Love and corruption, then and now: Osama Gharib’s ‘Hamam and Isabella’

Dar al-Shorouk has just published the first edition of Hamam and Isabella: A Story of Love and Revenge… With Idiocy (Hamam we Isabella: Qessat Gharam wa Enteqam…be Ghabawa). The novel is by journalist and writer Osama Gharib.

Gharib writes for Al-Dostour newspaper and the Kuwaiti publication Al-Watan. His previous book is Egypt is Not My Mother But My Stepmother (Masr Laysat Ommy Deh Merat Abouya).

Hamam and Isabella tells the story of a doomed love affair in Andalusia between the years 1230 and 1260, the last 30 years of the deteriorating Muslim rule in Spain and the end of five decades of prosperity in the region. Hamam ben Elish al-Kawarshy is a wealthy young businessman who inherits his father’s real estate business and develops it using his shady connections with the dishonest ruling party, Sultan Bekiki and Hassan, the spoiled crown prince.

Hamam falls in love with the married, blond singer Isabella. He pays her husband, Attouka, to leave Isabella so that Hamam can marry the beauty. As time goes by the love begins to fade,  and Isabella starts longing for freedom and for her past life as a famous singer. She escapes from behind the golden bars of Hamam's castle, causing him to lose all sense especially after he hears that Isabella is living with another man and spending Hamam's money on her new love.

Hamam, who has become rich through his shady real estate investments, hires al-Metagen, a hit man who is known for his heartless commitment to his job, to kill the cheating Isabella. Al-Metagen finishes his task but foolishly leaves a long trail of evidence leading directly to him and Hamam. Both men end up in prison waiting for a trial that many doubt will be conducted honestly.

Much of the story in Hamam and Isabella is tangled with the then political situation in Andalusia: a corrupt, abusive ruler who sucks the life from his people, dishonest ministers who linger in their positions in order to steal from the poor, and nonbelievers masquerading as religious men.

The real aim of the author is apparent from the second or third page of the book. Hamam and Isabella is basically an historical retelling of the case of the infamous businessman Hisham Talaat Mostafa and his late wife, the Lebanese singer Suzanne Tamim. Gharib uses his novel to criticize the rotting political life in Egypt, the lack of freedom of expression, the oppression, the inadequacy of the legal system, and many other aspects of our modern day country.

In spite of the changed names, time, and setting in the novel, Gharib's contemporary meaning is crystal clear to a reader familiar with the Talaat Mostafa case. And, in the end, this focus turns the book from fiction into propaganda. Tackling a specific subject while divorcing yourself from the specifics of the event is overrated and overdone. If the motivation behind translating the contemporary story into the past is to show that history repeats itself, the work is cliche; if it was motivated by the author’s fear of repercussions were he to address the situation directly, it is lame.

Not even the contemporary relevance can save Hamam and Isabella from being tedious and repetitive. Each chapter starts with an historic glimpse of Andalusia then goes on to the details of the case, the rumors of corruption, and the many political figures tangled in it. By page 70, the novel is fully weighed down by unnecessary detail.
The graphics and the design, however, are a marvel, as is expected from the creative artist Amr al-Kaffrawi who has adorned many Egyptian and Arabic books with his masterpieces. But, aside from visually, the book is a disappointment.   

Hamam and Isabella is available at most local bookstores for LE25

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