Ashraf El-Ashmawi: اال>سيدة الزمالك، (The Lady of Zamalek)
Our first protagonist – as we shall see, he is not really a hero – is Abbas Mahalawi, a young Egyptian from Upper Egypt. He has come to Alexandria after graduating from school in his village. His grades were not good enough to go to university so he enrols in Don Bosco, a vocational training school run by Italians. He does not like school so he skips school, though his uncle is paying him to go there.
We follow him as he earns money in various dubious ways: selling cigarettes, helping out at the local brothel, procuring prostitutes for the local brothel and luring clients to the brothel. The prostitutes are treated badly, so badly that the owner is arrested and sent to prison. Abbas steals money from the Madam, who takes over, and goes home. He is very fond of his youngest sister Zeinab but neither of them get on with their parents.
He tries various jobs till, one day, while working in a bar, he overhears four men planning to rob Solomon Cicurel, the owner of the famous Cicurel department store chain. He manages to join in their plan and is smart enough to avoid them killing him, as planned, and not be caught as the others were, when the robbery went awry.
Not only does he get away, it seems that though he has been named, they do not know his full name. He hurries back home, quite well off, as he managed to steal some money, jewels and key documents, unknown to the others.
Using the information he has and also using Zeinab, he manages to inveigle his way into the house and the good graces of Paula, the widow of Solomon Cicurel. It is clear he is looking for something in the house. He also manages to use his charm and connections to inveigle his way into Egyptian high society.
The earlier parts of the novel are narrated in alternate chapters by Abbas and Zeinab but we later move to to chapters narrated by Abbas, his daughter, Nadia, and other characters. Indeed, we suddenly jump a few years and learn that that Abbas, Zeinab and Nadia live in the Heart of Palm house, the the name of the house previously owned by the Cicurels, and that Abbas has done very well for himself. We find out that his wealth has not been obtained honestly.
Nadia had grown up with Tarek. He was the son of Paula Cicurel’s business manager, who had apparently suddenly left the country, abandoning wife and child. The full story is gradually revealed. Tarek’s mother has a role with Zeinab similar to the the role Zeinab had with Paula, namely femme de compagnie, i.e. lady companion. Inevitably, when young, Nadia and Tarek are close, though they drift apart in later years. Nadia is pushed into a marriage by her father and aunt because it is politically convenient. She misses Tarek, who seems to have disappeared. We soon learn what has happened to him and so does she.
In the early part of the book , Farouk was king and we briefly see him. However, Nasser has now taken over. The big change for Abbas and Co is the official sequestration of property owned by the rich and powerful. Abbas nearly becomes a victim but manages to get himself on the side of the new masters and we follow the whole murky business in detail. Not surprisingly, Abbas and others do not hand everything over to the government but take their cut. We move on through Sadat and Mubarak, neither of whom meets with much approval from our author or characters.
We will continue to follow the fate of the main characters till almost the end of the twentieth century. All of them behave badly. People die and not necessarily a natural death. Money is made and lost. Power is gained and lost. Corruption is endemic with our characters, in the country at large and with and by the state. Given the incompetence of the Egyptian state that we see here – and best exemplified in this book by Egypt’s rapid defeat by Israel in 1967, with the army sure that they will win without difficulty – the corrupt individuals are able to get away with more.
One interesting aspect of this is something that I knew little about, namely the official sequestration of assets by the state from foreigners which, in practice, included Jews, Copts and even unveiled Muslims. All our protagonists are involved directly and indirectly and we see the corruption as they protect themselves and their friends, while helping themselves wherever possible.
What makes this book interesting is that it is a picture of Egypt from the beginning of World War II to the almost the end of the twentieth century. During the entire period, Egypt is corrupt, brutal, violent and incompetent, regardless of who is in power. Abbas may be our key protagonist, though not our hero, as he is totally unscrupulous, happy to use his own family to further his ends, violent, including happy to kill those who stand in his way or, if more convenient, betray them, and is generally a thorough rogue. To be fair to him most of the other people in the book are more or less roguish. The women, however, tend mainly to be the victims. Abbas and Zeinab complain about both their parents but then, with Nadia, her niece, Zeinab becomes as bad if not worse, though even she is a victim of her brother and other men. However, even the women, Nadia and Zeinab in particular, are not averse to committing dirty deeds. Zeinab knows full well what her brother is up to and spends much of her time trying to outwit/cheat him (depending on your point of view) and he, of course reciprocates.
This book certainly makes a fascinating read, as you wonder how much more corrupt the various characters can be and the answer, of course, is much more. We may feel some sympathy for the women who are pushed into marriages they do not want and generally treated badly. Some suffer and die, while others get their revenge by resorting to the same dirty tricks their male counterparts are using. By the end, it is difficult to really feel much sympathy for any of them, except for those unfortunate victims – generally minor characters – who die in an unpleasant manner without any chance of revenge.
First published in 2018 by Al-Dār al-Miṣrīyah al-Lubnānīyah
First English translation in 2021 by Hoopoe
Translated by Peter Daniel