Saint Theresa and Sleeping with Strangers, (2010) by Bahaa Abdel-Meguid. Translated by Chip Rossetti. The American University in Cairo Press, Cairo, New York
Occasional flashes of bitter wit strike home in the twin novellas of Bahaa Abdel-Meguid: the first, and suggestively more sober, Saint Theresa followed by the no less abstemious so to speak, Sleeping with Strangers. Both tales are at once simultaneously weird and wonderful with the evocatively religious element curiously espied. These are two of the most poignant novellas of the past decade to ooze out of Egypt in the sort of lascivious narrative that psychedelically depict a host of religiously suppressed sentiments, personal and political schizophrenia coupled with societal breakdown.
The author's penchant for apocalyptic sayings and intriguingly topical subject matter degenerates in not an unattractive manner into domestic comedies about mothers who examine their daughters' sanitary pads and check the colour of their daughters' nipples to detect signs of undesired pregnancies. Indeed, the Biblical injunction: "If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic" takes on an entirely new meaning, and intonation. A more original take on the Lebanese chanteuse Fairuz, too, is in the offing.
The author turns a satirical eye on religion, sex and politics. These are topics rich in targets of ridicule by secularist intellectuals, of whom I suspect Abdel-Meguid is one. And this inquisitorial divertissement particularly so in this part of the world at the moment. The indulgent by intellectuals in this pastime has been exacerbated by the rising tide of religiosity gripping the land.
The shadow of the early-thirteenth century Egyptian poet and Sufi mystic Sidi Ibn Al-Farid's moulids hang over these two novellas where his poems are set to prose and performed by fictitious characters with at least one furiously attempting to "erase the cross from his wrist".
The madness is contagious. "Self-control is the way to happiness. Do I practice self-control myself?" Sawsan, a self-tortured character, asks herself. "I take the tram all the way to the end of the line and then take it all the way back again. I sit in front of a man, observing him. I don't turn my gaze away from him. Our eyes meet, and warmth spreads within my body. He's sending his lewd messages to certain places."
The schizophrenic character, true to the elegantly structured Saint Theresa, displays an impressive array of sudden shocks and reversals. "I pray a lot and implore forgiveness. I ask God to drive away this devil hidden within my bosom."
These two novellas carry powerful symbolic charge and drive. The ebb and flow of foreign peoples and indigenous minorities heightens the image of Downtown Cairo, the setting of much of the action in the two novellas, as a district with no specific ethnic or religious identity. Jews, Coptic Christians, Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholics intermingle freely with Muslims. Moreover, political and ideological currents from Communism to Zionism and Arab nationalism determine loyalties in the bouncy contemporary history of Egypt. Buttressing the very image of cosmopolitanism is a ploy depicting how people of distinct ethnic and religious backgrounds celebrate life together. However, this does not mean that the residents of Downtown Cairo were not fully apprised of the wider world around them. "Although Girgis wasn't educated enough to pass judgements about the Jewish race, he had an instinctive hatred for the Jews: they were the ones who provoked Christ's death; they were Egypt's enemies; they were the ones who usurped the land of Palestine and disgraced the Holy Land."
Local lore had kept alive memories of belonging to specific ethnic and religious identities. These particularisms are carefully nuanced in the novellas. "The Khawaga Luka, the owner of the tailor shop, was of Jewish origin. He had come to Cairo from Greece a long time ago but didn't emigrate with those who went to Israel after the founding of that nation. He did not have an advanced education, but he spoke Arabic and English fluently. He wasn't an ordinary-looking man: he was handsome, and the sun gave him a beautiful bronze colour. He smiled a lot, and his fine black hair fell in long locks over his forehead. He was on the tall side, and had a physique that suggested regular exercise. He wasn't married and he was scrupulous about praying at the synagogue on Adli Street. Saturday was his private day when he retreated from daily life for the Sabbath and Girgis would come to him to prepare his food and then leave."
