Book Review - A winning retelling of the Aida story

Hesham Taha, Sunday 4 Jul 2021

Book Cover

Aida – Aseert Al-Harb, Ameerat Al-Hob (Aida – War Captive, Princess of Love), Khaled Badawi, The General Authority for Cultural Palaces, Cairo, 2019, pp.262

This is Khaled Badawi’s third novel, which won in the Culture Palaces competition, and it retells the well-known and true story of Aida, the Abyssinian war captive and her disastrous love of General Radames, commander-in-chief of the Egyptian army.

Writing and researching Aida took a year-and-a-half from the author, who intertwined the tragic romantic story with several aspects of life in Egypt at the time; the royal palace (intrigue, plots and counter-plots), the army (training and battles), the workers (poverty, misery and strikes) and the priests (their rituals and influence).

The novel’s preamble narrates the situation in Egypt 25 years after the death of Ramses II and how enemies in the west (the Berber), north through the sea (sea pirates) and the south (Abyssinia) began to attack or revolt. The coronation of King Horus Anset (Ramses III), the son of the late king Setnakht, took place and immediately he dismissed all his father’s aides and began his era with fighting and vanquishing the Sea Peoples like the Sherden and other enemies.

While Egypt’s Pharaoh Horus Anset, who belonged to the 20th Dynasty, achieved victories and built temples and immortalized himself, poverty and hunger prevailed during his final years, for he ruled for more than 30 years. Parallels drawn by the novelist between this Pharaoh and late former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak are inescapable; ruling for more than 30 years, the First Queen Iset’s insistence that her son, the heir to the throne, Prince Amenherkhepshef rule during his father’s reign.

There is also a counterplot hatched by the Second Queen, Queen Tiye, who wanted her own son Pentaweret to sit on the throne of Egypt instead.

Horus Anset attempts to know what is actually happening behind his back, so he forms a fact-finding commission headed by Bin Tabu to tour Egypt, north and south. He began sending reports about corruption and how he addressed it wisely and decisively, but alas, he was killed by Minister Too’s men. Minister Too always stood as a barrier between Horus Anset and his people, especially those who wanted to speak of injustice or grievances. Naturally, Minister Too joined the conspiracy when he felt that his son Huri would not be appointed as his successor as well as seeking to strike before his cover-up would be exposed.

Like Opera Aida, which is a four-act opera, the novel constitutes four chapters containing mini chapters or episodes.

Badawi is quite obviously concerned with social justice. Hence, he mentions in detail the first workers’ strike in history during which workers attacked the Deir el-Medina temple demanding their wages and food, from which they were deprived for 20 days.

Radames was brought up by Ramfis, Egypt’s High Priest, and a servant named Samhari after his father, the commander-in-chief Mai, died in battle and his mother died earlier when he was a toddler. Radames proved himself battle-worthy par excellence whether as a courageous soldier or a tactician. 

Princess Amneris, Horus Anset and Queen Iset’s daughter, fell in love with Radames, but it was unrequited love. She deliberately made a trap for her closest maid Aida to discover her love for Radames. She lied saying that Radames has died during the battle with the Abyssinians and Aida was unconscious. Thus, she became certain that Aida was in deep love with Radames and accordingly imprisoned her in order to make her come to her senses and know her place. Here entered Bindawaw, the harem eunuch who started to insinuate to Aida to pretend to Amneris that she became obedient and he will secure her a meeting with her father, the Abyssinian king, Amonasro, who was captured in the latest battle with the Egyptian army.  

Badawi created two threads of the novel’s plot; the first is concerned with the famous love story between Aida and Radames, the second is based on the politics of the royal court and the conspiracy to assassinate Horus Anset and the heir to the throne. The two threads intersected when the conspirators, headed by Queen Tiye, exploited Princess Amneris’ love and used her through Bindawaw the harem eunuch to ensnare the lovers Radames and Aida in order to get rid of Radames and distract the royal court’s attention away from any suspicious movements.

As the highest level of honour, Horus Anset announced that he chose Radames to be the husband of his daughter, Princess Amneris. Aida implored Radames to help her flee from Egypt since he was to wed Princess Amneris and tell her the army’s safe path in order to escape. He reluctantly gave her his ring. Unbeknownst to him that Aida’s father was the Abyssinian king, Amonasro, who appeared out of nowhere thanks to the conspirators’ help. Thus, he was put in a very grave situation when he had to choose between helping Aida and her father, Egypt’s sworn enemy, to escape by the use of his ring or kill the captive king on the spot and he was capable of this. At this moment, Ramfis, Amneris and Bindawaw the harem chief eunuch were witnessing in silence and immediately ordered soldiers to incarcerate Radames along with Aida and her father.

During the trial, Radames chose to be silent throughout save requesting that his dog be taken care of. After deliberation, Ramfis, who sat as the chief judge, issued the verdict that Radames be buried alive in a hole underground. Afterwards when soldiers began executing the verdict Aida ran towards Radames telling him that she didn’t escape with her father and chose to be buried with him.

Badawi inserted a number of sentences spoken by Ramfis or other characters purporting the monotheistic belief underlying the Pharaonic faith.

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