The newest book in Comma Press’ A City in Short Fiction series – The Book of Cairo – is a focussed lens on the heart of Cairo, Egypt. Ten short stories, which together reach less than 100 pages, open up this heart and show us what’s inside.
There’s an absolute complexity to Cairo, as these stories prove to us. Disparate religious groups; political ideologies ranging from the far left to the far right; corruption from the street level to the heights of government. It’s a city that may be impossible to ever know, but reading these tales is certainly a worthy start. Every one of them is like a moment in time, but each moment has every chance of making you laugh – through unusual exchanges in everyday life – or cry – forcing you to look on helplessly as deep cruelties unfold.
“The ten stories in this collection … are dominated by forgetting, by a difficult relationship to reality and an uneasy retreat into the self.”
The Meat on the Bones
Many of the stories betray the power of words. Whether these words be lies and rumours spread about on the air with the intention of defaming and destroying someone, or words spoken in jest that carry a harsh weight that only grows heavier over time. This obsession with words exposes the paranoia that exists in a country where corruption is thick, and the walls can talk. But there’s also a joviality to some of it, where we see the unique sense of humour of Arab men who laugh in the face of things many of us in the West don’t have the strength to face.
The first story in The Book of Cairo, Gridlock, is a seven-page photograph which captures much of the essence of modern-day Cairo. It tells the story of one family, one community, and a single morning of ordinary events. The title, ‘Gridlock’, is a hilarious nod for anyone who has ever been to Cairo and seen the state of its traffic: a blend of minibuses, trucks, and donkey-and-traps all suffocating together in a standstill. It’s a unique kind of hell. The story mentions casually all the things ordinarily seen and used in day-to-day Cairo life: Carrefour (the French supermarket chain), Persil tablets, Sensodyne toothpaste, WhatsApp. It’s the perfect way to open the book, setting the scene for people who know little about modern life in Cairo. And for those who do live the day-to-day life of Cairo, it’s a tongue-in-cheek story of relatability. The best moment being when a character asks the world to call him The Engineer, despite him having no real engineering background. If that isn’t a move quintessential of the Egyptian man, nothing is.
“In any man’s pleading, innocence and guilt are one and the same, since both the innocent and the guilty issue the same denials.”
A later story by Hend Ja’far titled The Soul at Rest is a first-person narrative about a man who works in the obituaries section of a newspaper. When an Egyptian Christian visits, asking the narrator to publish the obit of a Muslim friend, this moment – and another which follows – emphasises the turbulent and violent aggression which exists between Muslims and Christians in Egypt, as well as the hypocrisies which exist within each religion (some Muslims behave more liberally, while others condemn those who do for acting in such a way). It’s a complex topic that is boiled down with incredible force of pressure and will into a tiny tale. One which exists here as a pocket-sized and yet deeply layered example of the complexities of religious politics in Egypt. This story is like a haiku that uses three lines and fourteen syllables to say almost all that needs to be said about Egypt’s relationship with religion.
Read More: The Quarter by Naguib Mahfouz for more Egyptian literature
The final tale in The Book of Cairo, An Alternative Guide to Getting Lost, is written by Areej Gamal. It tells us an almost metaphysical story of a woman, in the dead of night, repeatedly visiting an embassy with the hope of being granted a visa to take a flight with Lufthansa – a German airline whose name is derived from words meaning ‘air’ and ‘guild’. I re-read this story several times, taking in the little comments here and there concerning female oppression in Egypt, international scrutiny and distrust, and the desperation to become un-lost. It’s a story that spirals and becomes off-kilter, giving you the same feeling as if you’d spun hard on your heels after a few pints. It’s a story that’s Kafkaesque, semi-supernatural, and with no real beginning or end. The perfect way to book-end a collection that begins with the most average morning possible in Cairo.
“For seven weeks she had been cut off from the ordinary cycle of time. Sleep comes only with the light and the birds, and the night is spent awake.”
Huge congratulations must be given to Raph Cormack, who edited, organised, and wrote the introduction to this book. The ordering of its tales is certainly part of its success. His introduction provides the tone; it delivers a modern history lesson about, amongst other things, the Arab Spring; and it also teaches us the cultural and historic importance of the short story to Egyptian people on the ground level (as Cormack himself says, “because novels had to be bought, short stories were for ordinary, poor Egyptians because they appeared on the pages of the newspapers that wrapped their daily falafel”). From there we’re given an ordinary slice-of-life tale that sets the scene, then the stories grow in their politics, the challenge they set for the reader, the risks the writers take, and the strangeness that unfolds.
Though each story in The Book of Cairo is unique – ten stories by ten writers, translated by ten translators – they feed into one another artfully, like a movie soundtrack, a concept album, or a full novel. The cogs of Cairo turn through this book, and they move faster and more erratically as the pages turn – just as life in Cairo itself does. An appreciation grows through the reading of this book – appreciation for its people, its place on the global scale, and its ability to work as a culture that often seems like a Frankenstein’s monster of inharmonious pieces.
If you’re interested in The Book of Cairo, definitely check out Comma Press’ The Book of Tehran.
If you’re considering writing your own short stories, take this writing class from author Yiyun Li and a 30-day free trial from Skillshare.
Will predominantly writes about the books of Books and Bao, examining the literature of a place and how the authors have used the art of storytelling to reflect the world and the culture around them.