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Mohamed Leftah, the author of Captain Ni’mat’s Last Battle, is little known to Anglophone readers. Born in Settat, Morocco in 1946, he moved to Paris to study engineering and then back to Morocco to work as a literary journalist. He returned to Paris in 1990 and in 1992 published Demoiselles de Numidie, the first of ten novels − all written in French − published in his lifetime. He subsequently moved to Cairo in 2000 where he died in 2008. To my knowledge, the only previous piece of Leftah’s work available in English is Infinite Fall, a brief extract from his second novel, Une Chute Infinie, that was translated by Eleni Sikelianos and appeared in Words Without Borders in 2016. The posthumous publication of Captain Ni’mat’s Last Battle, in French in 2011 and now in a fine English translation by Lara Vergnaud, is therefore most welcome.
Captain Ni’mat is a retired military veteran who spends his days swimming and gossiping at the Ma’adi club in Cairo with a group of men, many of them retired military men with whom he once served. His two children have grown up and he and his wife Mervet live in complacent familiarity. This settled orderliness is disturbed one night when Ni’mat has a powerful erotic dream about his “factotum,” Islam. In the dream, he watches Islam rise out of the water, “dripping in [his] radiant nudity,” and when he turns to dive back in, Ni’mat, afraid that he will lose him forever, strips off his swimming trunks and dives in after him. As he gives chase, the vision of Islam fades and becomes “no-more than a fishlike shadow…growing distant, sinking deeper and deeper.” Ni’mat wakes with a shout and, with his “heart still racing,” gets up and goes into the garden. He is drawn to the hut where Islam is sleeping and stands at the entrance gazing in through the open door at his sleeping servant, his eyes drawn to the “pistil of splendid beauty [that] had blossomed between the sleeper’s thighs, as if inside the corolla of a flower.” Unsure whether his dream was “a divine epiphany or a satanic temptation,” Ni’mat returns to his villa stunned and already reckoning with the disquiet that this “blistering revelation” brings.
On the following day when Ni’mat summons Islam to give him his massage, he asks him to massage not only his torso and thighs, but, unusually, his buttocks too. He removes his underwear and abandons himself “completely and without resistance” to his servant’s hands. Islam notes immediately “this relaxation…that was almost a bodily offering made him by his master” and “his fingers, instinctually, began a wordless dialogue with the thickset body he felt gradually loosening and softening in their wake.” And so the two men begin “a conversation skin to skin,” a dialogue that takes place “in an extraordinary tactile language that Captain Ni’mat, stupefied, delighted…was discovering, learning how to spell its first letters.”
Although ambivalent, Ni’mat recognises the extreme sadness he would feel if he were to lose either Islam or his wife, yet he embraces the newfound joy of his homosexuality. It provokes “neither shame nor unease in him” and he rues only that he “had deprived himself of a pleasure which he would never get enough of now in the years that remained to him.” Despite the disruption that follows – both to his family life and social position, and the later threats made against him by radical Islamists – Ni’mat writes in his diary: “Whatever the obscure, unconscious motivations of my strange desire may be, I fervently wish that its blaze be in no way extinguished.”
The narrative spine of Captain Ni’mat’s Last Battle is an intimate account of Ni’mat’s claiming of his homosexuality, yet Mohamed Leftah embeds this story within the larger history of Egyptian society after “the scathing defeat” of the war against Israel in June 1967. Ni’mat was a fighter pilot in that war and was subsequently dismissed for his Nasserite, Socialist politics − a dismissal that deprived him of a share of the “partial” victory of the second war with Israel in 1973. His life after 1967 has been a postscript. Indeed, until the affair with Islam, he was living in quiet resignation. His realisation that what he had thought was merely a passing, almost opportunistic sexual attraction for his young servant was “quite simply love” revives him. There is one last battle to fight.
The battle he joins is against the contemporary version of Egyptian virility, a version of masculinity that valorises “the naked strength of domination of the strongest over the weakest…the supreme warrior, an über, virile male who terrorizes and feminizes…the entire society over which he dominates.” Feminises, ironically, because in this version of virility the penetrative partner in a homosexual relationship is regarded as a “stud” (Ni’mat’s term); the receptive partner, like Ni’mat, a despised “khawala or faggot.”
This domineering virility, Ni’mat realises, is the one he accepted unquestioningly as a young man. Looking back, he reflects on his decision to join the air force and concludes that it was decided by this definition of masculinity which demanded that he sacrifice “the things that excited [him] and filled [him] with joy: literature, and learning new languages,” in order to prove himself a man. Reframed in this way, his defeat in 1967 is perceived as a first assault on himself as male, “the first violent blow to …[his] fortress of virility.” When he accepts the degraded identity of khawala, however, he recovers that part of himself that had been lost. He begins to allow himself to accept a different, far more nuanced idea of himself, learning “the richness, polysemy, and infinite nuances of [a} new magical language.” He is finally free to expel the last remnants of the “über” male that was lurking within him and to “undo the bandages of the mummy I was unknowingly carrying within.” Despite the price he pays, Ni’mat’s brave embrace of his status as a khawala is nonetheless an ambiguous experience, a “strange and cruel redemption” that is neither comfortable nor kind. Amidst the apparent bleakness confronting him at the end of the novel, Ni’mat reflects on his life with a note of triumph, and concludes that “I, who have only ever known the bitter taste of defeat, am still alive.” He has won his last fight.
Captain Ni’mat’s Last Battle is a novel of great power and delicacy. 144 pages in its English translation, every detail counts and connects to every other. There is not a wasted word. The arc of Ni’mat’s relationship with Islam, beginning in domination and subservience and ending with genuine love, parallels Ni’mat’s own movement away from the domineering virility of his youth into a more equitable understanding of masculinity. The personal and the political stories are beautifully joined. The novel is also marvelously written. The character of Ni’mat and his relationship with Islam are delicately and subtly drawn in prose that is poetic and evocative. The treatment of sex in the book is notably explicit and unashamed. Lara Vergnaud, the translator, deserves much credit and thanks, not only for bringing an important novel into English, but for her splendid translation. More please!
By Mohamed Leftah
Translated from the Arabic by Laura Vergnaud
Other Press, 160 pages
KMA Ramsay is writing a novel entitled Exile From A Country Not My Own that moves in time and place between Lebanon in the 1980s during the early civil war and the east coast of England in the first decade of the new millennium.