Halim Barakat’s allegorical novella Sitat Ayam (Six Days, 1961) depicts the struggle of a fictional city (Dayr al-Bahr) under siege. The inhabitants of the city are confronted with an ultimatum to surrender or be wiped out. They choose to defnd the city, and the six days of battles end in the burning of the city.
Six Days, being prophetically named for the June 1967 war which would not occur until nearly seven years after publication of the novel, becomes a prelude of sorts to Barakat’s other novel ‘Awdat al-Ta‘ir ila al-Baḥr (The Return of the Flying Dutchman to the Sea) which is set during the existential drama of the six day war in 1967.
Both novels combine symbolism and realism to interpret historical events, but Six Days is a much shorter, much more abstract novel which has fewer intertextual references. The novel has been translated by Bassam Frangieh and Scott McGehee.
Much of the book is in interior monologue, as the main character, Suhail, thinks about what is happening around him. There is little romantic idealism or nationalism, here, much of what he thinks is about resistance to his background and the traditions of the city:
Dayr al-Bahr is a mosaic, what draws him to it? What binds him to its fear, ignorance, poverty, feuding, disorder and greed? Oh a torn city! A woman wearing pants stands next to a veiled woman wearing a thick black robe. One ignores the other. They lived in separate worlds…the jails stands between the school and the house of God. (4)
These thoughts are often spurred on by his troubles with his relationship with Nahida, because they are of different religions. This drives him to strike out agaisnt the failures of his society:
The enemy is not the only problem. Our enemy is inside as well. We are failing against the enemy out there because we are ignoring the enemy within ourselves. We have to throw off our heritage first.
His friends have similar opinions, for example Fareed accuses his father of having done nothing and left the problems to his generation:
This problem did not begin today, you know. It began before you were born. You are from a blind generation that achieved nothing at all. You argued about things that didn’t matter. You worshipped idols. A generation that ate, drank, played backgammon and slept…while the enemy laid plans to finish us (25)
However, his anger soon evaporates.
Had Suhail influenced him so much that he would use such cruel words on his father?…Fareed moves closer to him. “I’m sorru. I didn’t mean to insult you. You will see heroism during the next week such as the earth has never dreamed of….
His father responds: “What you said my son is correct. You have to bear the responsibilities of many generations not just your own.” (25-6)
When he gave his speech today, he spoke with conviction. “This city has a history of bravery. Something in the nature of dayr albahru pushes it to heroism…wave after wave of aggression has left its mark on our land. Now we are called to stop these waves.” (5)
He utters, “a great nation will fall” as though he were the oracle at Delphi. And the smoke of sacrifice already covers him….the flying Dutchman was freed from eternal life when he found a woman to sacrifice her life for his. Dayr al-Bahr will live if it finds those prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice for it. The flying Dutchman is dead yet we sail endlessly on, facing the sun, waves and boredom, applauding the treachery…Gilgamesh fills his existence with the secret of life…oh arrows of tammuz be drawn and ready (7).
As the battles wind down on the sixth day, Suhail is placed in detention and has a conversation with an unnamed officer who tells him “we respect culture.” “Of course,” Suhail interrupts, “your terrorism proves that. And forcing people from their land also shows respect for culture. My detention is another sign of your cultural sensitivity.” (93) Later the officer comes back and tells him they will discontinue the interrogation, making Suhail ask, “Why is there no need for him to talk? Did Dayr al-Bahr surrender?”
The novel ends with this exchange:
-Do you see the fire over there? Soon it will be ashes.
-Ashes will fertilize the land.
-But we will reap it for ourselves.
-Only for a short time.