Lifestyle & Culture

Weekend Reading: The Automobile Club of Egypt

Influential and popular across the Arab world, novelist and political activist Alaa Al Aswany  uses the Cairo automobile club in this lively novel to give his sometimes flawed, sometimes lamentable characters a place to act out their destiny in British-dominated  post-World War II Egypt. The Egyptian workers, clawing out an existence in a corrupt, top-down society, have their own ways of coping with reality, whether wheedling or rebelling or opting out entirely. Translated from the Arabic by Russell Harris, The Automobile Club of Egypt was published in August by Knopf and can be purchased at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other booksellers.

PEOPLE IN AL-SADD AL-GAWANY STREET consider it their moral and religious duty to settle quarrels between married couples. The moment a husband and wife on the street ReadingEgyptWebstart arguing, be it day or night, their neighbors rush over, listen carefully to the facts from both sides and try to suggest a solution based on the Quran and the traditions of the Prophet, not leaving the couple alone until the storm has died down. There was one exception to this rule: the arguments between the grocer Ali Hamama and his wife, Aisha. No one ever tried to keep them apart during a quarrel. Perhaps that was because, in spite of the ferocity of their arguments, they never resorted to physical violence or attempted to kill each other or commit suicide as other couples did. In fact, their arguments had a somewhat festive and entertaining character, with Ali Hamama and his wife exchang-
ing hilariously filthy curses. As far as the people who lived in the street were concerned, Uncle Ali Hamama and his wife, Aisha, were not quite based in reality. They generally behaved like ordinary people, but they had this other side to them that was close to the rough-and-tumble of street puppet theater.

Ali Hamama! The name on his birth certificate was actually Ali Muhammad Hanafi, so how did he come to be known as Ali Hamama? There were many explanations. People said that when he came to Cairo as a ten-year-old from his village (Ashmoun in the governorate of Menoufiya) to work for Yunus the kebab man in Sayyida Zeinab Square, he was noted for his ability to run faster than anyone else, and so they called him Hamama (“the pigeon”). A competing story was that the nickname was owing to the blue pigeon-shaped tattoo that had been inked on his temple when he was a small boy, as is traditional among the rural people. After being teased mercilessly about it by the people in Cairo, he went to a tattoo
parlor and had it removed, but the nickname stuck. There was a third much more enthralling story claiming that when he was young, he used to carry out circumcisions on boys, and the name arose because in Egyptian folklore, the pigeon symbolizes the male member. He used to carry the tools of his trade in a briefcase and go from village to village in the vicinity of Cairo, offering his services, negotiating his fees and carrying out the procedure on the sons of poor peasant farmers.

One day, completely stoned from having smoked a bit too much hashish, he set off to circumcise a child in Qalyubiya, disguising his telltale bloodshot eyes with some eyedrops. The house was decked out with lamps and little flags in celebration of the child’s circumcision. The moment Ali Hamama stepped inside, he was met with a storm of ululation from the crowd of women who seemed to be everywhere—in the hallway, on the roof, in the bedrooms and in the living room, where Ali slurped down a glass of rose sherbet before being led to the room where the boy was waiting. After the women left the room, the father and uncle placed the little boy on the bed, and although he struggled hard to get away, they managed to remove his shorts and spread his legs apart, exposing the pertinent area to Ali Hamama, who, as always before carrying out the procedure, uttered the phrases, “In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful” and “There is neither progress nor might except through Allah,” and then positioned himself in front of the child. He took the boy’s penis in his left hand, and the sharp blade glinted in his right. He pulled the penis toward him, but due to the effects of the hashish, instead of removing the foreskin with one deft cut as usual, Hamama accidentally cut directly into the penis. The boy let out an ear-splitting shriek as blood spurted out like a fountain onto the bed and floor. All hell broke loose as word of the dramatic bleeding spread to the boy’s relatives standing outside, and they rushed into the room in a panic, the women howling and wailing as if the boy had died.

Ali Hamama made some reassuring gestures, but then he sighed, smiling broadly, and nodded as if this were absolutely normal. Trying to sound cheerful, he said, “By the way, the boy has a rosy future. His foreskin is off. Do you know what that means?”

“What does it mean?” asked the boy’s father, scowling with worry.

Hamama forced out a laugh and said, “It means that the kid will grow up to have a thick one that will drive women crazy. For sure!”

