‘The Complex’: A Chapter from Mohammed Rabie’s Acclaimed ‘Year of the Dragon’

“The Complex” is a chapter from Mohammed Rabie’s Year of the Dragon, a novel that explores the infuriating, bizarre, and sometimes hilarious underbelly of Egyptian bureaucracy. Rabie was born in 1978, and his first novel Kawkab Anbar (2010, Amber Planet) won first prize in the Sawiris Award’s emerging writers’ category. Year of the Dragon was released in 2012.

Translated by Mona Kareem

web_dragon (1)Na’em arrives at Aisha al-Taymouriya St. in Garden City, walking as he looks at the buildings, searching for their numbers. Within meters, he sees Qasr al-Nil police station on his right. He then looks across and finds building number six. He notices the huge sign atop the building with the name “The Committee of Dilemmas, Obstacles, Troubles, and Glue.”

Na’em hesitates before he enters; he wants to get the task done and return home. But now he needs to focus on the pink death certificate and forget about going home. He needs to arrange his thoughts to get this certificate. His thoughts are interrupted by a ringing voice that asks him what he needs. Na’em looks for the source of this voice.

The voice calls again. This time, it is louder and clearer. Na’em catches the voice coming from somewhere above his head. To the left side of the entrance, there is a huge desk — enormous. It could almost be a high podium. Na’em can’t see the man sitting behind it, but he is now sure that the voice is coming from above. It is the voice of the man sitting at the high podium. The powerful surprise makes Na’em speak out loud in Na’emian, calling the name of Mr. Mohammed Omar as he explains his request. But Na’em backs off from uttering his last words, afraid that an insult or a curse might come out of his mouth, ruining the whole mission.

He reaches out with the paper that has Mohammed Omar’s name. He wants to give it to the man sitting up on the podium, the hidden and mysterious one up there. But his hand can’t reach out to the edge of the podium. Na’em goes around the podium, hoping to reach the man sitting in a chair behind it. To his surprise, he finds that the podium is oval-shaped, with no trace of the man or his chair. The man’s voice gets louder and firmer this time, asking Na’em what he wants. Na’em looks around for a chair or a ladder to reach the man and hand him the paper, but the emptiness around made him forget the idea.

Finally, Na’em sits on the floor and folds the paper several times. One fold splits the paper into halves and other diagonal folds with sharp angles come in to the linear center of the paper. They are all symmetrical folds, at both sides of the center. When he’s done, the paper is turned into a paper plane with two wide wings, and he throws it into the air, heading towards the edge of the podium. It lands on top of it and Na’em hears the sound of the man’s hands unfolding the paper. In a few seconds, Na’em hears the man giving him directions to Mohammed Omar’s office.

He is wearing a full suit, covering his head with a hat like that of Suharto. On the desk, there are two small piles of paper.

In the room, there is nothing special: a lonely metal desk, two wooden chairs facing it, and an aging employee sitting on a chair in the middle of the office. His head is bent to his chest, the hair of his beard light and sparse. He is wearing a full suit, covering his head with a hat like that of Suharto. On the desk, there are two small piles of paper.

According to Wahib, Mr. Mohammed Omar will celebrate his 145th birthday this year, which makes him one of the oldest people in the world. Wahib said: “Forget about that Chinese man and that Sudanese man, Mohammed Omar is older, but he doesn’t like media and attention. He only likes to work.”

Mohammed Omar’s office is known all over North Africa, as he was a member of the committee that laid the foundations of the Tunisian, Moroccan, and Algerian bureaucracies. He is a faithful son of the Egyptian bureaucracy. This is why many people come to him for solutions to problems they face while trying to get paperwork done. Like Na’em, all of them come to Mohammed Omar to complete the most difficult of documents.

Na’em puts Wahib’s recommendation letter on the desk. Mohammed Omar holds it with great care and starts to read it in silence. He reads it twice as he chews the emptiness of his mouth. He smiles at last, showing his gums, which are completely empty of teeth. With a scratchy, polite voice, he asks about Wahib and his affairs.

Mohammed Omar says he remembers Wahib well — he came to him many years ago with the same request as Na’em’s. Back then, he helped him, as he didn’t believe that a citizen would ever be able to find out that such a certificate exists.

Na’em relaxed. The man’s friendly smile assures him that everything was all right and that he would be able to go home in a few days with the pink death certificate.

Time passes by slowly as they converse with joy. Mohammed Omar asks a question and Na’em answers by writing in his notebook. Mohammed Omar seems assured and that makes Na’em feel assured as well.

