‘Do you remember Salim al-Ghayati?’
… ‘The politician?’ I asked cautiously.
‘Isn’t he the one whose son died of a heroin overdose, in that dancer’s apartment?’
He looked at me and smiled: ‘More or less. … The son died in an accident at home – he fell and smashed his head. The dancer owned an apartment in the same building. Heroin was one of the father’s habits. I flipped everything around, and now, after all these years, I see it as a kind of archetypal rumour.’
Talk by Mohammed Kheir (tr. By Kareem James Abu-Zeid)
Cairo. From a distance, it’s still an evocative word. Dare I say, romantic, even. The Pyramids and Pharaohs, camels and the Nile. An abundance of fresh dates and jocular fatties, à la Indiana Jones. Even the threat of a veiled assassin carries a certain mystique. Or maybe not. Perhaps the exotica has long since been struckthrough, old tales re-written by over-population, dwindling resources and the Islamically-themed terrorist. Up to you…
But what of Cairo for the Cairene? In particular the new generation, living not only under the long shadow that romantic past casts, but more presciently, those inheriting the failed ‘Arab Spring’. As the editor Raph Cormack points out, ‘…the city has entered into a state of enforced forgetfulness.’ And The Book of Cairo, the most recent addition to Comma Press’s Reading the City series,
‘…captures the strange mood post <this period>. … It tells the tale of a city that is struggling to forget itself.’
While the collection is no mono-culture, this mood echoes throughout. In stories such as Hassan Abdel Mawgoud’s ‘Into the Emptiness’ (tr. by Thoraya El-Rayyes), there is a repeated sense of paranoia and disconnection. Of one’s headspace becoming murky, and with no buddy to share the burden with, increasingly unhealthy. In Mawgoud’s story, there is palpable claustrophobia in his protagonist’s isolation – in his quest for human connection, however trivial, to affirm his own sense of self. Like some timid Frankenstein, the man is so suspicious of his surroundings that he has to re-learn the rules of social interaction, as if a child. It’s dystopian, though without being futuristic – Mawgoud’s tale is very clearly of the here and now. Eman Abdelrahim’s ‘Two Sisters’ (tr. By Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp) also riffs on the same ideas – of escape and distrust, and that the dystopia of the future has already arrived. It’s fantastical, though written with no air of being unreal. When the protagonist recounts,
‘We started meeting in his room on a regular basis. … We’d laugh, watch films, have sex, eat raw meat…’,
you almost don’t double-take.
There’s a surprising lack of overtly political stories in this collection; stories that seek confrontation. The majoritarian reaction to intractable macro-level problems, seems to be a retreat into the private space. And here there’s a strong parallel with The Book of Tehran, however while the Tehrani’s answer is basically to perfect their feng shui living room, the Cairene seems happier to take drugs and fuck. And nowhere is this better captured than in ‘Siniora‘, an outstanding piece of short fiction by Ahmed Naji (tr. by Elisabeth Jacquette). In this story of youthful obsession, lust, envy and ultimately, defeat, Naji pours over two things in exacting detail – recipes for making hashish and the girlfriend’s vagina. The latter in particular might seem gratuitous, but it’s not – it serves not to amuse or titillate, but rather to underscore that obsessiveness which consumes the main character. It’s brilliantly done – and throws light not only on a younger, off-grid Cairo, but also on contemporary Egyptian fiction.
Any Cop?: In The Book of Cairo, you’ll find no Pyramids. No doe-eyed camels and no majestic Nile. Here you’ll find gender politics, idiot bureaucrats and corrupt officials, but in the main, these stories are about the ways, active and passive, that a pall of oppression gets broken down, assimilated, absorbed and expelled. ‘Forget what you know – this is Cairo’, ten compelling new voices are saying. And through some delicious storytelling, they deserve your time.