Since Alaa al-Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building (2002), no other book had caused as much public debate in Egypt as Ezzedine Choukri Fishere’s sixth novel — the dystopian Exit Door, in which a Muslim Brotherhood member becomes president before being deposed by his Minister of Defense. It was published in 2012, before the election and subsequent downfall of Brotherhood-affiliated President Mohamed Morsi.
Fishere could have titled his much anticipated follow-up novel, published a few days ago by Al-Karma, “Post-revolutionary bed-time stories from Egypt,” or “The most dangerous tales of Shahrazad.” In fact it’s called Kol Hasa al-Haraa (All That Rubbish), and as in the brutal Exit Door, he spares neither himself nor the reader. A wild amalgamation of all Egypt’s major revolutionary events of the last six years, it’s an ambitious literary project that includes themes such as activists receiving foreign funding, sexual violence, police brutality, same-sex love, corruption and terrorism. All its protagonists have been engulfed in events like the January 25 revolution, the Mohamed Mahmoud Street clashes, or the Maspero, Port Said or Rabea al-Adaweya massacres.
Yet far from overshooting the mark, the 50-year-old Fishere has woven a sticky cobweb with apparent ease and the reader becomes swiftly entangled. Right from the opening scene — in which Omar and Amal, two apparent strangers, wake up in bed together shortly after Amal’s release from prison — this reader didn’t feel inclined to put down the book for its whole 324 pages.
Amal is a 29-year-old Egyptian-American lawyer jailed for working for an organization illegally operating foreign funding (parallels are implicitly drawn with the 2011 crackdown on NGOs). She has abandoned her Egyptian citizenship in order to only serve a one-year sentence (a detail borrowed perhaps from the fate of Al Jazeera English producer Mohamed Fahmy) and now has to leave the country in 48 hours. Omar, in contrast, is 22, comes from a poor background and works as a taxi driver. He agrees to stay with Amal in her Zamalek flat until she leaves to tell her stories that fill her in on what she missed during her jail time. So they indulge in a story-telling frenzy, only interrupted by sleep, sex and food.
The novel takes place over 48 hours in her apartment, in eight chapters. In six of them, Omar tells stories of his friends or relatives, and the other two are dedicated to him and Amal, which is how they introduce themselves to each other. Omar’s narration is occasionally interrupted by Amal, who poses questions or drops ironic remarks, challenging Omar’s gloomy perspective. She can’t speak Egyptian Arabic properly, so her dialogue is in English and, for the reader’s sake, must be transmitted in classical rather than colloquial Arabic — except when she curses. Their funny banter and Fishere’s sarcastic interferences as narrator — reminding us of the fate of fellow writer Ahmad Naji, imprisoned for “public indecency,” for example — balance the heavy content of Omar’s stories — most of his friends have either been killed, imprisoned or exiled. Fishere himself ostentatiously refers to sexual organs as “parts which the judges can put you in jail for if you mention them by name” when describing the many effervescent sex scenes between the couple, as if to tease any self-righteously moralistic readers of the type that sued Naji.
“How can a language spoken by 300 million people be void of accepted synonyms that describe half of their body parts which they touch repeatedly and daily, or acts they perform?” wonders Omar in the first chapter. “As if some kind of an authority imposed a total silence on the Arabs, so that they have been doing these things, touching those parts and perceiving them, without talk, without a word. What oppression is this?“
Sometimes Amal mockingly addresses Omar as “Mawlay” (my lord), thus reversing the Shahrazad motif. Perhaps Omar is telling the stories to remain near Amal, whom he is falling in love with. Yet, while in The Book of One Thousand and One Nights, Shahrazad engages Shahryar in one story after the other so that the king will spare her life, Fishere points out in his prologue that his story-telling might land him and his fictional protagonist in jail. He sarcastically threatens that whoever decides to come after them will appear in his next novel so Fishere can take his revenge. Another narrative motive here is commemoration, of course: Maybe Fishere simply wishes to remind us of a phenomenon that has been systematically decimated in the last three years — the January 25 revolution and all the atrocities committed against revolutionaries. This especially seems to be the case given that he published the novel just after the revolution’s sixth anniversary.
Like Exit Door, All that Rubbish is a political novel that blends fiction and reality. In the fourth chapter, Fishere quotes an excerpt from an article published by Mada Masr in 2014 about a horrific sexual assault on a female activist by security forces. Fishere turns her into one of his tormented characters, recounting the effect the rape had on her life. The name of the victim was changed to “Hind” for the article, in order to protect her anonymity, and Fishere weaves a fictional story around Hind without sounding exploitative. Through the literary form of the novel he reminds us what can happen to members of the opposition. A good book can last forever, whereas news stories are often doomed to oblivion — especially when nobody is held accountable for the crimes. Because Amal repeatedly challenges Omar’s credibility, accusing him of inventing stories, we are also reminded how real these crimes are as his stories push back.
Some of the stories are less solid than others, however. In the third chapter Omar recounts the fate of three Ahly Football Club Ultras, two of whom were killed in the Port Said massacre in 2012, but their characterization is over-romanticized — they are depicted purely as zealous, heroic and innocent youths — to the point that I found myself wanting to skip these pages. It is clear that the narrator wants to evoke empathy, as the Ultras have been repeatedly portrayed by state media as thugs and trouble-makers, but he takes it too far. This prompted me to try and imagine the book’s readership. All that Rubbish is an exceedingly pro-revolutionary book, which will probably be read by like-minded readers. Depending on the reactions it sparks though, a broader audience may be inclined to submerge themselves in its pages, since its diverse themes include adultery, marriage problems and two young lovers’ process of self-discovery.
Other chapters do offer original insight into the social mechanisms that shape our perception. One example is an account of the painful coming out of a same-sex couple, another of the tragic love story of a Muslim Brotherhood sympathizer and her boyfriend. In these, Fishere zooms with a writer’s magnifying glass into the tiny microfibers that fix our daily attitudes and behaviors, as in the aftermath of Sherif and Bahaa coming out on Facebook.
Expected to be a bestseller, All that Rubbish might encourage more writers to opt for genres other than the dystopias that have permeated the many fictional writings on the revolution so far — from Basma Abdel Aziz’s The Queue to Mohamed Rabie’s Otared — perhaps due to a consensus that it was too soon to write directly about an event that is still dynamic and unfinished.
Exit Door conveyed an optimistic view of the future despite the political turmoil, but All That Rubbish is much more sober. The novel starts with a wise saying: “It is best to sleep on the shitty days.” Omar and Amal seem to conclude that their best bet is to lay low and simply try to survive without incurring too many personal losses. As seven of the eight chapters start with one of them asking if the other is asleep, only to find them already awake, Fishere seems to suggest that in order to make it through this seemingly never-ending semi-hibernation, it is ok to wake up every once in a while just to eat, make love and tell stories, as long as we never forget. Yet Amal and Omar never seem able to be fully asleep.