I’ve banged on before about the lack of interest within Australia for authors who write in another language. English is our national language but more than 160 other languages are also spoken in Australian homes  so I think that our publishing landscape should include a greater diversity of writing which reflects these cultural backgrounds. Many of our migrants have had experiences that give them a different perspective on the world, often quite different to those born here, and I’m interested in reading about that.
So Cairo Paris Melbourne piqued my interest. Melbourne author Maher Abou Elsaoud who speaks English, French and Arabic, was born in Egypt, moved to France and now lives in Australia. He has published a number of books (see below) but they were published in Egypt, not in Australia – because they were authored in Arabic. However, this novel, Elsaoud’s third, has been translated from the Arabic into English and published by Black Pepper here in Melbourne. I was intrigued by the dislocations which inspired this novel … and predisposed to enjoy it.
Reading books from cultures markedly different from one’s own means being willing to suspend judgement about aspects of life that are confronting to Western sensibility, at least long enough to finish the book. For example, in one of the few Chinese books that I’ve read, Three Sisters, the female characters lacked credibility. The male author had what seems to me to be a complete lack of understanding about what fictional female characters feel and how they might react to events. In discussing this (see the Comments), Tom Cunliffe from A Common Reader pointed out that ‘the one child policy has made it very difficult for teenage boys who apparently have little experience of young women’. This might account for the sense of alienation that I felt when reading Bi Feiyu’s book. I had a similar problem with The Colonel by Iranian Mahmoud Dowlabati because of the attitude to women which was represented. It was confronting, and it took effort to suspend judgement about that. I had to give these authors the benefit of the doubt that the female characters were serving a purpose in the novel that I didn’t quite understand.
Cairo Paris Melbourne presents the same challenge: it’s disconcerting reading. I’ve never been to Egypt and I don’t know much about their culture, except for the usual impressions from the mass media. Of course it’s a society in transition now due to the Arab Spring, but the early chapters of Elsaoud’s tale are set in 1967 during the Arab-Israeli Wars so I didn’t expect the book to reflect any changes occurring now. Given that feminism in that period had yet to make much of an impact in the West, I was hardly surprised when confronted by misogynistic attitudes depicted in the novel. What did surprise me, perhaps because of the chaste-woman-on-a-pedestal posture that Middle-Eastern critics often contrast with the mores of Western women, was the casual acceptance of savage physical and sexual violence towards them. In the early stages of the book, the reader isn’t in a position to know whether this is an attitude of the author which he doesn’t realise is offensive (or doesn’t care); or a continuing limitation imposed on him by his culture which he needs to redress, especially now that he lives in the West; or an intentional slur on Egyptian mores as part of a critique of the culture. I had to apply the old caveat: be wary of mistaking the narrator for the author.
Violence in the form of savage beatings occurs a lot in this novel, and not just to the women – it’s used as a form of control in much the same way as the gun is used in old movie Westerns. Nevertheless, it wasn’t long before I needed to draw on my reserves of intellectual curiosity and intestinal fortitude – because the chapter about Zeinhoum the standover man and his cronies was more than distasteful. I almost abandoned the book, but I pressed on, not at all sure that I was spending my time wisely.
One of the things I like about translated works as featured by enthusiast Stu of Winston’s Dad is that authors of different cultures don’t just use symbols and allusions in unfamiliar ways, they also sometimes construct works in styles coming from a different heritage. Cairo Paris Melbourne has an unusual structure. It’s not exactly picaresque, because although it’s a first person narrative and the disillusionment of the central character and his loss of optimism reminded me of Voltaire’s Candide, it’s not satirical as most picaresque novels are. (At least, I don’t think it is, and I don’t think it’s meant to be). There is also some character development which is unusual in picaresque tales, and the occasionally florid language is quite different to the plain language usually associated with the picaresque as well.
