Barbara Frischmuth

Barbara Frischmuth: Vergiss Ägypten. Ein Reiseroman. (Forget Egypt. A travel novel.)

Review

The Vienna-based German Studies professor Valerie Kutzer does not only have a professional interest when it comes to meetings between cultures but travels back to Egypt each year in order to reflect. She reflects over the social levels that present themselves and over her personal relationship to Egypt and the Egyptians.

Her friend Lamis lives "on a Magic Mountain" on the 13th floor in a house in Agouza, a part of the city west of the Nile. Here Valerie has found a place for reflection and to ponder on her impressions and where she always transforms into something different; similarly to the statures of the old Egyptian divinity such as Hathor, Isis, Ra and Thoth (the latter god of writing and knowledge). Lamis never notices the pink building outside her window that Valerie imagines is a magical palace inhabited by fairies. The magic that is right under your nose is often overlooked as we often take it for granted.

Through Lamis Valerie gets new perspectives on Egypt. From the view on the 40th floor of Hotel Grand Hyatt she is able to look down on the "glistering, shadow-cast city" of Cairo. During the Mulid celebration, a carnival parade celebrating the honour of the Saints, the "old Egyptians' reveal their true love of life and their joy of being alive”.

Valerie finally finds out that even Lamis had an Abbas once. It is less Abbas and more of "many dreams and little reality", stories "without a middle" that the two friends connect to these names – in a different way from women who emigrated from Austria, Germany and other European countries and settled down in Egypt because of their Abbas. For some of these women Egypt represented the Land of Dreams while it on the one hand was "civilised enough" to cope as a Western woman and on the other hand "dangerous enough" to satisfy a need for adventure.

Valerie also speaks to Lamis about women's position in Egyptian society. Lamis' opinion is that women were "better off" during the time of pharaohs than today. But during the 60's and 70's many more women wore miniskirts. Nevertheless, Valerie notices that the girls with headscarf (hijab) are more "flirtatious" than the girls who wear "their hair in the open".

In the subject of religion and social structure, it is not only one side that gets to speak in Forget Egypt. In a letter to Valerie, an Austrian woman, converted Muslim, intensely criticises Christianity and the Western consumer society as well as a one-sided Eurocentric mentality: "But the Western point of view is not the only one that is good for something". As the western world in its 'for- and with each other mentality' lacks a sense of community, there is no future for this society in the long run. Even if you, as a woman in Cairo, do not have it easy and " a lot of things are different" and Egypt is "full of misery", the Muslims’ serene state of mind as they "smile at their fate and look after each other [more] are contrasted to a western "impatience" and "arrogance".

In conversations about the magician, poet and mystic Dhun-Nun, the ward that was swallowed by a crocodile and who reminds Valerie of the "Mister Punch in our own game of puppets and shadows", Orient and Occident meet in an often humorous way. Dhun-Nun appears, at least from Valerie's perspective, in typical clothing from the Alps and as a hybrid character.

Forget Egypt also makes a direct reference to Flaubert's travel diary of Egypt. This as the book appears as less of a travel novel than a literary photo album and diary that depicts scenes and images of everyday Egypt, its past but also inserts introspective recordings of the soul such as contemplations of life in a philosophical manner ("Most people are cannibals, not only because they steal your time but they also steal the attention that you need for other things"). Valerie suffers from the environmental particularities just as Flaubert: The air is "thick of metals and the ejection of millions of stoves and exhaust pipes", this is why she is always haunted by a sore throat and a fever. Cultural and religious traditions are described as sensations and "stories of people from different regions of Egypt and Africa", and the obtrusiveness of street vendors, "that could spoil the country for you". In Egypt you can experience "so much beauty, but also so much ugliness". But above all, you must be "able to look in order to see something".

For Valerie, as well as for the reader, the "awe and wonder" are especially for the old Egyptian culture, a culture that still appears present in this book.
Stefanie Schneider, 2014