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The Hashish Waiter
by Khairy Shalaby (1938-2011)
Translated by Adam Talib
American University in Cairo Press, Cairo, 2011, hbk, 243pp, ISBN: 978-977-416–300–5
Rowdy, the king of the run-down
When Egyptian writer Khairy Shalaby died last September at the age of 73, he left a literary legacy of some 70 books – 12 of them novels – published over a writing career spanning more than half a century. His accolades included winning the 1980-81 Egyptian National Prize for Literature.
Despite this illustrious record it is only in the past six years that Shalaby’s novels have started to appear in English translation, all published by AUC Press. The first to appear, in 2006, was The Lodging House – Farouk Abdel Wahab’s translation of Wikalat ‘Atiya (1999), which won the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature. The Lodging House also won the 2007 Saif Ghobash-Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation. In 2010, The Time-Travels of the Man Who Sold Pickles and Sweets was published in a translation by Michael Cooperson.
The Hashish Waiter, the third of Shalaby’s novels to appear in English translation, showcases the author’s brilliant storytelling , his humour and his gift for portraying a broad spectrum of Egyptian life including that of “the street” and the marginalised. The translation by Adam Talib is zesty and enjoyable; Talib is resourceful in rendering into English the author’s rich prose style peppered with dialect, slang and hashish-related jargon.
The Arabic original of the novel, Salih Hesa, was published by Dar al-Hilal in 2000. The eponymous hero, Salih Abd al-Birr Mahran, is known to all as “Rowdy” Salih. His job is to fill with hashish the bowls of the bong water pipes in Hakeem’s hash den in the Marouf popular quarter of Cairo.
The novel begins in the years after Egypt’s defeat in the 1967 Six-Day War. Rowdy has become “the main attraction for all the den’s customers because he brought a certain virile, mischievous, warm and brotherly, attractively lunatic ecstasy to the place”. He fascinates the loose clique of young intellectuals, artists, actors, writers and poets, which includes the novel’s (first person) narrator, a writer who regularly gets high at Hakeem’s den.
Salih would become rowdy after indulging in his favourite denatured-alcohol-and-Pepsi cocktail. Then he would be “his most rabidly violent and readier than ever to do something unthinkable...”
One of novel’s epigraphs is a six-sentence quote from Rowdy beginning: “God made the world a rowdy place and then he filled it with rowdy people” and ending: “And me, I’m the king of the run-down ’cause I’m run-down in every which way.” This paean to rowdiness is repeated on three different occasions in the novel.
The Hashish Waiter follows the interweaving adventures, by turns comic and tragic, of the narrator’s companions through the 1970s and beyond. The narrator also pieces together the life story of Rowdy Salih who was born, one of 11 children, in a since-demolished house on the very site of Hakeem’s den. The family was extremely poor despite the father’s job with the Camel Corps.
At various times in his life Salih has shown courage and a marked independence of spirit. When he was a boy his father and other members of the Camel Corps, mounted on their animals, attacked demonstrators with whips and Salih tried to protect from his father’s lashes a lawyer who had become his mentor. That day changed Salih’s life: “ruin took hold of him and failure followed him no matter where he went.” He filed an official complaint against his father, although he was angry when the court harshly sentenced the father to six years’ hard labour.
Rowdy Salih continues to obsess the narrator and his friends down the years, gaining cult-like status. The climax to the novel is Sadat’s 1977 visit to Jerusalem. At first the narrator and his friends dismiss news of the impending visit as Sadat “merely trying to pull off the ultimate Egyptian joke”. When to their horror they see Sadat on TV sitting with Begin, Sharon, Dayan and Golda Meir, it is Rowdy who takes action and vents his fury in the street. He is beaten up and hauled away by police. The friends try to find him, but knowing the police’s brutal reputation they are filled with foreboding.
Twelve years on from the first publication of The Hashish Waiter in Arabic, its hero Rowdy Salih can be seen as a precursor of the millions of Egyptians who finally rose up and said “Enough” and “No” in the 2011 revolution. The time for general rowdiness had arrived.
Published in Banipal 44 – 12 Women Writers