He shook his head in jest, but no one smiled at his attempt to mollify them. The child’s screams reverberated through the air like an incessant siren, and rivulets of blood kept streaming down his thighs. Ali Hamama noted the grim faces on the relatives crowding
around him and realized that their anxiety would soon turn to fury. Calmly and politely, he asked them to fetch him coffee grounds from the kitchen to staunch the wound while he nipped out to purchase a special cream from the nearby pharmacist. When they suggested that one of them could go and buy it, Ali Hamama insisted that there were a number of preparations with the same name, and they might end up buying the wrong one. Then, having made sure to allay their suspicions and having purposefully left his case of medical instruments behind, Ali Hamama set out toward the pharmacist. He walked with a slow and steady gait in case anyone might be watching from the window, but the moment he was out of sight, he started running as fast as his legs could carry him until he reached a taxi stand, where he paid a driver to take him to Cairo (throwing away money as never before and never since). He thanked the Lord and his lucky stars that the family of the victim had not come looking for him, though perhaps they had expected him to take the train and went in pursuit to the railway station. Moreover, they knew neither his full name nor where he lived.

After that sorry episode, Ali Hamama never again carried out a circumcision, instead setting himself up in the small dark grocer’s shop he bought opposite the tram stop at the beginning of al-Sadd Street. He would work all day behind the dilapidated counter wearing his old tarboosh with its slightly battered top and, over his striped galabiyya, a khaki raincoat that made him look like a plainclothes agent from the Ministry of the Interior. He owned three striped galabiyyas, because he believed, for some reason, that striped cotton was the last word in style. He could sit there for hours saying nothing except when absolutely necessary, for as is typical with serious hashish users, he was more inclined toward introspection than any form of movement or activity. His sullen face never bore any expression. As he sat there, his narrow eyes would blink incessantly, and on occasion he would open them wide and try to make out what was going on around him (there was a rumor that he had lost his spectacles years ago and that, as he was too cheap to buy a new pair, his eyesight had become even worse).

Despite his taciturnity, his poor sight and shabby appearance, Ali Hamama was always aware of what was going on. Like a dormant microbe, he lay in wait, saving his energy for the right moment, watching everything in his shop, as customers reeled off orders and as products were fetched, weighed, wrapped and handed over. He watched as money was exchanged and put in the drawer, as the women living in the flats above called down and lowered their shopping baskets on a rope from their balconies and as the serving boy
grabbed the money from the baskets and replaced it with their purchases and their change. Ali Hamama watched all this activity with a sensory perception that made up for his poor eyesight. If an argument broke out, he would intervene immediately. What naturally made him angriest was when a customer tried to ask for credit, since, in order to avoid a misunderstanding, he had hung a sign over the doorway that read, “Do not ask for credit as a refusal often offends.” He found that a troublesome customer did not generally make his intentions known from the outset but rather would order, for example, a quarter pound of cheese or a halvah sandwich, and once the items were in hand, he would grin idiotically and say, “I’ll pay you tomorrow, please God.”

At that moment, the normally taciturn and placid Hamama would suddenly spring into action, shocking the customer by barking, “Oh no you won’t. You’ll pay now or never, buster! Goods exchanged for payment only.”

At that moment, the well-trained shop assistant would grab the package from the customer’s hands. If the customer was the sort of lowlife who tried to argue, he would find Ali Hamama inching toward him to settle the matter by other means.

Ali Hamama was renowned as a miser and an unusually brusque one. He never uttered pleasantries or took account of people’s feelings, and even though he went to pray regularly at the mosque, he never missed an opportunity to cheat his customers in the weight or quality of his merchandise. He had doctored the scales and used a particularly thick and heavy type of reinforced paper to weigh out the cheese and basturma, significantly adding to the cost. These deceitful practices made the people in al-Sadd al-Gawany Street dislike him and hope deep down that some evil would befall him.

Completely unlike Ali Hamama, his wife, Aisha, was enormously popular in the street. Just the mention of her name put a smile on people’s faces, and their eyes would light up with affection and admiration. As far as the men were concerned, Aisha radiated the allure of sinful and debauched delights, and even though they all tut-tutted in public about her behavior, they secretly wished their own wives possessed something of her femininity. The women, on the other hand, loved Aisha because she expressed what they could only dream about and never dared utter. Aisha’s most salient feature was that she knew no shame. She loved to prattle on in her hoarse voice and with her insouciant smile, in great detail, all about her conjugal practices. The women would cluster around her, hanging on to her every word, now and then letting out little shrieks of mirth or hiding their faces in embarrassment. She would declare that sex was the most beautiful thing in all creation and describe how she bathed and beautified her body every night, how she would perfume herself and lie in bed, waiting for her husband, in only her nightdress.

