I was able to preview Orhan’s Inheritance earlier this year and have noticed more about the Armenian genocide in Turkey during WWI this year – in part because the novel heightened my awareness of the subject and also because this year marks the hundredth anniversary of most of those killings. When I read the description for Maha Akhtar’s upcoming Footprints in the Desert, I was under the impression it would also address the Armenian genocide. While it does involve the role of Turkey in WWI, I was wrong about the Armenian genocide being brought up. Instead, Footprints in the Desert focuses on the guerrilla and espionage tactics taken by orchestrators and participants in the Arab revolt – and the important role played by the women supporting them at home in the Khan el-Khalili bazaar in Cairo.
Salah Masri is one of several college friends involved in spying on Turkish and German movements in Izmir, but he is the only one of his friends to escape capture and execution, fleeing to his mother’s home in Cairo. He soon learns that Noura, the widow of one of those friends, is moving to Cairo to stay with relatives and her infant daughter while she rebuilds her life. His mother proves to be a valuable friend for Noura, introducing her to a small, tight-knit community of women in the bazaar, many of whom are widows that have been forced to similarly rebuild their lives. As Noura grieves, Salah continues with the work to generate and support an Arab revolt, pushing for an independent Arab state when the end of the war inevitably comes. Working alongside T.E. Lawrence, who would come to be called Lawrence of Arabia, Salah recruits more friends to the cause while evading and outwitting Turkish officers who want to catch the spy and make an example of him.
Though it wasn’t what I was expecting when I began reading, I did enjoy Footprints in the Desert. It could be a little unclear at times as far as what was happening with the war and different characters’ involvement. The novel could have had a little more background and insight into the main Turkish characters – Omer Erdogan and Ahmad Jemmal – who went to such lengths to locate and capture Salah and his comrades. The few instances the reader is given of these two are too brief and always involve getting word that Salah has escaped their clutches (yet again) along with little flashes of their self-aware brilliance as they concoct another – and this time fool-proof – plan for getting their hands on Salah. It became almost comical and some of the attempts played out too quickly for the threats to be taken seriously. It could leave the narrative a little unbalanced; the stakes for the central characters didn’t carry the weight they might have. Luckily, Akhtar does manage to find that balance in the last third of the novel.
There is a lot of (convenient) overlapping in the relationships between the men-at-war and the women of the bazaar. The support that both groups provide each other, within and outside of their gender, is heartening and contrasts so drastically with the political situation playing out on the global stage where the British and the other Allied forces have made promises to the Arabs about providing for their free, self-ruled state in exchange for help (while they are in fact using the Arab revolt as a distraction that will force their enemies on the Western front to split their attention). There is something about the relationship between the women specifically that is particularly well done, a layer that seems to be missing from the interactions between the men. The women don’t necessarily want to sit at home and wait for their men to come home – or not; they tell their men as much and do an effective job of demonstrating that they would be more than capable when the opportunities arise.
I have not seen Lawrence of Arabia and didn’t know much about him as a historic figure (except that he did exist) or the role he played, however I will certainly be checking it out at my local library soon. Footprints in the Desert might not have been what I was expecting regarding what was happening in that region during WWI but it has, once more, made me more self-aware of the gaps in my education with regards to that period of history (and has furthered my desire to work at filling in those gaps).
Footprints in the Desert will be available for purchase August 4, 2015.