As we wait for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) shortlist February 10, we continue to look at the 16 novels on the longlist. Nesreen Salem reviews Ibrahim Abdelmeguid’s Clouds Over Alexandria (which could also be Alexandria in a Cloud), which closes out his Alexandria trilogy:
By Nesreen Salem
Clouds Over Alexandria, Ibrahim Abdelmeguid’s fourteenth novel, explores the political turmoil that clouded Egypt during the reign of Anwar el Sadat. In this, one cannot help but hear and see the echoes of the popular January 25 2011 uprising and the parallels between the two eras, which are arguably connected in a viscous historical cycle.
Nader, a young university student, poet and socialist, leads the narrative with his sweetheart, Yara; a delicate, fragile girl who is in love with his words as much as he is in love with her vulnerability. Alongside the couple is another couple: Hassan and Cariman; the former a resident of Mansoura who studies in Alexandria, while Cariman, Yara’s best friend, fights battles of her own with her Islamist yet sexually perverted stepfather.
We are introduced to Nader’s friends and roommates: Essa; , an Italian-heritage aficionado and a mature university student who moves from one faculty to the next to spread the socialist manifesto, ; Hassan; , an aspiring playwright; Ahmed, a roommate who passes his time womanizing even after donning a beard and rose beads; and Bishr; , a seemingly regular guy whose only outlet for his frustration is the two prostitutes who live in the flat below them. At first, these young people appear to be typical Egyptian youth: ambitious yet curbed by poverty, enthusiastic yet helpless. After being targeted by the secret police, they decide to become underground socialists. Even Yara surprises Nader with her feistiness once she’s introduced to their secret group.
The characters are interesting, and though they’re not well-developed due to the volume of characters in this novel, there is a certain pull to their narratives. Perhaps Abdelmaguid Abdelmeguid meant them to be symbols or archetypes rather than characters in their own right. And though they can be vaguely recognized as such, it has made sympathizing with their lives and tribulations difficult. Through their eyes, we see how the culture of Alexandria gradually changes, first through el Sadat’s new capitalist policies, and second through the introduction of Islamic ideology. But his writing constantly pulls us back from that present moment to a time when Alexandria was a cosmopolitan capital, brimming with Europeans and Jews whose prints could still be seen in the architecture of the buildings. Alas, the only memory of them is left in their cemeteries.
Reading the plot while we are watching the Arab Spring unfold, makes the events feel quite predictable. They reach a peak when people decide to revolt, and Nader and his friends find themselves in prison for six months. When they leave, their lives are never the same and their dreams are no longer tenable.
The prose is interspersed with Nader’s poetry, as well as song lyrics from classic Egyptian music, providing a palpable sense of nostalgia that permeates the narrative. Nawal, a singer and owner of a nightclub the protagonists frequent, also provides a suitable soundtrack to the novel through her classical singing and reminiscences.
The novel concludes as tragically as is expected: Yara is lost to Nader forever, as she has been forced to marry the very officer who interrogated him. Before she disappears, we see her as a dying petal; a far cry from the blooming rose she once was. Cariman attempts to end her life by drowning in the Mediterranean, but fails. We learn she was pregnant at the time (though we are never told who impregnated her) and that she has attempted to kill her stepfather.
The novel ends with Nader’s powerful poetic eulogy to Yara which reads like an epitaph to Alexandria. The loss of Yara is the loss of his sense of home and country. Similarly, Cariman’s ordeal mirrors the Islamists’ takeover of Egyptian life and politics, which even after many attempts, could not be stopped.
Abdelmaguid’s Abdelmeguid’s nostalgia for a once-upon-a-time thriving cosmopolitan Alexandria permeates his narrative. He sees Alexandria as a beacon that was put out by 20th century ruling regimes and emerging Islamists. His plot is suffused with too many characters, all on the verge of leaving Alexandria, for there is nothing left for them there but the buildings and the sea.
I am fortunate to have been following recent events in Egypt to fill in some of the gaps; however, as an Egyptian and an Alexandrian, I am left wondering why things had to end as hopelessly as they did. The novel left me with feelings of anger and frustration, not because the characters deserved better (because I don’t feel sympathetic enough towards them to feel that way) but because the reader deserved to sink into the depth of fewer characters who potentially could have enriched the reader’s experience of the tragedy that is modern Egyptian history.
Nesreen Salem has an MA in Creative Writing. She is a doctoral student at University of Essex, a writer, & the UK representative for the Egyptian Women’s Union.
Mohga Hassib’s interview with Abdelmeguid: ‘The Hero Is the City’
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