He would yell at such a man: “Do you see me selling pickles? I am a respectable civil servant.” 

Mr. Mohammed Omar is an important man. He only deals with urgent problems, always finding genius solutions. For every man-made problem, there is a solution that Mohammed Omar invented. Some might come to him asking for his help in getting a driving license or renewing a residency, and that would enrage Mohammed Omar. He would yell at such a man: “Do you see me selling pickles? I am a respectable civil servant.”

Mohammed Omar might help someone who received a ‘removal order’ for his house, directing him to the perfect method of terminating the order. The method would usually be easy, just putting some papers together, one from here, another from there, and then you have a complete file. He might direct the person to a certain committee or a department in some ministry to get some signatures and stamps: the outbox stamp, the receipt stamp, and the eagle stamp. He calls them “the holy triangle,” referring to the eagle stamp as “he,” as if it were a living creature, or even a human. The eagle stamp is not inanimate. The eagle stamp is a national human being with specific responsibilities, a unique shape, and powers not limited by any laws.

Mr. Mohammed Omar moves a bit in his seat. He holds his beard and thinks deeply. Staring at the wall and thinking. He gets ready to work, to find a solution to Na’em’s problem. Na’em feels disturbed right away, as this slowness means there are many problems. After thinking all problems would be solved at Mohammed Omar’s hands, there are now missing papers! Didn’t this old man say that Wahib had gotten the same certificate some time ago? Oh man, give me a break! Mr. Mohammed Omar holds the huge folder that has Na’em’s papers. He checks the papers, reading some and skimming through others. He reads the title and leaves the text. Then he looks quickly at the signatures and stamps at the bottom of the page. The text is not required in many cases. The title guides the reader to the essence of the paper and the signatures and stamps reflect the effort spent to have them issued. Mohammed Omar reads some other papers very carefully, re-reading them over and over. Na’em sits there nervous and silent, eventually surrendering to boredom.

“The memory” is floating to his right side once again. With much compassion, Na’em notices it and forgets about Mohammed Omar. For the thousandth time, Na’em tries to remember how he saw it the first time, where, and what it is, anyway? But it is distant and out of reach. It keeps floating like a piece of an eggshell. For the thousandth time, Na’em notices its slight concavity, but he still doesn’t distinguish any shape or specific form. Na’em gets deeply lost in contemplating the memory while Mohammed Omar continues to read for several consecutive hours.

In any place with the pictures of President Mubarak on the wall, any series of questions will start with this eternal request: “your ID!”

In a calm and steady voice, he asks “your ID!” and immediately, Na’em brings out his plastic ID from his wallet. He gives it in with no delay. In any place with the pictures of President Mubarak on the wall, any series of questions will start with this eternal request: “your ID!”

Mr. Mohammed Omar looks at it for a bit, flips it around, then he gets up and tells Na’em confidentially: “Come with me.” Na’em feels relieved. God’s mercy is bigger than anything, even the government. Perhaps Mohammed Omar wanted to joke with Na’em when he made him feel, with a serious face, that his problem might need some time. Here he is, getting up and moving. Allahu Akhbar. The man can walk! What a miracle! Mohammed Omar walks slowly, with calm features. He sees Na’em as a dead man who needs to be spared the time and effort. Mohammed Omar knows that his hour of death is very close as well, so he is moving today to help a dead man get his death certificate in hope that someone would help him in the same manner when he dies. Mohammed Omar walks towards a small door in the room’s wall while praying to God to count this service among his good deeds. Na’em’s children are orphans, and Mohammed Omar is doing them a favor. God knows that Mohammed Omar does not care at all for Na’em, who is standing in front of him. He is doing this for his orphans. Mohammed Omar is a truly noble man.

“Come with me,” he tells Na’em as he opens a small door that leads to a dark emptiness. He switches on the light. Na’em notices part of the metal shelving on both sides of the corridor. A short corridor leads to a long stairway, the end of which he cannot see. On the right side of the small corridor, there is an oblique surface that seems parallel to the stairway, descending as if it were made to bring down a cart or a small car. Na’em notices metal shelving on both sides of the stairway and the emptiness appears to be massive, very high, not limited by any ceiling. There, at the end of emptiness, or what one thinks is The End, where sight loses its sharpness, Na’em sees the convergence of lines drawn for shelves on both sides. The lines meet at one point and the space between the two sides of emptiness disappears in what appears to be an optical illusion.

