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We know how it’s supposed to work. Relationships across cultures and religions ought to result in expanded horizons, positive feelings, and individual growth because of exposure to something different. We’ve all seen this happen with some individuals—harmonious marriages, building on both parties’ pasts and bringing out the best in both people involved. Individuals, we know, can adjust to differences and evolve into more interesting and complex people because of exposure to something new. But then, too often, families, friends and communities intervene and the syncretism is destroyed by the prejudices of the past. Communities become more intolerant than individuals, creating social pariahs in their wake, destroying those who had discovered happiness, often for the first time in their lives.
Michael Springate’s erudite and smart exploration of these differences in his first novel, The Beautiful West & The Beloved of God, packs a wallop as he explores these unsettling issues with the grace and finesse of a much more experienced writer, especially with the novel’s breathless resolution. As you turn the last pages aware that few remain, you begin to wonder how the story can end so abruptly. Did the final chapter somehow get cut out of your copy? Certainly, there have to be more pages, given the complex mess his characters find themselves confronting—both in the West (Canada) and the Middle-East (Cairo). Even that canvas has become menacing, relentless in its attack on the characters who should never have been torn so far asunder.
A young woman, named Elena, leaves the hinterlands, with her seven-year-old daughter, Sharon, and arrives in Montreal in pursuit of a university education. But she drops out of the program for no good reason and takes a sales position in a woman’s clothing store, run by an older woman named Rachel. Because Elene has little money, she eats in a Middle-Eastern café where the food is inexpensive, and there she meets the owner’s young son, Mahfouz, approximately her same age. Both are lonely and the inevitable relationship develops. Mahfouz is innocent, sensitive and caring, especially of Elena’s daughter. Elene is more worldly but grateful that she has found a much stronger man than the one who left her pregnant and alone seven years earlier.
Even Mahfouz’s parents accept their son’s relationship with Elena, though his father proposes that he make a trip to Cairo for a possible business venture involving his brother. Yes, his father tells him that there is a young woman in Cairo he’d like his son to consider, but there is no heavy-handed attempt to manipulate him. And by this time, Sharon has practically begun to live at the small Mediterranean café owned by Mahfouz’s parents, who both grow fond of her.
When Mahfouz goes to Cairo, everything quickly falls apart because of his uncle’s affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood. The time is before the Arab Spring, when the Brotherhood has to operate largely underground. Mahfouz’s uncle, Ibrahim, is a marked man, and because his nephew is present the day the older man is carted away, and a Somali businessman also with them fights back, the latter is shot by policemen and both Mahfouz and his uncle are put in prison.
This is where Springate’s novel takes flight, leaving the secular for the political. Mahfouz is without political consciousness when he arrives in Cairo but soon his uncle presents a disturbing picture to him, not just of Mubarak’s repressive regime but the way that Western governments (including Canada) are complicit in those activities. There’s a chilling scene when Ibrahim tries to explain to his nephew why Islamic governments that are propped up by the West are supporting little more than the next iteration of Nazi genocide against the Jews:
“You want to be frank? What’s a missile or a bomb if not a portable oven? What is the American military if not millions of portable ovens, all set to bake human flesh? Have you ever seen the photos of charred bodies after an attack from the drones or F-16s? That is what we Muslims face as we seek our independence from colonialism. Incineration. Ask all those whose family members have been cooked. Oh, it’s unfortunate, everyone says when it happens, but then the next day it happens again: in Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and now in Pakistan. Or for that matter, ask the people of Tehran if they feel good with the threat of being baked. I tell you, Mahfouz, the Israelis and the Americans will eventually bomb Iran, and they will eventually bomb Cairo too, but we, like the Persians, like the Palestinians, will emerge from beneath the radioactive sand having become the mutant cockroaches they fear, and we’ll force the Europeans and Americans out and retake our places in our own land. Some things are foreordained.” The rhetoric here sounds much more current, like something from the Islamic State.
What is so totally unsettling about Mahfouz’s situation is that it isn’t long before his father—back in Montreal—is also incarcerated, as the Egyptian military (with the complicity of the CIA and the Canadian government) concludes that the young man is nothing more than a conduit to channel money to the revolutionaries in Cairo. Thus, two innocent Muslim men, with Canadian citizenship become victims of Mubarak’s terror.
The story shifts from bleak to hopeless, as Springate richly layers his characters’ unfortunate circumstances with numerous incidents from the recent and distant past. The treatment of Canada’s indigenous population is mentioned as a parallel situation to Gaza and Israel. Rachel, who is a Jew, begins to treat Elene differently because of her relationship with Mahfouz. Yet the rhetoric is never intrusive or didactic but mostly articulated through the dialogue of minor characters. Sadly, there’s not much of a sense of hope left for the main characters by the end of the story other than a close bonding between Sharon (now eight years old) and Mahfouz’s mother, Ghadir.
The Beautiful West & The Beloved of God is an amazing novel, frightening in its honesty, timely in its observations. Some of the scenes of Michael Springate’s unflinching picture of Western imperialism will leave you breathless.
Michael Springate: The Beautiful West and the Beloved of God
Guernica Editions: 265 pp., $25
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email: email@example.com.