Book review: Villains and feisty women rule in The Automobile Club of Egypt by Alaa Al Aswany

Dickensian tale on the old streets of Cairo tells of the injustices suffered under both King Farouk’s reign and the British occupation.

The novel has been translated from the Arabic by Russell Harris.
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Alaa Al Aswany's second novel, The Yacoubian Building (2002), was the best-selling novel in the Arab world for five years. Set around the time of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the book managed the dual feat of tracking the lives of a range of residents of the eponymous Cairo tower block and exposing the repression and corruption that mired Egyptian society after the revolution of 1952.

In his latest novel, The Automobile Club of Egypt, Al Aswany goes further back to explore the post-war discontent that lit the touchpaper that fired the revolution. Once again, the subject of his book's title doubles as a microcosm of Egyptian society, only this time his larger picture isn't the iniquities of Hosni Mubarak's regime but the injustices suffered under both King Farouk's reign and the British occupation.

At the heart of this sprawling novel is the Gaafar family. After sliding into penury, former landowner Abd El Aziz moves his wife and four children from Upper Egypt to Cairo and starts work as a lowly storeroom assistant at the distinguished Automobile Club. As its members include the decadent young king, its staff is supervised (and subjugated) by his tyrannical Nubian chamberlain Alku. When Abd El Aziz falls foul of Alku he is beaten and later dies – not only from his wounds but from humiliation.

Al Aswany wrong-foots his reader by killing off early what appeared to be his protagonist. However, he spends subsequent chapters minting new characters and following their various exploits, until we realise that this novel, like The Yacoubian Building, is about a variety of individuals and from all walks of life. Kamel is the closest we get to a hero. He replaces his father at the Club but also finds time for his law studies and illicit extracurricular activity in the form of underground revolutionary politics.

Meanwhile, Kamel’s two brothers pursue wildly divergent goals. Headstrong Said tries to exert authority at home, while away from it he is undone by his obsession for neighbour Fayeqa. Reckless and slow-witted Mahmud and his friend Fawzy progress from troublesome teenagers to low-grade playboys who devise a scheme to sleep with older women for a price. And then there are the women in the family who, though frequently bowed, refuse to be broken. On learning that the Automobile Club pays a pension only to Europeans, not Egyptians, Ruqayya, Abd El Aziz’s widow, fights for her rights against its obdurate managing director James Wright. Her equally defiant daughter Saleha must do battle against teachers who exclude her from school and, later, an abusive husband.

But to break down the Gaafar family and enumerate their trials and errors, agendas and ambitions, is only to scratch the surface of Aswany’s rich, lurid, polyphonic novel. After a playful metafictional opener in which Al Aswany is visited by his characters, followed by a chapter on Karl Benz, inventor of the world’s first automobile, we are taken from families and neighbours to the king and his palace entourage; from the dens of would-be revolutionaries to the Club and its beleaguered and degraded staff.

The sheer scale, pace and pulsing vitality of the novel puts us in mind of that other first-class storyteller Dickens. There is delicious villainy in the shape of Alku and Wright (the latter a dyed-in-the-wool racist overlord who believes Britain is making a huge sacrifice to “bring civilisation to the barbarians”). There is gutsy, ribald humour involving marital slanging matches, bodily functions and a disastrous circumcision. Kamel’s activism and eventual arrest and imprisonment prove thrilling, and Aswany cranks up the suspense as a compromised king resorts to desperate measures to flush out spies and saboteurs.

Where Al Aswany differs from Dickens is in his consistent portrayal of savvy and formidable women. Complementing Ruqayya and Saleha is their outspoken and vulgar-talking neighbour Aisha; feisty Odette, who turns out to be more than Wright’s mistress; and Mitsy, Wright’s daughter, who highlights and abhors her father’s hypocrisy, mesmerises Kamel and neatly sidesteps the advances of the lascivious king.

One quibble is that the book could have benefited from a glossary to decode the smattering of italicised terms. Otherwise, thanks to a superb translation by Russell Harris, The Automobile Club of Egypt reads perfectly as a stirring, rollicking account of a country on the cusp of upheaval.

This book is available on Amazon.

Malcolm Forbes is a freelance writer based in Edinburgh.