In post–World War II Cairo, one family offers a lens on royal corruption, the British occupation, and the economic struggles of urban Egyptians in this rich political fable.
As in his debut, The Yacoubian Building, the bestselling Egyptian novelist and commentator (Friendly Fire, 2009, etc.) intertwines many lives caught up in history, in this case the eve of his country’s 1952 revolution. The once-wealthy patriarch of the Gaafar family suddenly dies after being beaten while working a menial job at the exclusive Cairo club of the title, where Egyptians are servants and only Europeans and royalty are members. Two of his three sons then get jobs at the club to support their mother and sister but also pursue secret activities. The studious Kamel, who gives Arabic lessons to the rebellious daughter of the club’s British managing director, is drawn into a group of radicals seeking to end the occupation. The oafish Mahmud performs as a gigolo servicing wealthy elderly women. Their sister reluctantly abandons her university studies to marry a man who will help the third brother in his business pursuits. Two characters embody the corruption and abuses targeted by the 1952 uprising that overthrew the king and helped oust the British. James Wright, the club director, is almost a caricature of obtuse colonial snobbery. He connives with the king’s chamberlain, Alku, who rules over the servants of the club through humiliation and beatings. The king himself is an overweight, gambling womanizer whose hankerings put Wright in an ugly quandary close to home. Coming out so soon after the 2011 revolution, the novel at its simplest level may serve to remind Egyptians and others involved in the Arab Spring of some of the historical reasons so many pursued democracy and how elusive it remains.
Whatever political freight Al Aswany intends, he remains a charming, earthy, resourceful storyteller—albeit with a weakness for cliffhangers—who might seduce even readers closer to Times Square than to Tahrir Square.