Mohamed Kheir: عباصلأا تلافإة (Slipping)
At the end of this book, there is an interview between Mohamed Kheir and the translator of the book, Robin Moger. One of the first questions Moger asks is Is there anything you would regard as being the essence of the novel? You can see his point. At first glance, the novel seems all over the place, in that it consists of a variety of often disparate stories which, in many cases, do not seem to be linked. A novel being all over the place is not necessarily a bad thing – many fine novels are seemingly all over the place. We are, of course used to novels following two or three seemingly different plot lines, which join up at the end but this one has more than two or three. Do not worry. Gradually, the stories do link up even if it is not always apparent.
There are two seemingly major plot lines, which most of the other stories feed into. The first concerns Seif and Bahr. Seif is a magazine journalist in Alexandria. Things are not going well for him. He had a girlfriend, Alya. She was from another country – an Asian country – though we do not know which one. However, she spoke several languages. She made her living by providing the sound effects for animated films, though Seif later gets her a job as a translator at the magazine. She has a miscarriage but the couple get over that and remain close. One day she has a premonition that something terrible will happen but he sticks close to her and it all seems to be all right. However, her premonition proves correct. At a demonstration her hand slips away and he loses her. He never sees her again.
His work at the magazine has deteriorated. His colleague and friend Leila tells him he has a new assignment. He is to accompany Bahr around the area. He is writing a piece on various sites around the city and Seif is to accompany him and make a report for the magazine.
During their travels Bahr and Seif get to know one another. Bahr is Egyptian. He had been at a demonstration but was arrested and tortured. When he was finally released, he vowed to leave the country. We learn of his colourful adventures, though we so not know where he was.
Bahr seems to know Alexandria far better than Seif. His interest is not in tourist sites but, rather, sites that have an often macabre interest. For example they go to Wahda, a village which has been completely abandoned. Why? We gradually learn what happened. Then there are the killer flowers. A rich man has built a fancy residence and, to protect his property, he has planted titan arum, known as the corpse flower (because of its smell). However, these plants are huge and initially fall and damage vehicles and then fall and kill children.
Less macabre but still unpleasant is the block of flats where lots of people live. A large hotel is being built right next door, with no virtually no space between the two. There is continual noise all day, their utilities are disrupted and the road becomes impassable. The residents are hoping to be rehoused or compensated but nothing happens. They call the authorities and an inspector comes. He maintains there is no noise and, to prove his point rents a flat for himself at once and moves in. His reasons are explained in a separate story later on.
The other linking theme is very different. The Egyptian authorities have worked out that a lot of people have some spare time and, when you add it up, this amounts to a huge total. Clearly they could use this time to foment trouble and unrest. The best way to stop this was to reduce their spare time and the best way to do this is by bureaucracy. Accordingly, there were unfulfillable orders to cancel certain papers, miles of speed bumps laid down along main roads and highways, the traffic light network was reengineered to fail. Projects to build commercial centres and off-ramps and switchbacks were begun at great expense, then quietly dropped. There were rigorously executed operations to damage the pipes that carried water and sewage, to disrupt the internet, to design new and circuitous routes for public buses, to double the number of metro stations on each line—to quadruple them.
We follow not only one of the officials dealing with this but also various stories which do not seem to be connected to this issue but turn out to be connected to it
Other stories involve a silent football team, a man whose life is ruled by his father, even though his father is dead, the huge private hospital built for just one man and the stuttering singer.
As in other countries, the Arab Spring in Egypt failed. Many of these stories relate, directly or indirectly, to this. Some of them are told in almost dreamlike fashion, while others are violent and direct. Death is a key theme in many of them and loss – loss of rights, loved ones, housing, enjoyment of life, facilities – another.
As mentioned most of the stories link up. Most people do not end up happy though, for a few, there is a glint of light at the end of the tunnel. In all cases, the stories are thoroughly original, highly imaginative and make for a fascinating read.
First published in 2018 by Kotob Khan Publishing House
First English translation in 2021 by Two Lines Press
Translated by Robin Moger