The title What Is Past Is Dead (“El Faat, Maat” or “illei faat maat”) seems to mean that one should bury one’s dead, or one’s past, and get on with living. This is an apparently common Egyptian saying, which was chosen for its irony, I believe. For the main character in this first-person narrative, the past is the only thing still alive, and it is palpable. This book is about hard choices and hopeless lives — lives ground down by poverty, violence, war, and desperate measures taken which end badly. Mostly, though, it is a reflection on trauma and the eviscerating grief incurred when one remains alive in the midst of death but is rendered dead, thereafter, in the midst of life.
Morsi’s finesse with beginnings drew me straight into the story and connected me immediately to the characters, who are three young men waiting to make a precarious, illegal, and highly dangerous meet-up with a group of enemy soldiers with whom they plan to make an exchange of drugs for cash and guns. This is happening in the desert just past midnight, in the midst of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The tension is breathtaking. The addition of small character portraits to flesh out our narrator and his mates, and a mythic dream-like scene involving a man with a goat, add warmth and tenderness to what could be, otherwise, an overly-macho introduction. (Macho is fine, in its place, but not the best approach to elicit empathy from readers, so the love and kindness depicted in such moments were just the right touch.)
This is a hard read, I have to say. Although it is fiction, the narrator’s voice reads authentic and the situations described, as we all know, are real enough. The war, the poverty, the desperation, the violence, the genital mutilation of young girls: all of these things are real and are currently happening in our world. So, it doesn’t matter much that this particular story is not “real” because we are affected by it nonetheless. It is potent and it is personal. That is the best thing about this novella: it is an intimate portrait of one man’s life. Had Morsi painted this work on a bigger canvas, it would not have worked nearly so well as what he has done instead, which is to present us with a very fine cameo. He invites the reader to lean in and listen closely to the quiet and tender voice of one man telling his tale.