Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 22, 2016

The Automobile Club of Egypt (2013), by Alaa Al Aswany, translated by Russell Harris

The Automobile Club of EgyptI picked this up on a whim at the library because I liked the 1920s cover design, and took it home because I haven’t read anything translated from Egyptian since I read (and thoroughly disliked) Nobel prize winner Naguib Mahfouz’s Palace Walk in 1997.  (I loved reading Ahdaf Soueif’s Booker Prize shortlisted The Map of Love in 2002, but that was written in English, which may be why, at the library, I didn’t remember it as an Egyptian book).

If you’ve been paying any attention to Egyptian politics, you’ll know that … a-hem … things are #Understatement in a bit of a muddle since the so-called Arab Spring.  If you want to read up about it, try Wikipedia; for me, suffice to say that I understand why contemporary Egyptian novelists might find it safer to write stories set back in the days of the British Empire when the patriotic Egyptian could easily work out who the bad guys were. In Aswany’s novel The Automobile Club of Egypt the Brits are – with only a couple of exceptions – racist Occupiers; the dissolute King and his stooges are corrupt, and the Egyptians are their own worst enemies because they are complicit in their own humiliations.

The novel starts in a rather odd way.  In a sort of prologue, the narrator – who might be the author – is enjoying a quiet time away from home finishing off his novel, when he is visited by a strangely familiar couple.  They’re two characters from his book come to life, and they’re demanding that he revise the book because he hasn’t included all their thoughts and feelings.  He sends them packing, and then thinks better of it, only to find that no one has else has set eyes on them.

Then there’s a somewhat pointless chapter about Karl Benz and his tribulations in developing the motor car.  He and his enterprising wife get another chapter after some intervening chapters from the main novel, and then we hear no more of him.

The novel proper is told in a disjointed way too.  It is basically the story of the Gaafar family and their humiliations as the patriarch Abd el-Aziz descends into penury and has to take menial work in the Automobile Club, a luxury venue in Cairo which is dedicated to gambling and drinking, exclusive to foreigners and the occupying British in particular.  The only  Egyptians  allowed into this club are the King and his lackeys, and the staff who are bullied brutally by those higher in the serving class. In chapters about Abd el-Aziz, his wife, their four children, their neighbours and his employers, characters are introduced and plot developments arise – which are then are left hanging until some chapters later when things are resolved and then moved along into some other crisis.  Reminiscent of the way soap opera episodes end on a cliff hanger which take a week’s worth of episodes to resolve, the novel works reasonably well but the reader needs to keep her wits about her because there are rather a lot of characters and plot developments to keep track of.

Until the ending, that is.  The book is 475 pages long and by the time the reader reaches the conclusion, a lot has been invested in becoming fond of the characters.  So it’s hard not to be taken aback by a conclusion that resolves nothing.

  • The only family member with a settled life loses his business.  What happens to him and his consumer conscious wife next? Does he resolve the conflict with his family?
  • Two fellows who’ve been involved in a rather sordid form of prostitution with old ladies stop doing it because they are confronted by the risk of discovery.  Did they get caught anyway or did they manage to reform themselves?
  • One of the characters is in prison and despite a happy event is still stuck there.  He’s a brave soul involved in the reform movement, so what happens to him?
  • A woman who had a disastrous arranged marriage tries to resume her studies.  Does she finish them and get to have a career?  Or does she do what she is told that Egyptian women should do, get married to someone else and forget about education and having a role to play in Egypt’s modernisation?
  • And one of the bad guys involved in the exploitation of his fellow Egyptians gets his comeuppance, but then what?  Does everything just go back to normal, or what?

It seems rather odd to end a book like this with all these threads dangling.  But this author, Alaa Al Aswany is a successful author in Egypt and I don’t think he has messed this book up.  I don’t believe that his editors either in Egypt or at Penguin (who published this translation) have overlooked this inconclusive ending either.  No, I think these dangling plot elements are deliberate, but if so, why?

