Novelist Ibrahim Abdel Meguid generously shares his Cairo with readers

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Egyptian author Ibrahim Abdel Meguid. Al-Akhbar

By: Jamal Jubran

Published Thursday, December 18, 2014

He finally left his beloved hometown. However, his new novel “Cairo Is Here” (Al Dar Al Masriah Al Lubnaniah) is marked by the same tone of lamentation that characterized all his previous work on Alexandria. Cairo in the 1970s, Gamal Abdel Nasser’s legacy, the demonstrations against the Camp David Accords, the pursuit of communists, and pseudo-religiosity... are events and places he reconstructs from memory after they have ceased to exist in reality.

“Finally, Ibrahim Abdel Meguid has written about Cairo.” This comment, recently posted on Facebook by an Egyptian reader who follows newly published novels, reflects popular opinion about the novelist, who has made ​​the city of Alexandria the main setting in all his novels. This is evident in the trilogy “No One Sleeps in Alexandria” (1996), “Birds of Amber” (2008), and “Alexandria in a Cloud” (2013).

So it is hard not to notice Abdel Meguid’s departure – in his new novel “Cairo Is Here” – from his beloved hometown to the place in which he resides today. But despite this change of setting by the author of the novel “House of Jasmine,” it appears that this transition away from Alexandria to the capital was not easy for him.

Features of his previous novel “Alexandria in a Cloud” serve as a prologue to “Cairo Is Here,” in which a communist protagonist joins a secret party after graduating from university, but finds himself unable to adapt to it. At the same time, his girlfriend leaves him and decides to wear the hijab and marry a wealthy man. This prompts him to move to Cairo and work in the cultural field. These events take place in the early 1970s.

It is noteworthy that Abdel Meguid himself completed his studies in Alexandria and moved to Cairo during the same period, where he worked in the official cultural field (1973).

The pervading tone of lamentation in “Alexandria in a Cloud” is undeniable. The writer borrows the opening line, “Say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing,” from Constantine P. Cavafy’s poem “The God Abandons Antony.” In the novel, Abdel Meguid talks about political money, pseudo-religiosity, the return of the veil as a cheap and easy solution to confront the changes that swept the cosmopolitan Mediterranean city and compromised its openness to strangers.

A tone of lamentation continues in the journey towards Cairo, where further weeping will take place, but in the opposite direction. We will meet the young man Saber Said, who moves to Cairo to work in the cultural field. He later joins the Communist Party, where he meets his friend and comrade Said Saber – a theater director of the same age – and becomes exposed to his ideas on life, culture, and the left-wing.

In “Cairo Is Here,” the whole narrative is based on these two young men, and the tone of lamentation is reemployed within the context of Cairo during the 1970s. It begins with the conclusion of the joyous ceremonial celebrations of the 6th of October Victory, and its “pious president” who succeeded in weakening and destabilizing the foundations of Egyptian society, and laid the groundwork for its real setback and the subsequent erosion of the achievements of the July 23, 1952 Revolution. But that's not all. The writer talks about the signing of the Camp David Accords which led to the outbreak of the well-known 1970s demonstrations and campaigns targeting communists, opening the door wide open to Islamic fundamentalist currents from which Egypt still suffers today.

Saber Said and his comrade – due to their makeup – turn out to be incapable of engaging in resistance work, and instead resort to hashish in an attempt to reach a high status – in the figurative sense – and to create a space for reflection and escape reality. Hashish, which becomes the focal point in the novel, turns into a means to overcome the successive defeats and allows uninhibited self-expression, thus paving the way for open discussion of taboos in politics, religion, and sex.

This drug is available in abundance, and is sponsored by the same “pious president.”

“Hashish sponsored by the pious President. I wonder what would happen if the president dies!” says Said.

How will it be possible to overcome such strikingly painful scenes as a poet selling his son at a coffee shop, or a girl bargaining to get a reasonable dowry from a man whom she knows will hand her over to a female pimp after marrying her? There is no other solution here other than hashish, the master of open talk and joy.

The narrative, which includes heavy use of sarcasm and jokes about various events and misfortunes spanning 500 pages, could have been shortened. The author of “The Other Town” made sure to include a detailed description of places in Cairo that no longer exist today and he wishes to see again, as if he was retrieving them from memory to allow the reader to see another face of Cairo through his own eyes.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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