The characters are caught in the middle of international intrigue. "Luka's circumstances changed after the October War. He hadn't sided with Israel against Egypt, but he felt something break apart inside him."
The fragmentation of communities in Downtown Cairo takes on ominous bearings on individual lifestyles. The character of Luka, the Jew, is a case in point. "One night, as he was returning from work, he imagined that someone was following him. He quickened his pace, looking for a way to escape. He entered the Estoril restaurant and left by the back door that opened onto Qasr Al-Nil passageway. He found himself on Talaat Harb treet, and continued in the direction of Talaat Harb Square."
The model of co-existence that had been honed to near perfection and replicated over the ages was torn asunder. "He felt his heart pounding faster. Then he suddenly remembered Emmanuelle, a Greek friend of his mother who lived on Talaat Harb Square in the Groppi Building."
The burgeoning preoccupation with leaving Egypt for good began to take hold -- first among the European and Mediterranean minorities, then among religious minorities and eventually among the Muslim majority -- but the flight of the latter, living in an expansive class-ridden and multi-cultural world is left to conjecture.
Saint Theresa's raison d'être is unequivocally Jewish as much as it is unquestionably Coptic. Luka and his associates tell the sorry tale of their lives as it is finally pieced together. Narrative imagination creates the patchwork of Cairene communities that worked increasingly exclusively to forge a group's identity. "Emmanuelle was also Jewish, and while she was still alive, his mother had frequently asked her to take care of him. Although her sons had immigrated to Israel, she preferred to remain in Egypt: she knew the country well, and had spent the most beautiful years of her life there. Now she lived a quiet life in downtown Cairo. What would she find in Israel?"
Israel was of paramount symbolic focus.
"Before the 1967 War, when the Mossad had tried to recruit Luka, he went to her, trembling in fear, to ask for her advice. They spoke a lot about the nation, about Egypt, Greece, and Israel, about their shared sorrows and divided sympathies."
Yet Egypt could not have been discounted. "They came to the conclusion that night that they had no nation other than Egypt: they loved its Nile, they felt affection for its people, and they spoke its language."
The Egyptian Jew had the option of leaving Egypt for good, for the Promised Land. The Copt, on the other hand, is depicted as grappling with solving a somewhat synoptic crisis. Despondency gave way to despair. "Thus had bitterness penetrated Sawsan's soul, and the language of complaint came to be her preferred lexicon."
The victimisation of Copts seems rather a dated concept as far as her lover Salim is concerned. But she is worried sick about the prospect of a return to a past in the wrong sense when she meets his friends. "I entered the room asigned to me, expecting to find all my friends, but contrary to what I thought, I only found three women who I couldn't get a good look at because they were wearing face veils. They talked about a lot of things: the Iranian Revolution, the Islamic Caliphate, the rule of Sharia law, and the introduction of changes that would alter the position that Islam now found itself in. They talked about Takfir groups and other things. I felt out of place and the oxygen in the room seemed to rapidly dwindle away."
The reader is never entirely sure whether Sawsan is Coptic or Muslim. And as far as her character is concerned it doesn't really matter. Her lover Salim dreams of taking her upstream on a felucca on the Nile from Maadi to Aswan. He lands in prison and incarcerated, they never make the magical trip. "Salim was being held in prison and had been away for a long time. She visited him from time to time at the political prisoners' cellblock at Tura Prison."
Packing a bigger emotional punch is Ramses Square. "She would contemplate the statue of Ramses II standing upright, covered in dust and draped in grief for the state he had ended up in, here in this city square. If only the ancient Egyptians had known the fate that would meet their defied king, they would have plucked him off his throne and rued the day they had ever taken him for a god -- a god they worshipped and granted the right of absolute power over their lives."
It was a petulant moment of triumph for Girgis when he murdered in cold blood his nemesis Luka.
