I stand bemused in Shorouk bookstore. Dozens of recent publications by fresh talents are lined up neatly together and I don’t know what to choose.
Eventually an intriguing and slightly sordid cover catches my eye — a hairy, grubby toe resting on some rugged soil — a succinctly written synopsis ends my bewilderment: I buy the book for LE30.
Al-Nas Dol (Those People, 2011), it says on the cover, is a collection of interviews and short articles penned between 2004 and 2009. With the subtitle Hekayat men Lahm we Dam (Stories of Flesh and Blood), the book promises real tales of an aging nation straight from the gut — colorful glimpses of people we may brush against in the subway but don’t really see.
I have already read a more recent book by the author, Ahmed Attalah, who is now 34. A short book titled Mariam (2013), it documents the fascinating true story of a determined young Christian engineer attempting to marry a Muslim woman, complete with various documents he has compiled including legal papers and excerpts from the Quran and Sharia law.
I also know that Attalah, a journalist for the state-owned Radio & Television Magazine, has written TV shows and that back in 2010 he was involved in co-writing scripts for BuSSy, a progressive theater project.
All this sounds promising, and indeed Al-Nas Dol doesn’t start off badly. Attalah eases readers in with a scene in a seedy inn located in one of Cairo’s underprivileged districts. He stands out in his jeans and hoodie among the donkey-cart drivers and shoeshine men. Each with a jug of bouzah (a cheap, strong alcoholic beverage) and a plate of pickles at his hand, these guys are attempting to forget their daily ordeals with a pound’s worth of alcohol.
The colors of this short tale about a bunch of forgotten men gathering to forget in a forgotten place are shabby and grey, but it’s well drawn and defined.
“On a mat made of palm leaves,” Attalah writes, “they sit and share stories blended with despair and helplessness.”
He then takes a journey to the southern end of this land, to Halayeb and Shalateen on the border with Sudan, where around 90 percent of the population consists of the nomadic Ababda and Bashariya tribes. But Attalah’s two-day trip brushes lightly over what must be centuries of knowledge and tradition.
“Bags of chips scattered on the road, big plastic plates, cooking oils, and a person sleeping on his back humming a song I did not understand,” he writes. “At the wedding the groom welcomes his guests by lashing them, a salute that no one escapes.”
He discusses marriage, vendetta and trade – the most generic of topics – and sidesteps writing anything insightful about the economic and social dynamics of the area in relation to the capital, or what development projects could benefit the people. This short dairy entry manages to be interesting nonetheless, because the two cities are rarely addressed in the media and much of the book-buying population knows little about that part of the country.
“It is amazing to open your eyes to see faces you don’t see and a dialect you are not used to and law you do not abide by,” Attalah sums up.
From the far south, he goes north to Meet Khaqan, or little Italy as they call it, in the Nile Delta governorate of Monufiya: A small village from which many people have attempted dangerous trips to Italy in an attempt to improve their lot.
“Prices are over the top – the smallest piece of agricultural land costs LE15,000 and land for construction costs LE300,000 – and the reason … Italy,” he writes. “Two days ago I heard someone say he’s divorcing his wife, and when asked about alimony he said ‘It will only cost me one’s month pay in Italy.’”
“If you reach the Italian shores and they discover you are Egyptian they deport you,” he is told, in discussion with survivors who made it back from a trip in which they miraculously cheated death and surrendered to the constant assault of Libyan human traffickers. Those who make it in one piece to Europe end up making around 1000 euro a month, apparently.
He talks to the mother of one of the deceased – for nine months she has been trying to locate and bring back the body of her son to give him a proper burial. “God knows if they have prayed for him or not,” she says, in tears.
The story, while not offering an unusual amount of insight into the topic, is balanced and fairly sympathetic.
After that there’s little snippets of people’s daily lives: a clown in the Agouza Circus, a rope-maker in a nameless village near the capital, a teenage construction worker, a veteran and a former jihadist all struggling to make ends meet.
But unfortunately what could have been a well-crafted collage of intriguing tales quickly becomes weak and easy, with sensationalist material that would really only fit in the yellowest of newspapers. It’s after one particular interview that I start looking differently at Attalah’s aim and approach to writing in general.
Attalah meets Osem Wasfy, a physician who claims he can “cure” homosexuality, and the questions he as him asks are: “What are the places homosexual frequent in Egypt?”, “How can I spot a gay on the street?” and “Are any of your patients famous?”
The problem with the collection of two-to-three-page articles boils down to the fact that after the first couple, which offer a certain amount promise, they are sensationalist. They’re simply a bunch of pieces that were already published in privately owned Ein newspaper and Radio & Television Magazine, both tabloids.
Attalah is clearly contemptuous of his subjects. There are interviews with young men who have engaged in sexual relations with sisters, nieces or aunts, a piece on a village in Hawamdeya that apparently rents their young women out to rich men from the Gulf by the hour, a woman married to two men, a man trapped in a women’s body, and so on. He does not approach his subjects with sympathy but as strange specimens to point at, choosing them based on how likely they are to attract curious readers and ultimately bashing them.
Attalah’s descriptive language can be fine, especially when he frees himself from the restraining Q&A format he sticks to in most of his articles. Thus something vivid and honest reaches the reader in the first two stories. But that’s about it. All the others are mundane interviews that feel rushed, shallow and lazy, similar in nature to the weird TV shows that tackle sensitive topics in a bid to gain viewership.
Al-Nas Dol offers nothing new. What was supposed to be a journalist’s enlightening trip among the disenfranchised is quickly revealed to be a sad excuse for a book of mini-stories about misery, which are also full of typos.
The interesting element of Mariam was that it documented a rare phenomenon — usually, sensitive incidents like love stories between a Christian man and a Muslim woman are hushed up before they get out of control. The book was daring in its attempt to document a controversial, dangerous social case. Mariam was widely read by many because of that — but the writing style of the book was that of an average reporter.
With Mariam it seems Attalah got lucky because he stumbled upon someone interesting and unusual who had a lot to say. Al-Nas Dol, however, is merely a compilation of his mediocre work as a journalist.