Rice Pudding For Two

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Rice Pudding For Two
By Rehab Bassam
Arabic
Dar El Shorouk, 2008

Rehab Bassam’s new short story collection, Rice Pudding for Two, appears as part of Dar El Shorouk’s Shorouk Blogs (Mudawwanat Shuruq) series, which explores the worlds of bloggers and makes them accessible to general readers as print books.

Rehab’s blog is called Hawadit (Tales). One can deduce from the title that the site has been devoted, from its inception, to narrative. The style Rehab uses in her stories is peculiarly Egyptian, one increasingly found in the works of young Egyptian writers. It consists of a gushing torrent of words that treats the literary language as if it were colloquial and the ideas expressed as if familiar to all. It fashions its sentences with extreme nonchalance, so that expressions to which one might take exception are tossed in as though they’re part of normal speech that just happens to have become a literary text.

The impact of the blog form on these texts manifests itself in the stories’ content, Rehab having no compunction about making “I” the central axis of the book. She relates the adventures of this “I” with people, society, life, laughter, melancholy, her cat, her mother, her memories of being a little girl, her professional and personal reality, and how she imagines she’ll be when she grows older. Rehab tells us these stories, with their charm and richness of detail, to inform us of what she is experiencing and reading in the Egypt of everyday life.

Speaking of what it’s been like to publish a book after having been a blogger, Rehab says, “I treated my blog as my private writers’ workshop, where I could drill my hand and mind, and discover readers’ reactions… . Bloggers have managed to somehow liberate writing (and especially the writing of the young) from the demands and criteria of publishers, from the costs of publication, and even from the critics! Sometimes the blog is more real than the book, because, before the book, I would learn people’s opinions from their comments on what I was writing as I wrote, while the resonance and impact of a book are a bit slower.”

Rehab’s narrations rely on the flow of ideas and the evocation of illustrative examples, the ideas being presented in whatever form they enter the writer’s head. Her narrations respect coherence of topic and the axis of the tale but avoid delimiting it in time and space or by what precedes or follows, relying instead on an emotion that may link, for example, an event that took place twenty years ago to a poem published thirty years before that.

There is a special logic to the way in which the author makes verbal leaps from topic to topic, a logic that becomes easier to understand in the light of her great love for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Alice is a presence in the texts as both observer and participant. Of her relationship to the novel by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (better known as Lewis Carroll), the thirty-one-year-old author says, “Alice is my dearest love! I ask you now, is there another book in the world that contains so many words of wisdom and lessons for life? And with an entertaining story, and crazy characters? And pictures, too! It’s the perfect book, a magical mixture of wisdom and nonsense. I love Alice because I feel she’s like me and thinks like me, because she’s always asking questions and the questions she asks are strange, and because she has a cat!”

Rice Pudding for Two presents one with a rose-tinted view of the daily lives of the Egyptian middle class, a class better placed than others to find rosiness in life, situated as it is at a distance from the harshness of Egypt’s poverty and the constraints of its riches, a class that can savor Egypt without being suffocated or ground down by it. As one of its offspring, the author is adept at playing with news of the doings of the Dusky Land, which form the essence of her subject.

Today, Rehab works as a project manager and editor in the children’s book department of a major Arab publishing house and says it’s the most beautiful job she’s ever had. “My boss is always complaining that I enjoy my job too much.”

Rice Pudding for Two has been printed five times in one year. “The bloggers were very happy with me and for me, and the comments I heard most often during discussions of my book were ‘We’re very proud of you’ and ‘You’ve given us the hope that one day we too will be able to publish our stories.’”

Once the initial brouhaha over the book died down, “I went back to blogging without any fuss at all, as though nothing had happened. But I’d won a lot of new fans for the blog!”