One of the women listening asked her, “Don’t you feel cold going to bed without your underwear on?”

Then, as part of the show, she would give a little cluck of denial, and wiggling her pursed lips from side to side to imply the hopelessness of the questioner, she would pause like a seasoned actor, waiting for the laughter to die down, before telling the woman flatly, “It’s what a husband gives a wife that warms her up. And let me tell you that without that particular thing a woman will never know the meaning of happiness.”

Vulgar talk was Aisha’s favorite pastime, just as some men like collecting stamps or playing chess. She would chat away to men and women with equal frankness. She used to hang out the laundry from the window at the back of her apartment, which overlooked a student residence, having first made sure that the top two buttons of her galabiyya were open. Thus, as she stretched forward over the line to pin out the clothes, her breasts would be exposed to any student standing on the balcony opposite, and she would pretend not to notice the scorching hot looks she attracted. One time, when a student plucked up his courage and uttered a comment about her beautiful cleavage, she was not angry nor did she scold him but started lecturing him about why a woman’s breasts need to be caressed during sex. She went into such detail that the teenage student became red and short of breath, whereupon he cut the conversation short so that he could dash off to the bathroom to ease himself. As if guessing what he was about to do, Aisha cackled and leaned over to pick up the empty laundry basket and flounced away from the window. In all fairness, she was not seeking a sexual encounter with the student. She just liked talking about sex. Nothing more, nothing less. The same way as any soccer fan enjoys talking about his favorite goals. Let us just say that Aisha enjoyed talking about sex as much as she liked the act itself, although, truth to tell, it was not quite clear whether she had ever cheated on her husband.

There was one ugly rumor claiming that Ali Hamama had amassed his fortune principally from hashish and had got his start working for a big dealer, who was nicknamed Mr. Handsome because of his stunning good looks. The gossips said that Mr. Handsome was in the habit of spending each evening at Hamama’s flat, where he and his host smoked so much hashish that Ali Hamama would drop off to sleep. At that point, Mr. Handsome would crawl into Aisha’s bed and spend the night with her. The people from the street who disliked Ali Hamama, and they were numerous, claimed that he only feigned sleep and would receive payment from Mr. Handsome in the form of favors, cash and free goods. God alone knows the truth. It should be noted, however, that Fawzy and Fayeqa, Ali and Aisha’s son and daughter, did not resemble each other at all. Fawzy was as dark skinned and unsavory looking as his father, whereas Fayeqa was beautiful with the gleaming white complexion of a Turk. Some people naturally inferred that Fawzy was his father’s son but that Fayeqa was the product of an illicit relationship between Aisha and the dealer, Mr. Handsome. Residents from the street were not inclined to repeat this calumny, however, because a person’s honor is a taboo subject, and when all was said and done, they loved Aisha too much to wish her any harm. They loved her not just for her outrageous manner and her saucy talk but because she also had a serious side, which revealed itself in times of crisis. When there was difficulty at hand, her feckless smile would fade, the vulgar joking would cease and her face would turn pensive as she listened intently to people’s problems and handed out heartfelt and considered advice. She never sent anyone away or put off helping a neighbor, whether it was in joyful times such as at a birth or marriage or in times of grief such as sickness, divorce or death.

The previous day, just after midnight, Ali Hamama had come home as usual after closing the shop. He wolfed down the dinner Aisha had prepared and was relaxing with his mint tea, when she took the opportunity of his good mood to raise a slightly thorny, sensitive and complicated subject: she wanted some money to buy their son, Fawzy, a suit.

The request took Ali Hamama by surprise, and he gawped at her but quickly straightened himself up and regained control. He uttered his brusque and peremptory refusal before slurping his tea as if to confirm the answer, but Aisha did not despair. She could get around him in various ways: she could butter him up, tell him how she prayed for his health and long life, point out that God Almighty had granted him a good living because he was a devoted father who never failed to provide everything for his family. She then moved on to describe Fawzy’s urgent need for a suit. What would people say if they saw the son of Hagg Ali Hamama, a man of such repute and who had made the pilgrimage, walking around in rags and tatters? But her argument, however strong and persuasive, had no effect whatsoever on Ali Hamama.

