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