Thursday,21 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1338, (30 March - 5 April 2017)
Thursday,21 February, 2019
Issue 1338, (30 March - 5 April 2017)

Ahram Weekly

The good old days

Amira El-Noshokaty, Khatwa Aziza (A Dear Step), Cairo: Kitabi, 2017. pp100

The good old days
The good old days

It’s an expression we can barely remember from the old days at the family house: Khatwa Aziza; literally: “a dear step”; a reference to the effort your visitor has made to come and see you, and an expression of how much you appreciate it.

But it’s also the title of a collection of ten short stories by Amira El-Noshokaty, a young journalist noted for her love of heritage, whose being a personal colleague makes it difficult to maintain a dispassionate attitude towards the book especially since it evokes so much nostalgia in me, forcing me to imagine the events as a brilliantly made television series.

This is El-Noshokaty’s second book. Her first, Biltafsil (In Detail), a shorter book of short stories, opening with one set in a balcony overlooking a busy square – which I happened to read in the car while waiting for family members to finish at the doctor’s, the noise of the street contributing to the urgency and the reading pleasure — was extremely gripping.

Khatwa Aziza, however, requires a quieter, more romantic atmosphere. It should be read to the sound of Um Koltoum and the smell of jasmine.

In the first story, “At the Office”, the reader follows the development of a young woman’s feelings for her colleague, who also falls in love with her, only to discover that she is married. It’s an intentionally shocking opening. There is no sign of the writer’s own presence here, although in other stories she is clearly part of the action.

Whether or not El-Noshokaty makes an appearance, however, it is her ability to evoke the good old days that animates stories like “Happy Birthday”, “The Conjuror’s Box”, “Sale” or “A Bottle of Perfume”. They capture the collective memory of my generation of middle class Egyptians who — having been born in the mid-1970s to the early 1980s — grew up in the Cairo neighbourhoods of Shubra, Abbasiya, Dhaher or Helmia.

In such households  the mother’s closet — which is the title of yet another story — had an ornate gilded key and was treated like the Central Bank safe; only with direct permission from the mother could anyone open or touch anything inside it. El-Noshokaty not only manages to open that closet but also to describe its contents in minute detail.

Other stories which make you feel as though — unbeknown to you — El-Noshokaty grew up within your own family, depict the figure of the grandmother and the stories she tells the children, summer nights and beach adventures: how the black banner meant you could not have a swim.

All this made me think of the fact that, as a generation, we have had more or less the same memories and dreams, a phenomenon that, despite the potentially unifying power of the electronic and media revolution, is unlikely to be seen among future generations who have far greater multiplicity and choice.

In my time we had only two television channels, the extended family gathering was the highlight of the week and a busy programme of family activities started daily after the father’s return from work in the early afternoon. There were only two kinds of school: the Christian community schools that were founded under Khedive Ismail and government schools, which were even stronger, offering excellent education. The building’s children always played together, hanging the Ramdan lanterns with the help of the children from the opposite building.

This makes me think that the stories of the future will be written for much smaller groups and understood only by them, but in two of her stories El-Noshokaty brings us into the present: “The Secret”, about a social media infidelity; and “Written”, about the January revolution and “creating memories for our children”.

“Two Other than Us”, I could clearly imagine as a film — down to specific actors playing out the open-ended drama of a successful woman living in isolation from her neighbours suddenly forced to cooperate with them.

This is an exciting collection written in a simple, entertaining language, able to draw us out of reality and take us back to a life we miss. It makes us aware of that part of us that has turned into something akin to the mannequin in “Sale”, of which only the head remains, yet she is animated and given the power of speech so that she can tell us of her terror of the shop stewardess’s footstep which preceded the “amputation” of her whole body and her head being covered with hijab...

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