This brilliantly conceived and artfully detailed novel set in the Egyptian immigration bureaucracy is both a comedy and tragedy of errors.
“Welcome to Egypt!...Everything was invented here. Poetry, science, math. The calendar, the plow.” With this greeting, Cairo taxi driver Mustafa ushers Hana, an Iraqi-American who has arrived for a job with the U.N. refugee office, into his cab for the first of many wild rides. (After she accidentally damages his car, they are bonded for life.) One of Hana’s first cases is that of an Iraqi named Dalia, the wife of a man who helped rebuild water mains for the Americans in Baghdad until violent retaliation engulfed them both. Only he was given asylum in the U.S.; she's now trying to join him but is too reserved to confess the details which qualify her for relocation. “A single-file queue almost a million people long appeared in Hana’s mind. Dalia was an invisible dot in the distance, with no chance whatsoever of leaving Egypt.” What Hana doesn’t yet know is that Dalia’s immigration lawyer, an American named Charlie, is in love with his client and is about to cook up a crazy plan to help her outwit the system. The unfolding scheme also drags in Aos, Charlie’s translator and only friend, a young man who joins the nightly protests against the government in Tahrir Square. There are far too many great things about this book to list in this small space: the tension and energy of the plot; the tragic back stories of Charlie and Hana; the vignettes of Dalia’s husband in Boston; the richness and subtlety of detail in the writing. In one scene, Charlie and Aos are sitting in a Lebanese cafe. Aos is bursting to explain to Charlie everything that's wrong with his plan but can't bring himself to speak. Meanwhile, a patron who is smoking demands coals for his shisha, already piled high. “Aos’s heart sank to witness reason’s failing: the headwaiter stacking hot coals on top of hot coals. Only his delicate and ingenious positioning saved the tower from collapse.”
The ironies of bureaucracy and wartime, à la Catch-22, meet the ironies of love and sacrifice, à la The Necklace, profoundly humanizing the global refugee crisis. Bassingthwaighte’s virtuoso debut deserves the widest attention.