The Zafarani Files. By Gamal el-Ghitani, translated by Farouk Abdel Wahab. American University in Cairo Press: Cairo, 2009. 344 pages.

In The Zafarani Files, as in Saramago’s Blindness, mysterious illness spreads. Life is disrupted. People shed their old skins and new selves are revealed.

But in Zafarani, it’s not vision that disappears, but the virility of one’s men. It’s less clear how women are affected; in any case, the book’s women show an astounding lack of creativity in addressing the problem.

TZF, which appeared in Arabic in 1976 and only now in English, depicts a large number of people from Zafarani alley—the first place to suffer the potency crisis—and is salted with heavy doses of Egyptian humor. We get good close-ups on the failed loves of a few characters: particularly Atif the college graduate and Hamdi the journalist. The book tends to be more serious with the woes of professional-class characters and sillier with the working-class characters, such as Ali the Ironer, who repeatedly looks to India for a solution, and Tahun the train engineer, who wants to solve everything with a network of tunnels beneath the city.

The book is dark and comic, but not darkly comic, as tragedy and jokes co-exist without too much mixing. A social critique—ah, what nonsense we can get used to!—but not heavy on the message. If the book were a little bit more tightly knit, it could be really wonderful.

A great final line:

Awards? Longlisted for Best Translated Book Award.

El-Ghitani also has won the Egyptian National Prize for Literature and other awards.

Reviews? Three Percent.