Class and Colonialism in British Cairo

When reading The Automobile Club of Egypt, you can’t help thinking about the current state of political freedom in the country today, though that might not have been the author’s intent. My suspicion is that the novel was in progress before the Arab Spring, so it’s all the more remarkable what Al Aswany has accomplished. The first question that may go through your mind, however, is what can automobiles possibly have to do with Cairo, the novel’s setting? Let me tell you.

Actually, the story begins in Germany, in 1872, when Karl Benz has just married and almost immediately ignores has wife, Bertha, for his mysterious work in the basement of a building. A few years later, the citizens of Mannheim learn that Benz has invented a three-wheel horseless carriage that flips over the first time he drives it on the streets. Benz is so humiliated by his accident that he abandons his work, which is important because, not too much later, Bertha will drive the vehicle almost a hundred kilometers to visit her family. Thus, it is Bertha who establishes the significance of her husband’s invention and, equally important, asserts the importance of women in our world. I have no idea if this is what literally happened to Benz or if Al Aswany elevated Bertha’s role to parallel later acts by Egyptian women in his story. But, the precursor of the modern automobile, and the Mercedes Benz, had made its mark.

Jump to Cairo, in 1902, by which time there are 110 automobiles in the city, and then, “After repeated efforts over the course of twenty years, the Royal Automobile Club officially opened….” It was only for expatriates, of course, until the advantage of Egyptian members autoclubcould be determined, i.e., mostly economic benefits. That meant booze and gambling as major sources of income for the club. And it’s here where things get quite interesting. The staff is totally Egyptian, poorly paid, and exploited by the mostly British clientele. One Western observer, a woman, remarks, “Here, in the Automobile Club, the thieves don the finest clothes, douse themselves in cologne and then disport themselves in a sort of pantomime of respectability.”

She’s a communist, not very sympathetic of British rule of Egypt. Nor will her remarks be taken seriously. Later, her observations become even more pointed: “The only modernization the British have carried out is that which helps them fleece the country. The British built the railways to transport troops and to filch Egyptian cotton. Their administrative systems enable them to control all economic activity. Do you know how resolutely Lord Cromer opposed the establishment of the Egyptian University? British colonial policy will never change and can be summed up in two words: organized theft.”

The major source of income for the club is the Egyptian monarch, the debauched king, never named, but obviously King Farouk. As the narrator observes, “Over the course of just a few years, the king of Egypt went from being a hardworking and upright young man—his subject’s greatest hope for a national renaissance—to a reckless and lazy man who lived for pleasure, carousing all night, and sleeping all day.” His nights were mostly spent at the Automobile Club or one of the nightclubs where plenty of women were available. Soon, he evolved into a lecherous old man, sleeping with a different woman every night. Worst, the king relies on his personal servant, Alku, to finesse all of his unsavory actions. Alku becomes little more than the king’s pimp, his fix-it man, and general ruthless henchman.

Into this environment, a respectable landowner, named Abd el-Aziz, is thrown. His generosity to his villagers has landed him in poverty. He’s forced to take has family to Cairo and accept the only position he can find. It’s a lowly position at the Automobile Club, where Alku makes all of the workers’ lives miserable. He beats them for the slightest infraction, even forces them to turn over fifty percent of their tips, and demands their total loyalty. Those who are decent have little chance of survival in such a corrupt environment.

Brilliantly, Al Aswany uses the Automobile Club as the focal point of an incipient national rebellion against British rule. The forty or fifty Egyptian workers at the club begin to protest their exploitation in subtle and then more overt ways, suffering increasing humiliations from Alku as they rebel. And this is what is so important, because Al Aswany makes it totally clear that British control of Egypt would not continue without the support of a handful of greedy Egyptians who have no compunction about exploiting their fellow countrymen as long as this permits them to become filthy rich. Thus, it’s business as usual in every conceivable situation in every country in the world. At every time, it’s money that rules, controls the lives of the masses by the elite who exploit them.

The rich array of characters (particularly the focus on two extended families and their activist daughters), the multiple points of view, the structure with its cliff-hanging chapters, the fast pace of the story, plus the issue of class differences add up to a major literary work reminiscent of Naguib Mahfouz’s epic novels. There’s humor and pathos to balance the several sub-plots. My only criticism is that some of the language (including a few glaring red-herrings) either reflects a carelessness of the writer or his translator. It’s impossible for me to point a finger in either direction. But that’s a minor quibble about a novel that ought to please many, many readers.

Alaa Al Aswany: The Automobile Club of Egypt

Trans. By Russell Harris

Knopf, 475 pp., $27.95

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