By Ahmed Khaled Towfik
Translated by Chip Rosetti
Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation, 2011
My first introduction to Egypt’s Beverly Hills came sometime in 2006. Its billboard loomed over a dust-coated building, visible from a crossroads of thoroughfares and the looping tentacles of the mammoth bridge that links downtown to every other part of the city. The titanic sign featured a crisp green lawn, pristine white houses, flowers in bloom, and a healthy, happy, white-toothed family with an equally perky dog.
The billboard was strategically placed to stir dreams of pseudo-American suburban life in flustered Egyptians as they inched forward in the gridlock of Cairo traffic. It had its effect. A few months later, one local newspaper profiled the new Beverly Hills:
As traffic, pollution, and insecurity become increasingly unbearable… many are leaving the city for their own little piece of heaven in faraway compounds. Maha Ibrahim, who moved into her home just a few months ago, cannot stop telling people how wonderful life out there is. “You wake up in the morning and open the windows and in front of you there’s a garden and you smell the clean air and hear birds instead of honks. What more could you want?“ Marianne Fage is also “much happier” outside the city. The straw that broke the camel’s back had to do with her crowded Heliopolis neighbourhood: “One day I came home and I couldn’t park and that was it for me.” Now she parks wherever and whenever she pleases.
Ahmed Khaled Towfik’s novel Utopia takes its name from one of these idyllic bourgeois gated communities, which include Dream, Dreamland, Palm Hills, Green Park, and Royal Valley. (The real-life Utopia was advertised as a place to “live your dreams.”) Indeed, in the years leading up to the 2011 revolution, it seemed as if gated communities were out-sprawling the already overgrown megalopolis. Affluent urbanites spoke insistently and obsessively of moving out — away from the disordered assault and dirt of Cairo proper, and into gloriously gated suburbs. BMWs and Prada were in vogue and flashed with pride, and people talked about accumulating homes in gated real estate complexes as if they were collecting stamps.
But for the vast majority of the country’s population of eighty-two million, it was not a good time. Inflation was high; wages were low. Families of six and eight and ten were packed into single-room homes, and forty percent of the population was living on two dollars a day. The ruling elite had robbed the country of billions — often through real estate ventures — and then proceeded to absent themselves from the grimy downtowns with their poor and begging people. The one percent limited their time to their gated utopias on the outskirts of Cairo or their equally sheltered paradise resorts on the coasts of the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. When they did go downtown, it was in chauffeured cars with tinted glass that you couldn’t see into — or more important, out of. They spoke an Arabic shot through with English and inflected with French.
It is this painful reality — or an only slightly more skewed projection of it — that Towfik writes about in Utopia, a futuristic passion play between “us and them,” set in 2023. There is Utopia — a gated community on the North Coast that houses Egypt’s richest families, business tycoons, and jet-setters — and there is the Territory of the Others, “the sea of angry poverty outside” the gates. Utopia’s “artificial paradise” is guarded by former US Marines and where, “softened by a life of luxury and boredom, you end up unable to tell an American from an Egyptian from an Israeli.” Because there is nothing to do, your time is passed with sleep, drugs, “eating until food makes you sick, you vomit until you can recover the enjoyment of eating, you have sex (it’s weird that you notice how boredom makes your sexual behavior aggressive and sadistic).” Days are both stimulated and numbed with the cocaine-like drug pholgistine, and impregnations and subsequent abortions are commonplace among youthful Utopians. Viagra is obsolete; in its stead, there is Libidafro. For decadent Utopians, fashion is paramount, and in 2023 “cosmetic wounds” are de rigueur: “Wounds are a turn-on, no doubt about it. It’s a trend that appeared two years ago and now there are people who specialize in it. The important thing is for the wound to look as grotesque as possible, and artificial, too, so people who see it won’t be disgusted. There’s a real art to it.”
The protagonist and narrator is the unnamed son of a business tycoon. He is spoiled, immoral, and bored out of his wits. Intelligent and curious, he vacillates between surrendering to his Utopian life and rejecting it outright. What happens on this cusp, or precipice, is Towfik’s theme. In Utopia, the young man ventures beyond Utopia’s gates with a lover (both are disguised as servants) in search of two poor people they can bring back to Utopia to toy with. He and his accomplice are all too soon discovered (many giveaways: the soft hands, clean fingernails, the mobile phone), and a bond of circumstance is forged with a young Other who saves them from an angry, drug-mad crowd and hides them in his tiny slum dwelling. The Other is named Gaber, and he promises he will lead them back home when the opportunity arises.
The remainder of the twist-heavy story derives its tension from this setup: whether Gaber is actually the Good Samaritan that he appears to be and will succeed in leading the Utopians back to safety. Other questions hinge on the answers to those questions: can a real friendship be formed between two characters from such discordant backgrounds, and might such a friendship have a transformative effect on the spoiled children of the idle rich? Although the book gets off to a very slow start, Towfik is reasonably successful at crafting a narrative. Where he fails is in his use of language. Towfik, a professor of medicine at Tanta University, is said to have published more than two hundred books, most of them young adult titles, and Utopia reads like a book written quite swiftly for teens. The facile language undermines both his presentation of the emotional lives of his characters and his efforts to make the book a high-minded inquiry into the state of humanity.
Yet it’s important to remember that Utopia was published in Arabic in 2008 — and that the Others do eventually revolt. Towfik zaps us into the future, what a future might look like if every single wealthy Egyptian moved to the gated communities, which then eventually merged into one. He then takes us back, to the past as it stands in the known present, in which we live, as Egyptians, today. Having anticipated the Egyptian revolution, his book carries a contextual resonance today that gives it new meaning in this English-language reincarnation.
Towfik’s real strength is in his imaginative observations of the predicaments of the tattered social fabric of the future. By 2023:
The dam broke: tourism was no longer capable of feeding these mouths. Israel opened its own canal, which became a ready substitute for the Suez Canal. As for the Gulf countries, their oil petered out or was not needed after the appearance of biroil, and they kicked out their imported labour force. So the economy became burdened by a crushing weight and services for the poor disappeared because the state wiped its hands completely of its responsibility for them, and privatized everything. There was no longer a government, or no longer a government that care about us. Eventually salaries were halted, and services were halted, and the police melted away.… A society without a middle class is a society primed for explosion. That is exactly what happened, but the explosion didn’t do away with the wealthy class. It decimated what remained of the middle class, and turned society into two poles and two peoples.
Amid all this, people turned to religion, because “religion is the only hope they can have for a better life after death.”
Through Utopia, we get a glimpse of what the future may have been had the revolution of last year not happened and the Mubarak regime had proceeded apace, with Gamal at its helm. We also get a sense of what might still lie ahead, as Egypt’s economy continues to plummet. As Towfik claims at the outset: “The Utopia mentioned here is an imaginary place, as are the characters who live in and around it, even though the author knows for certain that this place will exist.” He might very well be right.