x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Book review: 'Why did you leave the village?'

Books The narrator of Hamdi Abu Golayyel's largely autobiographical second novel moves from the countryside to Cairo in search of basic wages and literary accomplishment, Ursula Lindsay writes.

"In his years spent lugging sacks of cement, smashing walls, pouring foundations and sleeping in empty buildings at night - building the residences of others without a home to call his own - Abu Golayyel found both material and metaphor."
"In his years spent lugging sacks of cement, smashing walls, pouring foundations and sleeping in empty buildings at night - building the residences of others without a home to call his own - Abu Golayyel found both material and metaphor."

The narrator of Hamdi Abu Golayyel's largely autobiographical second novel moves from the countryside to Cairo in search of basic wages and literary accomplishment, Ursula Lindsay writes. A Dog with No Tail Hamdi Abu Golayyel Translated from the Arabic by Robin Moger American University in Cairo Press Dh84 Migration from the countryside to the capital - leaving a traditional way of life behind and heading to the big city, lured by the promise of a slightly better life - is a common, fundamental experience for many in today's Global South. So too is the dislocation and precariousness of life as a new member of the disregarded urban underclass. This is particularly true in Egypt, where in the last half-century rural migrants have helped quadruple Cairo's population to its current 18 million mark. The city's new residents jostle for space in its densely packed neighbourhoods, where despite a buzz of opportunity they struggle to find homes and jobs, and to make sense of their journeys.

In his darkly funny, deceptively casual and largely autobiographical second novel, the Egyptian author Hamdi Abu Golayyel writes of coming to the capital from one of the many villages where urban migration is a rite of passage, an expected step "once a man has developed the beginnings of a moustache and a sense of self-worth". And yet, Abu Golayyel tells us, he and his friends "would walk the streets of Cairo but as sons of another, distant, country, to which we awaited the chance to return".

The distant country is Abu Tahoun, a Bedouin village in the Fayoum oasis; Abu Golayyel's ancestors were bribed and coerced into settling there sometime in the early nineteenth century by the ruler Muhammad Ali, who hoped to "bring to an end their peregrinations and interminable raids against the granaries and villages of the peasants". Men like Abu Golayyel's grandfather Aula - a brawler and a cattle thief who took an insouciant attitude to the officials and rules of the modern state - were the last of their generation. Today, Abu Golayyel tells us, his relatives are "nonentities almost to a man", living in a village that is "wounded: poor and tiny, set far from the highway and the market and fresh water, and surrounded on every side by the desert." And yet this village, he writes "is always on my mind", "the only place where I move free from fear".

In his first novel, the social satire Thieves in Retirement (2006), Abu Gollayel painted life in the vast, new Cairo slums as an unpredictable, apolitical, amoral free-for-all, a world of casual violence and consistent hypocrisy. A Dog with No Tail is another chronicle of the author's double alienation - as a member of a community still at odds with the state, and as a new urban migrant. But it is more introspective than Abu Gollayel's debut: concerned less with understanding others and more with coming to terms with one's own origins and aspirations.

Starting when he was a teenager, Abu Golayyel began travelling regularly to Cairo to work with construction crews, tearing down, renovating or expanding the tottering residential buildings of the city's more populous neighbourhoods. This manual labour was a source of both satisfaction - "a struggle between a man and his strength" - and shame, particularly since Abu Golayyel harboured the improbable ambition of becoming a writer. On his visits home, he writes: "I tried my best to convince people that I was, in fact, a pilot in Cairo. For the entire holiday I would assume the mantle of village intellectual. Rising late, towel slung over my shoulder, I would make my way down to the canal bank, with my toothbrush and toothpaste - the proofs of cultivation, culture, and an upwards social trajectory - borne aloft."

Yet in the years spent lugging sacks of cement, smashing walls, pouring foundations and sleeping in empty buildings at night - building the residences of others without a home to call his own - Abu Golayyel found both material and metaphor. The novel's resonant title in Arabic, Al Fa'il, is derived from the verb "to do". It means "the doer", "the actor" or, used as an adjective, "the efficacious, efficient". In a grammatical sense, it means "the subject" - but in common parlance the world simply means "the labourer". The English title is derived from a quip in the story, and works well enough. But the original Arabic title is particularly fitting for a book about the unstable edifice that is identity and the constant act of construction that is writing.

Abu Golayyel alternates his account of his life as a construction worker with stories from his years as an indifferent and intermittent university student, anecdotes about his friends and colleagues in Cairo, and lore from his grandfather's seemingly more adventurous times. Along the way, he employs the whole bag of postmodern tricks, which have become widespread among contemporary Arab authors. The short stories are told out of chronological order, interrupted, revisited and retold with new details. They take off, midway, in unexpected directions; sometimes they end abruptly, like conversations cut short. There are unexplained gaps and contradictions; the self-referential narrator asserts in the opening pages that he's no good with beginnings, interrupts his own story to chide himself for his digressions, and tells us in the end that things haven't turned out the way he wanted.

