Safinat Al-Ahlam (“The Cruise of Dreams”), by Eman El-Emary, (Cairo: Dar Tweeta), 2022.
The novel is an accomplished and mature work of fiction telling a realistic love story against the backdrop of intersecting stories from different social classes.
The story takes place during a Nile cruise called “Safinat Al-Ahlam” sailing between Luxor and Aswan for 15 days. A wealthy businessman invites a group of friends on a rental boat to celebrate the birthday of his wife, a budding young actress. On the bridge, he meets his old college friend, Yusef who is the son of the captain and owner of the cruise. While we are witnessing a classic encounter between the values of the new rich and the old monetary values, a larger plot unfolds.
The cruise, a place without a place
Against the background of the eternal struggle between Good and Evil, the story of Safinat Al-Ahlam takes place in a place confined within a fixed period.
On the back cover of the book, we read this excerpt: “(…) A girl in her twenties stood far apart, her appearance shows that she does not belong to this group of friends, yet the boat of Le Rêve cruise was also his destination…”
This sailboat decor seems to have been borrowed from the heterotypical spaces initially defined by Michel Foucault in 1966 in Words and Things.
Foucault points to the cruise ship, a floating extravagance of desire and indulgence, as the ultimate example of heterotopic space. For Foucault, “the boat is a floating space, a place without place, which exists by itself, which closes in on itself and at the same time is delivered to the infinity of the sea”.
One could say that the cruise of dreams is a microcosm of a certain contemporary Egyptian society where different classes are brought together in a luxurious setting around a plot full of twists and intriguing characters.
After all, the author has been working as a journalist for nearly 30 years since graduating from Cairo University’s School of Mass Communication. Character studies and socio-economic readings are part of his usual and daily work.
As the mystery unfolds and passengers visit the prestigious former hotel and pharaonic temples, the influence of Agatha Christie cannot be missed. In his novels, modes of transportation serve as a microsome of Christie’s own society at the time. Either in his novel Mystery of the Blue Train (1928), Murder of the Orient Express (1934) or more particularly relevant here Death on the Nile (1937) where the murder took place on a Nile cruise as well.
But amid these tides, Gharam captures Yusef’s broken heart. Gharam, whose name means love, is the cruise’s successful social media manager. Seeing passengers competing to hire his services online definitely gives the story a contemporary edge that many readers would identify with.
Intersection between journalism and fiction
Writer Eman El-Emary demonstrates a crossover of his experiences and writing style in both journalism and fiction. This interrelationship is most visible in the well-informed details described in the novel regarding the relationship between power, old-school media, social media, and money. She also gives a lot of insider details about the profession. For example, if the social media manager can accept additional paid work while under contract with a client.
The journalistic influence is also evident in El-Emary’s economical and restrained style of writing. She is quite austere in physical description and the action narration is kind of condensed. This journalistic influence was also shown – if not invented – by Ernest Hemmingway, who was also a journalist turned novelist. Hemmingway was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954 for his mastery of the art of storytelling, demonstrated in his novel The Old Man and the Sea, and for the influence he had on contemporary writing style. There’s even a language-editing mobile app named after him.
Nevertheless, Safinat Al-Ahlam is also the author’s own private space where she is free from journalistic code of practice and language restrictions. We see El-Emary alternate between different registers of language not allowed by many press publishing standards. She uses colloquial Arabic for the dialogues of her characters and sticks to the classic language for the narrative lines.
This choice of colloquial dialect is supported by many in Egypt and the Middle East, as it is a choice of realism and authenticity. Although still rejected by many language purists, this solution was pioneered by author Yusef Idris in 1954 in his first novel Arkhas Al-Layali (“The Cheapest Nights”).
During this trip on the Nile, El-Emary gives free rein to his imagination. For example, when she describes how Gharam felt Youssef’s kiss on his lips. She also goes on to describe how Yusef had a sleepless night afterwards. (p.222-225).
Getting inside each character’s head as they fall in love is fascinating for the reader but challenging for the author. Novelists must ensure that the two points of view are not redundant and distinct from each other.
In his previous published works, such as The Jasmine Tree’ or Love Always Wins, for example, El-Emary has always excelled in telling what goes on in the head of the male protagonist. She has a knack for looking at the male protagonist and inviting readers into her room and having them hear her dialogue in her heart.
In Safinet El-Ahlam, El-Emary also extended her gaze to the female lead character, reaching into Yusef’s and Gharam’s separate booths and listening to the monologues in their heads separately after the kiss.
In a recent interview, the author explained how strongly she believes in the power of love to overcome obstacles and achieve all kinds of goals, whether on a personal level or even a larger national and patriotic one.
The pharaonic setting was also part of the story itself, the gods and their temples are used to time the plot as it unfolds. The Nile and the Sun, both called deities of the Pharaohs, were also the only witnesses to their last kiss on the bridge.
Some would see this novel as the perfect book to read on a cruise to Upper Egypt, others would see it through the prism of social study. But above all, Safinat Al-Ahlam is a moving and uplifting love story.
El-Emary has previously published romantic writings including You Are My Captive, We Won’t Be Separated, New Year Eve’, The Jasmine Tree, The Battle Of Love, My Love and The Heart Always Wins. She also won the prestigious Akhbar El-Adab Prize for her short story Al-Miqqd Al-Khaly (“The Empty Seat”) in 1994.