Eslam Mosbah’s “إيموز“, trans. Raphael Cohen and published by AUC Press as Status: Emo (2013), has a wild, end-of-days atmosphere. Something is rotten in the State of Egypt, and change must be on the horizon:
The looming change, whatever it is, seems poised to alter everything. At one point, Emmie — the book’s Unmoved Mover — says:
“But hold on…Egypt will never improve more than it is now. Some day in the near future the whole society will explode. The police will kill citizens in broad daylight. There will be rapes every second, robberies every minute, treason by the hour, and a tragedy every day.”
It’s unclear exactly what Emmie was predicting back in 2010, but this is not a novel that’s interested in social movements or a social uprising. Like Ahmed Alaidy’s Being Abbas al-Abd, Mosbah’s novel takes core inspiration from Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club. The unnamed narrator is drowning in his “boring” working-class life: He works the overnight shift at an Internet cafe for a few hundred LE a month while his parents pressure him to marry his cousin Lamis, who can get him a job in Kuwait. The narrator doesn’t “love her. You don’t hate her either. She’s like something vaguely present in your life, a knickknack you’re scared to play with in case it gets broken and your mother tells you off.”
The terse-talking narrator, well-translated by Cohen, interprets his desperation and unhappiness as “boredom.” As such, he looks for ways to entertain himself, spending much of his time on Facebook looking for sex-ready women. This boredom, however, doesn’t just belong to the narrator. It is a condition he generalizes to the whole country and blames on a national passivity: “Eighty million wimps stamped, ‘Made in Egypt.’
The book’s game-changer is Emmie, the personification of the titular “Emo”: She goes to extremes, ignores conventions, flaunts authority. The protagonist falls in love with the idea of Emmie and with her ability to gather people around her in a sort of a “fight club.” Indeed, the narrator says that Palahniuk’s groups were meant to challenge the American way of life, whereas Emmie’s “fight clubs” are atheist gatherings.
The novel’s characterizations of characters’ relationships to authority are often dead-on:
“Emmie says that ordinary peoples’ struggle with authority is preordained and has a foregone conclusion. Ordinary people fight themselves first before taking on authority. Try to look in the eyes of a policeman, however weak his position. The collective conscience forces you to lower your eyes and accept defeat, even if you’re stronger, and even if you’re right.”
The book also pokes fun at Egyptian social mores, as when a young man wants to have sex with Emmie, but “changed his opinion about this good time when he found out I’m an atheist? Imagine: he wants to sleep with someone, but she has to be Muslim. I’m sure he wants her religious as well.”
The protagonist attempts to transcend all this: morality, authority, society, and thus his essential “boredom.” This, he imagines, is how he can take control of his life, leaving “boredom” behind. In hopes of accomplishing this, he flees his parents’ home, quits his job, lives off a friend of Emmie’s, and has casual sex.
But as the book pushes out past red lines — into blurred gender roles, atheism, homosexuality — it begins to splinter, losing its pacing and focus. The protagonist is afraid to cross certain lines, and it seems the book is, too. In the final conference or “fight club,” atheism and homosexuality both become caricatures. Both lead to an ignominious — almost silly — suicide, which the other fight clubbers applaud.
In the end, the narrator’s transgressions are met by state violence and come to an end. After that: “You go to Kuwait. You come back and marry Lamis. You have children from Lamis.” As might be expected, this life is also “boring” and the narrator again craves wild, boundary-breaking Emmie.
Status: Emo is a book with promise, and the first three quarters are page-turning and enjoyable. In the end, however, it never sufficiently interrogates the central “boredom” or looks dead-on at what lies on the other side of suffocating social mores. (What is “boredom”? What conditions engender it, and why?) Yet it does successfully turn its gaze within, sketching out the edges of one interior Egyptian revolution.