‘Tree of Pearls, Queen of Egypt” by Jurji Zaydan opens “On a moonlit night long ago, two women of exceeding grace and beauty, though far apart in age, sat gazing at the silver waters of the Nile.” The year is 1250, the Ayyubid dynasty has just ended, and the Mamluk period is beginning. Shajar al-Durr, known as “Tree of Pearls,” has become the first Muslim woman to rule Egypt in her own name.
Published by Zaydan in 1914, "Tree of Pearls, Queen of Egypt" recently was translated for the first time into English by Samah Selim, an assistant professor at Rutgers University in the department of African, Middle Eastern and South Asian languages and literatures. It is an enchanting book.
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When it was originally published, "Tree of Pearls, Queen of Egypt" was serialized, like the works of Charles Dickens and most of Zaydan's 22 other novels. Each chapter is a self-contained, fast-moving anecdote from 13th century Egypt or Iraq. The book focuses on the lives of the Tree of Pearls and her favorite slave, Shwaykar. But while both of these women are good-hearted, the book does not pit good against evil. Most of the book's characters struggle for power, their actions shaped by a mix of social ties and self-interest.
The Tree of Pearls is helped in her ascent to leadership by her lover, the Mamluk prince 'Izz al-Din Aybak. But he, with some nudging by the powerful concubine Sallafa, betrays his beloved. The Tree of Pearls accepts defeat, but Sallafa has larger ambitions. She sets her sights on rule of the entire Islamic world and on Shwaykar's handsome fiance, Rukn al-Din Baybars. Rukn al-Din is one of the novel's most clear-sighted, steady characters. But he, too, considers throwing over his fiancee for Sallafa to grasp the crown.
In "Tree of Pearls, Queen of Egypt," no character is fully immune to power's gravity. Love sometimes conquers, but not always.
The book takes us through several big historical moments: the Tree of Pearls' brief rule, the collapse of Caliph al-Musta'sim's empire and the Tartar invasion of Iraq. It covers a good deal of historical ground, and Roger Allen, retired chair of the University of Pennsylvania's department of near Eastern languages and civilizations, says the book's depiction of events is largely accurate. As Allen said in a recent phone interview, Zaydan wrote to educate as much as to entertain.
Allen translated another of Zaydan's novels, "The Conquest of Andalusia," and wrote the afterword for "Tree of Pearls, Queen of Egypt." "The more I look at the actual history," he said, "everything Zaydan put in that book is historically correct. Including the love story."
As Allen notes in his afterword, the Tree of Pearls was not the first Muslim woman to rule Egypt. That was Sitt al-Mulk, who wielded power behind her mentally ill brother's throne in the early 11th century. But a Muslim female ruler was not a regular event during Islam's pre-modern years, and Zaydan's focus on the Tree of Pearls was almost assuredly part of his educational agenda: encouraging Arab and Muslim women to take on larger leadership roles.
Indeed, the pleasure of reading "Tree of Pearls, Queen of Egypt" is in many ways enhanced by its echoes of history. For a contemporary audience with no knowledge of or interest in the Islamic Golden Age, Zaydan's novel still reads with charm and insight. The characters are not given complicated individual histories or flaws, but the power of self-interest has interesting repercussions. More than that, the rapid movements from court intrigue in Egypt to court intrigue in Iraq keep the reader on tenterhooks about who will lead, who will marry and who will win this round.
M. Lynx Qualey blogs daily about Arabic literature (in English) at arablit.wordpress.com.
Five years ago, none of Jurji Zaydan's 23 novels were available in English. Although Zaydan (1861-1914) was a pivotal figure in the early 20th century Arab renaissance and wrote books that remain popular to this day among Arabs, his work was largely ignored by scholars. After all, Zaydan didn't write heavy social-realist reads, but fun, fast-paced historical novels. His books were translated into a dozen languages but never English.
It wasn't until 90-some years after the author's death that the author's grandson George Zaidan and Samah Selim, an assistant professor at Rutgers University in the department of African, Middle Eastern and South Asian languages and literatures, independently took up the idea of translating the Lebanese writer into English. Selim said in a recent interview that, unlike most of her Arab peers, she came to Zaydan novels late — "late into grad school, actually." But once she had started reading them, she didn't stop. "'Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi' ('Saladin and the Assassins') was the first one I read. Then I raced through another half dozen of the novels, all in the space of a couple of months."
George Zaidan came to his grandfather's novels even later. It wasn't until 2009, after a 30-year career at the World Bank, that he sat down to read them. He was so struck by the books that he immediately sought help translating them into English. He created a foundation and launched a rapid search for translators.
Selim, meanwhile, slowly worked her way through translating one of her favorite Zaydan novels, "Tree of Pearls, Queen of Egypt."
"I loved the way it combines politics, low-down intrigue, pomp, resonant historical memory and really strong characters," she said. "Particularly the pair of women."
George Zaidan contracted with top academics and translators and has, in the last two years, self-published five of Zaydan's historical novels, including "Saladin and the Assassins" and "The Conquest of Andalusia." Happy with the speed and flexibility of self-publishing, he said in an email that he plans to continue down that path. He agrees that "Tree of Pearls, Queen of Egypt," which won a 2012 University of Arkansas Translation Award, is in beautiful English. But Zaidan wanted to publish faster.
Yet it's evident that Selim's time has been well spent. When she began the project, she had been reading a lot of Walter Scott's historical novels. She said that to translate "Tree of Pearls," she "chose a simplified Scottian register partly because it just came naturally and partly because I felt it was the best way to communicate both familiarity and strangeness — and also the enchantment of" the novel.
"Tree of Pearls, Queen of Egypt"
By Jurji Zaydan, translated by Samah Selim, Syracuse, 224 pages, $19.95 paperback