FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

On the Streets, On the Skids

by CHARLES R. LARSON

It would be easy to dismiss Mekkawi Said’s Cairo Swan Song by stating that the novel needed an editor, but such a remark would be unfair. The story sprawls all over the place, there are numerous subplots that are not carefully connected to the main one, but—that said—there is still much more to admire here than disparage. Particularly in the last third of the novel, incidents described become haunting, visceral, and so compelling that the weaknesses of several of the earlier sections all but evaporate. When the book was originally published in Arabic, the critics touted Said’s talent. The novel was short-listed for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction.

The narrator, Mustafa, is or has been a student radical, a womanizer (sometimes with more than one woman at the same time), a journalist, a poet, a scriptwriter, a con man, a schizophrenic (or maybe not), a teacher and, above all, an opportunist. Early in the novel he states this about himself: “I’ve never done the right thing in my entire life, wasting every chance I’ve had to change my fate. I always cling, stubbornly and idiotically, to schemes that are guaranteed failures and wastes of time, and frivolous, and thoughtless, and crazy. I ignore disappointing beginnings and watch apathetically as the sails of fiasco draw nearer. I’ve always been determined to plunge into the bog of shit up to my head. I probably need a battalion of psychiatrists, or to be locked up in a ward of the wildest insane asylum; restraints, too. Some place where I’ll be unconnected, out of touch.”

That remark becomes quite prophetic in regards to most of Mustafa’s story. He spends time in a hospital but also in a prison. Many of his friends are street people, prostitutes, drug dealers in Cairo—addicted to hashish and sniffing glue. His first girlfriend, the love of his life, dies in a freak explosion, from which Mustafa never recovers. A later girlfriend is an American named Marcia, a filmmaker, who has come to Cairo to make a documentary about the city’s street kids. That all changes when Marcia discovers that there are frequent anti-government protests on the streets, and that if she can film these, surreptitiously, she will have a much more commercial documentary than one about the city’s poor.

After his university days, Mustafa briefly led a rather conventional life. With Essam, an artist friend, he had lived and worked in the Middle East. He even spent a brief time in the United States, but after the two of them returned to Egypt, Mustafa’s life began to go astray. At the same time, Essam became an internationally recognized artist. The two of them kept in touch. Then Essam’s life also went astray because the woman he loved, Samantha, died suddenly of brain cancer after fleeing to Singapore. Because Samantha hadn’t wanted Essam to observe her rapid deterioration, she cut him off abruptly, though they were both in love with one another.

The deaths of the women destroy the lives of the two men in totally different ways. In the most moving scene in the novel, Essam in his madness (his shock and inability to recover from Samantha’s death), locks himself in his spacious apartment and literally covers the walls with images of Samantha: “She was everywhere, beside you, above you, getting dressed to go out, or getting ready to go to bed. In winter clothes and summer clothes. Sweeping the floor. Watching the washing machine. Eating. Making food. Sitting in front of a huge TV. Sitting at her desk working on the computer. Playing with dolls. In the small room Essam had planned to use as a nursery, Samantha was a child, younger than ten, playing with Asian toys. Studying as a teenager. Going out with her friends as a twenty-year-old. Marrying Essam in her late thirties.”

After observing all these murals of Samantha, Mustafa observes, “Essam was reliving his life with Samantha moment by moment. The place would astound anyone seeing it for the first time, but you could never go back there, not after you’d been filled with all that tragic energy.” Mustafa’s insight jump-starts his own dead-ended life, becoming the major turning point in the narrative.

For all of Mekkawi Said’s characters’ bad decisions, false starts, and negative pursuits, it is their humanity that ultimately crystallizes and redeems them as characters, fascinating characters. The translation by Adam Talib is vibrant and totally engaging, but by the last page of the novel, it is Said who has pulled this gigantic mishmash of material together and left us with another indelible picture of Cairo.

Cairo Swan Song
By Mekkawi Said
Trans. by Adam Talib
American University Press in Cairo, 283 pp., $22.95

CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.

 

WORDS THAT STICK

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

More articles by:
Weekend Edition
July 22, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Jeffrey St. Clair
Good as Goldman: Hillary and Wall Street
Joseph E. Lowndes
From Silent Majority to White-Hot Rage: Observations from Cleveland
Paul Street
Political Correctness: Handle with Care
Conn Hallinan
The Big Boom: Nukes And NATO
Ron Jacobs
Exacerbate the Split in the Ruling Class
Richard Moser
Actions Express Priorities: 40 Years of Failed Lesser Evil Voting
Eric Draitser
Hillary and Tim Kaine: a Match Made on Wall Street
Jill Stein
After US Airstrikes Kill 73 in Syria, It’s Time to End Military Assaults that Breed Terrorism
Jack Rasmus
Trump, Trade and Working Class Discontent
John Feffer
Could a Military Coup Happen Here?
Jeffrey St. Clair
Late Night, Wine-Soaked Thoughts on Trump’s Jeremiad
Andrew Levine
Vice Presidents: What Are They Good For?
Michael Lukas
Law, Order, and the Disciplining of Black Bodies at the Republican National Convention
Margaret Kimberley
Gavin Long’s Last Words
Mark Weisbrot
Confidence and the Degradation of Brazil
Brian Cloughley
Boris Johnson: Britain’s Lying Buffoon
Lawrence Reichard
A Global Crossroad
Kevin Schwartz
Beyond 28 Pages: Saudi Arabia and the West
Charles Pierson
The Courage of Kalyn Chapman James
Michael Brenner
Terrorism Redux
Bruce Lerro
Being Inconvenienced While Minding My Own Business: Liberals and the Social Contract Theory of Violence
Mark Dunbar
The Politics of Jeremy Corbyn
David Swanson
Top 10 Reasons Why It’s Just Fine for U.S. to Blow Up Children
Binoy Kampmark
Laura Ingraham and Trumpism
Uri Avnery
The Great Rift
Nicholas Buccola
What’s the Matter with What Ted Said?
Aidan O'Brien
Thank Allah for Western Democracy, Despondency and Defeat
Joseph Natoli
The Politics of Crazy and Stupid
Sher Ali Khan
Empirocracy
Nauman Sadiq
A House Divided: Turkey’s Failed Coup Plot
Franklin Lamb
A Roadmap for Lebanon to Grant Civil Rights for Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon
Colin Todhunter
Power and the Bomb: Conducting International Relations with the Threat of Mass Murder
Michael Barker
UK Labour’s Rightwing Select Corporate Lobbyist to Oppose Jeremy Corbyn
Graham Peebles
Brexit, Trump and Lots of Anger
Anhvinh Doanvo
Civilian Deaths, Iraq, Syria, ISIS and Drones
Christopher Brauchli
Kansas and the Phantom Voters
Peter Lee
Gavin Long’s Manifesto and the Politics of “Terrorism”
Missy Comley Beattie
An Alarmingly Ignorant Fuck
Robert Koehler
Volatile America
Adam Vogal
Why Black Lives Matter To Me
Raouf Halaby
It Is Not Plagiarism, Y’all
Rivera Sun
Nonviolent History: South Africa’s Port Elizabeth Boycott
Rev. Jeff Hood
Deliver Us From Babel
Frances Madeson
Juvenile Life Without Parole, Captured in ‘Natural Life’
Charles R. Larson
Review: Han Kang’s “The Vegetarian”
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail