Warning: spoilers for a 53 year old children’s book. Deal with it!
I encountered Judith Tarr’s A Wind in Cairo via her column for Tor on C. S. Lewis’ The Horse and his Boy.
Tashbaan, Calormen’s capital city
The Horse and his Boy was published in 1954, and was set during the Narnian reign of the Pevensie children. Set in Calormen, the orientalist country to the south of Narnia, it is the story of Shasta, a poor boy who lives with a Calormene fisherman that he learns is not his father. Shasta is not happy where he lives, so when a Calormene nobleman comes to Shasta and Arsheesh’s house for shelter in a storm and offers to buy Shasta, he is initially quite excited by the prospect of advancement and adventure. However, he discovers that the nobleman’s horse has been kidnapped as a foal from Narnia, where animals can talk, and taken to Calormen. Bree, the horse, warns Shasta that the life of a slave in the nobleman’s palace will be terrible. So within the first few pages we know that Calormen is a cruel, class-ridden country where kidnapping, slavery (and possibly sexual abuse of blonde children) is normal. Later, when Shasta teams up with Aravis, the daughter of a Calormene nobleman and her talking mare, Hwin, we also discover that forced marriage of daughters to older men in exchange for the advancement of the family is common practice.
As Katherine Langrish has pointed out, Lewis could have chosen to include fantastical elements from Arabic folklore, but there are no djinn, or magic flying carpets, or the Old Man of the Sea. Calormen is in fact portrayed as anti-magic, but superstitious: they believe the tombs outside Tashbaan are haunted by ghouls, and that Aslan is a demon. So why did I love this book so much as a child? Well, two things: Bree, the talking stallion, and Aravis, the aristocratic Calormene girl. She is proud, bossy and initially unquestioning about her privilege in society. But, she is also willing to learn from experience and admit when she’s wrong. She is brave, resourceful and a great horsewoman.
Mediaeval Cairo from Al-Azhar park
In the Tor column linked above, Judith Tarr states that she was inspired to write A Wind In Cairo by the The Horse and his Boy, to portray the human-horse relationship more realistically. As well as having degrees in English and Classics and PhD in Mediaeval Studies, Tarr breeds Lipizzan horses (dancing horses) on her ranch in ArizonA. Now, I don’t know much about horses or Mediaeval Egyptian history, so I am willing to believe in Tarr’s portrayal of both. Hasan, the ne’er-do-well son of a Cairo nobleman, is beaten after a night drinking with his friends before being sent to the Bedouin to mend his ways. He is taken in by a Hajji, a wise man, who heals him. Hasan, however, rapes the wise man’s daughter, and to punish him the Hajji turns him into a stallion, and he is told that once he learns to submit to a woman willingly, he can become human again. Eventually Hasan is taken to the house of Hasan’s father’s greatest enemy, and is trained and ridden by Zamaniyah, his daughter, who has been brought up as a boy. This is an echo of the fate of Rabasash the Tisroc’s son in The Horse and his Boy.
I found Zamaniyah a wonderful character. The girl who becomes an honorary boy is of course a familiar trope in fantasy literature, and I have never read a book that questions it before. Zamaniyah belongs nowhere. She doesn’t fit in with the harem, so she has no female friends. At the same time, Cairo male society knows that she is not a man. So she is a lonely character, both privileged and marginalised. She makes friends with her father’s Frankish concubine, Wiborada, was also a female warrior, and the trope of the white woman and the Sheikh is also overturned in the book. Wiborada most definitely does not fall in love with Al-Zaman, and the innate nobility of the white, blonde haired characters is also overturned; when Wiborada deserts the Egyptian army to return to the Franks she is beaten and raped by the Frankish army, despite her claims for sanctuary and telling them who she is. Shasta, on the other hand, is immediately recognised as the Pauper twin, for a short time swaps places with the Prince twin, and of course turns out to be the son of the King of Archenland.
It was very interesting re-reading The Horse and His Boy, no longer my favourite Narnian novel. I now prefer Prince Caspian. But it did enrich my reading of A Wind in Cairo. For that, I’m grateful.