Cairo Modern?: Geoff Fox on Gamal al-Ghitani’s The Zafarani Files


The Zafarani Files, Gamal al-Ghitani, trans. Farouk Abdel Wahab, American University in Cairo Press

This early novel by one of Egypt’s most prolific short story and novel writers is a slapstick comedy set in Cairo’s teeming al-Hussein neighborhood, back in the days of Anwar Sadat (Egyptian president, 1970-1981). The crowded, run-down and entirely imaginary Zafarani alley is inhabited by 50 or more named and mostly zany characters, each obsessed in his or her own way by sexual performance (their own and all their neighbors’) and their social standing. Normally, they tolerate one another’s routines—the effendi (an honorific for the rare alley-dweller with a steady job and some high school education) who pimps his own wife; the virile and rustic baker who has found work as a male prostitute at the baths; the retired, ancient sergeant major with his hallucinatory memories of serving the king and crown prince back before Nasser’s revolution; the alley’s only college graduate who dreams of swaggering around with a pistol; and wives and mistresses whose greatest entertainment (besides sex, of which they are very demanding) is starting or watching their own loud and violent quarrels. The quarrels are mostly about who has the best sexual partner, but having the most impressive domestic appliances also boosts a woman’s status– Sitt (“Madame”) Busayna, besides demanding daily intercourse from her beleaguered bus-driver husband, spends his money on outrageous luxuries like a transistor radio (the alley’s first – this is mid 1970’s, remember) and even a many-buttoned washing machine!

But one day the mysterious gnomic sheikh who lives in a tiny, dark apartment at one end of the alley, and whom hardly anyone has ever seen, magically deprives the alley’s men of what they prize most: their sexual potency. He hints that this is just the first step of his world-changing program, by which he will end all quarrels and bring universal harmony. The pimp loses his customers, the male prostitute his job, the other men—a taxi driver, a railroad coaler, a low-level bureaucrat, et al—their self-confidence, and the women have to resort to ever more desperate methods to get sexual satisfaction. Meanwhile, the government apparatus for political repression tries, with hopeless incompetence, to investigate these strange events while simultaneously denying to the world that anything unusual is occurring.

For a non-Arab reader it is hard to keep so many characters straight, especially since the names are often similar. For example, Nabil, Nabila and Umm Nabila are three different people, the first a young man that some of the local women fall in love with, the second a 26-year old female schoolteacher and unwilling spinster, and the third her mother—”Umm” means “mother of,” and may be followed by the name of either a daughter or a son. And inevitably, and despite the best efforts of the translator, English-readers will miss a lot of what must be jokes in Cairene slang and subtle political digs that must have been very naughty in the time of Anwar Sadat.

This work is a lot sillier than the better-known Naguib Mahfouz’s mythification of another Cairo alley (Children of Gebelawi, 1981) or his portrait of generational conflicts at the end of the Sadat period (The Day the Leader Was Killed, 2000), but its silliness is also sharp-edged satire. Al-Ghitani appears to have set out to scandalize everybody, religious sheikhs, pretentious bureaucrats, ignorant shopkeepers and tradesmen, women (though more gently), and the organs of the police state. The only characters who come across as reasonably sane are the “politico,” possibly a Communist (or so the state bureaucracy imagines) just released from long imprisonment, the young man who visits him to learn about the world, and the sweet-natured wife of the merchant “Radish Head” who escapes the alley and its ridiculous prejudices to parts unknown, though rumored to have run off to live with her English instructor.

And finally, nothing ever gets resolved. With so many characters, each with his own craziness, there is no central element holding them all together as a story except the sheikh’s curse (or blessing, or whatever it’s supposed to be). Yet, we never find out what happens to the sheikh (or even whether he really exists as they imagine him) or with the curse of impotence, which may still be in effect in that fictitious alley.

Unfortunately, this is one of only three of al-Ghitani’s many novels available in English. He’s a writer we should know. Though ultimately The Zafarini Files fails to come to a satisfactory conclusion, it succeeds in amusing us by antics of its ineffectual and nutty characters, and gives us a glimpse of social conflicts in Cairo 30 years ago. Maybe not so much has changed in Cairo and its al-Hussein neighborhood