He would not budge and gradually started to take umbrage at Aisha’s insistence. Finally, she was obliged to use her biological weapon: she stood up, sighed deeply and sat down next to him on the sofa, right next to him, thigh against thigh, with her heady perfume filling his nose and letting him feel the heat of her body. He realized that, as usual, she was completely naked underneath her galabiyya. Not stopping there, she started to caress his lower abdomen. Ali Hamama sensed the blood pulsing in his veins, his heartbeat quickening and his vision blurring in the heat of passion. He almost put a hand on his wife’s warm and supple breasts, but he knew that submitting to her seduction would come at a serious financial cost. He got up and stepped away from the source of heat and sat down in the armchair in the opposite corner of the room.

Once he had collected himself, he started his rebuttal: “He has more than enough clothes already. Even if they are a bit worn, you can mend them! That’s the way to bring up a man. A child should know the value of money. Frittering it away on juvenile whims is the quickest way to go broke. And remember, Fawzy is a dunce, a good-for-nothing, useless! He’s seventeen and still at school. What does he need a new suit for? A reward for failure?”

Aisha looked at him and asked, “So we just let him run around in shabby clothes like a beggar?”

“If he keeps failing at school, he can go to hell for all I care.”

Hamama spoke those words calmly, avoiding Aisha’s glance.

She threw out a final challenge: “So, what’s your decision? Are you buying him a suit or not?”

“No,” Ali Hamama answered without hesitation.

Aisha growled, got off the sofa and stood in the middle of the room, shouting, “Shame on you! You’ll be the death of me. If you go on like this, I’ll have a stroke! Your son, the fruit of your loins, wants to buy a suit and you’ll pay. You should have some fear of God in you.”

“Oh, it’s God who told us to throw our money down the drain?”

“That’s just like you. Heartless. Are you a Muslim or a heathen?”

“Muslim, praise be to God!” retorted Ali sneeringly.

Aisha let out a long sharp wail, which was, in the language of international law, a declaration of war, and Ali Hamama in his turn uttered some unintelligible grunts, which could be interpreted as a confirmation of his refusal and reiteration of his come-what-may attitude. Then he withdrew into himself, shrouded in taciturnity, staring into space as if the discussion was no concern of his.

Aisha walked right over to him and then gave him two almighty slaps on the face, shouting, “May God punish you! What a miserable marriage! I was warned from the outset that you were tighter with money than Yazid’s dog!”

“Then why did you marry me? Were you forced into it?”

“I was young and stupid. The day I met you was the worst day of my life!”

Ali answered calmly, “Don’t worry your pretty face. If you want, we can end it and each go our separate ways.”

“Chance would be a fine thing. If you were a man, you’d divorce me.”

“Then give me back your wedding jewelry first!”

Aisha took a deep breath and then let out an audible snort as she waved her finger in the air in that recognizable gesture of insult as if to an imaginary audience, as she shouted, “What are you saying? What bloody jewelry, you useless man?”

“The bloody jewelry I provided upon our marriage. Give it back and I’ll divorce you.”

“I’d rather flush it down the drain, you miserable bastard.”

Aisha rushed off to the bedroom and came back with a velvet box containing the gold necklace that was her dowry. She shrieked as she threw it onto his lap, “Take it, you piece of filth! And I hope you’re happy with it!”

Ali grabbed the box, opened it and checked its contents, almost sniffing it, as if he were receiving goods for his shop. Then he gently shut it and carefully placed it beside him on the sofa, pondering ruefully aloud, “I dragged you up from nowhere. I wonder how it feels to have nothing again.”

Aisha was now working herself up into a froth of anger, and as she shrieked yelps of fury, she let her galabiyya slip to the floor, leaving her standing there completely naked. She started beating her fists against her thighs and declaring, “Just so you know—you were right, Mama! He is such an upstanding man that I hope God sends him downward to hell!”

“Oh, so now you want to keep me from going to heaven, you piece of vermin?”

She went for him. She clasped her hands together and brought them down on his chest. He pushed her away, jumped up and darted away from her reach. Clutching the jewelry box under his arm, he rushed out of the room with the sound of her curses ringing out after him.

–Alaa Al Aswany
translated from the Arabic by Russell Harris

Excerpted from The Automobile Club of Egypt by Alaa Al Aswany and translated from the Arabic by Russell Harris, published in August by Knopf. © 2015. Used by permission.



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