M.A.Orthofer: The complete review’s Review

Puplished fist at The complete review: http://www.complete-review.com/reviews/egypt/najia.htm

 Using Life is a novel of Cairo, and of a younger generation of Egyptians struggling in a culture and society that is both extremely deeply-rooted (in history, tradition, etc.) and unmoored. The first chapter is nothing short of apocalyptic in its vision, first burying Cairo under a mountain of sand, then destroying half the city in an earthquake — in which the Great Pyramid itself: “was reduced o a pile of rubble”, and:

All that was left of our great heritage — our civilization, our architecture, our poetry and prose — would soon meet a fate even worse than that of the pyramids. Everything collapsed into the earth or was buried under oceans of sand.

       The novel proper then is a look back to before the collapse, beginning with more or less present-day Cairo — the city and society already breaking down, yet still stumbling on, for now, in its familiar raucous, chaotic state. The narrator, Bassam Bahgat, describes his roaring twenties, when, after a stint working for a human rights organization, he got a job as a documentary filmmaker. Eventually he’s hired to make a series of films, basically on Cairo. He becomes involved with a ‘Society of Urbanists’, dedicated to a sort of very ambitious urban renewal, with a focus on architecture and city planning; eventually the Society reinvents itself as a global alliance of corporations — dozens, eventually — controlling sixty per cent of the world’s agriculture and a major player in all sorts of industries.
       There’s a look at the development of the old city — planned, but escaping those plans:

     No city was meant to be like this. Cairo was supposed to be more intelligently designed, more precise, more efficient. […] What we need is a revolution.

       The city dominates the book, defining for the characters — both as they are simply trying to get by, as well as working to upset various aspects of the contemporary order:

There’s nothing more difficult than making decisions in Cairo, since it’s Cairo that usually makes decisions for you.

       Bassam crisscrosses both the familiar Cairo and a more fantastical, imagined one; whether led down its familiar streets or given a glimpse of more sensational recesses the city, and its experience, remain fundamental:

     Cairo. The heat. The scowls, the sliminess, the sweat. The pain. The scream muffled inside. The streets that don’t let you laugh or smile, or even cry or shout out in pain.

       Bassam — a young man: “worried about turning twenty-five without having a good story to tell” — describes his casual relationships and the lives and ambitions of those he interacts with, from the small-scale to the globally ambitious. Women figure in prominent and often powerful roles, in a novel that plays in many ways at subversiveness.
       Subversiveness extends to form as well, as the narrative is not limited to writing, either: a few sections are presented in cartoon-panel form, while a section on ‘The Animal of Cairo’ pairs illustration with brief description. (The artwork is by Ayman Al Zorkany.)
       Using Life crams many stories into the larger and dominant Society of Urbanists-conspiracy-tale, but it’s a jittery narrative, hopping all around like its protagonist who often feels he is without control. There are raw scenes here, too — including quite a bit of casual and incidental sex — presenting a welcome broader picture of Egyptian life and society, and the struggles of a younger generation in the contemporary world — convincingly twisted by Naji into his panoramic tale, but more impressive piece by separate piece than in the stuttering whole.

From Using Life @ Zorkany

       A translation that feels somewhat stilted amplifies what surely is already in the original an aggressive prose challenging traditional narrative norms (especially of what (especially ‘Western’) readers seem to expect from Arabic fiction); Using Life is obviously not meant to be a smooth read — but winds up being a somewhat frustrating one in English.

– M.A.Orthofer, 13 January 2018

Letter to Ingvar

Dear Ingvar,
This letter is at least three years overdue, but it’s better late than never.
On this day, the 7th of March, Three years ago, I was sentenced to two years in prison because of a novel I wrote. I was taken from the court to the police station where I spent three nights. During that time, my friends brought me some books to read in my imposed loneliness. Unfortunately, I was transported to prison and they took all the books, my clothes, and my pen.
In my first day in prison, the time passed so slowly. And time in prison is the ever-present executioner. But, I discovered that the only weapon inmates have to face time with, is reading.
Some of the prisoners I met with never opened a book in their lives but surrounded by boredom in prison, and the endless time, books are their only way to survive.
My reading material, however, was ever so scarce; I only found the memoirs of Jihan el Sadat, the wife of the ex-Egyptian president Anwar el- Sadat. I read the book in one night and had to endure its lack of depth and its triviality. I tried re-reading it, but reading it for a second time was more painful than boring.
I walked up and down my cell looking for something to do. A fellow inmate asked me whether I was fine. I told him that I am just looking for something to read because I can’t sleep. Another inmate heard me and said: “Someone I know has a really beautiful translated book with him.” So, I went to that person who had a book with a yellow and orange cover. It was the Arabic edition of your novel, Elling. He promised to give it to me the next day because he was still reading it. But, boredom almost killed me, so I kept on walking up and down the cell in front of him while looking at him persistently. I was convinced that I would be able to have him give it to me without saying a single word. In the end, he surrendered with a frown and gave me the novel.
I tore through your beautiful work in one night, and because we weren’t allowed to go out of the cell for two consecutive days, I reread it, and the second time, I read it slowly. I was surprised to discover later on, that a lot of my inmates had read it and liked it. Some of them, for some reason, imagined that the two protagonists of the novel were inmates as well, and because there are no prisons in Norway, both of them were put in that special house.
Personally, I was entranced with the poets in your novel and in my isolation among the other inmates, I found myself back to writing poetry after I stopped writing it for years.
Thank you for this exquisite novel, and for the smile, you put on my face and regards from me and from my fellow inmates in cell number 2/4, Zeraa’ ward, Torra prison Cairo.
Ahmed Naje