Cairo Swan Song / Life Is More Beautiful than Paradise

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Photo by Shawn Baldwin

Cairo Swan Song
By Mekkawi Said
AUC Press, 2009

Life Is More Beautiful than Paradise
By Khalid al-Berry
AUC Press, 2009 (English)
Merit Publishing House, 2004, revised edition 2009 (Arabic)

Cairo’s central neighborhood of Wust al-Balad — downtown — features prominently in Mekkawi Said’s Cairo Swan Song, as indeed it does in an overwhelming number of Egyptian novels. And as is increasingly the case in many of these literary efforts, the district is used in Said’s work as a backdrop against which to make heavy-handed statements about Egypt’s growing social and political decay.

The downtown area was established by Khedive Ismail, who in the 1860s grafted a European facade onto his capital just in time to impress the foreign visitors who traveled to Egypt for the opening ceremonies of the Suez Canal. Ironically, Ismail’s beautification project was one of the sources of the country’s subsequent bankruptcy and the seventy-year-long British occupation that would follow.

Throughout the 1950s, the downtown’s belle epoque buildings and glittering cafes were home to Cairo’s many expatriate communities. Nowadays, the downtown’s dilapidated, nationalized buildings bustle with small commercial businesses, and its sidewalks are crowded with street vendors and lower-income flaneurs.

This dramatic change has made the neighborhood — in literature, at least — a stand-in for a certain vaguely defined nostalgia. The success of Alaa Al Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building, in particular, has popularized the once-fashionable district as the symbol of national decline. Said’s novel — which was shortlisted for the 2008 “Arab Booker” and recently translated to English by the American University in Cairo Press — falls squarely within this tradition. Downtown — inhabited by feral, glue-sniffing street children, foreigners with dubious intentions, and the schizophrenic, suicidal narrator of Cairo Swan Song — is symbolic of all that ails the country.

Then again, in this novel, everything is symbolic — often painfully so. There is, for example, the narrator Mustafa’s university sweetheart, the angelic Hind (“celestial, unique”) — killed by an unexploded Israeli mine from the 1973 war; and his friend, the filmmaker Yusuf Helmi, whose mementos are destroyed by his fundamentalist son. It’s as if, on every page, the author has affixed a glaring notice that reads, “Look what’s happening to Egyptian society! It’s terrible!” Instead of building a coherent plot, Said focuses on his narrator’s motivations, leading to yet another ominous, over-the-top tale.

The author’s treatment of Mustafa’s American girlfriend, Marcia, exemplifies this lack of subtlety. Marcia — a one-dimensional stand-in for foreigners — isn’t a plausible human being, but rather a mysterious source of loathing and dependence. We’re told early on that the narrator has fallen into “Marcia’s claws,” that, to mix metaphors, she’s like “quicksand.” Eventually we discover that the American girl is helping him make a documentary about street children — an auspicious project, since it “could damage the State or tarnish its image.” He wonders whether “she is receiving direction from over there?” Yet Marcia’s motivations, and the dynamics of the relationship, remain completely confounding — probably because the author is incapable of imagining them as anything other than a dark parable for foreign relations.

There are instances where Cairo Swan Song explores with greater sensitivity the complexity of relationships between Egyptians and foreigners — as when Mustafa wonders what the guards at Marcia’s building must think of him: “That’s the foreign chick’s boyfriend… her friend… her teacher… spy… tourist-sponger… embassy employee… whatever.” But mostly the book falls back on startlingly xenophobic and misogynistic attitudes. Mustafa’s best friend’s Singaporean girlfriend, for example, is described as a “frog,” a “migrant crow,” a “lizard,” a “she-goat,” and a “mangy dog” — her crime being that she “steals” the narrator’s friend and suggests he leave (read, betray) Egypt. Such abuse isn’t reserved just for foreigners, either: the narrator’s Egyptian lover is “just a vagina with legs,” someone with “no real talent, except for being a slut.”

All of this metaphorical violence could be taken as a clever literary device to portray Mustafa’s oft-mentioned mental illness, but the author never shows any signs of ironic detachment toward his narrator’s paranoia, resentment, and self-pity. Instead, we seem to be expected to sympathize with a character who says — again, of the girlfriend from Singapore — “Is she going to replace him with one of her monkey-brain eating countrymen…? If it’s her vagina that’s causing her distress, then let her fill it up with cement while she waits for his return.” Rather than portraying a consciousness that operates according to a different, skewed logic, Said uses the narrator’s mental illness as just another symbol. “Schizophrenia struck my society before it struck me, Doctor. I’m just a symptom,” Mustafa thinks out loud, in case we missed the point.

Cairo Swan Song has no clear narrative framework — it just strings together incident after incident, conversation after conversation. And the writing itself is no better. The author has a penchant for the squirm-inducing simile: “I looked at Warda like a cowboy looks at a wild horse he’s just roped and saddled”; “She sat back down like a frustrated mother obeying her spoiled son”; “She seemed mortified, as embarrassed as she’d have been if I’d walked in on her waxing her pubic hair.” Everyone always laughs “hysterically,” people often cry “blood-red” tears. Often the images are both gross and confusing: “I’d come to end a relationship, but it was all wrapped up in veins and arteries, and if even a part of it were cut, I’d bleed to death.”

