Before he was eclipsed by Ibrahim Eissa, Qatari writer Abdul Aziz al-Mahmoud had one of Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing‘s top sellers in The Corsair (القرصان, trans. Amira Nowaira):
Indeed, The Corsair — written by Qatari journalist, engineer, and author Abdul Aziz al-Mahmoud — is built to be both edifying and widely read, in the tradition of one of the all-time most popular Arab novelists: Jurji Zaidan.
Al-Mahmoud’s debut novel is set in the Gulf in the early 19th century, and follows a number of characters and stories. Central to them is that of the pirate Erhama bin Jaber. The novel is thus a re-framing of world history that puts the concerns of the Gulf’s marginal “pirates” and their loved ones on an equal footing with those of the British government, the neighboring empires (Egypt, Persia), and the Dutch East India Company. Al-Mahmoud’s book also calls into question who can be called a “pirate”: Is it fellows like bin Jaber or invaders from other nations?
Occasionally, The Corsair is pedantic and instructional, as Zaidan’s historical novels sometimes were. But by and large it’s a romp through history, with lots of quick cuts between scenes and cities and plenty of high-level political intrigue. Midway through the novel, one of the book’s British government officials says of Persia, “I’ve seen little but conspiracies. People here live and breathe plots.”
Indeed, a casual reader of The Corsair could be forgiven for seeing life in the 19th century Gulf region as plots upon plots; they do keep the pages turning. But the inner lives of the book’s characters are also central to its appeal. Erhama bin Jaber is neither “good” nor “evil.” It could be said of him what translator Samah Selim has said of Zaidan’s central characters: “rather than being defined by scales of good and evil, they live in and through a combination of politics, self-interest, and emotional attachments.”
And even more like Zaidan, Al-Mahmoud uses his re-framing of world history to speak (almost) directly to contemporary issues. Where Zaidan was interested in education and enlightenment, al-Mahmoud seems focused on promoting trade and tolerance. We sympathize with the The Corsair’s Wahhabis, who are under attack by the Egyptian general Ibrahim Pasha. But we are also distanced from the Wahhabis’ strict religious views. Some of the book’s sympathetic characters believe the British are infidels, sure, but this is largely a reaction to British arrogance. Most characters believe in a positive relationship with the Brits. The good guys, like Erhama’s son Bashir, are anti-war and pro-trade.
Perhaps most interestingly, Bashir bin Erhama, son of the titular pirate, is mostly tightly allied in the end not with the Egyptians to the West nor the Persians to the East, but with the British. Bashir says to Major George Forster Sadleir:
“I lost my father, Sadleir.”
“Yes,” he said, “but you’ve gained a brother.”
The British certainly are not good guys in this novel — most are arrogant deal-breakers, bad listeners, bad friends, and bad husbands. Plus, they drink too much. But even the worst of the Brits are portrayed sympathetically, as are the Persians and Indians. Only the Egyptians, it seems, are not.
In the author’s Twitter tagline (@aziz_almahmoud/), he calls himself a “Qatari journalist and writer, love to live in peace with everybody”. It will be interesting to see how al-Mahmoud follows القرصان, and whether he continues his inventing and re-inventing in the (fun, historical, pedagogical) tradition of Zaidan. I, for one, would welcome it.