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Worthwhile as a Window into Another Society
on 31 July 2008
This book was published in Arabic in 2002 and for a few years thereafter was one of the world's best-selling novels in that language. It was translated into English in 2004. I didn't open it looking for a masterpiece of style or psychological depth, but for a window into another society's values, types, behaviors and problems. On that level, it satisfied.
It followed the lives of five main characters who lived or worked in a once-grand, now-decaying building in downtown Cairo: male/female, young/old, rich/poor, devout/secular, educated/working class, straight/gay. The author introduced the five as individuals, then paired them off with each other or with the secondary characters around them. The action jumped back and forth between the pairs as the novel progressed, contrasting the characters' behavior up through the conclusion.
With this structure, the author was able to touch on many aspects of society, one after another. He depicted political corruption, the scheming for advantage among the powerful and powerless, sexual repression and obsession, the benefits that flowed from money and connections, the lack of democracy and opportunity, the frustration that led to religious fundamentalism, and the search of so many for love and respect.
In interviews, the author has said he saw the majority of the characters in his novel as oppressed, and that he believed in the long run a repressive government would generate terrorism. In the book, one of the protagonists argued that the country's curse was dictatorship, that it led inevitably to poverty, corruption and failure in all fields, and that a step forward must include progress toward democracy.
I was struck particularly by the book's ending, where the main characters' various fates might hint at the author's view of the way toward a brighter future: joining the tolerant outlook of the old with the aspirations and vitality of the young, in a relationship of mutual trust and respect. And an avoidance of religious extremism and unbridled sensuality, both of which seemed to lead to wasted potential and a dead end.
The story was very readable, and the plot raced along. Toward the end, the pace was sustained at the cost of some believability. I found the characters' behavior credible or interesting enough a good deal of the time, except for the sudden anger and class scorn expressed by one of the characters that led to violence. Or the love that developed so quickly between a younger character and an older one.
Finally, I was left wondering how the author really felt about the religious beliefs of the sheikh who became the mentor of one of the young main characters. How evolution toward democracy would incorporate people like the sheikh is something I'm still trying to understand.