The Lodging House
by Khairy Shalaby
Translated by Farouk Abdel Wahab
Winner of the 2007 Saif Ghobash–Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation
The American University in Cairo Press, Cairo and New York, 2006, 434pp.
Escaping from Oneself
When the novel Wikalat Atiya won for its author Khairy Shalaby the 2003 Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature, the prize included translation and publication of the work in English by the American University in Cairo (AUC) Press. And now Farouk Abdel Wahab has won the Saif Ghobash–Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation for his translation of the novel, published by AUC Press under the title The Lodging House.
These two major awards reflect the achievements of Shalaby in writing his remarkable novel, and of Farouk Abdel Wahab in bringing it exuberantly to life for an English-language readership. Farouk Abdel Wahab is the pen name of Farouk Mustafa, the Ibn Rushd Professorial Lecturer in Arabic at the University of Chicago. He has translated numerous Arab works of fiction including, for AUC Press, Hala El Badry’s A Certain Woman and Gamal al-Ghitani’s Zayni Barakat.
Shalaby, who won the 1980-81 Egyptian National Prize for Literature, is the author of some 70 books including novels, short story collections, historical tales and critical studies. He was born in 1938 in the Nile Delta town of Kafr al-Shaykh, and Wikalat Atiya is set in the delta city of Damanhour. The generous, exhilarating novel gives a vivid portrait of the city and its relation to the rural hinterland. The author draws convincingly a world of people constantly on the move – peasants, rogues, students, merchants, fortune tellers, gypsies, effendis, sheikhs, dervishes. There is a strong sense of place, and of the smells, sounds and sights in the city’s streets and quarters. The novel is set in the Nasser era, at a time when members of the Muslim Brotherhood are being rounded up and imprisoned.
The Lodging House charts the progress of a young man from a rural background through the underworld of the city, of which the old caravanserai of Wikalat Atiya is a microcosm. This notorious wikala has a dual image in the minds of villagers. It is a “dump and a refuge of the downtrodden and a place of ill repute.” But at the same time it is invested with “an air of enchantment and great fun and pleasant nights, and thus word spread that most of the women dancers and beautiful singers and instrumentalists and wedding impresarios were alumnae of Wikalat Atiya in the olden days".
The first-person, unnamed narrator is initially both repulsed and seduced by the place. “I never thought I could be brought down so low that I would accept living in Wikalat Atiya,” he declares in the first sentence of the novel. He then describes how his downfall came when he was expelled from the Public Teachers’ Institute for a vicious physical attack on a mathematics teacher.
In the Nasser years, education was made widely available. The mathematics teacher “was not happy that the sons of detestable peasants from villages and hamlets, more like barefoot riffraff than anything else, could excel in education over the true sons of schools, originally from elite backgrounds and good, wealthy folks”. He picks on the narrator endlessly, and after he literally kicks him out of the classroom during an examination, the narrator attacks him “like a wild rabid dog”. The teacher is taken to hospital in a critical condition, and the dean of the Institute “cursed Taha Hussein as the one who destroyed education and polluted it with lowlifes like me”.
As well as being expelled from the Institute, the narrator is given a six-month suspended jail sentence. A year after the attack he returns to the Institute armed with a knife, intending to stab the teacher in the heart, but he sees that the man lost an eye in the attack and is now a pathetic figure. “I was overcome with a kind of pity for the both of us.”
The narrator’s expulsion from the Institute leads to his estrangement from his family and village. He becomes a long-haired, bearded vagrant living and sleeping on the streets of Damanhour. He is befriended by young vegetable hawker Mahrous, “calling to the customers in mawwals that extolled the virtues of his radishes and gargir with a fervor and vitality surpassing that of Abu Nawas for his wine”. Mahrous carries him on his bicycle to Wikalat Atiya telling him he will be able to sleep in the courtyard for one piastre, or in a room for double that. It is also Mahrous who introduces the narrator to the smoking of hashish.
The wikala’s guardian is the grotesque Shawadfi, who is rumoured to have swindled the building’s owner Atiya out of it ten years earlier. In the large circular courtyard people sleep under the stars. “Piled up on its ground were hundreds of bodies like corpses left behind by a fierce war from many centuries ago, grown rigid in place and turned an earthenware hue, in no particular order, the head of one on the feet of another, and other feet on each others’ necks and bellies.”
