Reem Bassiouney: Al Qata'i: Ibn Tulun's City Without Walls

September 21, 2023 / 5 mins read

Translated from the original Arabic, Al-Qata’i: Ibn Tulun’s City Without Walls by Reem Bassiouney relates the story of medieval Egyptian leader Ibn Tulun’s quest to build the city of al-Qata’i—now Cairo—into a thriving multicultural empire. A multigenerational epic tale of power, love, and revenge set against the sprawling backdrop of early medieval Egypt, Al-Qata’i is a masterwork of historical fiction. Through close attention to the lives of an array of characters from all walks of life, award-winning Egyptian novelist Reem Bassiouney deftly explores Egyptian identity; Egypt’s relationship with the wider Arab world; and, ultimately, how the past shapes who we are today. Read on for a Q&A with the author about what inspired the work; the line between fact and fiction; the experience of having one's work translated; and more.

What inspired you to write Al-Qata’i? How did you go about researching in preparation to write this novel?

I was intrigued by a biography of Ibn Tulun written by a historian in the 10th century. As I was reading, the personality of Ibn Tulun was what really attracted me. The perspective was fresh and interested, but it brought to mind a lot of questions. For example, what did Ibn Tulun do when his son betrayed him; how did he act? What did he do when he visited a monk in his sanctuary? I felt that I knew the man very well and that I had to tell the story.

What can readers take away from this historical novel that might apply to today?

I think if you read a good novel it can always apply to today; any good novel can apply at any time. The human experience, human feelings, human ambitions, and human dreams are timeless. This is a novel about a dream that a young man had in his 20s of becoming the ruler of Egypt and making it an independent state when such a thing seemed impossible, not least because he himself wasn’t an Egyptian. He managed to accomplish his goal before reaching 30. Before reaching 40 he managed to gain not only political power but also the hearts of Egyptians. But at the same time he lost a lot of things that were important to him. For example, his own son betrayed him. He’s a very human figure who has a story that is well worth telling.

This novel is based on real events. Can you talk a bit about the line between fact and fiction in the story?

I think the line between fact and fiction must be blurred in the mind of the author when writing historical fiction. If you as an author are aware what is fact and what is fiction, then your reader will be as well. When I was reading about the historical figures in Al-Qata’i, after a while I realized that they had taken root in my imagination and I was able to imagine them acting as independent figures. For me as a writer the line is totally blurred after a while.

Multiculturalism is an important theme in the novel. Why was Ibn Tulun’s commitment to creating a multicultural city so notable?

I think the diversity that was prevalent at the time and the way Ibn Tulun dealt with this diversity has to be studied. Ibn Tulun accepted diversity and encouraged it. In the beginning, his city was populated only by his army. His soldiers came from many different areas including the Arab peninsula, parts of Asia, parts of Sudan, etc. So he built his city for these people coming from different places who were at first separate from one another. But eventually they assimilated totally—they communicated with each other, they married each other. This peaceful and diverse environment was kind of a utopia for the time. There are lessons there for today.

What are some other main themes in the book?

The book is about human nature more than anything else. It’s about love, passion, revenge, the meaning of life. It’s about how the different characters in the novel trying to find out who they are. It’s about identity. It’s about trying to rescue what is left of humanity, trying to fight evil. There are different parts of the story—the first part deals with Egypt just before Ibn Tulun arrives; the second part is set during the time of Ibn Tulun; and the third part relates the total destruction of his city. His mosque was likewise almost destroyed but was then saved and still stands today. So what we have is a story of victory and defeat. But it was also the victory of a dream, even if the city itself was totally demolished.

As the original author, what was the process of translation like for you? How do you experience the book differently in Arabic versus in English?

I had a very interesting experience. At one point I gave a lecture about this book in English and I read some of the translation to English speakers and loved it. Reading it was very powerful. I was very lucky because Roger Allen is a truly gifted translator. His Arabic is impeccable, and his translation was really amazing. I had this great experience of having him as my translator and that meant I wasn’t worried about anything at all. It was very nice to read my text in a different language. If you’re writing your text in your native language, you are just writing what is in your heart. Then when you read it in a different language you’re concentrating much more on the meaning of the words.