It may be that the structure - a succession of linked but self-contained episodes from the main character’s life - is based on the Arabic maqamat in which ‘a wandering vagabond makes his living on the gifts his listeners give him following his extemporaneous displays of rhetoric, erudition, or verse, often done with a trickster’s touch’. (I discovered this on the Wikipedia page about the development of the picaresque novel, see here for more about maqama). There are certainly elements of maqamat in the plot: As a child, the central character Zoheir models himself on Yunis Oqla, ‘unmatched hero‘ (p37) and avid story-teller, and for a while he is able to sustain a friendship with a boy of much higher social status because he entertains him with his stories. Also, people are extraordinarily generous with their gifts to Zoheir because he seems to be charismatic, at least in the parts of the novel set in Cairo and Paris. I can’t help but dismiss the ‘gift’ which provides his redemption in Melbourne, however, because suspending my judgement won’t go that far – it’s just not credible. (Or have I missed the point?)
As to whether he’s a trickster or a contemptible fraud, well, I know that in some cultures there’s a certain pride in wiliness and ‘taking others down’ because it shows superior street-smartness. But giving a friend false hope when he’s terminally ill in order to borrow something? Defrauding the authorities to get a passport and to extend his French visa? Taking generosity from fellow-Egyptians in France without sharing the 100 franc note in his pocket? Zoheir expresses some guilt about these actions but always finds a way to rationalise them. Sometimes he invokes his destiny as a salve to his conscience but more often he blames the corruption or venality of others as justification. I didn’t find any of this comic, as the writer of the blurb apparently did.
Although they are very different books in most ways, Cairo Paris Melbourne shares some elements with Gerald Murnane’s Tamarisk Row, which was my most recent reading. (See my review). Both books feature young boys being interested in secrets, being preoccupied with breasts and nakedness, and being curious about the mysteries of sex. Both live in families dominated by religion, and both cultures repress women and refuse them autonomy. Both fathers are poor and powerless because of the personal failings of the father: Killeaton is a chronic gambler while Salem is ‘a loser, a womaniser and unemployed to boot‘, working only occasionally as a house-painter (p11). He blames his misfortunes on Nasser’s nationalisation of property, but his spendthrift habits are of his own making and whereas Clement Killeaton loves his father, Zoheir even as a young child thinks Salem is ‘not fit for the role of the head of the family’. (This last is a phrase that gave me particular angst: is it the child Zoheir, the adult Zoheir looking back on his childhood, or the author who believes in the anachronistic notion of Man as the Exalted Head of a Family, eh?)
The novel is, intentionally or otherwise, very revealing about Egyptian male hypocrisy towards women in this period. In this respect, the way men treat them as either contemptible whores to satisfy their ‘needs’ or as paragons of virtue reminded me of Palace Walk from The Cairo Trilogy by Nobel Prize winner, Naguib Mafouz. Salem and his pals have a condescending and opportunistic attitude to women that really grates. They seem to revel in a conspiracy against females, which they justify because women are ‘empty-headed creatures‘. These men have a rather curious view of a meddlesome God who ‘created women and made them jealous of one another, not for the love of us men, but to spite one another‘. (p30) They have a similarly odd attitude about men being unable to control themselves. Um Latifa has had to change her name from Um Mayada (Um meaning ‘Mother of‘) because Mayada is beautiful, and simply by bearing Mayada’s name as part of her own, her mother would be inciting lust. Oh, really?
Oh well. Perhaps if your culture makes you abandon your own name and identity and take on that of your child, it doesn’t matter much which new name you get?
