Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
10 - 16 August 2000
Issue No. 494
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BOOKS: a monthly supplement of Al-Ahram Weekly

An Egyptian duplicity

Ashiaa Matwiya Bi'inaya Faiqa [Things folded with extreme care], Hamdi Abu Golail, Cairo: General Egyptian Book Organisation (Kitabat Jadida Series), 2000. pp107

Hamdi Abu Golail, the narrator of this book, is a Bedouin -- so much is clear. Yet the following facts about Hamdi Abu Golail, the book's unruffled author, seem to suggest that he is indistinguishable from the archetypal Egyptian civil servant: "My room is at the top of a building [whose conspicuous location] will not tax whoever desires to reach me inside it. I have no other place, and the place where I work is as identifiable as the sun. I go at eight am every morning, and leave at two sharp. A single underground train that goes along a single route [takes me there]; and to emphasise [my] being settled, I've had an annual pass issued for my daily journeys on the metro. [There is, too,] an ambition to write stories that I'm not about to abandon, as well as diligent efforts to perpetuate stability through marriage, and an annual bonus [to my regular pay] that I anticipate..." All of these traits belong to the commonplace fellah -- a derogatory reference to any non-Bedouin Egyptian, however high he may be in the social hierarchy.

What you assume about the one persona -- a Bedouin is also a nomad, for example, and hence always on the move -- the other purposely disproves. And yet Hamdi

Abu Golail, the Organisation for Cultural Palaces employee who wrote this book, is still enough of a Bedouin to develop a historical and political awareness of his people's position vis-à-vis Egyptians at large.

For one thing, he charts his tribe's historical journeys in Egypt and in Libya. During the second half of the 20th century, he explains, the tribe undertook "not a new journey to the [four] corners of the desert, seeking more generous land or fleeing stronger tribes, but a permanent settlement on the edges of cities." Later on in the book he identifies this condition with his own first name. "Hamdi," he points out, is not an abstract expression of gratitude to God (in which case the name would have been simply "Hamd"), but makes a specific reference to the tribe's own gratitude, the Arabic yaa suffix referring both to Hamdi's father and, by extension, to his people. "Times of drought, the rain's betrayals... were gone forever, once [the tribesmen] submitted completely to the will of God and thanked him, their thanks taking the form of a permanent settlement on the edges of cities."

These thanks ultimately give rise to the multifaceted phenomenon of Hamdi Abu Golail. This complex voice, in fact, presents itself to the Egyptian reader as the most accessible incarnation of the contemporary Bedouin, for whom nothing remains of ancient nomadic glory "but a long list of the names of [his] ancestors, positioned in a conspicuous place" in the houses of his innumerable family relations. In common with many writers belonging to the Generation of the Seventies (Shehata El-Iryan's 1999 Dikka Khashabiya comes to mind), Abu Golail's is a borderline case that straddles two genres (collection of short stories vs. the novel), two existential standpoints (renegade individual vs. conscious representative of a specific -- in this case, ethnic -- group) and two classes of literary endeavour (autobiography vs. fiction). And, faithful to the tenets of the Seventies' project, if such tenets can be clearly identified, he favours brevity over expansiveness, adopting a conversational rather than the gripping tone of narrative, and employing a "text-by-text" tactic. For, though promoted as a book of short stories, none of the ten texts that make up Ashiaa Matwiya can really stand on its own, and the inter-textual relations between them are neither chronological nor thematic. However the texts draw on the same mine of narrative, descriptive and contemplative registers, making use of memory, informal conversation and cross-reference.

The metaphor of the title offers a clue to the book's central theme -- the contemporary Bedouin's tattered sense of identity and the predicament of "difference" in relation both to his own people and to the fellah. Since he has moved mentally and physically from desert to nuclear family and city, to the Bedouin the city is always the sign of betrayal; meanwhile, the fellah is portrayed throughout as a radically different kind of creature, however indistinguishable he may be on the surface from his Bedouin fellow citizen. Bedouin identity, Abu Golail implies, is a set of neatly folded objects, much like the Bedouin tents that have been folded and hidden to be replaced by tiny flats in the small concrete edifices of the latter-day fellaheen. And yet a tent of sorts remains with Abu Golail, as precious as it is eternally intact: "I penetrate into the suburbs of the city, wearing jeans, comparing the Bedouin's tents to shanty towns and wondering in earnest what the hidden reasons behind their constant feeling of greatness and refinement could be, while [at the same time] a complete Bedouin tent lives peacefully inside me. When I shut the door of my room [and get into my full Bedouin getup], I walk proudly through the desert of my room. I insist that our beautiful, peaceful rejection was not at all a sufficient response to that dirty fellah, my schoolmate, when he was so bold as to request to marry my sister. For that he should have tasted death."

The book opens with an elegiac piece on the adult Abu Golail's need for a father, any father, his father, and a movingly humorous piece on his lone mother's last days. An old woman without an official birth certificate, she is the last of her kind. In the next text the mother is contrasted with Khoud, the "epoch-making" young woman who publicly declared her husband incapable of his marital duties, bursting into the tribesmen's annual conference with the information and thereby irrevocably shaming them both. Later in the book there are also reminiscences about Abu Golail's early days, a long, meditative investigation into the humiliating ritual payment of symbolic compensation for the long-forgotten murder of a senior member of the sister (Libyan) tribe, shocking confessions that could have been made by anyone, Bedouin or fellah, and which are mostly to do with what Abu Golail explicitly labels "duality" and, finally, shreds of narrative and dialogue that offer a rare insight into traditional Bedouin life and thought. However Abu Golail's perennial dual identity, his shameless duplicity, is not fully established until the end.

In "A lone hero and many windows," Abu Golail relates the simple traditional tale of Ola, Ma'youf and the Fellah Merchant. In this story, two Bedouin hunters out to hunt "a measly gazelle" that eventually proves more elusive than they could have anticipated bump into the Merchant. They decide to kill him, calculating that the Merchant's possessions could feed not only the two of them, but also the entire tribe. Thus Ma'youf approaches the Merchant, while Ola hides in the sand. When the Merchant manages to kill Ma'youf, Ola strikes him, bringing back the booty to his people and thereby becoming their hero. Through a number of pieces all entitled, "And a window," Abu Golail transports the circumstances of this tale into other contexts, away from the desert and the traditional Bedouin story-teller. He pits himself up against the alleged Bedouin hero of the tale, concluding that only a sense of "duality" can be extracted from it.

"What do I have to do with this ridiculous business (retrieving my cousin's blood before it cools)? Let it cool or burn. Does this mean that you are a coward who lets the tribe's blood flow? But what's so courageous about Ola's behaviour? A nomadic Bedouin, whose heroism our enemies the fellaheen have summarised in a single sentence: 'He who is departing tomorrow has no intention of cultivating trust [or respecting our safety].' He must light the fire and aim his gun at the vulnerable area between the Merchant's shoulder blades."

Reviewed by Youssef Rakha

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