If I try to put myself in mind of an Egyptian reader who knows the history of his country, I think I can unravel it…

That initial, curious prologue might be intended to alert the reader that there is much that is unsaid in this novel.  Like Yan Lianke writing to defy Chinese censorship in Lenin’s Kisses (see my review), a novel that deliberately omits all the even-numbered numbered footnotes so that readers know something is unsaid, Aswany is signalling that an author can’t describe thoughts and feelings by proxy. The story can’t be told from afar (that is, from outside Egypt) and it can’t be told without the author knowing the full truth of what happened to the chastened and the cowed; to the missing, the disappeared, or the imprisoned; to the extinguished, the discouraged or the suppressed; and last but not least, the story isn’t about what happened to the oppressors when the revolution came.  (We in Australia know what happens when the dark secrets of history are covered up).

And what might an Egyptian think when he reads about Karl Benz and his invention of the motor car? (Benz wasn’t the only one, but set that aside). Perhaps an Egyptian, looking at the imposing former Automobile Club of Egypt building from 1924 (which is still standing in Cairo), might think somewhat sardonically that it was typical of British colonial appropriation that James Wright, managing director at the Club in the novel, claims privileges for the British because they, ‘Europeans’, had invented the car whereas Egyptians had invented nothing.  Aswany is alerting his domestic audience to history: it wasn’t the British who invented one of the defining discoveries of the 20th century.

The novel then launches into the story of a family that was forced by poverty into working for the Occupying forces, and through the lives of four children, the story shows how

  • sticking with the status quo is a betrayal of family and community (the oldest son, Said)
  • taking advantage of what was offered as opportunity was degrading (the not very bright son, Mahmud);
  • getting involved with the fledgling reform movement was highly risky in a country where so-called British justice did not apply to Egyptian subjects (Kamel, the clever son, and moral barometer of the novel); and
  • trying to get an education and have a career was problematic in a conservative country where women had no future but to get married (Saleha, the youngest and only daughter).

The generation before these four children was impotent.  The father of these four children could not fulfil his dreams for them, and the dependency of his widow – no pension for her, because only European employees of the Club were entitled to pensions – meant that all she could do was hope, pray, compromise and mop up the tears afterwards.  Aswany has nothing to say about the generation that comes after them – their story is not told here, their thoughts and feelings are not heard – though Egyptians who know their history know that they succeeded in gaining independence but that repression, exploitation and chaotic governance persists.  There are allusions to the incompatibility of Islam with Western values and mores but Aswany seems to resolve these conservatively.

So it seems to me that the soap opera elements of this novel are there to make the novel a rollicking good read, but they are book-ended by a prologue and a conclusion designed to make the reader think.  It would be fascinating to know what Egyptian readers might think of it, but my quest to discover that was a failure.  There are 100 pages of reviews at Goodreads, but nearly of them are in Arabic, and I gave up after page 4.  But even so, you can tell that some loved it and others despised it.  (One reviewer classified it as sh_ _). It’s got more topics under discussion there than any other book I’ve ever seen, and while Google Translate wasn’t much help, refusing to translate some reviews point blank and offering only gobbledy-gook of others, I gathered from one review that the book was a major disappointment, and one was really angry at what he interpreted as the light-hearted treatment of the revolutionary struggle.  One was very exercised about the sex in the novel (though by Western standards, a great deal is left to the imagination). On the other hand there are lots of five star reviews, though Google was particularly unhelpful with those. (Maybe the writers were using jargon or slang??) There was just one review in English that had anything to say, and it was a complaint about the ending that seemed unfinished.

I couldn’t find much in the way of alternative reviews to see if anyone else interpreted this book’s form as I did:

  • Alfred Hickling’s at the Guardian: he describes the beginning as a succession of false starts and is rather uncomplimentary about what I thought was a smooth translation
  • Boyd Tonkin’s at The Independent: which calls the book enjoyable escapism and a retreat from the chaos of today to a simpler moral landscape
  • Azadeh Moaveni at The Financial Times: also critical of the translator, but is mainly disappointed that the book is stubbornly averse to any political tension that won’t be resolved with a fist fight or a kiss.

The best, most thoughtful of the reviews I could find was at the LA Review of Books.   Ashley Rindsberg describes the novel as a dichotomy that pits the evils of Western imperialism against the virtues of nationalist independence but he thinks the characters are  die-cast social archetypes and the concept of a ‘crash’ between civilisations is a cliché.

