In Other Words

by Alaa Al Aswany, trans­lated by Rus­sell Harris, Al­fred A. Knopf/Ran­dom House, 475 pages

Pasatiempo - - CONTENT -

The Au­to­mo­bile Club of Egypt by Alaa Al Aswany

There is much to like about The Au­to­mo­bile Club of

Egypt, and an al­most-equal amount that is melo­dra­matic or te­dious. The novel, set in post-World War II, Bri­tish-oc­cu­pied Cairo, cen­ters on the Au­to­mo­bile Club, whose mem­bers are ei­ther Euro­peans or aris­to­crats, and on the Gaa­far fam­ily, whose pa­tri­arch, Abd el-Aziz Gaa­far, is a for­mer landowner. Now in re­duced cir­cum­stances, Abd el-Aziz works as a ser­vant at the club and be­comes a vic­tim of the club’s tra­di­tion of cor­po­ral pun­ish­ment. Rus­sell Harris has trans­lated this novel, writ­ten in Ara­bic, into ac­ces­si­ble, con­tem­po­rary English.

Abd el-Aziz dis­pensed such gen­eros­ity to rel­a­tives and friends that he lost his in­her­ited land and had to move to Cairo to work. There, he rents a large apart­ment he can ill af­ford with an ex­tra guest room (so he can con­tinue to host rel­a­tives). Abd el-Aziz is rem­i­nis­cent of the el­der Count Ros­tov in Tol­stoy’s

War and Peace. Both men can’t change their na­ture — they would rather sell off bits of land than dis­ap­point their din­ner guests. Abd el-Aziz winds up work­ing as a store­room clerk at the Au­to­mo­bile Club, where he slowly wastes away, and can still only barely pay his chil­dren’s school fees. He is un­able to af­ford bal­let shoes for his daugh­ter Saleha, so they end up buy­ing blue shoes, which her mother dyes white; at school, this ruse is ex­posed, to Saleha’s em­bar­rass­ment.

A beat­ing at the club, in­sti­gated by his em­ployer Alku, leads to Abd el-Aziz’s death. The death is hu­mil­i­at­ing — Abd el-Aziz man­ages to get home for din­ner only to keel over his food. He leaves his dev­as­tated fam­ily with­out any means of sup­port. His widow protests the club’s un­fair pol­icy of no pen­sions for the ser­vants. Even­tu­ally, two sons are of­fered jobs as ser­vants in the club. Kamel takes on his fa­ther’s store­room po­si­tion while con­tin­u­ing to study law and flirt with rev­o­lu­tion­ary pol­i­tics. He also be­gins to teach Ara­bic to Mitsy, the bo­hemian daugh­ter of the club’s English man­ager. Saleha’s de­sire to ful­fill her fa­ther’s dream and be­come a univer­sity pro­fes­sor, how­ever, is threat­ened by an un­for­tu­nate mar­riage.

Of the four Gaa­far chil­dren, Kamel and Saleha are the most in­ter­est­ing, and they make com­pelling pro­tag­o­nists, but they are only two ten­ta­cles in this oc­to­pus of a novel. It is fas­ci­nat­ing to ex­pe­ri­ence the clash of Kamel’s ide­al­ism with the cor­rupt Egyp­tian so­ci­ety, along with his en­try into Prince Shamel’s or­ga­ni­za­tion, which is work­ing covertly to over­throw the dis­si­pated king. Saleha is an as­pir­ing math­e­ma­ti­cian, but oddly, we see her only in do­mes­tic set­tings. In­stead we get stranded in the go­ings-on of her less-in­ter­est­ing broth­ers Said and Mah­mud. Al Aswany ends each chap­ter with a mini-cliffhanger. This habit re­quires the in­jec­tion of melo­drama that weak­ens this oth­er­wise worth­while novel.

The most orig­i­nal part of this novel is the de­pic­tion of the ser­vants of the Au­to­mo­bile Club. Al Aswany some­times refers to them as “they,” but rather than dis­tanc­ing us, this use of the plu­ral pro­noun is suc­cess­ful, and we re­main con­cerned about how the ser­vants are treated by the despotic Alku and the club’s racist man­ager. The ser­vants, who pre­fer to re­main sub­mis­sive (jobs are hard to come by), clash with the mi­nor­ity who want to de­mand an end to cor­po­ral pun­ish­ment and re­claim their dig­nity. This fight would be even more ab­sorb­ing if Alku weren’t such a tyrant. The king’s con­fi­dante, Alku, who dis­penses the afore­men­tioned cor­po­ral pun­ish­ment, is the Darth Vader of the story, his en­tries and ex­its in­cluded. The ser­vants of the club live in per­pet­ual fear of his ret­ri­bu­tion, though they con­sider him a par­ent of sorts, and the need to change Alku’s abu­sive ways drives much of the novel.

One of the plea­sures of read­ing in­ter­na­tional literature is to dis­cover the dif­fer­ent rhythms that an­i­mate the lives of peo­ple in other coun­tries. In this book, when the char­ac­ters aren’t drink­ing cof­fee, they’re down­ing cups of de­li­cious mint tea. They might wake at noon and still be treated to a break­fast of eggs, pota­toes, and mashed fava beans topped with olive oil. Food is ever-present, as are “hot showers,” which many of the char­ac­ters seem to fa­vor.

The sen­si­tive Prince Shamel, who is also a pho­tog­ra­pher, is an ex­cel­lent foil to the king of Egypt and Su­dan, who whiles away many hours eat­ing del­i­ca­cies and gam­bling in the casino of the Au­to­mo­bile Club. Kamel plays an ac­tive part in a plot en­gi­neered by Prince Shamel’s or­ga­ni­za­tion to hu­mil­i­ate the king. Mitsy, a new gen­er­a­tion of Bri­ton, re­mains loyal to Kamel dur­ing his tri­als. Kamel and Mitsy’s story, and Saleha’s in­ter­est in math, is so con­tem­po­rary and fresh that the reader, much like Prince Shamel, wants to over­throw the bloated king and the black-and-white Alku from the novel’s do­main, and keep the fo­cus on Kamel and Saleha. — Priyanka Ku­mar

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.