Shalaby’s narrative is steeped in folk and popular culture, and liberally peppered with similes, slang, curses, proverbs and legends. In his translation, Farouk Abdel Wahab captures the rich, entertaining liveliness of the prose, weaving in English language colloquialisms and slang where appropriate (these tend to be American English, as with “buddy”). There is a glossary of terms at the end of the novel including ‘sabaris’ – cigarette butts collected from the street and used by the poor to roll cigarettes from. There are various words for types of gypsy. An inhabitant of the wikala tells the narrator: “Listen, dear sir, in the wikala there are ghagar, halab, tatar and nawar . . . A ghagari woman, for instance, goes around the fields as a ghaziya to dance and serve her gang. She sells her body by the inch and the handspan to come back at the end of the night fully fed.”
The narrator feels keenly the discrimination he has suffered, not only in the Institute but from the family of a cousin who has married a civil servant, Hagg Mas’oud al-Qabbani, and lives in the city. This urban branch of the family looks down on the narrator’s poverty and village ways. But his tenderly passionate encounter with Hagg Mas’oud’s daughter Badriya in the family house while the family is away at a wedding has a lasting impact on him. She is still unmarried at the age of around 40, supposedly because she inherited her father’s enormous lips. Badriya confides to the narrator that as a girl she was raped by the drunken owner of the house. She is one of several female characters whose suffering at the hands of men and society is related by the narrator.
Shalaby is a master storyteller, and his zesty novel is in a sense a celebration of the art of narrative. The narrator’s accounts of his adventures and memories are interwoven with the stories he is told by, and about, other characters, including those who live in the wikala’s two tiers of rooms. The stories help explain how various characters ended up living in the wikala, and the ingenious, if often illicit, means by which they survive. Shawadfi, from his vantage point on the mastaba (bench) in the courtyard, comments on the goings-on in the wikala and tells the narrator some of the characters’ back stories. Certain of the stories are marked by tragedy. As Shawadfi cackles: “This wikala has seen so many tragedies. As many tragedies as it has bricks. Life is indeed a bitch, and time a traitor, and the two amount to nothing!”
The narrator writes of women and erotic episodes with an unrestrained sensuality. He merrily notes times when he fails to rise to the occasion: “It became clear to the camel in all stoned clarity that it could not indeed go through the eye of the needle.”
Among the women who captivate him is Widad, possessor of a “wild ferocious beauty” and granddaughter of a woman tattooist who lives in the wikala. Sundus, the fortune-telling gypsy, has an “innate eloquence that many people educated in the schools and al-Azhar lacked.” Dumyana the Monkey Woman has four monkeys she trains, and according to Shawadfi, has “worn out five husbands as if each of them were a pair of shoes”.
The narrator’s senses are heightened by deprivation and living on the edge, and by his constant indulgence in hashish and opium. Sometimes he does not know where his next meal is coming from, and rarely has a novel described food and meals with quite such infectious relish. He has a well-developed aesthetic sense, and there are moments when he is struck by the beauty of the wikala, one night glimping “a dazzling landscape drawn on the courtyard ground with threads of light escaping from the slightly and fully opened doors on both floors, intersecting like threads of fabric, creating circles, domes, minarets, arrows, and exotic shapes like imaginary dolls or female jinnis with their hair down.”
The narrator loves reading and writing, and has already published a story in booklet form and been mentioned by a writer in a newspaper article as a “man of letters, ustaz so and so”. He is helped to develop his literary interests by fabric merchant Muhammad Abu Sinn, who has a “prayer mark like a sparrow on his brow” and is a member of the local Muslim Brotherhood, and whose wide-ranging book collection includes titles that have been attacked by mosque preachers.
The narrator had first met Abu Sinn when a student at the Institute, encouraged by him to read certain writers and introduced by him to the Society of Authors at Massiri Coffee-shop and to its proprietor-author. “And it was he who advised me in the end to forget Abd al-Quddous and al-Seba’i and the like, and instead to read carefully an unknown author called Naguib Mahfouz who depicted life as it truly was.”
Khairy Shalaby shows his readers how the narrator receives a very different kind of education during his time in Wikala Atiya from that which he would have received had he continued at the Public Teachers’ Institute, and that it was an education which seems likely to be of more lasting value to his emerging talents as a writer.
Farouk Abdel Wahab
2007 Saif Ghobash–Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation
From Banipal 30 - Autumn/Winter 2007
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