Egyptian Earth: Reviving a modern classic of Arab literature

Egyptian Earth: Reviving a modern classic of Arab literature
Book Club: Translated into English for the first time, al-Sharqawi's masterpiece depicts an Egyptian village community's struggle against class oppression.
6 min read
20 March, 2024
Abdel Rahman al-Sharqawi's first novel, Egyptian Earth, is one of the most successful Egyptian novels ever published [Saqi Books]

Egyptian Earth by Abdel Rahman al-Sharqawi is a timeless masterpiece of Arabic literature.

First published in 1954, two years after the Egyptian Revolution, Desmond Stirling Stewart's translation has revived this classic for a global audience to witness al-Sharqawi's wisdom and erudition.

As with his previous works, Egyptian Earth is a book that centres on themes of Arab socialism, social justice, and revolution. 

"Egyptian Earth is a simple story about the battle between the farmers and their oppressors, the colonisers versus the colonised"

When a twelve-year-old boy returns from school in glamorous Cairo to his dwindling village, he finds it in upheaval. The delicate work of the farmers is disrupted by corrupt and avaricious officials who place an absurd deadline on the irrigation of the fields in an attempt to control and capture their land.

The comical and eccentric people of the village engage in bitter discourse on what to do. The simplicity of the villagers' individual and communal lives is animated through Sharqawi's prose as they navigate the politics coloured by colonialism and mercenary motives.

An Egyptian village revolt

From village elders to an alluring peasant girl with dreams to the city-educated farmer's son, we witness the resilience of the oppressed despite their miserly circumstances and dwindling authority over their own lands.

The eloquent honesty of the novel distinguishes it in the literary canon as an exceptional example of linguistic achievement and an emphatic declaration of resistance.

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Understanding the upheaval of 1930s Egypt

The novel is set against the backdrop of Ismail Sidky's rise to power in the 1930's. The formation of his People's Party and reign are earmarked by a debased society in which the Omda or village headmen are used as tools of governmental control, perpetuating violence and class differences.

When the little boy returns to Egypt, he is inundated with his peers swooning over Waseefa, the village beauty. However, he was more interested in ruminating on what he had seen in Cairo. He recalled the demonstrations he saw that called for the downfall of Sidky. He learned that Sidky was vehemently imposing his People's Party on Egypt and had suspended the Constitution in the interests of the English.

This was when the impacts of Sidky's rule on the people became clear as this remote, unnamed Egyptian village was fracturing under the new government.

Waseefa's father, Abu Suweillim, the Chief Guard, and the headmaster, Sheikh Hassouna, were ostracised and demoted for their open support of the Constitution.

Other characters like Sheikh Yusuf, a shop owner, had half of his one land acre seized. Although he had attended demonstrations, it was evident that the peasants' experiences made them far more cognisant of the Constitution than himself.

When the Omda announced they had only five days instead of the customary ten days to irrigate their farms or face insidious ramifications, there would be peril in their lives. The villagers band together to oppose the Omda and the mayor, Mahmoud Bey, and, in turn, Sidky and the British.

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Sharqawi's characters are multifaceted and written with profound psychological acuity. The heroic and curt farmer, Abdul Hadi, and the city-educated Muhammed Effendi, who struggles to reconcile his prosperous fortune with his rural origins, rip asunder the wall that seeks to disparage and obscure pastoral Egypt.

The dialogue that ensues between each of these characters reveals fragments of their idiosyncratic propensities. Their complexities highlight their humanity and flaws, and their strength is found only once they set aside their squabbling and arrogance.

The novel's language ostensibly appears unpretentious; however, as many native Egyptian critics have noted, it clearly echoes the crudeness of the dialogue between the villagers.

This authenticity allows the story's events and characters to cascade seamlessly in brilliant artistry. Yet, the unsophistication does not detract from the intricacies of a peasant population facing head-on with authoritative regimes; instead, it elevates the truth of their plight.

Moreover, he masterfully illustrates how religion, tradition, and superstition become entangled and enmeshed in their daily lives and how this further convolutes their experience as colonised people.

A champion of social justice

Sharqawi was born to a peasant family and obtained a legal education at the University of Cairo. Egyptian Earth was his first novel, and his personal experience is mirrored with impassioned clarity.

Sharqawi has devoted his life to defending the injustices peasants face in his literary works and other endeavours. He participated in the antimonarchy struggle and established the progressive journal Al-Katib, which championed cooperation and unity.

He authored over two dozen books and was the secretary-general of the Afro-Asian Peoples' Solidarity Organization. He was also in charge of Egyptian delegations to myriad conferences on peace in the early fifties. And so it is no wonder that the story of Egyptian villagers would affect intense power and spirit in its reader.

The book's fame increased when it inspired the 1969 film The Land, expanding its scope of influence and inspiration; like the novel, the film further delves into the contradictory and nuanced reactions of the oppressed peoples. A few choose silent acquiescence, others advocate for vocal and obstreperous protest, while others fret that they are facing the wrath of God for their sinful lives.

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The Egyptian peasants were marginalised and suffered the most under feudal-imperialist injustices. The government exploited their diminutive status and lack of knowledge and resources, like the peasants of the novel who continue to lose valuable land for roads and lavish palaces to be made.

Egyptian Earth is a simple story about the battle between the farmers and their oppressors, the colonisers versus the colonised. Their weakness is used against them to humiliate and strip them of any honour. And so they resort to almost absurd trickery and outlandish ideas to regain their dignity and land.

While Abdul Hadi and his neighbours are fictional, the quandary of the Egyptian farmers under Sidky and the British is no tale. It is a disgraceful plot in history, and Sharqawi has given them a voice and a glimmer of hope and justice.

Written 70 years ago, this narrative remains to resound in the events unfolding in Palestine today. Government soldiers and Israeli settlers are the same,  while the villagers' land and Palestinian land are an inextricable struggle for liberation against bestial forces.

Sharqawi's novel has made the spirit and fervour of a united people indelible. While colonisers reveal the sinister depths of human depravity, their victims reflect the most tenacious and noble of mankind.

Noshin Bokth has over six years of experience as a freelance writer. She has covered a wide range of topics and issues including the implications of the Trump administration on Muslims, the Black Lives Matter movement, travel reviews, book reviews, and op-eds. She is the former Editor in Chief of Ramadan Legacy and the former North American Regional Editor of the Muslim Vibe