Being Abbas El Abd

Being Abbas El AbdBeing Abbas El-Abd (2006) by Ahmed Alaidy is not as wickedly funny and sharp as it is touted to be. It’s a little depressing. It’s inspired by Chuck Palahniuk – and as this review notes, the influence shows. “Being Abbas el Abd has a theme and plot – and a twist ending – so similar to Palahniuk’s Fight Club that it almost reads as a modern dress restaging of the same story.”

The review goes on:

Set in the wildly Westernizing economy of 21st-century Cairo, the story features an alienated young narrator wandering through a wearisome cityscape that is wound to the breaking point by generational, religious and economic conflict. The environment is politically repressive, yet driven by capitalist boosterism, idolatrous of history, yet youthful and media driven, a state increasingly divided against itself. The city is so shackled to discredited pieties and commercialized antiquities, but still so unable to resist cultural pollution from outside, that the young feel they have no ground to stand on but nihilism.

And more from another review, which sees the protagonist’s mad uncle Awni as representing Egypt:

 Awni is Egypt personified, his methods those of the state and culture and weight of history, the burden (especially the fears) he thrusts on the narrator those that Egypt forces on its people….Very personal, and focussed on an individual who obviously has a lot of issues, it nevertheless also offers an interesting glimpse of much of contemporary Egyptian society. It appears to be a character study, but turns out to be (or can readily be read) as a novel of a whole generation and nation (or at least a wide swath of each)

The most striking scenes for me were the discussions between the narrator and Abbas:

I say we’ll never make progress as long as there are people of his type
around — time-killers and lizard-tail collectors and so on and so forth,
the gap between us and the West will continue so long as we treat History
as nonchalantly as a student without parents to make him study.
The West and the East
There and here
There they say: “In order to succeed you must go far.”
And when they give you a negative assessment, they say, “He won’t go far.”
But here they’ll tell you, “Why go to such lengths?”
“You, Abbas, will not go far.”
Here Abbas explodes like a sewer pipe that can’t hold the shit any more.
“You want us to progress?
So burn the history books and forget your precious dead civilization.
Stop trying to squeeze the juice from the past.
Destroy your Pharaonic history.
And when you’ve done, please, stop boring through new walls in the
Pyramids. What will it avail you if you discover their true entrance or where was the entrée where the Great Pharaoh used to receive his hand-outs from the
envoy of a Friendly Power before offering him the petits fours?
Try to do without the trade in the dead. We will only succeed when we turn our museums into public lavatories.”

The curse of the Pharaohs is that your great great great great great great
great great great great great great great great great great great great great
great great great great great great great great great great great great great
great great great great great great great great great great great great great
great great great grandson should wake from his sleep and claim that his
great great great great great great great great great great great great great
great great great great great great great great great great great great great
great great great great great great great great great great great great great
great great great great great great great great great great grandfather had
paid off his debts and the world had to show him some respect.
Your life really is your life, not a rehearsal or a blueprint.
“But I’ve got nothing to lose.”
Crap.
Tell yourself what you tell the others but don’t believe it.
Egypt had its Generation of the Defeat.
We’re the generation that came after it. The “I’ve got nothing to lose”
generation. We’re the autistic generation, living under the same roof with strangers who have names similar to ours.

More from this extract here.

Here’s an article on Hacking the Modern: Arabic Writing in the Virtual Age which discusses Being Abbas El Abd and in particular this scene at length:

In his review of the novel, Hazem Abyad argues that Alaidy’s text conjures a disembodied space, a city stripped of its materiality, and that it relies on postmodern pastiche and parody, rupturing in this way questions of causality and originality. This characterization provides the necessary perspective for interpreting Alaidy’s text, which consists in a series of often inexplicable events. A vulgar and violent narrative expresses anger over Egypt’s social and political reality, language, and civilization….Abbas lashes out against Egypt’s national identity. Abbas “explodes like a sewer pipe,” breaking the link between Abdallah and a prestigious and old notion of historical identity. Progress, in Abbas’s view, not only requires a break with the past but a destruction of the history books through which the past is imagined as constitutive of national identity. Burning history books and turning museums into public toilets are acts that serve to delegitimize the ways the past is mediated through educational and cultural institutions. Abbas, the angry voice in Alaidy’s novel, exposes the discrepancy between Egypt’s imagined past and its contemporary social and political reality.

However of course, such strident incitement to break with history only reinforce the sense of entanglement in it, the regurgitation of the past in the present, the reminder of the difference between here and there:

Those who read history in the third world find it painful. They freed themselves from foreign occupation to fall into national occupation. And in about a third of the countries of the third world, you have to have a US passport to be treated like a citizen.

Satirising the conspiracy theories that are rife in Egypt, thinking about suicide leads to morbid thoughts about a project in which the suicide of Egyptians would be funded by Israel. He parodies an imam reciting memorized and highly formulaic du’a (prayers), except religiousity and pious content is replaced by the names of drugs:

You want to be unchained, to be free? You want to live your life to the full? This is your chance. . . . Partacozine will make your life more eventful and less painful. “Let’s go everyone. In the Name of God the Healer.” Raise your hands to Heaven in supplication and let’s all say together: O God, save Partacozine from all evil and bless us in it! Aaaaaamen. “Did you know that Partacozine was much attacked at first?” O God, curse the Zionists, the evildoers, and Your enemies, Aaaaaamen. . . . O God, grant success to all who wish well to us and to Partacozine, O lord of the Worlds! Aaaaaaaaaamen. “Partacozine starts working after five minutes.” Aaaaaaaaaamen.

At one point in the novel, as the narrator and Abbas try to watch the news, while a cockroach crawls into the crisp bag on the table. Abbas kills it violently, and they turn over to watch an Adel Imam film. The narrator thinks of the roundabout as the heaven of the unemployed, repetition without end. Abbas lectures him about “optionat” – it’s all about options.

He lists “optionat al Arab” as the following:

  • Security for peace
  • Oil for food
  • Silence for aid

And the most important option is:

  • Land for blood

One comment

  1. Pingback: Week Two (September 8-10) The Politics of Translation: Culture and Language | Linguistic and Cultural Challenges in Translation

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