So, none of these reviews that I could access interpreted things the way I have, but (unlike me) the reviewers were knowledgeable about things Egyptian.  All four had read Aswany’s previous novel The Yacoubian Building and were up-to-speed with political events in Egypt and how they impact on Aswany’s writing, given that he’s an activist at risk of persecution for his beliefs.  Rindsberg puts it like this:

That Al Aswany has put politics at the center of his book should come as no surprise. As one of the most outspoken voices for democracy during the 2011 revolution, Al Aswany has used his voice to offer a vision of an Egypt united in tolerance and moderation. Frequently, this means challenging those who’ve sought to restrict freedom and monopolize power — even when those challenges come with considerable risk to Al Aswany’s own freedom.

But none of these reviewers seem to think that Aswany knows what he’s doing.  Well, I think that the reader should pay the author the compliment of assuming that he does.  IMO The signposts are there for us to see, not to dismiss as authorial incompetence or lack of courage.

Author: Alaa Al Aswany
Title: The Automobile Club of Egypt
Translated from the Arabic by Russell Harris
Publisher: Penguin/Random House, 2015, first published in Arabic in 2013
ISBN: 9781926428390
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: The Automobile Club of Egypt and good bookshops everywhere.


  1. I’ve not read much Arabic fiction but my experience so far has been that the narrative is fragmented and has lots of unresolved threads. It se,s the translation of this book was problematic – see the article on Arabic literature in English site


    • My goodness, I didn’t know any of that. Now I understand the unforgiving reviews!


      • It doesn’t seem like a very happy relationship at all…..


        • It bothers me a bit that we have only one side of the story because of the language barrier…


  2. Fascinating Lisa. Like you I’ve read and enjoyed The Map of Love, but other books set in Egypt have been written by the English like Lawrence Durrell’s the Alexandria Quartet which I loved. I don’t imagine I’ll get to this one, so I appreciate hearing about it at least.


    • Ah ha, The Map of Love, you too? How did that happen? It must have been nominated for the Orange Prize or something like that…


      • I did it with the bookgrouplist, so someone nominated it there. I can’t recollect why. Did you read any books with us? I feel you dod for a little time?


        • I looked it up in my journal, I read it in 2002 and it was nominated for the Booker. Which means, if my recollection of the eligibility rules at the time is correct, that it was eligible as an ‘English’ book because post independence Egypt wasn’t in the Commonwealth. And re-reading what I wrote about the plot, it focussed on an Englishwoman’s romance with an Egyptian, and how she becomes involved in the nationalist cause, it’s more of an Anglo-Egyptian book, if you know what I mean.


          • I just checked. I read it in June 2002 with the bookgrouplist. I wrote, partly, that “I found ‘The map of love’ a great read – and not at all hard – but I do think the integration of political and personal was more heavy handed or perhaps forced (and a little awkward at times).” Why I thought that now, nearly 14 years later, I have no idea!!


            • *chuckle* Yes indeed, our younger selves can seem like complete strangers sometimes….

              Liked by 1 person

  3. Interesting review! I haven’t read any Egyptian fiction, but I do have Al Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building on my shelf. I feel so much more tempted to pick it up now to see what it’s like. The Goodreads ratings are a little more favourable, at least!


    • Oh do please read and review it soon, I am fascinated by this author now because obviously the critics are hostile over the translation issue and I want to know more about him.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve seen this one in book stores here too. It’s published by Actes Sud, which is a good reference. I was curious about the Automobile Club part of the book.

    It left you puzzled, I see. It makes me curious now but perhaps I should read Building Yacoubian first, since I have it on the shelf. I can’t remember who gave it to me.

    PS : I love love love Naghuib Mahfouz.


    • You do? Tell me why, please. I always feel a bit guilty about disliking that book and I wonder if I should try it again…


      • I love Mahfouz because he shows you the life of small people and not the elite. He describes everyday life and gives you hint about politics as well. He helps you understand a moment of Egypt’s past.


        • Yes, I can see that that would have been ground-breaking for its time. But the sexism still grates!


  5. Obviously it’s been ages since you read this one, but I recently finished reading it and I agree with you, that there is much to be said and understood here about how we tell and hear stories, about the kind of detail we are comfortable with (and seek and avoid) and about how different a set of events can appear when viewed from different perspectives. All of which, in my view, explains that seemingly disconnected prologue in which the characters demand a voice. What is a beginning? What is a resolution? Where does a history begin (personal, political)? I think this is a fascinating novel and I was so very pleased to find that you had found it so as well!


    • I have certainly enjoyed revisiting it via your comment. I see above that I was interested in another of his novels, I really must chase that one up.


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: