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Mona Zaki

Tales of Encounter: Three Egyptian Novellas

by Yusuf Idris

translated by Rasheed El-Enany

AUC Press, Cairo-New York, 2012, ISBN 978-9774165627, pbk, 240pp.

Narrative voices

This collection, Tales of Encounter, is a wonderful addition to the translated works of Yusuf Idris. The first two novellas, Madam Vienna (1959) and New York 80 (1980) are encounters with women while the third The Secret of His Power is an encounter with a saint. The first, serialized in the Egyptian newspaper Al-Masa’, describes the pursuit by an Egyptian civil servant, Darsh, of a sexual adventure in Europe. Darsh is a man driven by needs and consumed by how he would fulfil them. “What he wanted defined was what was legitimate, what was right.” In Vienna, Darsh is a male predator on foreign soil, hanging around the central square, waiting for his catch. He is well dressed having invested in a suit and his main tactic is limited to asking for directions. He carefully assesses the gaze, or the hesitancy, of the women he talks to. As the night progresses and getting desperate he follows a woman he had asked directions from earlier, takes the last tram, chats her up and invites himself in! Her husband is on a business trip and for both their encounter is a first in their marital lives.

The second novella picks up the theme of an Egyptian abroad, this time with a call-girl, who does look nothing like what the narrator imagines a prostitute to be. The exchange is between two nameless characters and here Idris argues against the commoditization of the body as akin to white slavery and dehumanizing the soul. It is clear from her response that the prostitute believes in the free market economy, arguing that her skills and expertise are not unlike those of a psychotherapist, in fact she has a PhD, and can name her price!

Twenty years separate these two encounters with women who remain anonymous except for the names of their cities. Madam Vienna would have landed Darsh in this day and age in trouble! Stalking and harassment is a serious offence and what Idris does best is show the tenacity and stamina of the predator. New York 80 was written with Egypt’s economic changes amid Sadat’s Open Door policy. The issues Idris raises through the call-girl are similar to those raised at the same time back home in Egypt as luxury goods flooded the market amid stagnant wages. Privatization and free market economy was all the rage.

The third novella, The Secret of His Power is one of the most enjoyable pieces Idris has ever written. Those of us who enjoy Idris will realize how much they miss him. Here a young boy in a Delta village questions the sanctity of the village’s decrepit mausoleum of Sultan Hamid. He learns how most villages have similar mausoleums dedicated to Sultan Hamid as well. Over the years he learns about the “myth” of the saint and the “reality”.

Tales of Encounter reminds us of Idris’s eye for detail, the brevity of his style is captured in the excellent translation by Rasheed El-Enany, an authority on Idris’ writing and the genre of “foreign encounters”. These three stories capture three distinct narrative voices: the predator, the indignant moralist, and the inquisitive little boy. It is hard to imagine any writing of Idris that hasn’t been translated. This edition is a reminder of just how good a writer Yusuf Idris really was.

Published in Banipal 46 - 80 New Poems

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