Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Over the Bridge

Muhammad al-Bisatie's creative vision is on full display in this compact narrative, Over the Bridge (American University in Cairo Press, 2006) that blurs the line between reality and dream worlds. It begins with an Egyptian bureaucrat who, in a scheme to fatten his meager take-home pay, exploits his position in the notoriously chaotic government and "invents" on paper a complete small city in Upper Egypt. And as a proper "city," al-Khalidya has govermnet officials who need to be paid. When the checks for al-Khalidya are issued, he cashes them himself.

Yet what begins as a quiet fraud evolves into the protagonist's continuing descent into quasi-madness. He becomes obssessed with his new creation, the village, and builds a model of it. He begins to imagine the lives of its inhabitants, and the structural violence of city life comes into sharper relief the more he imagines. He becomes a kind of godplayer.

He turned out the light in the room and lay down on the bed,the model twinkling atop the desk. Feeling pleased, he rested his head on his bent arm.
El-Bisatie's technique also becomes somewhat blurry as the narrative proceeds, and as a reader we are sometimes confused about the setting or happenings: is it in the bureaucrat's real world or his make-believe, or is it both at the same time? Are his waking actions more viable or real than his dream world actions, and how can we tell them apart? Echoes of Borges and Garcia Marquez give this novel its sense of magic realism and wonder.

While the plot becomes a little less interesting as it goes on, we come to understand the very existence of a village in Upper Egypt doesn't matter very much to those beyond its inhabitants, least of all to the Egyptian bureaucracy. And thus the novel can be read as a kind of disturbing allegory.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Somewhere Towards the End

Diana Athill's beautifully-written new book, Somewhere Towards the End (Norton, 2009) has the unique quality of being a memoir of being very old and happy about it without the maudlin set pieces or generic nostalgia one might expect in a fin de siecle.

The 90-year-old Athill was during her 20th century career a notable British editor who worked with Andre Deutsch in setting up one of Europe's most-respected publishing houses. She worked with such authors as Jean Rhys, V.S. Naipaul, Philip Roth and John Updike to name a few. She has also been, occasionally, an author herself of several highly-respected volumes, mostly memoirs but also a book of short stories and one novel (the one, she says, she "squeezed" out).

Somewhere Towards the End is composed to sixteen relatively short chapters, all of which center on Athill's experience of being, as she terms it, "very old." She has had a rich and varied life, not necessarily glamorous but well-lived. Although she has never had (nor wanted) children, it is clear she is a motherly figure in the way she has taken care of people in her life, including her mother and a past lover.

Athill, who frankly discusses topics such as being post-sexual, not being around to see the full growth of a tree she has planted, and so on, relies very little on metaphor to make her points, instead filling the pages with concrete little treasures of experience, such as this passage when she discusses her pleasure in being around young people:

"So if when you are old a beloved child happens to look at you as if he or she thinks (even if mistakenly!) that you are wise and kind: what a blessing!... [it] does make you feel like a better person while it's going on and for an hour or two afterwards... It does seem to me that the young nowadays are often more sophisticated than I used to be, and that many of them... relate to their elders more easily than we did; but I am convinced that one should never, never expect them to want one's company, or make the kind of claims on them that one makes on a friend of one's own age. Enjoy whatever they are generous enough to offer, and leave it at that."

Her spirited championing of youth belies the stereotype of the rebellious youth we think many "old people" maintain, and so in her writing Athill breaks another stereotype that many of us have about old people, namely that they are narrow thinkers, static and unwilling to change and so very much "post life." Among many other points to ponder, the book made me think that it is somewhat ironic, of course, that old people should be so marginalized in Western societies given the universal inevitability of growing old (and dying). In one of the more moving passages of the book, Athill writes:

"What dies is not a life's value, but the worn-out (or damaged) container of the self, together with the self's awareness of itself... That is what is so disconcerting to an onlooker, because unless someone slips away while unconscious, a person who is just about to die is still fully alive and fully her or himself... The difference between being and non-being is both so abrupt and so vast that it remains shocking even though it happens to every living thing that is, was, or ever will be."

Far from being a depressing swan song, Somewhere Towards the End is a wonderfully uplifting and amazing exploration of what it is to be alive and human.

Monday, March 9, 2009


Taxi is an interesting patchwork of a novel by the freshly-minted Egyptian journalist-commentator-filmmaker cum writer Khaled al-Khamissi. The fifty-eight chapters that comprise this unusual book represent fifty-eight separate taxi rides taken by the narrator, who is merely the guise of a thinly-veiled al-Khamissi. This work is, in some sense, an ethnographic novel in that it attempts to portray the working lives of Cairo’s 80,000+ taxi drivers through punctuated scenes (chapters) which are a cross-section of that part of society.

Al-Khamissi’s portrayal of the Cairene cabby is definitely sympathetic though not patronizing. While giving due credence to the unique social and political perspectives that taxi drivers maintain by virtue of their near-constant physical presence on the maddening city streets, he does not shy away from revealing some of the wackier encounters with those drivers who spout conspiracy theories, conservatism and tales of faux poverty.

There are moments of knowing and astute political irony in Taxi. An example of the meta-critique of Egyptian government that pervades the book occurs in chapter seven, where the driver laments Egypt’s arcane statutes regarding seatbelts and the myriad laws and tariffs and cost of it all to be borne by the poor taxi driver. At the end of that particular encounter after mentioning how he skirts the law by only installing a decorative rather than functional seat belt to appease the authorities, the driver tells the narrator: “We live a lie and believe it. The government’s only role is to check that we believe the lie, don’t you think?”

Mr. al-Khamissi works hard at being representational of the whole of Egyptian society through the work of the commentary and dialogue offered by his characters. Yet in his desire for a complete cross-section of Cairo taxi culture all of the offstage laboring by the author began to seep into the text. The first twenty-five episodes are interesting and insightful but they eventually began to feel like a gimmick and came perilously close to monotony. If it were a television series it would have been canceled after half a season.

But it is not episodic television, it is is a book, and its annoyances do not detract from its originality as an interesting new voice in pop-Arab fiction. The chapters provide often captivating nuggets of insight into the concerns and ebbs and flows of daily life in one of the world’s largest cities, and most important countries. A helpful glossary in the back is included for readers less familiar with details of the culture.

Jonathan Wright’s English translation of the colloquial Egyptian Arabic is good though a bit uneven. Yet Wright is to be commended for taking a frenetic text and rendering it into something readable and perhaps appealing for an English-speaking audience. We ought to have more popular fiction in translation and not just higher-brow literary novels (Taxi has been on Arabic language bestsellers lists for more than a year).