Yet the reader doesn't feel like the victim of a wry experiment. There is humour and action in almost every story. The spring behind Abu Golayyel's writing, the author told an audience at the book's recent launch in Cairo, is "amazement at what happens to me", and arresting details are to be found in all his stories, even those about the mundane details of construction work. We learn that 50 Egyptian Pounds (Dh34, US$10) was a generous payment for a man to single-handedly carry 8,400 kilograms - that's eight tons - of sand up a seven-storey building in one day; a feat the narrator considers "a miracle to this day". Elsewhere, Abu Golayyel creates dramatic set pieces - an insurrection led by Islamist students at his university; his grandfather's raids and tussles with the law - and highlights the bizarre: a college named after the bordello next door; an amateur prostitution ring run out of a parking garage; a landlord who eavesdrops so aggressively he falls into tenants' rooms when they open their doors.

These fragmented stories are connected first by the author's irreverent, lively voice - and then by us, the readers, who become eager to assemble all the pieces. The fact that they don't always fit together neatly is part of this plotless work's staying power: the disjointed narrative conveys Abu Golayyel's identity as a haphazard, cumulative work in progress, a search for meaning and purpose we can't help joining. We struggle, alongside the hero, to find an answer to "a question nobody was asking, a question, I later come to realise, that troubled not a soul save myself: 'Why did you leave the village?'"

A great part of the answer lies in our hero's literary aspirations. He mentions them often, sometimes as a form of redemption ("Writing lets me take pride in myself, even as I lug sacks of earth around. Just the thought that I've penned stories puts everything to right") but mostly as an occasion for self-deprecation. He mocks the false nonchalance with which he displays newspapers containing his articles. He laughs at his own determination to prove to employers that he isn't just a manual labourer by reciting poetry and using "erudite turns of phrase of the kind spouted by lovers of culture and learning". A story featuring a co-worker leads to multiple amusing misunderstandings: "I wrote a melancholy short story about him entitled Qitharatu Khalafi-l-bannaa'i, 'The Guitar of Khalaf the Builder', but due to my ignorance of proper voweling it was published as Qitharatun khalfa-l-binaa'I, 'A Guitar Behind the Building'. Khalaf himself understood it as a formal complaint on his behalf, an eloquent plea directed at senior officials to get the state to pay for his retirement. Almost daily he would ask me, 'So they haven't replied? No one got back to you?'"

Abu Golayyel is a protégé of the late satirical master Mohamed Mustagab, (whose Tales from Dayrut was also translated and published recently by AUC Press), and he shares his mentor's sweeping sarcasm ("The students, esteemed colleagues one and all, were mostly poor and lazy") and talent for weaving the startling and the ridiculous into chronicles of the dispossessed. Where they differ is in their prose styles: Mustagab had a penchant for lyricism, and Abu Golayyel says his goal is "to make literary language reach the level of spoken language - in simplicity, lightness, and the power to convince". This is perhaps the only respect in which Robin Moger's excellent translation - which is consistently clear, stylish and funny - can be questioned. Abu Golayyel writes in an Arabic that falls somewhere between Classical and Colloquial. His syntax is decidedly informal and his sentences are long and supple, conveying the flow of animated conversation. Because of the requirements of English punctuation and syntax, the translator must break this flow. But Moger's chooses to break it remarkably often: Abu Golayyel's page-and-a-half long opening line becomes 26 separate sentences.

This is a significant change in rhythm, one that makes the writing more declarative, emphatic. It's a choice that it would be interesting to read about in a translator's note, or a short introduction; one wishes that AUC Press would regularly include these in their Modern Arabic Novel series. A Dog with No Tail is many things: a sophisticated storytelling experiment; a subaltern chronicle of the invisible world of day labour and the fading history of a Bedouin tribe; and a guarded but deeply felt celebration of writing - the "labour" that the original title most refers to. In the book's final scene, the hero is poised to write: He's found a quiet room with a desk in a house he and his crew are squatting in while renovating, and he is daydreaming of a novel, presumably the one we have just read. The scene is full of expectation, tenderness and irony. The precarious claim the would-be author has to his office points to the difficulties of assuming the role of the writer - and to the fact that every storyteller is in some sense a squatter in the lives of others. As for that haunting question - "Why did you leave the village?" - this book is Abu Golayyel's imperfect answer.

Ursula Lindsey is a freelance journalist based in Cairo and a contributor to The Arabist blog.