Michael’s Springate’s first novel, The Beautiful West and the Beloved of God, is a powerful book set in Montreal and Cairo in the year 2008. Mahfouz (meaning “well protected” in Arabic),” runs a restaurant with his father, Samih, in Montreal. He meets Elena, a single mom and her seven-year-old daughter, Sharon. Their lives seem almost perfect until the day that Mahfouz agrees to his father’s proposal to leave for Cairo to explore the idea of starting a business with his uncle, Ibrahim.
As Mahfouz catches the first glimpse of Cairo from his plane, he is filled with a kind of reverence. It is not necessarily religious, because Mahfouz is by no means a devout Muslim. It is instead a sense of belonging and belief at the sight of the beauty of the place, and what it means to him – something felt by many first generation Canadians on experiencing the aerial view of their home city after a long stay abroad. The only way that Mahfouz can react to this feeling is through Ibadat, through prayers that he had learned to offer – “the salatu-l-fajr.”
Cairo, for Mahfouz, is strange and unfamiliar. Samih’s brother, Ibrahim, supports the Muslim Brotherhood just as he supported Al-Nasir before:
“You’re right. I was a follower of Al-Nasir….even when there was no longer an Al-Nasir to follow. And yes, you’re right again. I now support solidarity through Islam. But surely you understand that. Aren’t you the one, having spent your life in Canada, having studied business, who prayed when arriving? You saw the city from the air and you prayed.”
Omar, a refugee from Somalia, vigorously supports the Union of Ismalic Courts and welcomes them as being “infinitely better than the warlords who had ruled since the government’s collapse.” Omar loves his wife and daughter, and does what he thinks is best for them:
“He was aware of the roving gangs in Somalia who rape women, the same young men in pick-ups that his sons would inevitably become if he had remained. For the women the Courts had brought desperately needed relief. Could anyone deny it? They had been the answer to prayers said five times a day.”
The questions that seem to be raised are: Is Omar a terrorist or someone from an impoverished people facing starvation or the culmination of endured “hunger?” Is Ibrahim a terrorist or simply helping Omar to make a life for himself and his family in Cairo? What is playing a major role in our current war against terrorism: religion, greed, or fear? Who determines who is a terrorist or the enemy?
Despite the relentless pace at which desperate events unfold in the book, characters display unusual resilience and determination. Although Omar and his family have nowhere to go, they never give up. Ibrahim is sad, but confident that eventually, after the bombings, people will emerge from beneath “radioactive sand,” like “mutant cockroaches,” to retake their own land. When even to remember becomes painful, seven-year-old Sharon knows instinctively that to forget is to give in to fear. She keeps memories alive through colours, pictures and dreams. She, perhaps like God’s beloved, protects the ones she loves by ensuring that they are forever out there, reminding us of injustice and our inaction.
The book is not easy to put down, but even more difficult to put away. It forces the reader to re-visit assumptions; to re-think what we are as Canadians; and to re-connect with what should be sacred, and is not. Nothing is what it seems. As an individual and a member of a global community, one asks: what can I do or what am I doing? How do I define myself: by what I am or what I am not? Why have I confined myself within razor wires and simplistic points of view? Why have I doomed myself to inaction?
Reviewers have called it “exceptional,” and “brave.” Springate’s skills as a playwright and artistic director are reflected as the book moves in a brevity of style that cuts through to the reader’s heart, and peels away layers of comfort revealing complicity behind Atwater’s colourful “hanging plants” and the journey up the Nile to the Valley of the Kings and the High Aswan Dam. The Beautiful West and the Beloved of God is an important book, and should make it to the top five entries on our national media list of books most recommended for Canada Reads.