Book Review: ‘This Is What I Know About Art’ by Kimberly Drew

CHICAGO: In the1920s, a town in the Egyptian Delta keeps a legal officer busy in “Diary of a Country Prosecutor” by prolific Egyptian author, playwright, and essayist Tawfik Al-Hakim. First published in 1937 and reprinted with a new introduction by Richard Littler, author and playwright, in 2023, the novel is suspended in time with a quick-witted public prosecutor at its helm, whose European education and obsession with the proper application of the law keeps him in Upper Egypt. Translated into English by Abba Eban, Tawfik Al-Hakim’s novel has been circulating for nearly a century, without a hint of his dark wit nor his complex observations fading over time.  

Readers meet the town’s legal officer in the middle of the night when a telephone message informs him that a man named Kamar Al-Dawla has been shot. The legal officer, his assistant, a police inspector, the town administrator, the head of the village, and policemen make their way to the scene of the crime, first by car, then a barge over the Nile, then horses to the field. The man’s condition is grave but it is important to write a detailed report before an ambulance is called and the man is treated.  

With a band of characters who attempt to make a life in the town, the legal officer must help dispense the law as best he can, with the help of one judge who speeds through every case so that he can take the 11 o’clock train home and the other who meticulously goes over every detail of every case. A man is fined for washing his clothes in the canal, another is penalized for eating wheat he grew before paying tax, and so on. The Napoleonic Code that is enforced on a country and its people is foreign and incomprehensible.   

While a mystery is at the heart of the book, the manipulation of law is the main theme. In the foreword by novelist P.H. Newby, he writes that the satire is savage and that justice is of no consequence to the powers that be. The fellahin, Egyptian peasantry, suffer “routine criminality amongst those who are meant to uphold the law.” Richard Littler points out that the Nile Delta town is almost like a dystopian bureaucracy where the human who must abide by the law is of less value than the law itself.  

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