I do hope that Khairy Shalaby has success with the English translation of his The Time-Travels of the Man Who Sold Pickles and Sweets (1991), due out this fall from AUC Press. It was translated by Michael Cooperson.
But—although the premise is appealing and the text has an charming lightness if not always deftness—the title doesn’t really reach out and grab the casual reader. Yes, the profession of torshi and sweet sales has particular associations for an Egyptian reader. Yes, there’s a combination of the sour and the sweet. But I’m afraid that, for an English-language reader, it’s just a (long) bunch of words.
Titles and cover illustrations are themselves a sort of rough map to what we might find within the covers of a book. (Is the book humorous or serious? Fiction or nonfiction? What sort of landscape does it cover? How do I get there? Do I want to go?) This map gives little information, I’m afraid, to the reader not already familiar with the Cairo landscape.
To the initiated, Shalaby’s The Time-Travels…etc. is rich in (sometimes contradictory) information. Al-Shalaby’s novel was selected by Samia Mehrez as one of the excerpts to open her Literary Atlas of Cairo. Her first three excerpts come from Muhammad al-Muwailihi’s (1907) A Period of Time: a Study and Translation of Hadith ‘Isa ibn Hisham, Naguib Mahfouz’s (1955) Children of the Alley, and Khairy Shalaby’s (1991) The Time-Travels…etc.
It is The Time-Travels…etc., among the excerpts, that gives the most jarring (and silly) picture of a changing Cairo landscape. The time-traveling hero stands on the same ground (Muqattam) but moves between very different time periods. The somewhat hapless torshi-seller bumbles into the Fatimid era, when the city we now know as Cairo is just being constructed.
Dazed, I asked, “What are those mountains, then?”
“That’s Muqattam.” [Note: This is spoken by a Moroccan soothsayer who somewhat conveniently appears.]
“What’s that town over there?”
“That’s Fustat and the settlements around it. And those huts over there are the village of Umm Dunayn.”
“If that’s Muqattam, where’s the Salah Salim freeway? Where’s the City fo the Dead? Where’s Darrasa? The mosque of Husayn? Where am I?”
He smiled and patted me kindly on the shoulder. “Come along with me.”
Mostly, our titular torshi-and-sweets seller seems fairly hapless in this changed situation. (Although, if I were transported back to the Fatimid era, I guess the first thing I’d want to know would be: Where the heck is Salah Salim?) Still, I am a little confused about the torshi seller’s education level, as he manages to spot 15th-century scholar al-Maqrizi at a glance, upon which he calls out, “Hey, Maqrizi! How are ya?”
He nodded to me as gently as a shining star. Despite my predicament, I had the effrontery to shout, “If you need anything, just let me know!”
He called back,” Actually, I do.”
My knees went weak. What if he needed money? Or someone to take his side in the argument he was having?
But he said only this: “If you have any information about this particular plot of land, dictate it to me. I’ve kept track of everyone who’s set foot here going back as many years as I can count, but it never hurts to double check.”
I stood there smiling at him like an imbecile and let the Moroccan soothsayer drag me away.
Next, the time-traveler stumbles in as the Fatimid elite are discussing plans for building Al Azhar Mosque and the Great Eastern Palace.
As much as I think the book’s silliness could have a wider appeal, it’s likely that this map is for the initiated, for those who have already traveled around Cairo’s streets and find the same frisson of recognition (hey! that’s the plans for Al Azhar Mosque!) as the narrator.