Black Magic

Photo by Standa Soukup

Black Magic
By Hamdy El-Gazzar
Translated from Arabic by Humphrey Davies
American University In Cairo Press, 2007

Some street photographers liken taking pictures to kissing. Some photojournalists compare it to wielding a weapon. But for Nasir, the volatile protagonist of Hamdy el-Gazzar’s debut novel, Black Magic, photography is an act of total, relentless possession.

“I was about fourteen the first time I took a camera in my hands,” he recalls. “I fell in love with its coarse black body, infatuated with the feel of it between my hands, and with its large, protruding wide lens…. When I got that little Yashica just as I stood at the threshold of adolescence, things became mine.”

With his left eye pressed against the lens and his right eye blind to the world, Nasir sees differently than before. Faces, streets, cafes, and marketplaces become “more beautiful, more expansive, cleaner, more radiant, better defined.” But over time, his vision shifts. Truth, honesty, and “good-natured artlessness” give way to the cruelty of artifice. Nasir’s camera, once innocent and passionate, becomes cynical and depraved.

Just as the camera doubles as Nasir’s tool and alter ego, Black Magic layers a toxic story of sexual depredation over a philosophical treatise on the degradation of meaning and the treachery of images in contemporary visual culture. The camera loses interest in reality, writes Gazzar. “It doesn’t express anything other than itself.” Similarly, when Nasir lurches into a relationship, his lust takes on a life of its own, completely divorced from the woman who inspired it.

Gazzar, thirty-seven, was born in Giza and studied philosophy at Cairo University. He’s a playwright as well as a novelist and has penned short fiction and nonfiction, too. When Black Magic came out in Arabic two years ago (under the title Sihr Aswad), it earned both popular and critical acclaim and garnered the 2006 Sawiris Foundation Prize in Egyptian Literature. But the English-language translation — by Humphrey Davies, who won the first Banipal Prize for Literary Translation for his work on Elias Khoury’s Gate of the Sun — is a daring choice for the American University in Cairo Press’s Modern Arabic Literature series, which, though historically strong, rarely includes young authors writing so explicitly about sex in a milieu that, for all the experimental prose, is recognizable as contemporary Cairo as opposed to its glorious past filtered through nostalgia.

Diverging sharply from the prevailing staid realist tradition of Arabic fiction, Gazzar’s prose trips and tumbles in a headlong, hallucinatory rush. The plot of the novel follows no set structure but careens from moments of icy self-possession on the part of the protagonist to his total submission to manic emotion.

Black Magic sets out as Nasir, who has abandoned his cinema studies to work as a hack for state-run television, moves into a decrepit apartment near El-Rashidi Street, above a shop manned by the silent Rihan, who every day sews and unravels shrouds for the dead. Next door is Guma, who beats his three sisters and denounces them all as “filthy whores.”

“Light and dark are the law of my life,” says Nasir, “which is tied to this strange device.” Light and dark are also represented, by the calm and kind Rihan, on one side, who observes all and wisely says nothing, and Guma on the other, who is bleary-eyed by his own rage and in one particular passage, which comes late and unexpectedly in the novel, stumbles onto the street with a knife, plunges it deep into the chest of an old man who greets him, and then crashes into a police station to confess what he’s done, to anyone moved to listen to his screams.

And light and dark are ultimately what attract Nasir to Fatin, and then repel him. She’s considerably his senior, recently returned to Cairo after fifteen years in an unnamed Gulf city awash with petrodollars, ex-pats, adventurers, and scavengers. She has left her husband, a heart specialist, in an acrimonious divorce precipitated by an affair with a sleazy young Frenchman named Didier.

Nasir is nursing his own wounds. It’s been three years since his last girlfriend, Mayy, left him. She married and divorced him, then shot back into his life one day with a stream of words (“I missed you”) that struck Nasir as utterly meaningless. Neither Nasir nor Fatin wants commitment or love or anything meant to last, because for both of them, nothing does.

Yet they put each other through the ringer all the same. With his camera, Nasir can be aggressive and cold. He’s used to taking hold of things and distorting them or laying them bare. With Fatin, he can’t, until one day she jumps around on his bed like a silly schoolgirl and demands he take her picture. He refuses at first, delivering a cutting verbal account of the intimate relationship he sustains with his camera alone. She insists, sticks out her tongue, and winks playfully for his lens. The resulting image is harsh and rough, exposing a tired woman in her fifties flirting hopelessly with a younger man. From there, the affair veers into hysteria.

Like the poets of Roberto Bolaño’s novels and stories, whose written works are mere aftershocks of the adventures that fuel them, or Danielle Arbid’s treatment of the French photographer Antoine D’Agata in her film Un Homme Perdu, in which crafted images are only the lingering traces of extreme experiences, Gazzar’s Nasir emphasizes practice over product. For him, the act of taking pictures is more important than the pictures that result.

At one point in the novel, he flips through his prints distractedly. The images he’s produced are incidental to the instants that flash before him. As the novel progresses, such instants blur the line between Nasir’s waking life and his nightmares. As his affair with Fatin ramps up for a final showdown, his images, like violent ruptures of the real, escape both his camera and his control.

Black Magic doesn’t so much tell a story as sustain a pattern of laudable literary bursts. Gazzar’s asides on Cairene society, on intellectuals and artists, on politics, and on sexual hypocrisy are both outrageous and astute; they’re also short-lived. The occasional gem doesn’t add up to an artful narrative. The pacing of Black Magic is patchy and uneven, and Gazzar’s character sketches are tantalizing but not fully realized. Occasionally the author seems to lose heart, as if declaring Nasir’s life trivial and uninteresting, unfit for a book.

In the end, Gazzar sets up a great portrait, but he doesn’t quite master the shot. It may be an opportunity lost, or simply symptomatic of a young writer who hasn’t yet perfected his style. Still, Black Magic takes ample risks with Nasir’s aggressive sexual escapades, and the novel is charged with the anomie and nihilism of a generation whose voice is rarely heard, much less translated from Arabic to English by a major publishing house. That in itself makes Black Magic a compelling, if occasionally disappointing, read.