NOTE: Vertigo has been named “best revolution read” of 2011.
I was reading the Robin Moger translation of Ahmed Mourad’s Vertigo last night, and was struck by the generational clash over humiliation between Ahmed (the protagonist) and Gouda (a mentor/father figure of sorts).
Ahmed is working as a sort of mafia-bar photographer (where the mafia are legitimate Egyptian businessmen) when he refuses to carry a note from an important young man to a young woman at another table. The young man, Habib Amin, hits our protagonist in the face. Because Habib Amin has serious connections, our protagonist is dragged outside while everyone apologizes to Habib Amin.
“I’m worn out, Gouda; exhausted. That bastard didn’t strike me in the face. He struck me in the heart. He brought up every bad thing that’s ever marked me. How can I stay silent?”
Later: “No, Gouda. Anything but my dignity…”
“Ahmed, I agree with you that our job involves humiliation, but it’s our livelihood, our life.”
“So you’re happy with your lot?”
“Praise be to God! Who’s got work these days? Besides, I’ve faced worse situations than this and coped. It’s a crust of bread, Ahmed. It’s what time teaches us.”
“I’m not like you. You’ve got yourself used to it. You’ve come to accept it and you regard it as a blessing. I see you when someone lays into you: keeping quiet, laughing, shrugging it off. I’m not like that, Gouda. I can’t be like you.”
Gouda: “Every trade has its hardships, and anyway, your generation is spoiled. You don’t know that what you’ve got is a blessing. Life’s a piece of cake compared to the old days. You haven’t seen war or death. You should kiss your hand on both sides in gratitude that there are people like that around to take care of you and help you out. On my honour, Fathi el-Assal once gave me five hundred pounds and I hadn’t even taken a single photograph of him, and Habib Amin might be a bit charmless but he’s a good fellow, and generous. You know who his dad is: Sherif Amin, a heavyweight. …”
“So, you reckon that I should stay quiet and kiss my hand in gratitude for my blessings?”
“No, I’m telling you that there are lots of people who would love to be in your position. You’ll soon forget all about it and adapt and your mind will be more open.”
“It won’t happen, Gouda. You don’t see yourself when some loser of a customer raises his voice at you. Haven’t you felt that you don’t deserve that? Would you be happy for your wife to see you like that? I don’t know why you don’t see what I see. It’s like we’re working in two different places!”
“All I see is that life has taught me to be tough.”
“Tough or silent? …”
This is Mourad’s first novel, and there are a few too many characters thrown in, too much switching back and forth between scenes, for it to be a seamless read. But he’s got courage.
Not the ‘Arab Spring’:
‘Arab Spring’ heralds new era for publishers: The author went with the “Arab spring” trope, although the piece doesn’t really warrant it. Cairo book fair director Ahmed Zaki says, as evidence of good things happening, that “”Many people are eager now to read what happened in Tahrir.”
The piece continues: “However, he added that he was not entirely supportive of a sudden total freedom of expression, preferring a ‘wisdom censorship’ to guard against books critical of Egyptian customs and traditions.”