It’s confronting to read that the ferocious beating of a frigid woman arouses her into sado-masochism and cures the problem (p36) and the rape scene is repellent. The ideal of extreme purity (for women only, of course) means that when a young woman thought to be a model of decorum takes up prostitution to support the fatherless family, she is vulnerable to blackmail and becomes so terrified of exposure that she has an ‘accident’ in the kitchen and dies. There are some examples of liberated women in the French scenes, but these are not women Zoheir should waste his sentiments on, says Am Rabie …
In his coming-of-age the boy Zoheir begins to reject the ‘limited horizons of the locals’ (p63) and to compare the limitations of his country with progress elsewhere. He perceives Paris, representing the West, as a kind of paradise where he can escape the restrictions that chafe him. But his over-reaction towards his friend Hosni’s scornful dismissal of his dreams shows that Zoheir can be treacherous too. He blackmails ‘the dog Hosni‘, threatening to accuse him of homosexuality, in order to extort the money for his visa. This theme of righteous punishment after insults (p81) (an attitude which has been in the news lately) looks more like irrational vengeance to me.
The story of Zoheir’s journey to France, the community of Egyptian fruit-pickers on the farms around Nice, and his eventual acceptance into university to study theatre was, for me, the best part of the novel. There is a liveliness to the prose, a sense of place and a freshness in the dialogue that I found myself enjoying – even when I had doubts about Zoheir, who seems to vacillate between hedonism and restraint as his moral compass falters, adrift in the chasm between East and West. Ominously, his relationships with girls are characterised by mutual misunderstanding, camouflaged by the turbulence of adolescent hormones. He has no idea how to cope with assertive Western women like Caroline; he bonds much more readily with males from his own culture who reinforce his pre-existing idealised ideas about woman as either whores or ‘angelic, chaste women‘.
Part III set in Melbourne is rather dreary and the plot goes awry. Zoheir drifts towards middle age with a failed marriage, a disability pension and a motley group of friends. His impulse towards vengeance for perceived insults gets out of hand, but there is a most improbable redemption, (and the most abrupt ending I’ve come across in fiction).
I learned some interesting snippets from this story, such as the practice of holding separate funerals for male and female mourners, and that over-population in Cairo in the 1960s led to people living in cemetery yards. I found it interesting to see the way Middle-Eastern politics weaves its way into all kinds of situations, not just when Zoheir like his father before him loses a sibling in war, or when Zoheir as an admirer of Anwar Sadat’s ‘purposeful action’ is assaulted because ‘only traitors recognise Israel’, but is also used in analogies, for example when Elsaoud writes: as the army had crossed the Suez Canal and retrieved Sinai for Egypt, [his family] crossed the boundaries of cemeteries into the city of Cairo’.
But overall, I found this a bothersome book. It seems unlikely that Egypt has remained frozen in time and would still be as it is depicted in this novel, in an era when women in the West had to fight for their rights too. Young women recently seen demonstrating on the streets of Cairo didn’t look as if they would put up with the kind of sexism represented in this novel. But by choosing to set Part 1 in Egypt in its not-too-distant past and offering nothing in the way of social progress when Zoheir returns home in Part 2, Elsaoud risks his readers concluding that it reinforces pervasive stereotypes of Middle-Eastern gender relations. Writers write what they must, I suppose, but given the rarity of books in English that are set in Egypt, it seems like a lost opportunity. (Unless things really haven’t changed in Egypt, of course).
Anna Couani at the Rochford Street Review found the ‘masculinist perspective a bit grating [but] the book is interesting to read, the plot is not predictable and many of the characters are intriguing and lovable’. Ed Wright at The Weekend Australian was a bit doubtful about the ‘rhetoric of disillusionment [but felt that it was] rescued by the fascinating character sketches’.
I’m not so sure about that, but as a window into the mind of a middle-eastern man, overall, it was worthwhile reading.
Other books by Elsaoud (in Arabic)
- The Court of East and West (short stories, 1996)
- A Tale of a Long Night (1997)
- The Prince of the City (1999)
- Cairo Paris Melbourne (2004)
- The Legend of Schneider (2006)
- Something Cooking (2008)
 Source ABS
© Lisa Hill
Author: Maher Abou Elsaoud
Title: Cairo Paris Melbourne
Publisher: Black Pepper, 2012
Source: review copy courtesy of Black Pepper
Fishpond: Cairo Paris Melbourne
Or direct from Black Pepper Publishing