Review of The Palm House by Tarek Eltayeb

Kareem James Abu-Zeid (Berkeley/San Francisco, August, 2006)

“Tarek Eltayeb has written this novel to prove that narration can indeed overcome the difficulties and illnesses of this era, and that it can even conquer man’s estrangement.”

The Arabic poetry and prose of the Sudanese-born author Tarek Eltayeb (who grew up in Egypt before moving to Austria, where he lives today) has received widespread critical acclaim for many years. The publication of The Palm House (bayt un-nakhiil, Eltayeb’s second novel) this year in Cairo has met with almost universal praise from literary critics across the Arab world. Hamza, the novel’s narrator, continues the tale he begun in Eltayeb’s first novel, Cities without Palms (mudun bilaa nakhiil), and once more travels to Europe, this time to Vienna, where he scrapes out a living selling newspapers on the street. The critic Ahmad Sadiq Ahmad writes in his review for the online Al-Sahafa journal: “We gasp for breath with Hamza, and we feel his tension as his languished soul meets Sandra, a lovely Austrian woman who shows him a world of love. […] Tarek El-Tayeb’s writing takes us on a journey through both time and space. The narrative focus often shifts from Vienna to the dear native village of ‘Wad An-Nar’ in Sudan which so haunts Hamza’s memories. Eltayeb’s novel juxtaposes the displacement and dispersion of Sudanese in exile with the horrors of Sudan’s civil war and the murders, famine and corruption that have ravaged the country.”

In his review of The Palm House for the Juzuur Cultural Foundation’s online journal, the writer and critic Abd An-Nasser Aysuwy asserts that Eltayeb’s novel establishes art as a means of “overcoming man’s feelings of estrangement.” He continues: “ He achieves this through prose that seems remarkably simple to the reader, and yet is, in truth, extraordinarily deep. The centerpoint of this prose is the protagonist Hamza, who has travelled to Austria with nothing but a copy of 1001 Nights, the singer Ismahan’s song Nights of Pleasure in Vienna and some painful memories; yet he also possesses a vast array of stories from his home, and the gift of knowing how to tell those stories.” Sharif Ash-Shafi’s review in Saudia Arabia’s Al-Riyadh newspaper also has glowing praise for the novel: “In the previous novel Cities without Palms, Hamza swallowed the bitterness of loss caused by the ills of the Third World and in particular those of the least developed countries; in The Palm House, he places these ills alongside those of the First World and compares them, defying them with an onslaught of stories, an onslaught of art. Through his spiritual exodus to the Palm House, he topples that fictitious giant called ‘estrangement,’ and restores man’s lost humanity.”