Wednesday,20 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1400, (5 - 11 July 2018)
Wednesday,20 February, 2019
Issue 1400, (5 - 11 July 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Life of Momo

Carmine Cartolano, Momo, Cairo: Al-Ain, 2018. pp230

Life of Momo
Al-Ahram Weekly

Written in Egyptian as opposed to standard Arabic (amiyya, classic colloquial, as opposed to fusha), this is the story of a young Italian who finds happiness when he emigrates to Egypt. Set in the future, in 2037, when Egypt – along with much of Africa – has become a dominant economic power. The first of three chapters describes Momo’s life back in Italy. Unemployed, detested by his small family, the young man spends his days sleeping, roaming the streets on his bike or with his girlfriend Sara. The turning point occurs when Momo determines to seek his fortunes in Africa, and after a failed legal attempt at travelling to Egypt eventually arrives on the shores of Alexandria along with other illegal immigrants from Europe on a boat operated by an Egyptian called Mickey. 

The second chapter – which shows Momo hiding like cargo on the boat, variously confused, pained and satisfied, inventing games to entertain a little girl travelling with her divorced mother – is the most interesting by far. But aside from this fantastical reversal of the present North-South divide – “Egypt actually saw waves of immigration from Europe, namely Italy, Greece and Armenia in the 19th and early 2oth centuries, so it could happen once again,” he says – Cartolano’s intimate knowledge of the vernacular and the amusing connections he draws between Egyptian and Italian culture, which though similar are also contrasted. In the third chapter Momo, travelling incognito, works on a mango orchard in Ismailia, then washing dishes and painting apartments in Cairo, an occasion to idealise Cairo, calling it “heaven” as he describes people’s kindness especially to foreigners and Arabic as a “language of the heart”.  Momo’s life in the illegal immigrant community is Cartolano’s way of dealing with refugee problems in general, and as well as the good press he gives Egypt, in this and other ways Cartolano makes a strong and moving case for universal compassion. But why amiyya?

Life of Momo

Despite its presence to some degree in most contemporary books and despite best-sellers like Khaled Al-Khamisi’s Taxi (2006) and much of Omar Taher’s work, which rely on it almost entirely, amiyya remains an unusual choice. Cartolano, who teaches Italian at Ain Shams University, studied fusha in Naples, he says. “I didn’t learn amiyya until I arrived in Egypt 19 years ago. I see them as two different languages. I loved amiyya more. It is genius, and has its own beauty, compared to the vernacular in other Arab countries. My students hardly read any books. I thought amiyya would encourage them to read my story, and that’s exactly what happened. The novel is also an answer to the most recurrent question I’ve been getting from young Egyptians for 19 years now: Why do you live in Egypt? I wanted to say that Europe is not the perfect place to live it can seem to be. The Italian youth suffers from similar social problems such as unemployment. Nowadays Italy is seeing waves of intolerance and racism...”

Momo, who roams the streets and jumps onto buses, ends up rescuing a woman about to be raped on the pretty island of Manial; he also falls in love with the girl. Together with friends, Momo thinks of creating public fibre glass cages in which to place men who practise harassment for people to laugh at. The novel ends with Momo holding hands with the girl among thousands of football supporters celebrating Egypt’s victory against Italy – another wishful fantasy there. “Momo,” Cartolano says, “is the tale of  a young man who leaves his country and finds true love in another. It’s a dreamy story, but this is the nature of love.” It is neither autobiography nor travel writing, though. “I do not consider myself a traveller. I am a citizen. I live here, and I feel like I do.”

Cartolano says his next project just might be a book in Italian about living in Egypt. “I want to try out my Italian language,” he laughs. 


Worth mentioning in this connection is Massriyano (a portmanteau of Masri – as in “Egyptian” and Italiano), another Al-Ain publication written in amiyya and published back in 2012: the humorous and far more realistic diary of an Italian photographer in Egypt, which emphasises contradictions in the Egyptian character and focuses on such fraught topics as traffic, marriage and nostalgia.


Reviewed by Rania Khallaf 

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