had come, humiliated and defeated.
On that day, entering the class the teacher got surprised at the strange silence. He noticed that the disputes, fights and din had disappeared. He thought that the boys were from another planet, one where there were no cattle pens, forests, monkeys or sand. The dirt had disappeared from their faces, which gleamed like lamps. They had made an effort with their appearance; their hair was combed, while they were wearing elegant, clean clothes. The poor among them had suddenly become rich. To say in brief there was a behavioural change in the boys. But the teacher’s attitude towards the girl remained the same. He thought that the presence of the girl would bring a catastrophe to the school. But nothing happened.
After someday the teacher noticed that the girl was absent from the class. He noticed the magic that he was once again faced with the boy’s ugliness, poverty and stupidity as they all reverted to their previous despicable state. The classroom had become darker and gloomier; the sun that had risen along the ceiling of the room was extinguished that day.
The teacher always imagined that the girl’s disappearance from the school would constitute a victory for him, and fill his heart with joy and pride. He felt that he had lived on the edge of his nerves these past days; he had fought her magic to get this result. However, this was not a sweet victory. Instead, he felt that a strange sense of grief had gripped his heart, while his throat was as dry as tinder. He felt he had lost something very precious that had filled his heart every morning – a driving force and a challenge. For the first time, he began to reflect on the entire episode and was left with a feeling of remorse. Since then he began to develop a keen love and affection to the girl student and later on he took to playing romance with the girl in his imagination. A behavioural change also began to take place in the teacher as he was paying attention to his appearance. He started wearing the suit he used to save for the Eid. He started to save every morning and put cologne on, whereas previously he would forget to save once or twice a week. The girl began to come to him in dreams.
Eventually, the teacher seemed to be lost in the state of romance with the girl and became eccentric.
Thus the author Ibrahim al-Faqih shows, through the short story, the change of mentality and outlook of men towards women in an Islamic conservative society. Really the writer wishes to show that the co-education of boys and girls should not be a taboo; it is wholesome for creating a congenial educational environment.
There are two main characters in the story. One is the teacher named Abd al-Hafiz and the other is the girl student by the name of Zahra Abd al-Salam.
Abd al-Hafiz is a teacher of Islamic ideology. He is portrayed as a type of teacher with conservative Islamic philosophy. As a teacher, he is punctual and very attentive to the students. But his mind is very conservative towards the womenfolk. He cannot bear the coeducation of the boys and girls. He thinks that the girls should read in a separate school. Their curriculum should be different from that of the boys’. So he was against the presence of a girl student in the same class with the boys. He thought that what was taught to the boys was for males only and any female ought to be embarrassed and ashamed to hear it. He could never have imagined that any girl would depart from the principles of decency and modesty and sit down in the same class together with boys.
But he noticed a change of behaviour in the class among the boys as the boys ceased to be noisy and undisciplined. A change also came in him but subsequently, his mentality seemed to be the victim of the change. He thought that the cause of all his mental unrest was the girl.
The second character is Zahra Abd al-Salam. She is the daughter of a minister who was transferred to the region where there was no separate school for the girls. So she was sent to the boys’ school. The girl is nubile as she is a student at secondary school. She seemed firm and very attentive to her studies. She showed no reaction to the teacher’s injustice done to giving her marks for her assignment. There is some trait in her that makes her some different from other girls as she showed no embarrassment with the boys though she was the only girl student in the class. It seemed that she was of a progressive mind and could cope up with the situation.
In representing the story, the author has employed the narrative method and narrates his story in the third person.
The structure of the story conforms to the traditional standard of construction of a short story. There is well an exposition, rising action, climax, denouement and conclusion. The explosion is full of curiosity as the teacher Mr Abd al-Hafiz was pondering over his class as it was calm and quiet and thought that the school inspector had arrived before him to conduct an inspection round in order to embarrass him in front of the students and record that he had arrived late for class.
With the entering of the teacher in the class the story rises up and the situation takes a new shape. The teacher noticed a girl in the class sitting among the boys. In this rising action, we see that the teacher is full of agitation concerning the presence of the girl in the class.
From the rising action, the story reaches its height when the teacher began to feel that the presence of the girl was beneficial to the educational environment of the school.
The falling action revolves round the teacher. In this stage of the story, the teacher got involved in a romance with the girl though not in reality but in imagination.
The falling action goes down to denouement with the teacher’s restoration of outlook towards the girl as it was previously.
The dialogues used in the story are sparing and reliable which have contributed to the development of the story and succeeded in revealing the inner feelings, emotions and motives of the characters.
The Setting of the story is well and realistic. The author has given a realistic and vivid picture of the setting of the story.
The Philosophy of Life is also found in the story ‘Excerpt from the Book of the Dead’. The author has expressed his philosophy of life indirectly that coeducation of boys and girls should not be a taboo. Coeducation brings in a healthy environment in the educational institution. The theme of the story with the philosophy that the author has expressed is revolutionary to human outlook towards women. It may be called a blow in the age-long Islamic philosophy which advocates separate education for girls.
The Language of the story ‘Excerpt from the Book of the Dead’ is grand with poetic imagery. The author has employed many abstract ideas in his description. For example, we can cite the following sentences at random:
“In spite of yellowness, beauty emanated from her face, the kind of the beauty of oases filled with date palms, quiet and unassuming.”
“… he felt that a strange sense of grief had gripped his heart, while his throat was as dry as tinder.”
“The sun once more shone in the class, and Mr Abd al-Hafiz noticed with joy that a flock of sparrows now rested in his heart.”
“He would look at the sea, addicted to thinking about this girl who had suddenly entered his life just as she had entered his classroom out of the blue.”
In maintaining the Qualities of a good short story as —unity of purpose, brevity, spontaneity and universality the author has succeeded considerably.
As all the elements and qualities of a good short story are present in the story ‘Excerpt from the Book of the Dead’ so it may be called a short story of first grade. 0 0 0
Ibrahim al-Faqih ‘Excerpt from the Book of the Dead’
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