Life in Cairo and Alexandria is vividly evoked in this first novel from Egyptian writer Rami—but not vividly enough to compensate for an improbable protagonist and a theme that, in trying to mean so much, doesn't mean much at all. When the narrator, a young woman studying at Harvard, hurries home to Cairo because Dad—a former bigwig, a pasha, in pre-Nasser days—is desperately ill, she's surprised to find a young man, Alex, ensconced in her aristocratic family. For Alex is a Greek from one of the poorest quarters of Cairo—Antiquity Street—whose only claim to distinction is his white skin. But Alex is also a charmer, able to bewitch men, women, and animals. Our heroine— whose less-than-savory past is littered with a variety of sexual adventures, including a long-term one with an uncle who paid her extremely well—is soon smitten. Either because the story takes place pre-AIDS—the exact time is never clear—or, more likely, because that disease would be inconvenient for the plot, she isn't worried that Alex is also a homosexual hooker. She briefly moves into his seamy apartment; throws in lots of stories about the good old days when the poor knew their place; makes side-trips to Alexandria and the desert; and muses on the mystery she senses behind Alex's moodiness. When Alex becomes ill and dies, she at last learns the truth. Not only Alex but his golden curls were not exactly what they appeared when she first caught sight of his ``long-red silk scarf dancing about his gracefully modelled limbs.'' But no problem: ``thanks to him, I had been able to recover the blurred childhood images which Nasser had somehow tarnished—stolen from me.'' Good on local color and custom, but the rest is a tawdry muddle. Despite the claim, this is no competition to Lawrence Durrell's still peerless Alexandria Quartet.
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