Egypt into the New Millennium

Egyptian civilization existed fro roughly five millennia. Populated with domineering, docile, and even tenacious personalities like Tutankhamen, Ramses II, Hatshepsut and Cleopatra, it is one of the most studied civilizations in history. Periods of prosperity were interspersed with dark moments of strife and tension. Both these bright and dark phases gave Egypt a fabled past. It has long since fallen from its lofty pedestal its history, but its history, both ancient and contemporary, still remain a relevant subject in many a literary work.

Popular Egyptian writer Alaa Al Aswany endeavored to capture a rough portrait of his nation’s contemporary history. Published originally in Arabic in 2013 after the 2011 political unrest that embroiled Egypt, Al Aswany’s The Automobile Club of Egypt gives a peek into how modern Egypt has shaped up and is currently shaping up through the story of the Gaafar family.

The story commenced when the Gaafars, led by their patriarch, Abd el-Aziz Gaafar, moved from Northern Egypt to Cairo due to their dwindling finances. His wife, three sons and one daughter were forced to restart their lives. Abd el-Aziz Gaafar was once a respected landowner but had to settle for a lowly job at the prestigious Automobile Club of Egypt to sustain his family. There, his path crossed with Alku, the Club’s tyrannical overseer who lorded over the servants. The unexpected meeting inevitably led to a collision that will shake the core of the Gaafars and the Automobile Club of Egypt.

“Nationalities are a facist way of thinking aimed at forcing people into a narrow and stupid sense of belonging. It makes some people feel superior to others and perpetuates hatred and war.” ~ Alaa Al Aswany, The Automobile Club of Egypt

The titular Automobile Club of Egypt loomed above the narrative and the lives of the characters. But as dusts of the arid Egyptian desert settles, the Gaafar family emerges to be the the narrative’s primary centrifugal point. Through them, the novel extensively explored the dynamics of the contemporary Egyptian family.  The inner life and machinations, and the struggles of a family were vividly captured by Al-Aswany’s capable hands and masterful writing.

Complimenting the story of the Gaafars is the vivid and powerful backdrop carefully painted by Al Aswany. The Gaafars’ story took place in a period when Egypt was embroiled in social and political strife. As the country slowly shifts towards disintegration from British imperialism, the country falls further into political and moral corruption, particularly in the royal courts and the high societies.

Al Aswany’s blunt literary knife penetrates the core of the diverse Egyptian social strata. He made readers walk down palatial compounds, narrow back streets, and blossoming new site developments. By making readers travel to the King’s bedchambers and to the servant’s quarters, Al Aswany painted the imbalance in Egyptian society. In the streets, student activists echo their sentiments and hope for a better Egypt but in the gambling halls, monarchs and the rich men while their time, unbothered by the stresses of quotidian life. The dichotomies between the two worlds are stark and vast.

Through the dynamics of the relationship between Alku and the club’s servants, The Automobile Club of Egypt also evokes thoughts on slavery and servitude. It asks as why do we let ourselves fall prey to those with power. Why do we let them establish norms? The microcosm might be the club but it resonates on a universal scale. Our needs are the most palpable drivers for our servile attitude. Through the servants of the club, it was vividly depicted why we let ourselves be enslaved by others; this is because of our need to be led, our need for direction. This remains prevalent in contemporary social paradigms, but the book also asks the readers to be skeptical, to evaluate the need for reform and to break from the chains.

From Egyptian societies to family norms, the novel also deals with a slew of relevant subjects and themes. Racism is a recurring theme. The novel not only portrayed external racism but also the internal racism within the ranks of the Egyptians. Al Aswany also threaded the thin line between the pivot towards western ideals and the desire to stick to traditions. Certain facets of Egyptian culture were sewn into the tapestry of the novel. Lightening the dark and heavy themes are vestiges of romance.

Al Aswany’s writing was simple and his language was quite easy to decipher. The story was easy to decipher and rarely wanders. His use of suspense held the book together, keeping the readers riveted. Some things may have been done well but as the story progresses, it starts to fall at the seams. It can be written off against the translation but the dialogues represent the polar opposites of the spectrum. They were either unimaginative and stilted or intense and melodramatic.

