Prefiguring Orientalism: Beer in the Snooker Club

At times in one’s life, the only thing to do is return to the classics: Stick them under an armpit and try to hobble along as best you can. So, last night, I re-read Waguih Ghali’s Beer in the Snooker Club (1964, reissued 2010).

Beer in the Snooker Club—Ghali’s only novel—is having a well-deserved revival. There is a new Arabic translation from Iman Mersal and Reem al-Rayes. A new English edition (pictured left) came out from Serpent’s Tail last month.

The qualities of this book are many and enduring: its humor, its compelling main character, its dialogue, its intelligence and self-criticism. Most of all, its honesty. No one escapes this book unscathed: not the rich, not the middle class or the poor; not the religious, the atheists, the Nasserists, the Communists, the Copts or Muslims or Jews, the liberal British, the narrator’s mother; not even the narrator’s beloved.

I don’t know whether Edward Said read Ghali’s Beer in the Snooker Club. He might’ve; he must’ve. It was out more a decade before Said published his seminal Orientalism. And, in many ways, Ghali’s 1964 novel traces the history of his protagonist’s “Orientalization”: how Ram becomes divided against himself, how a man of his class and education becomes an Egyptian who isn’t Egyptian.

The protagonist, Ram, also gives a nod to the Middle East hands in Egypt and their cute little Orientalisms. Jack (an American) is in the country on a fact-finding mission with his wife and sister:

“Sue’s my sister,” Jack said. “Ever since those two girls read Sinuhe the Egyptian, they’ve wanted to come here.”

Mounir called the waiter and Jack ordered a Coca Cola. The score sheets lay neglected on the table, mingled with the playing cards, and any moment now the servant would come and clear the table, throwing the score sheets away.

“What facts,” I asked, absent-mindedly making a neat pack of the cards and retrieving the score sheets, “are you trying to find, sir?”

“Just call him Jack,” Caroline said.

“Jack,” I said.

“Well, he said, “we are a team of people going from one country to another, living with the people, the same way the people are living, sharing their everyday lives, and finding out what they truly think of the States, and finding out how we can foster and encourage friendship between us and you.” He pulled up a chair and sat, his face near mine, his hand on the back of my chair; every sentence emphasized neatly and concisely. I remember a pair of American young men belonging to the Mormon sect, who rang at my door in London one day. In the same neat and earnest way, they recited the fact that God is divided into three distinct entities…or is it the other way round, I forget which.

His [Jack’s] eyes wide open, his mouth practically brushing my ear, using his finger for emphasis, he unveiled the accumulated facts gathered whilst living with my cousin and my aunt. “Back in L.A. where we live,” he continued, “we have one maid and one cook and no more. My wife Caroline has to do a lot of housework her own self. Well, here the housewife does not do any housework, she has a gardener, a chauffeur, two cooks…I believe,” he looked at Mounir for verification, and Mounir nodded wisely, “and a servant for the housework.”

Those are some pretty fine facts, you must admit!

So, your New Year’s resolution:

You haven’t read Ghali’s Beer in the Snooker Club? Do.

And, if you’ve always wanted to read Orientalism:

There is a group on GoodReads doing it right now; some reading the Arabic edition, and some the English. You’re welcome to join.

If you’re in Cairo:

موعدنا غداً في ندوة خاصة جداً للدكتور والكاتب الكبير يوسف زيدان في مكتبة الشروق فرع الزمالك الساعة 7 مساءً، مع حضور خاص للمخرج خالد يوسف….في انتظاركم