Hen picked: Salwa Bakr’s Egyptian fables

Ramadan is a time of fasting, self-restraint, and good deeds. It is also an occasion for storytelling, either in celebration of the nightly feast or as a way to pass the time. In the spirit of the long days and longer nights of Ramadan, Al-Masry Al-Youm shares stories and tips for a good month in a new series called “Alf Leila We Leila: Stories for Ramadan Through the Ages.” Throughout the holy month, we will post original pieces from the Al-Masry Al-Youm staff on everything from how to host a perfect iftar to reports of Ramadan abroad, alongside Arabic literature from Sheherazade to Mahfouz.

Below, Al-Masry Al-Youm discusses Salwa Bakr's work, particularly her story The Rooster's Egg: A Fable of Ancient Thebes. 

The Egyptian novelist and short story writer Salwa Bakr was born in Cairo in 1949, where she still lives today with her husband and two children. Her first collection of stories, Zinat fi Janasat ar-Ra’is (Zinat at the President’s Funeral) was self-published in 1985, four years before Bakr was arrested for supporting the Egyptian labor movement.

Bakr has worked as a literary and film critic, but she is most celebrated for her fiction. Her novel The Golden Chariot (AUC Press 208) has been compared to Alf Leila We Leila for its use of “circular and digressive narrative techniques… to explore the lives and histories of inmates in a women's prison in Egypt.”

Bakr’s characters are often defined by their limitations. Take Usama, a father and husband trying to improve his life through small adjustments and schemes while pondering his life’s great, dismissed dreams, created by Bakr in “Rabbits” (translated by Samia Mehrez and excerpted in The Literary Atlas of Cairo).

In the scene, Usama carries a bag with two rabbits which, he feels, holds the key to broadening his future in a way that previous sacrifices–forgoing daily tea so that his daughter can have the fruits she loves–did, but only to a small degree. Bakr manages to imbue Usama with a credible but fragile hope, like an eggshell around the man.

Another of Bakr’s stories, The Rooster’s Egg: A Fable of Ancient Thebes, (translated by Chip Rosetti and published in full on Words Without Borders), tells a story of vanity, power, and the whims of the dominant class through the eyes of a rooster and his wife, the dutiful hen, who one day, thinking “for a long time about the status of the race of chickens” convinces her preening husband to appeal to the high priest at the Temple of Amun in Thebes for divine status.

The rooster, god of the the hen house, needs little convincing. “The rooster was a youth, in the prime of his life, and quite vain about his beauty and charm, which didn't entirely translate into experience and practice.”

At the temple, with the high priest as their audience, the rooster makes his appeal. Among the qualities that make him and the hen worthy of being gods are their fervent procreation, their worship of Ra, their gentleness, and their beauty.

The hen, for her part, is convinced.

“The hen could not restrain herself from feeling joy and pride in her beloved, and she felt as though she had just laid an egg in the hen house that very moment, and she was about to squawk proudly, for she had discovered that her rooster was eloquent, well-spoken, persuasive, and charmingly forthright.”

The high priest, on the other hand, is less impressed.

With disdain, the priest describes the intimidating roster of gods–Ra’s sharp teeth, Horace’s swift flight, Amun’s inedible meat making him devastating even in death. Chickens, on the other hand, particularly insolent, vain chickens, are, well, chickens.

“Even the weasel,” says the priest, “which is considered a species of mouse, can throttle you and suck your blood without you being able to prevent him in any way.”

The rooster tries to win the priest’s favor by extolling the god Ra above all, and is chastised for his favoritism.

Bakr writes with occasionally vulgar humor, reminding the reader that these divinities–aspiring and realized–are still animals. In her fear, the hen worries about her unpredictable bowels, “She thought perhaps she urgently needed a well-known remedy for diarrhea.” And the rooster, after making excuses not to, thinks about pecking at the offending man, “priestly genitalia included.”

After putting the chickens in their place, Bakr gives the priest the same treatment; he agrees to a bribe of eggs in exchange for granting the chickens their wish some time in the future.

Power, though, in this story is dictated by whim, and the tides change for all three players with the ascension of a new pharaoh, Akhenaten. The young ruler happened to have overheard the rooster’s assessment of Ra as the godliest of all the gods, and was won over. Absolute power appeals to the pharoah. “He became convinced that what the rooster said was right: that every god—no matter who he was—had limited, relative and incomplete power, with the exception of the god Ra, who is able to do anything and has absolute power.”

In his campaign for Ra, Akhenaten condemns those who worship other gods, including the priests, who he removes from their positions.

Here, Bakr’s point–that worship and devotion, be it the hen of the rooster or man of god, is a mutually sustaining relationship based on circumstance and perception–comes through. Without their stages and props, the priests “became normal humans, like the rest of God's creatures. All their false mystique of holiness, created by the power of suggestion and illusion, fell away from them.”

The priest lives in agony. “His grief grew greater still when he came to understand how pathetic his former notions of power were.” The chickens, on the other hand, being content to be chickens, are happy.

Bakr’s story ends here but, of course, Egyptian history does not. As noted in the translator’s introduction, the priest would eventually triumph when, after Akhenaten’s death, the old system of polytheism was re-instituted.

But what might be most interesting in The Rooster’s Egg is not the duration of its religious and political facts, but its assessment of power in the hen house. The rooster’s blindly encouraging, beguiling, and nagging wife, celebrated for her ability to lay eggs, can be forgiven for trying to negotiate her way out of the roost; flattery of her husband being, after all, one of the only weapons allotted to her. 

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