Alan Moore meets Nahgib Mafouz in this exuberant, subversive novel by Egyptian writer Naji—who was jailed for his troubles.
Bassam Bahgat is, he says, “a professional kiss-ass,” adding, “What else could you expect from an economics and political science major?” He’s not the only one: though narrating from the vantage point of an old man living in a time of worldly cataclysm, he recounts a whole generation forced to bow down in order to accommodate those in power. He’s landed a gig far from what he really knows how to do, and now he’s making a documentary film about a secret Cairo, one whose buildings themselves are instances of control and social engineering, one in which the entire city becomes a living creature, and not necessarily a friendly one at that. “If you’re just a little mouse of a man spinning inside that Great Wheel, you never get to see the big picture,” he reflects. “Whether you work or not, the Wheel of Production keeps on spinning, and the current carries you along.” Bassam’s co-conspirators are a mixed bunch of intellectuals and artists who labor under no particular illusions of freedom: “There’s nothing more difficult than making decisions in Cairo,” he says, “since it’s Cairo that usually makes decisions for you.” For his unadorned view of modern life in the city, which seems strikingly like life in any other city, Naji was tried and imprisoned on the Socratic charge of “harming public morals,” and to be sure there are plenty of moments involving various fluids and physical contortions. Mostly, though, the rebellion that bursts forth from this book, parts of which are told in graphic form, lies in its subtle pokes at pious Islam, its marveling at the hidden powers of generations of suppressed Egyptian women, and its sometimes-cynical view of an ancient nation trying to remake itself.
A fly-on-the-wall view of an Egypt few outsiders know and one that, in its insistence on unveiled expression, offers hope for a more democratic future.