A police detective tasked with discovering the whole truth. A woman transformed by the rapturous lust for raw flesh.
A man who, still obsessed, follows his ex-girlfriend into the hash business.
These are just a few of the protagonists whose worlds we explore in The Book of Cairo, the latest offering from Comma Press’ Reading the City series. Other offerings include the must-read The Book of Gaza and the books of Istanbul, Tehran and Tokyo.
Readers should not be mistaken by the title of this powerful short story collection.
While a book bearing such a title may scream of an attempt to represent the city in all its facets and take the reader on a sightseeing tour of Cairo’s expanses, this is actually not the case here.
Editor Raph Cormack – who also edited Comma Press’ The Book of Khartoum – makes it clear that this is no attempt to piece together a journey through Cairo, new and old, in short stories penned by Egyptian authors throughout the ages.
Cormack deliberately selected works by rising Egyptian writers published between 2013 and 2018 in what he calls an “attempt to capture the strange mood of post-Arab Spring Cairo”.
Only Nael Eltoukhy’s Hamada al-Ginn predates the 2013 coup which brought any revolutionary gains to a crashing halt.
But these are not stories that grapple with politics directly – not in spite of the era in which authors put pen to paper, but because of it. This is a picture of characters living on the edge in an ever-expanding Cairo, where our protagonists inhabit the disillusionment, loss, uncertainty and absurdity of the current moment, in which their fellow writers face dire consequences for their work.
It also brings to the page the work of authors who have been much published in English, a vital opportunity for the reader of a lesser Arabic ability to explore the world of new Egyptian fiction. Only Eltoukhy and inimitable Ahmed Naji have had their novels published in English.
The collection’s only fault is that some stories are of lesser prowess than others, leaving the reader ever so slightly disappointed if they chose to inhale the book in one gulp.
Its standouts are four: Mohammed Kheir’s Talk, Hatem Hafez’s Whine, Hassan Abdel Mawgoud’s Into the Emptiness, and Naji’s Siniora.
In Talk, a doctor’s life is ruined by allegations that he had left surgical scissors inside a patient after surgery. The only problem being that our protagonist is not a surgeon at all. Instead, he has become the latest target of Cairo’s rumour mill, with tabloid headlines and online chatter incensing the public and causing him to lose both his job and his partner.
Kheir’s satirical short story takes readers on a journey they need not try too hard to imagine; the rumour mill, rather than being a case of disparate Chinese whispers, has a life of its own. The city’s rumours are solicited from authors who consider themselves artists in a trade more lucrative and influential than the greatest works of literature.
“I used to write stories that no one ever read. But I was only successful at rumours,” explains a rumour writer, adding that he hopes to one day achieve “immortality”.
And what might immortality be in a world where rumours are frequent and often fleeting?
“A respectable conspiracy theory, one that stands the test of time,” he explains.
The story is later mirrored by Areej Gamal’s short story of less than three pages that could be described as dystopian if it wasn’t so close to reality. In An Alternative Guide to Getting Lost, Gamal pens an ode of sorts to Tahrir Square’s Mogamaa administrative building, in which a woman who seeks to escape Egypt by plane becomes trapped in the bureaucratic spider web.
Whine and Into the Emptiness are linked by the same sense of comic absurdity as their protagonists struggle to grapple with their senses of self.
In Hafez’s tale, an officer worker finds himself at a crossroads when he is elevated to Head of Department, wondering how to deal with his new authority and beset with paranoia over whether his old colleagues are now mocking him.
Into the Emptiness is an even more brilliant turn in which our protagonist’s paranoia spirals as he seems to observe the world in exact opposites, burdened with the notion that he may in fact be dead.
Finally, Siniora is an engrossing read from Ahmed Naji, the author infamously jailed for two years after an excerpt of his sexually explicit dystopian novel Using Life provoked uproar for “violating public morals”.
Although it’s a great loss for Egypt that Naji has been forced into exile in the US, Siniora could certainly fall foul of “insulting public morality” and leave the author vulnerable to prosecutors once more if he were still living in Cairo.
Naji’s sexually explicit writing may be shocking and even detestable for some, but his vivid prose is by far the most exquisite in the collection.
The slim volume of only 85 pages makes a perfect addition for any collector of modern Arabic fiction in translation, but also a great choice to slip into your bag to dip into during your daily commute or place on your nightstand for nights when you are seeking an alternative to Netflix or Twitter before bed.