In the early 1980s, it was still possible to glimpse downtown Cairo’s original glam. Mohandiseen was a rising new shopping destination, but for Egypt’s quintessential, deep-rooted middle class, downtown was still the primary shopping destination. On the pavement of downtown’s Sherif Street and in my memory, the celebrated plastic boy Hamada Yela’ab has left his mark for ever: a small swimming toy street vendors use as a novelty item.
“Day and night, in the summer and in wintertime, Hamada does not cease to play, he just changes places. Sometimes he’s on the pavement near Salon Vert, some other times he’s on the left side of the street by the Central Bank,” writes visual artist Hala Elkoussy. “Thirty years later and Hamada is still in his red shorts beating the clear water with his arms in his little plastic plate. Competitors with blonde hair have appeared in the market over the years but they soon vanished from the downtown toy scene.”
It’s a big occasion in her book, “Da’eirat Seen”: The narrator’s son has just gotten his first Hamada.
The book, written in Arabic and published by Sharqiyat in 2013, is a quirky record of life in downtown and the life of a sad, funny and peculiar female protagonist, Seen (“Seen” is the letter S in Arabic, usually used when the real name of objects or people is not used, like X in English). It’s a collection of snippets of life, unusual brief moments cleverly documented by the author. Exactly like a series of photographs, the text describes un-momentous moments in life, but it also creates memories and captures the soul of things, and thus may have the potential to change lives. It’s an autobiography of snapshots of irony, sadness, frustration and love inside a 250-meter circle that the protagonist has created in her mind and made her world.
The 297-page book is divided into two or three-page sections. Each section or chapter takes place in the circle and begins with a related photograph that the protagonist took inside the circle. The publication is a literary reflection of Elkoussy’s last exhibition at Mashrabia Gallery, entitled “Journey Around my Living Room” (2013), with which the book shares several photographs.
“She does not recall when she drew the narrow boundaries surrounding her world — it happened gradually. She first gave up her car and with the gravity of the traffic, she boycotted all means of transportation and reserved herself for walking,” Elkoussy writes. “One night she found herself drawing a circle on a piece of paper, highlighting its center, main features and outer borders.”
The protagonist is in a constant state of searching, but she has limited her search to a narrow circle that she cannot escape. Sorrow in most cases is triggered by loss, the loss of something of value or importance. The protagonist, in her search, is driven by a loss or a deeply rooted natural sadness. It is her sorrow that makes her weird and witty. Is she searching for happiness? I don’t think so — she gave up on that a while ago. She looks forward to the search itself in an attempt to mend a scare caused by a loss. She captures precious moments on her camera, glorifies mundane details and looks for thrills inside the small circle that she tours every day.
“Can she tackle her experience without triggering pity in others? Can she laugh at her own weakness and make others laugh as well?” the text reads. “Her decisions were mostly taken, not to do the right thing, but to avoid doing wrong — her performance fluctuated, convincing at times and banal at other. She finds refuge inside the circle. The chances of wrong are slight inside it.”
On page 284, during one of her trips inside the circle, Elkoussy — or Seen — mentions Xavier de Maistre, a French writer. In 1790, de Maistre wrote a book titled “Voyage Autour de ma Chambre” (Voyage Around my Bedroom), an autobiographical narration in which the author, locked up in his room, grandly discusses the room’s furnishings as if they are features of a strange land he is visiting for the first time. Elkoussy learns her circle just as de Maistre learned his bedroom. Now, she is working on her second literary piece, a novel.