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A Kind of Farewell

By Hosam Aboul-Ela

Over the past months, I've been living in Cairo and posting regularly about the local literary scene to this blog. In a matter of days, perhaps even by the time this is posted, I'll be back in Texas, and will have traded in the fast lane life of blogging from the big metropolis for my slower, quieter, and more methodical existence as a mild-mannered college professor. For my final post, I'd like to discuss one of my favorite contemporary Egyptian novels.

Sonallah Ibrahim's Zaat caused a stir when first published in Cairo in 1992. The novel is biting and funny, but it also adopts an experimental form that can be challenging, so its popularity here is a mark of the sophistication of local readers. At one level, it is a story of the eponymous title character's mock epic journey through life as a middle class Egyptian, living through the transitions between the different Egyptian regimes. At this level, it is a piece of skilled comic fiction that adroitly captures the pervasive effects of the ideology of consumerism engulfing so many regions of the world in this era of globalization. But the novel takes a self-consciously disorienting form that always causes a small handful of American students to give up in frustration whenever I teach it. Every other chapter leaves the story of Zaat to present the reader with a series of newspaper clippings, which the author lifted from a variety of Egyptian newspapers as he wrote the novel in the late 80s and early 90s. (The gifted Anthony Caulderbank has produced an English translation that brilliantly captures the novel's absurd humor, but disastrously, the English edition leaves out the original publisher's note, explaining that the even numbered chapters are bits of actual newspaper articles).

When I introduced the author in the mid-90s to a friend who praised the novel lavishly, I was stunned to hear Ibrahim tell her that he had recently been asked what it would lose without these even numbered chapters and he responded that he didn't know. As a critic, I don't feel compelled, however, to accept the author's own judgment about the significance of these chapters, and in fact, once I began teaching the novel every year, I eventually found myself enjoying the newspaper clippings as much or more than the narrative. I decided that the book was making a profound statement about language and multiple realities. Fiction can capture realities of contemporary life that types of discourse we consider "real," like newspapers, tend to cover up. This may be even truer in places like Egypt. I have thought about this novel often over the past months because so much of the time I've felt that I was observing parallel realities playing out before my eyes, and I've been very clear on which of them felt "more real" than the other. Here are some of the highlights.

Shortly after I arrived at the end of last January, the Egyptian press became fixated with the story of a popular soccer goalie who had brought calumny upon himself by deserting the most renowned of the Egyptian club teams to sign a contract in Switzerland. While this story played out in the press, people whose paths I crossed, cabbies, coffeehouse waiters, vendors, et al., expressed real anger that space was being taken up in the newspaper by the story when there were so many other problems that were so much more immediate. In fact, word of mouth began to magnify stories that forced their way, first into the opposition papers, and then into the local, regional and even national official narrative: poor Egyptians were literally killing each other for places in breadlines caused by a national wheat shortage. By the first week of April, the economic crisis, and the resentment it had uncovered, had crystallized into an amazing one-day general strike, led by an unlikely coupling of factory workers and college students networking via Facebook. Again the moment produced double realities. Each of the three major cities I observed on that day, Alexandria, Tanta, Cairo, felt partially abandoned, with a blinding sandstorm and dark green lorries full of security forces everywhere adding to the apocalyptic feeling. But the next day, state sponsored newspapers loudly proclaimed the failure of the strike and the normalcy of the day. One month later, again I experienced the dissonance of the pronouncements that were trumpeted ad nauseum about the significance of a blabfest at a Sinai resort, in which George Bush and other world leaders came to discuss the positive macroeconomic indicators and new entrepreneurial spirit in the region, against the reality of my daily existence, which included a bus ride the day after gas prices went up and bus fare was raised. An elderly (and obviously desperate) passenger spoke at the top of his voice about the rottenness of the regime, the insensitivity of its economic policies, and the general unfairness of the contemporary moment, insisting that everyone sitting within earshot in the crowded bus weigh in as either for or against his diatribe.

Because I could never have imagined the unofficial realities I've borne witness to in my time here, I doubt many folks reading this outside of Egypt could get a very clear picture of them either. If the official Egyptian press has often been disappointing, I doubt that the narratives of the international press would have been even as good, given the recent trend toward cutting resources for even the few, monolingual American reporters sent abroad by our major media outlets. Non-Arabic speakers in the West desperately need to know more about the multiple realities of this region, especially Americans, who've become so implicated in political life here. This is a major and complex problem that will require new initiative on many fronts. In Zaat's odd structure, paralleling the discourse of fiction and the discourse of journalism, fiction proves itself insightful in the face of the mendaciousness of the "news." So my reading of the novel brings me to the radical conclusion that one front in the global struggle to know each other is reading translated literature.

Published Jul 17, 2008   Copyright 2008 Hosam Aboul-Ela

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