Sleeping with Strangers is another story. It is a bit about Romantica, the bittersweet 1996 Egyptian film about a group of illegal tour guides who befriend tourists in Cairo. "When Lucine told him about my numerous past relationships, he told her that in Islam, a Muslim is allowed to enjoy women however he wishes to, under what is called 'What the Right Hand Possesses'. So you're now the possession of his right hand, he told her, so enjoy it." As the story unfolds, it becomes ever more macabre.
"Despite her sin with me, she loves the Messiah and considers him to be the ideal example to believe in. She believes he will help her be rid of me."
Sleeping with Strangers commences in Boston, Massachusetts in the mid-1990s. It is an arresting start. The action mostly takes place in prisons and ends up in Downtown Cairo. New York and Maadi are never far away. "You have to get out of Maadi: it's an utterly uninspiring neighbourhood. The only people who live there are a group of bourgeois who are looking for the quiet life without taking risks or experiencing anything."
Unconventional yet intellectually superficial, Sleeping with Strangers is a pleasing creation. From the outset, the author strives to depict his characters as receptive observers.
Homesick, lonely and bewildered by sudden changes in fortune, the characters are dissatisfied with their lot.
The cerebral sleuth wanders aimlessly around Cairo. "He will show you some fossilised whale bones [presumably the Wadi Degla Protectorate] from million of years ago, and lead you via new shortcuts that take you from Maadi to Nasr City in a matter of minutes, cutting across the desert, zigzagging paths and cemeteries."
Sleeping with Strangers is set in timeless urban concrete jungles. In places the novella is quite informative and evocative of an age bygone. It is also about the likes of the blind Egyptian singer Sheikh Imam and composer who formed one half of a popular duo with poet and singer Ahmed Fouad Negm. Their political songs often had a left-wing, populist bent. Sheikh Imam's song "Shurm Burm" which was about Zionist penetration into the Middle East.
The characters are feisty. "Let's go to the La Chesa Restaurant together, have some gateaux and drink cappuccino. We'll listen to some light music, especially on a summer day like this when the air is hot and stifling with Central Security forces outside guarding the Al-Ahli Bank and the Synagogue."
But the story starts in America.
"Prison wasn't as bad as I had thought, especially after another prisoner shared the same room with me. He was African-American, with a good-looking face and dark skin." Race and religion are aspects of Sleeping with Strangers that in part reflect perhaps what the author believes Egyptian culture needs most.
The characters American and Arab, foreign and Egyptian, black and white stumble about not knowing where they are going. There is a dimming of the cultural lights, and there is a yearning for a return to more modest means of illumination. "He claimed he had been imprisoned for his attacks on Christianity." The black prisoner saw Jesus, and by extension himself, as a beacon shining in the midst of an unenlightened, racist world. "This prisoner, who was called Mado, said that the Messiah has black skin and African features. He said that the Messiah isn't from the white race at all. Mado had started going to all the museums and hurling black tar at paintings of Jesus and Mary in order to disfigure them. Each time, he was able to get away, despite the many security cameras keeping watch over the galleries."
One can trace the ethical frustration of the leading characters and the pertinent theological questions they pose as pedagogues. "He was arrested while in possession of a counterfeit ten-dollar bill that a white man had given him."
Consternation coexists with questions of religious identity in a world of liberal theologians and secular intellectuals. "Mado asked me about my religion one day, so I told him I was Muslim, although not a practicing one." The presence of simplistic idiom in the basics of rudimentary Islamic teachings as pictured in the novella can hardly be denied. "When I immigrated to the United States, the first thing I put in my suitcase was a prayer rug and the Holy Quran. It doesn't interest me whether the Messiah was white or black."
The disconcerting feature of Sleeping with Strangers is its honesty, its questioning of the overriding morality and its projection of moral courage. The author, nevertheless, appears powerless to adjudicate such discomforts and embarrassments over the image of Mado. "He would only sleep completely naked. He masturbated every night, and taught me to do that, too. He made me not feel guilty about it."
Reviewed by Gamal Nkrumah