From beneath the lower shelf, Mohammed Omar pulls up a dusty white Vespa. He cleans it carefully with an old piece of cloth, wiping it carefully to clean it of every grain of dust. Mohammed Omar rides the Vespa. He presses on the pedal strongly, turning the engine on from the first push. He repeats to Na’em his only sentence: “Come with me.” Na’em sits on the back as Mohammed Omar drives ahead at an extreme speed. Na’em is terrified as he tries to maintain his balance on the speeding Vespa. The Vespa goes down with the slope of the inclined surface and the speed increases due to gravity and Mohammed Omar’s vigorous pressing on the pedal. Na’em is terrified by the increasing speed and he is about to scream at Mohammed Omar to stop. Mohammed Omar is going mad, he is now reaching the end of the slope. The ground is even under the Vespa’s wheels. Mohammed Omar keeps driving, but he slows down.

After circling around the wide curves for some minutes, Na’em realizes that these streets resemble the streets of Garden City, which are on top of them. So this is the lower mirror of Garden City.

Mohammed Omar slides into a corridor on the right, another on the right, then a third on the left. They arrive at a very wide street. Na’em can neither see its end nor its sidewalks. Thick darkness covers most of the wide street with some blurry light here and there. Na’em feels the cold breeze pushing against his sides. The Vespa speeds up again over the asphalt of the very empty street. Complete emptiness. The Vespa gets to a huge square with a statue of the Egyptian Scribe in its center. The statue looks over the square in much glory and awe. Mohammed Omar stops in front of the statue, but Na’em feels heavy at its sight.  Mohammed Omar puts his right hand up, saluting the statue in glory and respect, before driving onto a straight road that continues after the square. He drives for few minutes through a straight side street, which divides into several sloppy streets. After circling around the wide curves for some minutes, Na’em realizes that these streets resemble the streets of Garden City, which are on top of them. So this is the lower mirror of Garden City.

At the end, Mohammed Omar stops on the side of a gigantic building that cannot be completely seen because of its enormous size. Its top disappears in the darkness. Na’em can see only the many small rectangular windows in the first and second floors, where lights reveal their shape. He also notices the depressing grey color of the building and the huge curve at the building’s front. The front is curved around an imagined vertical center at the back of the building. It looks like a huge belly of a man sleeping on his side. Mohammed Omar walks up and tells Na’em “come with me” as they enter the building together. Although the street is empty and the square and the sidewalk next to the building are empty, too, the building is full of people. It is crowded as in the Day of Judgment!

They walk together as Mohammed Omar takes his steps with seriousness and speed. Na’em follows him closely so he won’t get lost in the crowd. They get past corridors, rooms, offices, employees, customers, women peeling vegetables, men selling newspapers and old books, others shining shoes, a group selling spiders and small snakes, a woman selling tea and anise, and a Chinese group displaying a large quantity of various goods on the floor.

At last, Mohammed Omar gets to the required room. He opens the ‘Solutions Archive’ room with a key from his pocket. He heads directly to the metal closet on one side of the room. He opens it and goes through many piles of colored papers, small and big, folders and notebooks. He chooses several copies of one form then gives a copy to Na’em; a paper that’s large in size, pink in color, and bears the title:

A Death Certificate with a Personal Photo of the Deceased

“This is a form for a death certificate with a photo of the deceased. This certificate was issued in the era of Mohammed Anwar El-Sadat. Not many know what occasion pushed the government to issue it, but I will tell you its purpose. In any case, this certificate is not known today. No government employee would ask for it, perhaps because he likely never heard of its existence in the first place. However, this certificate would still be valid if issued and stamped. The forms put in this closet are the only ones of their kind remaining in the Arab Republic of Egypt. They are actually the only ones of their kind in the world because no government would recognize them other than the Egyptian government.

“In the seventies, when this certificate was first issued, those who were to be sentenced to death outside Egypt were required to have it issued from Egyptian embassies in the countries where they would be executed, or from the nearest Egyptian embassy to their place of execution. The convicted needs this certificate attached to their corpse when it enters Egypt. The corpse will be otherwise denied entry.

“A deceased person who passed away due to natural causes or an illness, an accident, physical or psychological torture, or in any of the thousand ways of death, does not need to obtain this certificate. One is obligated to have it only if one was sentenced to death because, in this case, the corpse is no longer a possession of the sentenced person but of the executing authorities. The latter, which is a foreign state in this case, does not have the privilege of issuing a regular death certificate, because it is the direct and main cause of death. We are talking in the case of a non-criminal death built on a judicial verdict of justice and precision. A verdict has to pass through the three levels of a judiciary process before being approved. In this case, therefore, a death certified with a photo of the deceased is needed to match the picture of the person in ‘the certificate with the face of the deceased’ when it arrives at the Customs department of the Egyptian state.”

