As a child, I was struck by the myth of Prometheus, whom, as punishment for stealing fire from mount Olympus to bestow it upon mankind, is condemned to an eternity bound to a rock with an eagle descending upon him every day to gnaw at his liver. At nighttime, his liver regenerates, and, come morning, the eagle descends upon him again in a never-ending cycle of pain and suffering.
I imagined this to be an unfathomably torturous ordeal, one that could not possibly find parallels in our human world, until I read Mohamed Rabie’s Otared (2015, Dar Al Tanweer).
Shortlisted for the 2016 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, this dystopian novel, Rabie’s third, is set between 2011 AD and 2025 AD (with a brief chapter in 455 AH) and spares no effort, no grotesque detail no matter how outlandish or profane, to inflict the utmost suffering on its readers. And it does so with insight, humor, and — amid the muck, grime and endless bloodbaths — a surprising amount of grace.
We begin our descent into the inferno in the year 2025. Egypt is under occupation by an ambiguous mercenary group that goes by the name of the Knights of Malta. Cairo has been divided into an occupied East and liberated West. In the midst of the chaos, lawlessness and daily horrors, our protagonist Ahmed Otared leads a battalion of snipers comprised of former police officers stationed atop the Cairo Tower as part of a secret resistance force.
But nobody seems to care.
The novel’s gruesomeness stems not so much from the perverse crimes we see the characters commit, against themselves and others, but from the suffocating sense of apathy and moral ambiguity that pervades. In this dystopian future, the general public has become so desensitized to violence that they walk calmly by as Otared picks off his victims one by one with calculated efficiency or showers them with bullets indiscriminately in one of his many killing sprees. From his advantageous position looking down on the city, he muses that he is an angel of mercy, that his task is great and noble, for he is putting hundreds and thousands out of their misery, sparing them the inane tortures of their daily existence.
I must admit that at certain moments during my reading experience, I wished Otared would jump out of the pages and put a bullet through my skull as well, which is, no doubt, exactly the effect the author intended.
As the novel unfolds, our protagonist is ordered to leave his Cairo Tower post for the first time in two years. The city is a wasteland, and he must pass under the October 6 Bridge in order to get downtown. He pays the gatekeepers the fee for safe passage (an unopened pack of cigarettes) and enters the underbelly of the beast. He passes through an informal market of bits and bobs and has sex under the bridge with a young prostitute (sex work is now legal under the rule of the Knights of Malta) who menstruates all over him and whose fake glass eye pops out mid-coitus. Welcome to Cairo 2025.
But the gaping eye-socket of the menstruating woman is only the beginning. We then see a man urinate on passersby before hanging himself from a bridge, as the urine-soaked public stone him to death. We see a gang of homeless youth rape an injured woman until she falls dead in their arms, mid-thrust. We watch as a young man carries a toddler through a field of corpses, turning her face towards each one in an attempt to identify her lost father. We follow the dog-man and his pack of street dogs that guide him with their howls to unburied corpses, which he gathers in his wheelbarrow. We’re invited to eat a miscarried fetus left on a dining table. We witness the gradual monstrous transformation of a young girl suffering from an ailment which causes all her orifices to seal themselves shut, until she is nothing but an isolated lump of smooth flesh.
But the novel is not just a parade of attractions at a house of horrors. It is also a collection of astute observations and cynical musings on the political happenings of recent years. The author imagines a series of bloody political events in the years following the 2011 revolution and the 2013 Rabaa al-Adaweya massacre: the Manshiya massacre of 2016, in which 4000 people were killed over the span of six days; the dispersal of the 2019 sit-in at Al-Azhar Park and Ain Shams University; and the 2025 campaign for the return of the police to their former glory, dubbed “The police return on police day.” All completely horrific, and all painfully plausible.
