Lucia Admiraal explores the timeless appeal of Waguih Ghali’s Beer in the Snooker Club:
By Lucia Admiraal
Walking around on the last day of a crowded Cairo Book Fair, I stumbled upon a ‘leftover’ English edition of Egyptian author Waguih Ghali’s Beer in the Snooker Club. I had recently read the Arabic translation of the novel and was still impressed by it.
While reading the original version in English on my way home by metro, I was even more struck by Ghali’s smart, highly amusing, yet so tragic style of writing. Not a clear Egyptian, nor a British novel, but highly relevant in understanding Egypt’s colonial, nationalist, and revolutionary past and present. I suddenly wondered why this was not the book that visitors chose to read upon arriving in Egypt, instead of Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy or Alaa al-Aswany’s Yacoubian Building.
Waguih Ghali (1930-1969) has long remained a neglected author in Egypt, partly because the Arabic translation of his only novel, Beer in the Snooker Club, (1964) appeared as late as 2010. Since then, both the original republished English edition and the Arabic translation have gained popularity, especially after the start of the Arab uprisings. Beer in the Snooker Club is now often piled up alongside George Orwell’s 1984 in Cairo bookstores.
Post colonialism and alienation
The novel depicts the urban wanderings of an Anglophone, aristocratic but poor and unemployed Coptic Egyptian with communist sympathies, Ram, upon his return to Egypt after having studied in London. Unable to unite his now fragmented loyalties and identities, Ram spends his days drinking, smoking and gambling in the Western cafes and colonial clubs of Cairo, in the midst of the rapid changes following decolonization and Nasser’s presidency.
Ghali’s novel has been described as a love letter to two cities: Cairo and London, and the different parts of the book are set against the background of the rapid political and social transformations taking place in both Egypt and Britain following the Suez Crisis in 1956. Ram mocks both the materialist, colonial elite, whose cosmopolitan lifestyle he is unable to give up, and the repressive socialist system under Nasser. Surrounded by hypocrisy, he feels alienated in his own country.
Scholar of Arabic literature Roger Allen has described how encounters with Europe have been an important theme in Arabic novels ever since the Nahda, the “Arab renaissance” which began at the end of the nineteenth century. As is the case with Beer in the Snooker Club, these literary expressions of encounters with Europe often contain autobiographical elements.
Just like his protagonist in Beer in the Snooker Club, Waguib Ghali was an Anglophone Coptic Egyptian leftist, born into an aristocratic family. After his father passed away, his mother was financially dependent on wealthier family members. Ghali studied medicine in Cairo and Paris and would eventually move to London.
Besides writing a series of essays for The Guardian from 1957-1965, Ghali worked as factory labourer in Britain and West Germany to provide his income and additionally lived some time in Sweden. After 1967, he reported from Israel for several British media outlets. The Egyptian government had earlier refused to renew his passport due to his political views.
Ghali would not return to Egypt. Suffering from continuing depressions, he committed suicide in 1969 by taking an overdose of pills. A second novel, which he had started to write, would never be finished.
Paradox and hypocrisy
In the opening scenes of his novel, Ghali exposes his reader to the paradox of Nasserism and the ever-present gap between rich and poor in Egypt. Both Ram and his friend Font speak fluent English and French and have a university degree, but fail to find a sufficient job or an adequate income.
During their childhood, the two friends received British educations in Cairo. Once at university, they befriended the rich Jewish-Egyptian girl Edna, a communist, who brings them to London to study. After having lived there together, Edna disappears for a year without any explanation, although still supporting the two friends financially.
Between Edna and Ram, a complex love relationship develops. Ram only finds out upon his return from London why Edna does not want to get married, despite her declared love for him. She is still married to a persecuted Egyptian Jewish communist who fled to Israel, the latter also being the reason for her absence in London.
It never becomes clear – not to reader, nor to the lovers, it seems – whether the complexity of their identities, stuck between nationalisms, hinders their relationship, or it lies with personal disputes and Ram’s unequalled admiration for Edna.
Back in Cairo, Ram continues living with his mother in a luxurious Nile-facing apartment, but refrains from asking about their financial situation. It is clear, however, that the family’s fortune belongs to the past. Ram visits his rich aunt with the intention of borrowing some money, but finds her caught up in counting the revenues from her landed property and exploiting impoverished farmers, the fellaheen.
