A century of Middle Eastern history: Gilbert Sinoué’s ‘Le Souffle du Jasmin’

Le Souffle du Jasmin (The Breath of the Jasmine) is Egyptian novelist Gilbert Sinoué latest literary work. The book constitutes the first section of a two-volume saga entitled Insh’ Allah that retraces the turbulent history of the Middle East powder keg from the loathed Balfour declaration of 1916 to the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center in New York.

According to Sinoué, the question that was on everyone's minds in the West after the deadly attacks was, “How could the Arab pull off such an attack?” But, to Sinoué, the relevant question in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 was not how, but, “Why did they do it?” In an attempt to answer this very question, the author went back in history to 1916.

“In 1916, Britain and France convinced the Arabs tribes to revolt against the Turkish presence in the Middle East during the first World War by promising them independence once the war ended,” Sinoué explained. “They promised auto-determination and democracy, and many Arabs joined the fight against the Ottoman Empire and lost their lives on the battlefield.”

Taking a deep breath, he went on. “Little did they know that two generals, Picot from France and Sykes from Great Britain, had already signed a secret agreement that redefined the borders of the whole region in the Sykes-Picot agreement.”

Lord Balfour’s support of the creation in Palestine of a Jewish homeland, that led to the creation of Israel, added fuel to the already burning humiliation the Arabs were experiencing. According to Sinoué, “This declaration marks the beginning of the huge misunderstanding between the West and the Middle East.”

The novel quotes Rudyard Kipling, who gives the overall tone of the narration: “Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet” (The Ballad of East and West)

In Le Souffle du Jasmin, Sinoué introduces the reader to five families from Palestine, Syria, Egypt and Iraq who create a net of voices and experiences. The Shahid family from Haifa, ship-owners and citrus producers, their Jewish friends and neighbors, the Marcus family, who fled the Polish pogroms at the beginning of the century, and the Tarboush family all live in Palestine. The Egyptian Loutfi family is headed by Farid Loutfi Bey, a major cotton grower, and the last family is Iraqi, the El-Safis.

All members of these families are significantly open-minded, educated and well-off and through fate and love proved an emotionally vibrant depiction of the region’s political and social stirs.

By punctuating his narrative with Arab expressions and beginning each chapter with a proverb, the novelist unravels his dense story with springiness, giving it a pleasant pace. “The rhythm is fundamental,” he explained. “In order to keep it going, the writer has to force himself into a rigorous lifestyle.”

Sinoué depicts very complex situations like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Syrian revolt, and the rise of Nasser, mastering the difficult balance between explanation and oversimplification. This tour de force explains the Middle East’s complexities in roughly 800 pages (Le Souffle du Jasmin combined with the second volume Le Cri des Pierres (The Cry of Stones)).

“I extensively researched the archives for years and made numerous interviews before writing this saga,” explained Sinoué, whose own background helped him in this process. Born and raised in Egypt, Sinoué spent most of his childhood on a cruise ship that once belonged to King Farouk. “My father bought this ship from the government after the king left the country, and transformed it into the first cruise ship in Egypt.” His father knew the prominent political figures of the time and was a great source for Sinoué’s saga.

Page after page is filled with saucy anecdotes, like the fact that Anwar Sadat was nicknamed “Von Sadate,” and wore a monocle and a very short haircut to show his admiration for an army he considered capable of kicking the British out of Egypt.

Although the historical interest of the novel cannot be denied, the style in which it is written is sometimes less assured and often too blunt. Some quotes feel unnatural to the text, and serve only to support the historic purpose of the saga.

Sinoué himself admitted, “The balance between fiction and historical fact is very difficult to achieve. Sometimes the history tries to step over the fiction, or the other way around, and historical literature turns out to be a difficult gymnastics.”

Sinoué’s novels have been extensively translated in many different languages, including Arabic, but not yet in English, a mystery that the writer himself cannot solve.

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