“The moment of clicking on the print button always gave rise to strange and powerful ambivalence–a combination of self-satisfaction, gloom and anxiety. Self-satisfaction for having finished writing the book. Gloom because taking my leave of the characters has the same effect on me as when a group of friends have to depart. And anxiety, perhaps because I am on the verge of delivering up into other people’s hands something that I treasure.” ~ Alaa Al Aswany, The Automobile Club of Egypt

Drawn the same fashion as the dialogues, the characters were constructed in the same monochromatic manner. The characters were either leaning towards bright side or on the dark side. This was also portrayed in the sheer dichotomies in their moral. They were bereft of subtlety. As a historical novel, it failed to give the complete atmosphere of a specific historical period. The historical contexts felt like figments of an imagined past. At the end, there was a fleeting sense.

On a brighter note, Al Aswany’s women empowerment is commendable. Egyptian society, and Arabian society in general, has always been portrayed as highly patriarchal but Al Aswany digressed from the norm. He populated the story with women from all walks of life, most of whom are outliers. They are women who dream and fight for those dreams with unwavering faith. Rather than submit to the realities of life, they fought back with grit, wit, and tenacity. They may not always deal with them with grace but the silent strength emanating from them resonates all throughout the narrative.

The Automobile Club of Egypt had sparks of brilliance. The suspense and the women’s distinct voices were its strongest points. It sustained the interest but when the story’s weak foundations were exposed, the story begun to crumble. For a story with an intricately constructed denouement, its ending was rushed. It didn’t give the readers enough breathing space to cope with everything that was happening. Al Aswany created a backdrop with intricate details but he wanted to end things quickly. Interestingly, for a political novel, it was bereft of politics. It was a story in dire need of a completion to make it come full circle, three threads short of becoming a full tapestry.

Ratings:

42%

Characters (30%) – 14%
Plot (30%) – 11%
Writing (25%) – 10%
Overall Impact (15%) – 7%

I bought The Automobile Club of Egypt during the first edition of the Big Bad Wolf Manila sale in 2018. I was enamored by the flashy book cover and the interesting book title. It took me two years to finally read it though. The novel’s premise is interesting. The dip into student activism is reminiscent of Naguib Mahfouz’s Miramar. However, there was general feeling of underdevelopment, from the story to the characters. The historical context was badly drawn and lacked some punch – it didn’t give that 1950s atmosphere. It may have been the translation but it was difficult to conclude were the fault falls. Thankfully, it was quite easy to read, and the story, easy to follow.

Book Specs

Author: Alaa Al-Aswany
Translator: Russell Harris
Publisher: Canongate
Publishing Date: 2016
Number of Pages: 475
Genre: Historical, Political

Synopsis

Inside the walls of the Automobile Club of Egypt two very different worlds collide – Cairo’s European elite and the Egyptian staff who wait on them.

The servants, a squabbling, humorous and lively group, live in a perpetual state of fear under the tyrannical rule of Alku. When Abd el-Aziz Gaafar becomes the target of Alku’s cruelty and his pride gets the better of him, a devastating act sends ripples through his family. Soon, the Gaafars are drawn into the turbulent politics of the club – public and private -and both servants and masters are subsumed by Egypt’s social upheaval.

Egyptians both inside and outside the Automobile club will face a stark choice: to live safely but without dignity, or to fight for their rights and risk everything.

About the Author

Alaa Al-Aswany was born on May 26, 1957. His father, Abbas Al-Aswany, was a lawyer and writer who passed away when Alaa was just 19 years old. His mother, Zainab, came from an aristocratic family.

Al-Aswany attended Le Lycée Français in Cairo. In 1980, he received his bachelor’s degree in dental and oral medicine at Cairo University. He pursued his master’s degree in dentistry at the University of Illinois in Chicago in 1985. He also studied Spanish Literature in Madrid, making him fluent in four languages – Arabic, English, French and Spanish. Before pursuing a career in writing, Al-Aswany first wrote a weekly literary critique entitled “parenthetic phrase” in the Egyptian newspaper Al-Sha’ab. He also wrote for a score of various local publications.

In 1990, his first novel, Awrāq ʾIṣṣām ʾAbd il-ʾĀṭī (The Papers of Essam Abdel Aaty) was published. It med modest success. More than a decade after the publication of his first novel, he published his second novel Imārat Yaʾqūbiyān (The Yacoubian Building) in 2002. It was a sensation, widely read in Egypt and the Middle East. His other works include Chicago (2007), Nādī il-sayyārāt (The Automobile Club of Egypt, 2013), and Jumhuriat ka’an (The so-called Republic, 2018). He has also written and published a score of short stories. He has received several awards from different award-giving bodies all over the world.

A founding member of the political movement Kefaya, he currently lives in Cairo. He remains active in the political scene and is still actively writing a weekly article for a local newspaper.