Mohammed Omar goes outside again as Na’em walks behind him like a drugged sleeper. They melt in the crowd, and Na’em feels familiarity at last: the smell of sweat, the smoke of cigarettes, and the breath of flu-patients. Smells that take him back to reality. Mohammed Omar gets out of the building with small, slow steps while Na’em looks for the Vespa. Mohammed Omar laughs at Na’em’s confusion and tells him that they have taken the other exit. He should not worry about the Vespa. Sunlight finally hits Na’em’s eyes after the darkness of night had spread while Na’em was still hanging onto the Vespa. Na’em remembers the darkness and is surprised by the overspreading sunlight. They must now be above ground.

Mohammed Omar takes many steps between the crowds on the sidewalk to get to the asphalt. He stops next to a taxi and they get in.

The taxi goes around Tahrir Square in a semi-circle, then passes by Omar Makram mosque, and takes the Corniche Road before heading to Garden City again.

Mohammed Omar presses one of them and waits for the small red light to go on. Then, he inserts the certificate in a thin slit at the front of the metal device. He waits for a few seconds — the device makes some noise and shakes.

At his humble desk, Mohammed Omar fills out the form using the Egyptian governmental handwriting, one that has many curves with no sharp angles at all. The curves are very big, filling the empty spaces marked off for writing. He asks Na’em for his signature in the specified area at the bottom of the form. He signs after him and brings out several stamps to stamp the certificate. He then goes to a wooden closet in his office, where he keeps a huge metal device inside. It is grey with soft curvy angles that suggest solidity and strength. It has several buttons in the front. Mohammed Omar presses one of them and waits for the small red light to go on. Then, he inserts the certificate in a thin slit at the front of the metal device. He waits for a few seconds — the device makes some noise and shakes. Everything suddenly stops, and the certificate comes out covered in a thin plastic layer. Mohammed Omar goes back to his desk and passes the certificate to Na’em.

“What you see at the bottom of the certificate is a unique stamp. It is the eagle thermal stamp that validates any paper beyond any doubt. If you bring a blank sheet of paper and write, in your own handwriting, an order to the Egyptian Central Bank to give a million Egyptian pounds to its holder and stamp it with this stamp without any other stamp or signature, the paper obligates the bank teller to fulfill the order without question.

“This certificate cannot be revised or questioned by anyone. You can carry it wherever you go and present it to any judge, police officer, or government employee. If any of them reads it, they will drop it and walk away from you immediately. Just talking to you, after seeing that your death is confirmed, would make them suspect madness. No one wants to be dismissed from their job in the government sector for accusations of madness.”

Mohammed Omar hands the certificate to Na’em. Na’em holds one end as Mohammed Omar keeps his fingers at the other end. The latter asks Na’em if he needs any other services, and Na’em shakes his head to say no. He tells Na’em to pass his greetings to Wahib and thanks him for the enjoyable hours he spent with him today. Mohammed Omar then lets go of the certificate.

Na’em moves the chair to make a loud noise, clears his throat, coughs, gets up, and hits the ground with his foot while leaving. Nothing works, Mohammed Omar remains completely immersed in reading his papers.

The smile disappears from his lips, he gets busy with papers in front of him. Na’em thanks him with unintelligible words, but Mohammed Omar does not reply or look up at him. Na’em writes his thanks on a small paper that he rips off his notebook and puts the paper in front of him, but Mohammed Omar does not look at it and continues to read papers. Na’em moves the chair to make a loud noise, clears his throat, coughs, gets up, and hits the ground with his foot while leaving. Nothing works, Mohammed Omar remains completely immersed in reading his papers. He does not turn to look at Na’em at all.

Mohamed Rabie is an Egyptian writer born in 1978. His first novel Kawkab Anbar (2010) won the Sawiris Cultural Award in 2012. His second novel Year of the Dragon was released in 2012.

Mona Kareem is a stateless poet and writer from Kuwait, born in 1987. She has two poetry collections published and is currently working on her PhD in Comparative Literature at SUNY Binghamton.

Read another excerpt from Rabie’s novel at Qisasukhra.

Read an interview on the old Egypt Independent.

If you are interested in a synopsis, a reader’s report, or more about the novel, do let us know.