In Al Masry Al Youm, Amany Aly Shawky reviews Mekkawi Said’s latest: مقتنيات وسط البلد , or Downtown Collectibles.
Although Said has published a number of earlier works—Shawky notes El-Raqd Wara’a el-Do’e (Running After Light) and Fe’ran el-Saffina (The Ship Rats)—it was Cairo Swan Song (English 2009, AUC Press) that was shortlisted for the inaugural Arabic Booker and brought the author fame.
I have very little sympathy for Cairo Swan Song, which has an interesting premise at its core—an Egyptian is helping his American girlfriend make a film about Cairo’s homeless children. Is it exploitation? Is he/she helping these kids? Is he/she fame-seeking and dragging these poor children into an international gawker spotlight? But the book loses sight of this interesting premise and runs off in a hundred different (generally hyperbolic) directions, notably after some fairly bizarrely portrayed women.
But back to مقتنيات وسط البلد, which is a short-story collection—not a novel—as Said apparently recognized he was running down too many characters to form a coherent single narrative.
According to Shawky:
The characters are almost entirely fictional, Said told Al-Masry Al-Youm. Among his favorites are Dr. Galal, the dentist; Lor Dakash, the famous singer and poet; and downtown’s Stella Bar, which becomes a character in itself (and, as any local knows, very real one). The writer spent the last of the three years writing the book researching downtown’s cafes and bars, relying mainly on word of mouth to locate the often well-hidden spots.
The book takes the form of short stories rather than a novel because Said realized that the sheer number of characters he conceived of required a format more easily digestible to readers; el-Maraya (Mirrors) by Naguib Mahfouz was his inspiration.
Shawky clearly liked the book (“For any reader, Moqtanayat Wust el-Balad opens a window onto a complex and fascinating world of contradictions and marvels.”) but I have to mark myself as wary.