Raph Cormack, ed. – The Book of Cairo (Comma Press, 2019)
I had friends in Alexandria when the revolution happened. I watched the events closely, feeding information to them after the regime blacked out the media and then shut down the entire power grid.
As a result, my memory of the events is perhaps clearer than other British people’s. I remember when the news, baffled at the first uprisings, labelled them terrorists. I remember when the revolutionaries, struck with a McLuhanite awe for the medium rather than the message, thanked Facebook for overthrowing Mubarak. I remember how it all ended. Bloodily, cynically, inevitably.
Every Egyptian no doubt has similar memories. Yet, living in the aftermath, most choose to forget. In Comma Press’ Book of Cairo, we can witness this forgetting transformed into artistry.
Comma Press is the UK’s most esteemed publisher of short stories. They are entirely dedicated to the form, viewing it as an end in itself and not some minor detour on the path to novel writing. Their cities books feature the best of short form writing from across the world.
The Book of Cairo provides a panoramic view of the city. From the very first story, “Gridlock”, we experience the mad rush of one of the world’s busiest and noisiest cities. Seven characters stuck in traffic put aside their seven different objectives in favour of one monumental confrontation.
From here, our narrative camera zooms in. We are treated to stories of individual struggles and individual loves. The city under its shades is like any other big city, it seems, although there is nevertheless a surrealistic twist in many of these tales.
“Talk” by Mohammed Kheir tells the tale of a doctor about whom unfortunate rumours are spread. Losing his livelihood and his self-respect, he is approached by the rumour-spreader. It turns out to be a shakedown.
The twist: the rumour-monger knows a true secret about the doctor. By spreading lies, he feels he is doing him a favour. “What would hurt you more, lies or the truth?” The doctor concedes that he prefers the lie and takes up the blackmailer’s offer. He hires the blackmailer’s public relations firm to protect him from further lies.
Appearances and performances are a running theme. In Hatem Hafez’s “Whine” a new Head of Department tyrannises his former colleagues, dyeing his hair and rearranging furniture to show them who’s boss. He must do everything in his power to stay the new boss, and not become just another old boss, waiting to be replaced.
Nahla Karam’s “The Other Balcony” is the story of a teenaged girl whose suitor moves into the apartment block opposite. He watches her as she emerges onto the balcony, demanding she dress up for him and act in a modest manner.
The act tires her, but not as fast as it tires him. Soon, she receives no messages from him at all, and she is left to wonder what other balconies his flat overlooks.
Not all of the stories are realist. Two, “Siniora” and “Two Sisters”, stand out as the wildest and most imaginative of the book. Their pacing and placement within the collection encourage you to read them as just another narrative, but soon the twists and surprises enter and we end up in a new place entirely.
The feeling overall is one of mysteries known but unspoken. Whether this is an aftermath of a forgotten revolution, or a cultural manner that has been always been there in the Middle East, it is hard to know. Acts are performative, so much that they imply their opposites. Messages are ambiguous where morals are bold.
The penultimate story of the collection is, to my mind, the greatest. “Hamada Al-Ginn” by Nael Eltoukhy follows an everyday police sergeant; one who is corrupt but, in his corruption, prays to maintain the integrity of the force overall. He becomes obsessed with clues. He reads papers, technical manuals and observes everything. He is desperate for the truth: the Whole Truth.
Our desperate policeman chances upon an old man who, under interrogation, appears to hold some part of this truth. With great sorrow and regret, he orders the man tortured. He refuses to speak. Then, eventually, the man asks only that the police ask nicely and he will tell them “the Whole Truth”.
And so, asked and answered, Eltoukhy presents the secret state police as the bringers of harmony and enlightenment into Egypt. Egyptians become a people uniquely gifted by their access to the Whole Truth, and all it took was the tireless efforts of the state’s torturers to bring it about.
Eltouhky’s story is one of the darkest bits of satire I have read in recent years, but it captures something in its excess that the Book of Cairo has been hinting at throughout. In a culture of forgetting that cannot forget, the terrible ironies of history permeate everyday life.
There is something hopeless in the Book of Cairo and yet, beneath a hardened surface, the vast hopes of the old causes still linger. All of life, we are told, is in Cairo. That there is life in this book is without doubt.
– Joe Darlington