Book Review: A Spy in Ka'aba - An ambivalent view of Abdallah Burckhardt

Hesham Taha,Tuesday 30 Nov 2021

A Spy in Al-Kaaba, by Mosfata Ebeid
A Spy in Al-Kaaba, by Mosfata Ebeid

Gasoos fi Al-Kaaba (“A Spy in Al-Ka'aba”) by Mostafa Ebeid, Cairo: Al-Rewaq Publishing, 2020 pp. 325

Mostafa Ebeid, who is a translator, begins his novel A Spy in Al-Kaaba with a prologue in which he speaks to his protagonist, the historical figure of Ibrahim ibn Abdallah before his grave in Bab Al-Nasr, Fatimid Cairo.

Otherwise known as Johann Ludwig Burckhardt (1784 –1817), the protagonist is a Swiss traveler with an English mother and valiant knight for a father, who, along with his mother and grandfather, instilled in him steadfastness and an incessant pursuit of glory.

Not only does Ebeid use the second person method of narration, which is extremely rare in Arabic literature, he employs the metafiction style (crushing the fictive illusion for the reader) throughout the novel. By employing it, the author is always appearing, asking the protagonist questions, speaking about his own state during the Coronavirus pandemic and mentioning the scarcity of sources about Burckhardt and the real personalities he met during his travels in the Levant.

Ebeid informs the reader that he has invented a Swiss lover for Burckhardt, naming her Margarita. Burckhardt ran away after her parents caught them together in bed. After receiving an education in German universities, he went to London where he was able to get the support of British African Association to go on an overland mission starting from Egypt to reach the lost city of gold by the Niger River.

Many European travelers had already died trying to reach this destination from the sea. For this, he began to dress like an Arab and changed his name to Ibrahim ibn Abdallah, converting to Islam and claiming to be a trader from India when he reaches Syria. It was a naïve idea, for his fair European complexion betrayed him whenever he met an Arab, immediately revealing the lie about his origin.

Ebeid conveys Burckhardt’s observations on the entire Levant region. He meets John Barker, the British Consul in Damascus, who gives him money, a curved dagger and more tellingly a bottle of poison. He was advised not to jot down any notes in public for this would make Arabs suspicious. He was invited to a banquet hosted by the Governor of Damascus where he meets Ibrahim Agha, who is the right hand assistant of Tusun, the son of Muhammad Ali Pasha, the governor of Egypt. It transpires that Ibrahim Agha was a Scottish knight named Scott Keith in the failed Fraser Expedition on Egypt where he was captured.

He then converted to Islam and became a Mamluk to Tusun out of his own free will. Both men confide to each other their secrets: Burckhardt is searching for the city of Petra and Ibrahim Agha was sent as a personal emissary from Muhammad Ali to discover whether Britain would invade Egypt once more while he was away in the Hejaz fighting Wahhabists. Burckhardt reassured him that Britain was preoccupied with its war with France, but it would like to deal with a ruler of Egypt who is secure in his rule, not one battling with Mamluks and the Azhar Sheiks for power!

Burckhardt noted that the Levantine Arab princes’ loyalties are divided among Muhammad Ali, the Saud family and the Bedouins. He added that they are generous, but they would eliminate you without thinking twice if they suspect your motives.

Then Burckhardt rediscovers the ancient Nabataean city of Petra (located in modern-day Jordan), which leaves him spellbound. Afterwards he goes to Egypt where Mr. Edward Missett, the British Consul-General in Cairo, provides him with accommodation, as well as Adam, a male servant and Noor a female slave. Naturally, while there he meets Ibrahim Agha, for whom the author invents an enchanting sister-in-law, Naglaa who eventually Burckhardt marries upon Agha’s insistence. Embarking on his quest to Niger, Burckhardt goes first to Upper Egypt. On his journey, he discovers the mutual reprisals that Muhammad Ali’s officials and the Mamluks are engaged in. Aswan’s Pharaonic temples do not interest him, but he is surprised with the people’s altruism.

Suddenly, Sir Joseph Banks, President of the British African Association suddenly assigns to him a totally new mission. He is to go to the Hejaz, on a pilgrimage, and probe its people’s opinion regarding the Turks, Muhammad ibn Abd Al-Wahhab and Muhammad Ali. In order to secure enough money for the trip from Sudan, he sells Adam and goes with a caravan to Jeddah. He records that all through history there have been slaves in all parts of the world but Arabs have been more inclined to free their slaves than the Europeans.

Ebeid is puzzled by Burckhardt’s real intention in performing the pilgrimage. Is it out of true faith or is it just an espionage assignment? At a later stage, the author, through the benefit of hindsight, warns Burckhardt not to trust Muhammad Ali Pasha when meeting him in his residence in the Hejaz. The Pasha tells him candidly that Sadeq Effendi, Judge of Mecca must examine him before letting him enter the Holy city. He is eventually allowed to enter and is shocked to see the corpses of seventy Wahhabists naked and impaled on the walls of Mecca. After performing Umrah – the lesser pilgrimage – he is told that his pregnant wife Naglaa has died after contracting the plague. He starts to suffer from unbearable pains in his intestines and thinks that he too will die. On his way to the Medina, he sees a pile of Wahhabist skulls killed at the hands of Muhammad Ali’s army. Both Burckhardt and the author agree to hate Muhammad Ali because of his and his mens’ bloodiness, ruthlessness and tyranny.

Although Burckhardt decides to continue his travels to Niger through Sudan after crossing the Red Sea, he feels irresistibly inclined to return to Cairo where the British Consul Henry Salt informs him that he has been ordered to stay in Egypt. He is suspicious that his fictional wife Naglaa is an agent of Muhammad Ali. His suspicions are confirmed after asking the famous historian Abd Al-Rahman Al-Jabarti.

The Pasha of Egypt orders his henchmen to kill Burckhardt slowly so as not to provoke the ire of Britain. Small drops of arsenic are put in the oil used by the masseur rubbing Burckhardt’s body in the public bath he frequents.

He becomes acquainted with Giovanni Belzoni, a circus man who became an explorer and archaeologist in Egypt.

Burckhardt suspects that since the Pasha of Egypt distrusts him, the Pasha is preparing Belzoni to be his successor. Muhammad Ali sends both to Upper Egypt, but Burckhardt decides to join Belzoni after going to Alexandria to meet Margarita, who informed him that she was coming with a missionary. However, he then discovers, through a later letter she sent apologising, that she is not coming. Burckhardt is keen to send his diaries regularly to Salt, fearing that they might be stolen or destroyed. He returns to Cairo only to die following excruciating abdominal pains. He is buried according to Muslim tradition upon his will.

Throughout the novel, when Burckhardt is nostalgic he remembers his mother Sara Rohner and the imaginary figures of both his lover Margarita and wife Naglaa, and to lesser degree his grandfather.

Due to the countless times the author breaks the fictive illusion through commenting and engaging in discussions with the protagonist, the reader is distracted and is sometimes confused as to what is real and what is fictitious. In the end, this lessens the beauty of an otherwise informative historical novel.

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