Being Abbas el Abd, Ahmed Alaidy, American University in Cairo Press, 2009
Among the mentors who Ahmed Alaidy thanks in the acknowledgements to this short novel is Chuck Palahniuk, and the influence shows. Being Abbas el Abd has a theme and plot – and a twist ending – so similar to Palahniuk’s Fight Club that it almost reads as a modern dress restaging of the same story.
Set in the wildly Westernizing economy of 21st-century Cairo, the story features an alienated young narrator wandering through a wearisome cityscape that is wound to the breaking point by generational, religious and economic conflict. The environment is politically repressive, yet driven by capitalist boosterism, idolatrous of history, yet youthful and media driven, a state increasingly divided against itself. The city is so shackled to discredited pieties and commercialized antiquities, but still so unable to resist cultural pollution from outside, that the young feel they have no ground to stand on but nihilism.
The narrator comes under the tutelage of Abbas, a magnetic emotional vandal who counsels, “Don’t fight things by resisting them because they’ll strike back with a vengeance. Fight things by doing them – that way they lose their meaning.” On a lark Abbas persuades the narrator to impersonate him on two comically chaotic and simultaneous blind dates with a pair of women who share the same name, each on a different floor of the same cafe. A mistaken-identity fiasco ensues when the narrator can’t keep straight which date is which or what persona they expect him to portray.
Navigating the prank, and his eventual rebellion against Abbas, is made more difficult for the narrator by the after affects of extreme malpractice at the hands of his mad scientist psychiatrist. We also get hints that the narrator may be experiencing some kind of disassociative episode and that the high-tech mood stabilizers he is cruising on may be doing more harm than good.
But it’s hard to say for sure. Most of the plot is just plain hard to follow, broken off at points without resolution, subjected to digressions with no apparent relevance and told in a fractured narrative style meant to reflect both a corrupted state of mind and life in a corrupt State. “We are the autistic generation,” the narrator says in one of his lucid moments, “living under the same roof with strangers who have names similar to ours.”
The narrative style is the most interesting aspect of Abbas. The book is stuffed with energetic wordplay, such as when the narrator comes out on the losing end of a “dialogue of fists” and he regrets being treated “like a rug on a date with fate over the balcony railings.” Bored waiters, sycophant traffic cops, hard-hearted prostitutes, senile landlords, fundamentalist moral guardians and the urban elite all have turns around the stage to lend their characteristic voices to the urban cacophony only to have the narrator run contemptuous verbal circles around them.
I suspect only a fraction of the jokes are appreciated by a reader (like myself) unfamiliar with the linguistic heritage the author is playing on. For example, the translator, Humphrey Davies, explains in an illuminating endnote how the traditional border between classical and colloquial Arabic idioms is transgressed for ironic effect and ultimately in support of the theme of generational tension. A sentence in the classical idiom may “have at its syntactical center an undeniably colloquial verb, resulting in what, from a traditional perspective, is a disorienting sense of a breakdown of borders.”
A degree of that disorientation is likely lost in the translation, but the naughty winking energy still comes through and provides its own kind of delight. Consider the following passage:
I walk to the end of the street, where the minibus drivers have come up with a new unofficial stop.
“Ramses! Ramses! Ramses!”
As the tout shouts he waves at me and says: “Heh, mizter! Going to Ramses?”
I shake my head and make my way to the big minibus that some call ‘The Phantom.’
The tout pulls me in by the shoulder like someone dragging his drawers off the line.
Then he gets off again looking for more underwear, drumming on the paneling the while to pass the time as he shouts: “This way and watch your step! (Bam bam bam!) Ramses! (Bam bam bam!) Coming with us, miss?”
In gets a petticoat.
(Bam bam bam!)
In gets an undershirt.
(Bam bam bam!)
In gets a pair of boxers.
“All Helpful All Wise All Giving All Gener. . . ! Something wrong, mizter?!”
“What do you think you’re doing, buddy? Whacking cockroaches with a slipper? Enough with the bang, bang, bang. Give your hand a nice dangle for a bit.”
“What’s it to you, buddy? Someone bang you?”
Have a horrible day!
“‘Someone bang you?’ Whoa! You want to try out your smartass cracks on me? Wise up. I’ve been around since before your mommy peeled your daddy’s banana.”
“Uh . . . what’s that mean?”
What layers of irony are the English-language reader missing? Something in the tout’s mispronunciations, something in his cry of “All Helpful . . . .”, something in the names of the bus lines. There are jokes here I’m not getting, I’m sure. (Actually, there are jokes that perhaps only the youth of Egypt are meant to get. The translator’s note explains how the Ramses bus line is a local pun that famously went over the head of academic readers who never expect to find the language of the street in print.)
But an inventive voice comes through nevertheless, in this passage and elsewhere, in the volatile braggadocio, the alternating innuendo and frank punning, the separatist argot of bleeding edge technology buffs, the inventive revision of traditional proverbs. Being Abbas el Abd for this reader serves as a tantalizing hint at unfamiliar depths in Arabic literature. Admittedly, this kind of literary tourism is probably unfair grounds on which to assess a book, and I do hope it gets more contextualized attention by a less naïve reader. But ultimately I doubt that a fuller appreciation of the language play is successfully going to paper over the lack of development in the story or the lack of discipline in the storytelling.
Robert McGuire is a freelance copywriter, teacher and aspiring novelist living in New Haven, Connecticut. Excerpts of his unpublished novel, A Wish In One Hand, can be seen at www.awishinonehand.net. He blogs about the writing process at www.workingonanovel.com.