One-minute Review: Bahaa Abdelmeguid’s Sleeping With Strangers

I de-coupled this from my review of Abdelmeguid’s Saint Theresa, although the two novellas have been published together by AUC Press, because I find Sleeping with Strangers a much harder book to review.

In part, this is for all the reasons Chip Rossetti outlined in his essay for Three Percent on translating the two novellas. It was a delight to sit down and re-read Rossetti’s version of Saint Theresa. But when I re-opened Sleeping With Strangers—even though it operates by some very interesting juxtapositions, and I wanted to see how Abdelmeguid had put it all together—I was filled with a teeny bit of dread.

The two main characters in Sleeping With Strangers are Basim—who I find an echo of Mustafa Sa’eed of Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North—and Nadir, who echoes Season‘s narrator. Both cousins travel to the “North” (or northwest), where Basim is jailed (like Mustafa Sa’eed) and attempts to write his story. Nadir, our author, is obsessed by Basim’s story, and by how Basim’s life, and perhaps Nadir’s own, has been broken by his association with the U.S.

None of that, of course, filled me with dread. But there, on the novella’s second page, Basim is showing Nadir around Boston, and they head off to a nude, co-ed sauna where men and women are fondling each other openly.

All right, I could take this not as “fact” (I, like Rossetti, have never heard of such a thing as a co-ed nude sauna) but as a metaphor for America’s relative sexual liberty. But then we meet Olga, a sexy Russian-spy-runway model who speaks in such improbable sentences as “I drank from the fountains of pleasure in his arms, and from the scent of his body that poured over me.” And the whole Boston scene becomes difficult for me to swallow.

But what is truly difficult to digest is the fact that Basim beat his pregnant wife Jackie and numerous other women (no, OK, I understand how that happens) and grew pot in his apartment (I understand that, too), but that American authorities—while knowing about both points—jailed him for failing to pay his alimony. To get him out, his Egyptian relatives had to come up with $10,000 cash.

I don’t mind the improbability of being jailed for debt in contemporary America. It could well be a metaphor: The U.S. government allows you to do anything except fail your debts! Rossetti justifies it to himself as so: “Although debtor’s prisons are long gone, Basim’s failure to pay alimony could conceivably be ruled contempt of court, which could explain his jail time.” Sure. That, too.

But both Basim and Nadir harp many times on how Basim had done nothing wrong in the United States, and how he had been unjustly imprisoned and broken by the world superpower. Perhaps Basim and Nadir find nothing wrong in beating up women—this is a fine narrative choice, no problem—except it does not seem true to Nadir’s more sensitive and pro-female character. And surely that would get you in trouble with the U.S. justice system, especially if Jackie hated Basim as much as he supposed.

I nearly sighed with relief when I reached page 133, and we were firmly back on Cairo soil. At this point, I was free to focus on the novella’s interesting stylistic peculiarities and juxtapositions. The novella uses a number of different narrative strategies: Part of it is told as Basim’s “prison notes,” part in first person by Nadir. Most interesting is the intermittent use of second person, which has the effect of both bringing the reader closer to Nadir and, at times, alienating her. (Or him.)

This tug of war between reader and character is echoed by the tug of war between Basim and Nadir, who disagree about how to create a good life, what sort of place America is, how to effect social change and how to act with women, among other things.

I find particularly adept Basim’s condemnation of America, which is conflated with his hatred of his ex-wife Jackie.

Rather than the single, direct plot line of Saint Theresa, the novella Sleeping with Strangers is built a bit on the “one thing after another” method that you find in Mekkawi Said’s foreigner-obsessed Cairo Swan Song. But Abdelmeguid does keep his story lines tidier than Said’s, and—while there are a multiplicity of foreign dames—nothing matters as much as the relationship between Nadir and Basim.

In the end, Nadir is trying to re-build his life with a “comfortable new American-style couch, and a desk and an armchair, and Beethoven recordings, and the Red Lips album by Muhammad Mounir” while Basim is outside the Nasserist Party building, shouting slogans and demanding free and fair elections. One also imagines that neither is going to really get his happily-ever-after.

All in all: A book with some very interesting stylistic tics, interesting character development, and solid conflict between the two ideals of Nadir and Basim. But maybe you should just skip to page 133.

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