At one point, we eavesdrop on former police officers, gearing up for an upcoming battle, as they mock the “martyrs” of the 2011 “revolution,” calling it instead the January disturbance. One officer offers to recite an anti-regime poem he heard back in the days of the disturbance, and his colleagues heave with uncontrollable laughter at his farcical performance. This desecration of the memory of January 25 and its fallen was particularly painful to read, but the fact that it was written feels very necessary. It is a glimpse into a world where nothing is sacred, where the past is a series of events meant to set us up for a bleaker future — a world we seem to already partially inhabit.
“Maybe someone will even write a poem at the end of today!” says one officer sarcastically.
“Maybe,” his commander replies. “The idiots are aplenty.”
While Rabea’s writing is wonderfully rhythmic and relatively simple, I would fault it for being overly descriptive, and at times a bit repetitive (someone with more time and a stronger psyche than me should undertake a quantitative analysis of the writing and make a count of the number of times the word “suffering” and its derivatives — torture, torment, pain, agony — are used). Although the repetition is clearly a device used to convey the long drawn-out days of suffering (one page literally consists of the names of Otared’s victims and how he killed them, in paragraph format, with no line breaks) and the repetitively nightmarish thoughts of its protagonist, at times it feels a bit forced. Otared himself adopts a Promethean logic: “Hell is eternal, I know that well enough, and this hell will end so that another can begin. It may be a past hell, or a future one, or the very same one. We may relive the same events twice, thrice, or four times. So it is that our skin is burnt in order to be replaced with new skin for the burning.”
As the novel comes to its final third, the author makes a big reveal, one that puts into perspective the gruesome images he has been forcing us to observe. Yet the book continues for almost 100 pages more, and these last sections are less powerful. They do not move the plot forward significantly, nor do they add an interesting perspective on the novel’s hellish world. They seem designed purely to draw out the suffering of both characters and readers for as long as possible, and I feel the book could have done without them.
That having been said, this is a work of daring honesty that probes the darkest corners of our subconscious minds, fishing out the basest of human desires and instincts and presenting us with them in blood-spattered glory. The plot is fast-paced and gripping, and the new and innovative horrors the author manages to concoct left me turning its pages with excitement, trepidation and a faint sense of nausea in my gut.
As with other recent works set in a post-apocalyptic Cairo (Ahmed Naji’s 2014 work The Use of Life comes to mind), Otared contains a number of magnificently cathartic images that play out what I imagine to be every Cairo dweller’s unspoken shared desire for destruction. The Central Bank of Egypt building completely disintegrates for no apparent reason. The Baron Palace is overtaken by thousands of wild dogs and collapses under their canine weight, and the statue of Ibrahim Pasha in Opera Square is reduced to rubble. The inscription “Humanity has failed” is graffitied on the slab of marble that once was its base.
Staring at it after a particularly senseless battle in which crazed citizens bludgeoned each other to death, our protagonist, the last man standing, wonders, “Where do all the dead go? Where does one go if one dies in hell?”
This is a question that recurs (what felt like) ad infinitum throughout the book. What is worse: to suffer unknowingly, tortured by your ever-present hope for a better future? Or to suffer knowing that you are caught in a permanent cycle of suffering, that this better future will never come, that your daily existence is your penance, that the suffering never ends, it just shape-shifts, and that you must bear the devouring of your liver by the eagle for all eternity?
Which is the harsher form of suffering? Probably the experience of reading this book.
If this article leaves you confused as to whether I loved or hated Otared that’s probably because I can’t decide myself. It feels closest to watching a train-crash happening in slow motion: you are horrified but you can’t bring yourself to turn away.
I highly recommend Otared to literary masochists and poetic self-flagellators, who actively want to bring about a state of depression and self-loathing. Or to sinners suffering from undefined guilt who are unsure how to repent. Or, in all seriousness, to anyone who has a faint sense that something has gone terribly wrong with our lives, our morality and our city, particularly over the past five years. But turn its pages carefully. This book is not for the faint-hearted.
Read Robin Moger’s translation of Otared’s beginning here.