Literary gems: Shubra

Naim Sabry’s Shubra (2000) begins with a hand-drawn map of the huge, densely populated, largely middle-class Cairo district that is home to millions, including a large number of Coptic Christians. It starts from Cairo’s main train station in Ramsis, Shubra bridge and Shubra tunnel, and outlines its major streets, Shubra Street and Tereat Boulak Street.

The word “Shubra,” according to the narrator, is derived from the Coptic word “plantation,” as the area used to consist of fertile agricultural land. Given its huge, dusty and crowded streets, that is now hard to imagine.

After a glance at Shubra’s social make-up, the author lists the attractions that form the backdrop to the novel, including Cinema Dolly, Cinema Palace and the Kitchener Hospital, and then sketches out a three-story apartment building and its inhabitants. Daughters, sons and parents sweep past and it takes a while to become accustomed to the many names, characters, relationships and romances. Shubra is a novel about growing up in Cairo in the mid-1950s until the mid-1960s, with a focus on religious coexistence and a wave of emigration.

It seems that Sabry, himself born in Shubra in 1948, shuffled his protagonists until he managed to rest his mind on a few lead players. A character introduced at the beginning may barely reappear, but two romantic relationships take center stage halfway through: a courtship between Coptic Saeed and Muslim Nabila, and her brother Magdy’s affair with a woman named Christina.

Having grown up in Shubra myself, I first laid curious hands on Shubra shortly after it was published by Madbuly. I was immediately sucked in and finished its 233 pages in a few days. Rereading the novel now, 14 years later, I imagine it would perfectly fit a dramatization in the form of a Ramadan TV series.

The short chapters, each consisting of two or three pages, are episode-like glimpses of the lives of the many neighbors. This structure enhances the narrative flow in the face of an abundance of characters, as no lengthy passages detract from the main plot, yet the chapters are sometimes so short that they resemble little postage stamps the reader must patiently collect together for a fuller picture.

Sabry’s minimalistic style is mostly narrative, almost like Raymond Carver’s, and unlike many writers of his generation, he writes short uncomplicated sentences in simple, clear Arabic, interwoven with Egyptian dialect. Seldom does he allow himself philosophical passages or descriptions of people or locations, and he only indulges in analysis or psychology in rare defining passages, like a crucial pregnancy and a pivotal marriage proposal. The plot focuses entirely on the protagonists’ actions, preferences, romances and the little details of their lives. Sabry loves to depict street journeys, for example, listing bus numbers and route descriptions, and he meticulously describes people shopping for vegetables, listing all the ingredients needed for certain meals, logging the processes of drying molokheia and okra, and making and storing jam.

Shubra also contains comic scenes, most notably the encounters between the nosy landlady, a kind-hearted but omnipresent woman the neighbors call Lady Duck due to her walk, and her husband, who pokes fun of her appearance and her snoring, whereupon she has to be consoled by her sister. While older characters sometimes come across as caricaturish, Sabry excels in portraying his young protagonists as they sneak around for hasty sexual encounters, but also as they fear an uncertain future and an ambiguous relationship to their country.

Romances and sexual encounters define Shubra, and the plot starts with an agitated scene in which Lady Duck discovers that two teenagers have taken the opportunity of their parents’ absence to bring a prostitute into their apartment. In good old scandalous fashion, Lady Duck attracts all the neighbors with her screams and curses, whereupon one of the teenagers draws a knife and flees with his young lover.

The building is almost equally divided between Christians and Muslims, who mutually celebrate religious festivities and live together. “They speak now of the other, and tolerating the other?!” says the narrator early in the book. “What other?! This other did not exist in the first place, it was simply not present in our social conscious.” The narrator frequently describes common activities between Muslims and Christians, like the baking and sharing of traditional kahk cookies for the Muslim Eid, backgammon and rummy games, and halawa hair-removal sessions. This spirit feels like it borders on wishful thinking in a scene in which Michel, the son of Lady Duck, wakes up his Muslim neighbors to eat their suhur in Ramadan, as he is studying until late in the night — but apparently Sabry himself maintained this habit when studying engineering.

Despite all this, the boundaries of the parallel worlds surface with a cross-sect marriage proposal, whereupon the families express shock and denial. Even the tolerant Lady Duck ostracizes the culprits. Here Sabry depicts all the bureaucratic procedures necessary for such a conversion to Islam at that time, starting with uttering the Shahada (Islamic creed) at-Al Azhar, which is the easiest part. Converts have to issue a new birth certificate, and if their family name is not neutral they must change it, along with their identification card, prompting one character to state that Egypt will never progress as long as citizens are listed as Muslims or Christians on their IDs. Apparently a Christian convert also had to agree to meet a priest three times before finalizing their conversion, an agreement concluded between the state and the church. The priest had to try and reach potential converts’ families to make sure the person in question was pressured to change their mind.

A segment of the book is dedicated to the wave of emigration that shaped Egypt at the time (although many Egyptians didn’t leave to seek a better life abroad until the 1970s and 1980s). Sabry himself travelled to Libya in 1970 for seven years, so it doesn’t come as a surprise that he chose Tripoli as the exile for his newly-wed outcasts. Other characters head for different continents. Sabry takes the opportunity to highlight and utilize a now-extinct tradition: the act of writing a long letter that will take more than 12 days to arrive. Many letters are exchanged, characterized by a personal tone and revealing through the eyes of the protagonists their adaptation to new surroundings, their needs and demands from their families, their failures and successes, what they choose to reveal and what to omit.

“I cannot fully absorb it yet,” says one character, expressing the fears of an entire generation. “For the first time I will travel and leave Egypt behind me. I don’t know yet if I’ll bear emigrating for good. The trials of yearning frighten me. I feel like a fish that is doomed if it leaves Shubra.”

Sabry, who has been living in Nasr City and Heliopolis since he returned from Libya, also chose Shubra as the setting for another of his 11 novels, Operet al-Ustaz Tehetmos (The Opera of Mister Thutmose, 1999), a tale of an inebriate musician who dreams of composing the first Arabic opera. And he nostalgically concludes Shubra with a poem name after his beloved birthplace.

My grandmother told me,

In every part of the world

There’s a Shubra Street,

In every bit of the Arab world

You will find a Shubra Street.

I couldn’t figure out the reason for her joy

And astonished I told her:

Shubra is a world in itself…!

Due to the sensitive themes of conversion, the Ramadan TV project that came to my mind will probably never materialize. In light of the massive controversy that greeted Osama Fawzy’s 2004 film Baheb al-Cima (I Love Cinema), depicting a father caught between his strict interpretation of Christianity and a love of life, it’s likely that the only possible visual adaptation of Sabry’s protagonists will remain in the minds of his readers.

Sherif Abdel Samad