This absorbing tale follows the rise of Zayni Barakat, the enigmatic Governor of Cairo, during the last tumultuous stage of Mamluk rule before the devastating conquest of the Ottoman Empire (1500-1517). The author, Gamal al-Ghitani, paints a city besieged with fear. The inhabitants face a variety of grim prospects such as attacks from Mamluk soldiers, arbitrary laws from power-hungry emirs and a maze of secret torture chambers, if anyone would dare to dissent. In this backdrop of despair, Zayni Barakat emerges seemingly out of thin air to depose the corrupt incumbent. His reign is narrated by four characters: Shaykh Abu Al-Suud a revered religious scholar, Said al-Juhayni the Shaykh’s devoted student, Zakariyya ibn Radi the Chief Spy of Cairo, and Amr ibn Al-Adawi the Chief’s amateur spy (who stalks Said).
The Shaykh and his disciple, Said, represent the critical voices of power and serve as its conscious. They are at first extremely hopeful and supportive of Barakat who champions justice not only in word but in deed. They observe with joy as Barakat enforces price controls on staple goods and punishes the rich who swindle the poor. In an effort to appear accessible Barakat even opens the doors of his home to anyone with a complaint or grievance.
As the people of Egypt rejoice, there are those within the establishment who remain wary. The Chief Spy Zakariyya ibn Radi is initially a formidable opponent of Barakat who represents a threat to the status quo. Zakariyya is the ruthless guardian of what would be today’s police state. He runs a cadre of spy’s and a futuristic surveillance machinery including a book on everyone who is born and dies in Egypt,written in invisible ink. Zakariyya fantasizes about the day rulers can monitor what their subjects are thinking not only as a preemptive measure but for the feeling of omnipotence it would bestow. He even hosts a conference of Cheif Spy’s from various world empires to exchange best practices.
Shockingly Zakariyya finds almost nothing written or known about Barakat which fuels his obsessive mission to expose and sabotage him. One fascinating instance in which Zakariyya and Barakat come to a head is over an order to hang lamps on every building to ensure security. Zakariyya and the emirs complain to the Sultan that this innovation will lead to mischief as people will stay outdoors after evening prayers. Said, sensing their sinister motives, insists that this is an excuse for the emirs to do as they wish with the cover of darkness. Al-Adawi loudly agrees to encourage further dissent and promptly reports Said’s every word to Zakariyya.
But Zayni Barakat soon becomes consumed with consolidating his power and amends his relationship with Zakariyya. They realize they need one another and begin cooperating in spying, torturing, and controlling the populace. In fact Barakat introduces Zakariyya to more subtle (yet still gruesome) forms of extracting the truth out of prisoners. Barakat is also the more gifted politician who knows how to create favorable public opinion. Every decree no matter how harsh is for the greater good of the Egyptian people, everything is done for the sake of Justice. But do the ends justify the means? Is justice the true aim? Can any virtue ever supersede the pressing need to maintain power?
The Shaykh and Said grapple with these questions as their illusions of Barakat begin to dispel. By this time Egypt is cowering under the threat of imminent invasion from the Ottomans. Both the Shaykh and Said take drastic action against Barakat, who ultimately survives the plot and reemerges victorious.