I’m not quite sure what to call my May reading challenge (although that sounds like it is a burden, so maybe May reading plan is more accurate), which comprises books from Egypt and Lebanon. Maybe my Arabic Reading Plan (but that sounds much more grandiose and all-encompassing)? Middle Eastern? That instantly brings to mind conflict, sadly, and, while it’s true that quite a few of the books translated into English from these regions address themes of war, violence, civil war and so on, this is not necessarily what the writers from these two countries write about exclusively or even predominantly.
So we should be grateful for Comma Press for their more varied and nuanced perspective on Egypt. The Book of Cairo was published in 2019 and features ten contemporary Egyptian authors writing about one of the largest and most diverse cities on the African continent (and ten different translators, which makes this an even more interesting chorus of voices). There are references to the Arab Spring movement from 2011-2013 and the ‘enforced state of forgetfulness’ that followed, but these do not make up the majority of the stories, and the references are hinted at rather than explicit. Each of the stories talks about a city in constant change and turmoil, in all its chaotic, noisy, messy resilience. Above all, it is a portrait of the charming, infuriating, eccentric inhabitants, the people who are the lifeblood of the city.
Most of the stories are very short, but they pack a lot in, and are often told in an inventive style rather than a very linear, traditional way. For example, the first story in the volume, ‘Gridlock’ by Mohamed Salah al-Azab (transl. Adam Talib) depicts a traffic jam, which is an everyday occurence in Cairo, but skillfully weaves together six different points of view in a deadpan, present-tense description that romps through timelines like a bulldozer. The loss of reputation of a surgeon via the rumour mill (and a very deliberate dig at social media) is handled in a dialogue bordering on the absurd in the story ‘Talk’ by Mohammed Kheir (transl. Kareem James Abu-Zeid). The author imagines the job title of ‘fabricator of rumours’, who explains his mission thus:
“…you think all those rumours sprouted up out of thin air?… The true rumour, if I may be permitted the expression, must resemble its target, must touch something within that target… A rumour is only complete if there’s a reaction… immortality within our profession: a respectable conspiracy theory, one that stands the test of time.’
Very funny, but also making the reader wince at its truthfulness, like all good satire.
Some of the oblique, surreal storytelling felt very familiar – reminiscent of 20th century writers in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union doing their best to avoid censorship. There is a lingering sense of unease and menace about these type of stories. ‘Into the Emptiness’ by Hassan Abdel Mawgoud (transl. Thoraya El-Rayyes) shows a narrator gradually losing his grip onto reality – his own lived-in experience seems to be the exact opposite of what the people around him believe is happening. His sense of identity is dissolving as surely as the sugar cubes in his tea.
Then there is the more overtly political story of the Major obsessed with finding out the Truth, by whatever means, to ‘safeguard the nation’s youth’, in ‘Hamada al-Ginn’ by Nael Eltoukhy (transl. Raph Comack):
…it is true that this physical interrogation is not strictly legal and it is also true that Major Haitham Hamdy does sometimes resort to it. But we should also say, firstly, that this does not poison the entire police apparatus, which is renowned for its courage and humanity, nor, secondly, does it even poison Major Haitham Hamdy himself, who may have personal flaws like any human being and, like any human being, may sometimes be overcome by these flaws. Major Haitham Hamdy was a human to his core, we have already seen how he fasts, how he enjoys intellectual pursuits and how his mind wanders like everyone else’s. So it’s no surprise that every day and night after reading the morning and afternoon reports, he repeats this phrase: ‘I am a corrupt officer but I do not represent my colleagues… I am one man. I am the exception. I am extraordinary. I am outside the herd.’
But it’s not all about offices, politics and the busy city streets. Several of the stories are about shifting perceptions of gender and modern relationships in present-day Egypt. ‘The Other Balcony’ is a charming depiction of the narrow streets of Cairo, with windows allowing almost too much intimacy with one’s neighbours. ‘The Soul at Rest’ is about an obituary for a belly dancer and how she is both admired but also despised by those around her. ‘Siniora’ is about a long-term on-off affair, where the woman gains the upper hand and demonstrates her superiority both in business and love.
These are tales of the unexpected, which toy with you and introduce you to a new world. I would perhaps have liked to see the inclusion of a few longer stories or a wider range of dates when the stories were written, but it would be churlish not to be grateful for this brief introduction into the great variety of authors writing in (or about) Egypt today. Thank you to Comma Press for tackling lesser-known cities and providing us with such an enticing literary travel guide.