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Ghazi Algosaibi: شقة الحرية (An Apartment Called Freedom)
The book opens in August 1956. The Suez crisis has just started, in that Nasser has nationalised the Suez Canal but Israel, the United Kingdom and France have yet to invade.
Our hero is Fuad, a sixteen-year old Bahraini. He is going to Cairo to finish college and study law. He is a big admirer of Nasser whom he sees as the flag-bearer of Arab nationalism against Western colonialism. Indeed, he and his fellow students in Bahrain have criticised their English teacher for his anti-Nasser stance,
At his mother’s insistence he has packed everything, including food and toilet paper. On arrival he has various difficulties, including difficulty in getting a visa, finding that his former teacher, Mr Shareef, who was supposed to help him is away and difficulty in tracking down his friends who are already there. These issues eventually are sorted out and Mr Shareef eventually turns up. Mr Shareef will become the liaison between Fuad and his father as regards money, but also the moral guide and, more importantly the practical guide, helping with everything from Egyptian bureaucracy to medical issues not only for Fuad but also for his three Bahraini friends.
With Mr Shareeef’s help he finds accommodation in a boarding house with a Jordanian called Adnan, an Iraqi called Majeed and his friend, Qasim. The other two Bahraini friends, Yacoub and Abdul-Karim stay elsewhere. Nevertheless the six become close friends and are the main subject of this book.
We learn that Qasim is from a nouveau riche family and is quite-right-wing. The division of the world into rich and poor was the natural order he felt. He is highly critical of Cairo. Yacoub is the opposite, from a poor family and very left-wing. Abdul-Karim is from a very old and religious family. He was good-natured and very loyal to his friends but he had changeable moods.
Bahrain is far more conservative than Egypt as the young men soon find out. Women are not covered up, as in Bahrain and there are generally far fewer restrictions. Not surprisingly this very much appeals to them. We follow their academic careers but also their lives in general from 1956 to 1961. While their boarding house is OK, they want more freedom and manage to trick Mr Shareef into agreeing to their getting a flat for themselves which, as we know from the title, they call Apartment Freedom. It may be free but they set up rules – seventy in total! – and on several occasions, have kangaroo courts when they think one of their co-tenants has strayed, which is not uncommon.
Of course, the first interest of young men is the opposite sex and this will be a key theme of the book. All are eager to have a girlfriend (yes, premarital sex exists in 1956 Egypt, even if it does not in Bahrain.) Qasim has most difficulty in this area and resorts to prostitutes, who seem to be readily available. He is not the only one. Indeed,one of them has a long-term relationship with a former prostitute and even considers marrying her. One of them, of course, gets gonorrhoea.
The focus is on Fuad who, I am guessing, is based, at least in part, on the author. He has a variety of girlfriends. His first one persuades him to join the Ba’athists. He does but soon finds out that it is not for him and leaves the party and her. He has other girlfriends, including a singer, and a rich widow whom he meets when she phones their flat by mistake and they continue first a phone relationship and then a flesh-and-blood relationship. As with the others, when he tells his parents he is thinking of marrying one of them, he is firmly put down, as they have a bride lined up for him. This clash between what they do in Cairo and what their conservative parents think and expect is also a key theme.
Apart from the opposite sex and carousing – one of them not only drinks but gets into drugs (hashish) – their other key extramural activity seems to be politics We get the full range of politics as the various characters jump around from political party to political party. One joins the Muslim Brotherhood and gets arrested. Fuad gets involved in the Arab Nationalist Movement and even meets George Habash. Yacoub joins the Communists.
As well as joining parties, they spend a lot of time talking politics. Ever the pragmatist, Qasim states the true priority in this world, the one thing that concerned everyone, male and female, capitalists and communists, rulers and ruled, believers and atheists, the one thing that did not need any theories or mottoes, the fundamental factor in this life was money. Two key events happen while they are there – the Suez Crisis and the formation of the United Arab Republic. Both issues warrant much discussion by our heroes.
Related to politics – and in Egypt it is very much related – is religion. This gets discussed, as does its relationship to politics. Though none of them can be said to be particularly religious – even the one who joins the Muslim Brotherhood does more so for political reasons – but all are Muslims. It becomes complicated because Egypt and most of our group are Sunni while one is a Shi’ite, which causes certain problems.
Fuad and their friend Abdul-Ra’ouf write stories. We get to read several of them. Eventually, they get to publish their stories together in a book. which has a certain amount of success and, as a result, they get to meet both Naguib Mahfouz and Taha Hussein. Fuad does even better. He goes to a literary conference with a friend of his father, the Bahraini poet Ebrahim Al-Arrayedh and, to his great joy, though he has been going off him, he meets and talks to Nasser.
For me and, I imagine for many Westerners, the main interest in this book is getting the perceptions, views and cultural norms of a group of people whose views may have been very different from ours (Arab nationalism, Islam and other political issues) but also quite similar (sex, partying, studying, ambition, breaking away from the older generation, what to do in life after university). Algosaibi tells his story well (as mentioned presumably based at least in part on his own life) as we follow their lives over the five year period of their studies.
First published 1994 by Riyād al-Rayyis lil-Kutub wa-al-Nashr
First published in English by Kegan Paul International in 1996
Translated by Leslie J McLoughlin