While its narrator’s illness is never more than a trope, this book does chronicle a particular malady; it captures the clichés that ail contemporary Egyptian literature at its worst (sensationalism, stylistic self-indulgence, wooden symbolism). And it shows — in a different way, certainly, than was intended — the malaise of a segment of Egypt’s leftist, nationalist, secular cultural elite, so busy feeling sorry for itself that it has no empathy, insight, or even power of accurate observation for anything but its own distress.

Another element woven into Cairo Swan Song is an occasionally trite, superficial critique of the Islamization of Egyptian society. The book is rife with characters who take sudden turns toward extreme piety, and who are portrayed always as either despicable or deluded. Their motives are incomprehensible.

Khaled al-Berry’s Life Is More Beautiful than Paradise offers an entirely different and engrossing look at the appeal of religious militancy. Also just translated by AUC Press, the book chronicles his time as a member of the fundamentalist Islamist group the Jama’a Islamiya.

On the opening page of al-Berry’s book, he’s fourteen and being bullied by an older boy. To avoid a confrontation that he knows he’s sure to lose, he resorts to a shameful stratagem. “All I could think of as an excuse was to pretend that my knees had given way and to fall to the ground at some distance from him. It was obvious, laughable, pitiful cowardice.” A few pages further on, al-Berry is joyfully riding alongside the neighborhood news-seller on his cart, which ends up blocking the way of a police car. “The officer got out of the car and, violating every rule of Upper Egyptian manners, slapped the man, who was old enough to be his father, on the face. From then on I was too embarrassed to joke around with Uncle Ahmad. I felt that I ought to make myself look sad whenever I saw him, out of respect for his feelings.” The purpose of these two anecdotes is to subtly point toward the attraction that the Jama’a Islamiya, with its promise of solidarity and self-respect, holds for a sensitive and physically timorous adolescent — how comforting belonging to such a group can be at an age when one is suddenly called upon to “be a man,” in a society in which that very manhood is vulnerable to sudden and devastating humiliations.

Not that any of this is spelled out for us. Why al-Berry joins the Jama’a and is an active member for the next six years — appointed “amir of the Secondy Schools Brothers in Asyut,” active as a preacher and enforcer of moral codes at the University of Asyut — is explored throughout this memoir, without ever reaching a definitive answer. The closest al-Berry comes to a conclusion is when he describes the Jama’a as “a movement of the resentful middle class,” whose leaders “were from families with a goodly apportionment of education but a shaky apportionment of money and/or authority.” On a personal level, his choice remains in part a mystery; after all, he tells us, “It is difficult for a person to comprehend why he loves what he loves, or even to know what he loves.”

What the book does manage to do is provide an insightful account of the appeal of the Jama’a. Al-Berry is motivated by affection for his elders in the group and by genuine spiritual elation. He writes that in place of his old self “there was a new person who, each time he opened his mouth to utter a prayer, felt that he was growing closer to God and that a fine silken thread connected him to the sublime.” Yet he also documents the human frailty of the group’s members — their jealousies, hypocrisies, and inner struggles, particularly with the sexual purity to which they are supposedly committed (these are teenage boys, after all).

Al-Berry offers an accessible overview of Jama’a theological arguments and a fascinating account of the stages by which indoctrination takes place: the small, significant sacrifices (of TV and music); the stickers with prayers to be affixed on one’s door, bathroom, and vehicle (in his case, his bicycle); the “Islamic” clothes and beard that set one apart.

Despite some misgivings, al-Berry becomes more and more committed to the organization, drawn in by a sense of loyalty and belonging. His righteousness begins to slide, almost imperceptibly, into acts of thuggery. He intimidates Christians in his neighborhood, scolding male and female university students who dare to talk with each other in public. The book is set in the late 1970s and early 1980s, a time when the Jama’a was engaged in open, violent confrontation with the state. Al-Berry meets brothers who are later killed by police or participate in assassinations and terrorist operations. He himself is never — as he later discovers — part of the inner circle.

Al-Berry’s honest, subtle exploration of his turn toward fundamentalism is matched by writing that is clear, understated, and at times quite beautiful. “I longed for the clear silence that brings a tinge of beige to the world,” he writes, “the strained calm of the seasonal sandy winds that herald the coming of springtime in my hometown.” Or, of his father’s attitudes toward him after he gets out of jail, “He still had that same gaze that could see anything in the world but my face, as though it were transparent.”

In the end, after a brief stint in prison, al-Berry decides to turn his back on the Jama’a. The book’s title describes the author’s feelings as, released from jail, he runs home through the empty nighttime streets. And yet in spite of the conclusion, this isn’t a morality tale, a simple story of error and redemption. It’s more complicated. In the introduction, al-Berry writes that “it would be painful to me should the readers of this book think that these men who were my ‘brothers’ in the Jama’a were in any way evil people.”

The final section details the quite poignant difficulties of becoming a regular, unknown student in Cairo, struggling to make friends and meet girls, bereft of the self-assurance that his role in the Jama’a gave him. “I sat on the bed in my darkened room, imagining myself as a pair of socks rolled inside out and revealing what was within me. I didn’t know who I was.” Yet there are surprising consolations: reading Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions, watching Babette’s Feast, and realizing that he’d rather be an individual, stripped down to “his eternal, infinitely ancient weakness… and… strength,” than a member of a righteous collective.