Along with Great Cairo: Mother of the World, we received this book in a shipment of review copies from International Publishers Marketing. It’s an English translation from the original Arabic, although I should note that the translator (Farouk Abdel Wahab) is a native Arabic speaker who teaches at the University of Chicago. I have been dabbling on the edges of modern Arabic fiction for the last year or so. It’s not easy stuff to find in the bookstores I frequent – even the largest ones. However, I have discovered that at least some of the titles published by AUCP are readily available from Amazon, which is good to know, since their list is long and very alluring!
The author of Birds of Amber, Ibrahim Abdel Meguid, has written a number of other works of fiction, including one (The Other Place, 1997) that earned him the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature. I could easily see similarities between Birds of Amber and Mahfouz’s The Cairo Trilogy, which I read earlier this year. Both provide rich and detailed accounts of the experience of urban life in modern Egypt (Mahfouz in Cairo, Meguid in Alexandria) within a particular political and cultural milieu (Birds of Amber takes place in the 1950s and 1960s, right after Sugar Street, the last book in The Cairo Trilogy).
Both Mahfouz and Meguid favor narrative styles reminiscent of some of the great naturalist urban novelists of the nineteenth century – I am thinking particularly of Charles Dickens and Emile Zola. Even more so than these authors, Mahfouz and Meguid seem to be interested in creating an overall impression of place and time rather than concentrating on individual character development or providing a carefully-crafted, coherent plot. Where Mahfouz’s characters in The Cairo Trilogy are related primarily by blood, marriage or (at least) sexual contact, Meguid favors an even larger cast of characters and pays more attention to their daily interactions in workplaces and on street corners.
Like Cairo, Alexandria is a very large (current population estimated at between 3 and 5 million), very old Egyptian city. It’s located north of Cairo, where the Nile Delta dissipates into the Mediterranean Sea. It’s a major commercial port, crowded, dirty, and industrial. Also like Cairo, Alexandria bears the physical reminders of the many different cultures that occupied or traded with or lived in Egypt over the centuries. Meguid refers frequently to streets, bridges, canals and other landmarks, like the statue of Muhammad Ali Pasha, the very same Muhammad Ali Pasha who in Great Cairo brought down the Mamelukes. As I often do when I read books in which place matters, I longed for a map. (City maps of Alexandria aren’t quite as easy to find as city maps of Cairo, I discovered.)
Meguid’s working-class characters live in an area he calls the Project. It seems to be a neighborhood built around Alexandria’s railroad yards, primarily inhabited by the families of the people who work on the trains. I couldn’t begin to identify a single main character or even a small group of primary characters in Birds of Amber. About the closest I could come would be the aspiring writer Sulayman, who occasionally takes over first-person narration of a part of the story. I don’t want to give you the impression that the book has no interesting or memorable characters. On the contrary, there are just so many! Of those that I found most intriguing (in addition to Sulayman), I would include crazy Eid, who stares into women’s eyes and sees God in the local landfill; Nawal, the nurse who longs to be a professional singer and inadvertently gets tagged as a Communist; Habashi, who calls himself ‘Tarzan’ and rescues young children he finds along the Mahmudiya Canal; Arabi, who is in love with his employer, an older Greek woman named Katina; Abla Nargis, who employs many young women in her dressmaking shop until one by one they marry and leave; and the spice merchant Ground Pepper, who is full of wild stories and even wilder herbal concoctions.
Each of these characters and others far too numerous to mention populate this world, talk and laugh and cry and argue, listen to music and go to movies and clubs, fall in love and get married and move away, finish one level of education and move onto the next, go off to war and never return. The narrative is lively and colorful, sometimes just a little hard to follow because the colors move so quickly into new patterns, rather like a kaleidoscope. Although I am becoming more at ease with Arabic names, they still present a challenge when there are so many characters to remember.
When Birds of Amber begins, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser has just nationalized the Suez Canal, setting off the so-called Tripartite Aggression between Egypt and England, France, and Israel. Although Nasser never appears in the novel himself, he and his policies are often a topic of heated conversation among the characters. It becomes evident through their voices and experiences that Meguid had ambivalent feelings about some of his policies, particularly his aggressive efforts aimed at ‘Egyptianization’, so very different from the equally aggressive assimilation policy promoted by Mustapha Kemal and his successors in Turkey.
Meguid portrays the effects of Egyptianization in numerous ways, including the exodus of many of the city’s residents of non-Egyptian ethnicity that continues over the course of the novel, causing great emotional distress and considerable economic disruption. A small and focused incident occurs after Katina moves away, after turning her dressmaking establishment over to her Coptic Christian friend Georgette. Katina’s former employee Arabi finds work with the city, changing street signs from the Greek and Italian names he recognizes from the movies he saw with Katina to Arabic names commemorating Egyptian heroes.
One of the great ironies of Egyptianization that Meguid makes evident is the pervasiveness of various Western cultural influences on all aspects of the people’s lives. The characters in Birds of Amber are literally obsessed with the latest movies, popular music and literature. Yes, some of these cultural artifacts are produced by or feature Egyptians – I was especially delighted to find repeated references in Birds of Amber to the Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum, who also gets mentioned quite a lot in The Cairo Trilogy, and to the Egyptian songwriter Sayyid Darweesh, whose music I encountered in a CD I am reviewing for this very issue of Green Man. But Sulayman and some of his more literate friends (like Abla Nargis’s son Karawan) are always seeking out Arabic translations of American, English and European literature, while many of the characters talk at length and in loving detail about their favorite American films or film stars.
Birds of Amber follows a chronological order that you can follow if you pay close attention. Meguid refers to the seasons by regularly mentioning the weather, and also uses New Year’s celebrations to mark the passing of time. In Alexandria, it is customary for celebrants to toss dishes off their balconies onto the streets below as a way of letting the old year go-people who are familiar with this custom stay indoors as midnight approaches! Every now and then, one of the characters refers to some other event with a real historic referent, like marital problems between Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller, the death of Albert Camus and various African liberation movements. Nonetheless, many events are cyclical (including the New Year’s celebrations), and many of the characters don’t pay a lot of attention the passing of time, which means that it’s easy to get lost in the moment, which I am sure Meguid intended. This intersection of linear and non-linear time is just one of the many ways Meguid alludes to the distinctive quality of Alexandria in the 1950s, teetering on the brink of the modernity, yet still anchored in antiquity.
(The American University in Cairo Press, 2005)