Mona Zaki reviews

Thieves in Retirement

by Hamdi Abu Golayyel

Syracuse University Press, 2006 ISBN 0-8156-085-7 hbk 126pp

Translated from the Arabic by Marilyn Booth

Decency against deference in a predatory world

Through the eyes of a recent Bedouin migrant to the city, we are introduced to Building No. 36 in a relatively new sprawling neighbourhood outside Cairo. A predatory principle governs this post-Nasserite urbanity, with the landlord Abu Gamal sitting in front of his retirement asset and gazing at the world with a “hunter’s sure instinct”. His rapaciousness is shared by his sons Gamal, the first born, a drug dealer; Amer, a dope addict who steals to support his habit, and Sayf, an effeminate hairdresser whose predatory technique involves “deep” gazes and a deliberately slow gait.

The “house narrative” is essentially an account of survival for the many recent arrivals seeking refuge. Abu Golayyel’s characters are richly drawn with Gamal, for example, considering himself a thinker and a writer with a personal philosophy.

Interaction involves an inordinate, almost strategic, calculation to every word or deed. In order to free himself from hypocrisy, the narrator begins by imagining a sycophantic double whose function is to demonstrate copious and ill-deserved deference to his landlord. In this ruthless atmosphere, secrets are lethal weapons; the tenants are physically outnumbered in a world where blood, in the end, proves to be thicker than water.

The narrator’s strategy is to cultivate the Bedouin stereotype of courage and simplicity as well as to uphold a good reputation in a “strange place among people whose wickedness” cannot be trusted. The fear of malevolence becomes fact: another tenant obsequiously serves others in order to mitigate suspicion. The predatory world soon demonstrates there is no such thing as an innocent bystander.

As she translates the cultural and linguistic nuances of such a full novel, Marilyn Booth conveys her enthusiasm to the readers. It is indeed an amazing first, replete with social commentary and astute observations. The roster of characters includes, for example, the teacher, Ustadh Ramadan, who fancies himself a poet and does not let “a single social, national, political, or even global occasion, pass without embracing it poetically”.

These are characters we have learnt to recognize in Egyptian literature but which Abu Golayyel defines in such a way as to embrace their sincerity, their weakness – basically their humanity. In fact, beneath the familiarity of this “house genre” and its characters, is a respect for the decency of others as well as for the power of hate.

The last element fuels the predatory subtext creating a narrational tension that continues to the last page and provides an open-ended conclusion to a great read.

From Banipal 29 - Summer 2007

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