Exclusive public space
After this, we follow Ram on his way from one Western café to another. The famous Groppi, still open nowadays but more or less a relic of the past, was a symbol of the Egyptian cosmopolitan elite and in Ram’s view “one of the most beautiful places to drink whiskey in.”
Places like Groppi and the Snooker Club were exclusive public spaces, largely belonging to the rich, European-influenced Egyptian elitists reading French, British and American newspapers. In the novel, the bars and cafes are both the universe of the aristocracy desperately trying to keep up its old lifestyle under Nasser, as well as a refuge for intellectual socialists, stuck between their elitist environment and Nasser’s repressive Arab-socialist state.
While Ram refuses to distance himself from his upper-class surroundings, Font superficially tries to create a simple life for himself according to his socialist beliefs. In contrast to Ram, he lives in a popular neighbourhood in historical Cairo. Upon his return from London, Ram finds Font selling cucumbers in the street, wearing traditional Egyptian clothing.
Encouraged by Ram and his rich friends, Font eventually takes a job as barkeeper in the Snooker Club, which is owned by their friend Gameel. But the sharp contrast between Font’s job at the bar and his social and educational upbringing is always present. Two rich Armenian customers mockingly call him and Ram the “professors.”
Ram admiringly speaks about Gameel’s father Hamza, whom he describes as a passionate socialist who has been imprisoned during the days of king Farouk, speaks fluent French, and writes for the prestigious magazine L’Express:
“I like Dr. Hamza; as a matter of fact, I’d like to be like him: well-dressed and soberly aristocratic and having been imprisoned for his socialist views. I would not like to go to prison, but I’d like to have been.”
Hence, Dr. Hamza embodies the meeting of multiple social and political identities that in turn make Ram paralysed. The latter’s divided loyalties between Egypt and British cultures create a state of alienation and powerlessness. He observes the changes taking place around him with a certain distance and cynicism. Instead of looking for work, he lets his friends pay for his café bills and rides the tram without buying a ticket.
Ultimately, the character of Ram is so appealing because he does not fit in, being a tragic outcast: not completely impoverished, nor rich, a foreigner in Britain but alienated from his own country, socialist and anti-imperialist, while mocking and opposing Nasser’s oppressive state and still strongly connected to British culture.
Cosmopolitanism and nostalgia
The Suez crisis of 1956 ultimately marked the end of a cosmopolitan culture among the elites in Cairo and Alexandria and the start of an exodus of foreign minorities and large parts of the Jewish community. Ram’s love for the Jewish communist Edna is symbolic for the vanished pluralism in Egypt and the coexistence of Muslims, Christians, Jews and several foreign minorities.
Although Beer in the Snooker Club presents clear parallels with contemporary post-colonial literature such as Season of Migration to the North (1966) from the Sudanese writer Tayeb Salih, the novel does not merely fit within the framework of nationalism and post-colonialism. Deborah Starr has underlined how Ghali’s work becomes particularly interesting in light of its multicultural, cosmopolitan vision. Unsurprisingly, the book cover of the Arabic edition depicts symbols of different religions and ideologies.
Beer in the Snooker Club is indeed relevant in light of the current wave of nostalgia in Egypt for a pluralist and cosmopolitan culture during the 1950s and 60s, this being part of a Nasserist, nationalist revival. But Ghali presents us an unromanticised Egyptian past. When Ram meets Edna for the first time in Cairo since her sudden disappearance from London, he finds out she has a big scarf on her face because an Egyptian soldier beat her for being Jewish.
At the end of the novel, Ram decides to marry the rich Coptic Didi, but he fails to love her. In contrast to Ram, she lives a happy life, refraining from politics and seeking refuge in her private library. One of their conversations shows the dilemma of whether to choose a stable life, or fight for ideals in face of society and the state – often despite oneself.
It is hardly surprising that Beer in the Snooker Club is recently to be found in many Egyptian bookstores next to Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm. Similarities between Ram’s post-revolutionary Cairo and the Egyptian capital in 2015, four years after Mubarak’s ouster, are not hard to find. The euphoria of the revolution has largely been replaced by disillusion and cynicism, a deepening gap between rich and poor, the trauma of a non-tolerant Muslim Brotherhood government, a nationalist and Nasserist revival, and growing suspicion towards foreign influence in Egypt.
Beer in the Snooker Club is a unique literary portrait of a specific period in Egypt’s history. But the richness of its political and social themes makes it a vast and timeless novel. The irony and sarcasm attributed to the charming, confused protagonist Ram make for a tragicomic novel that is both critical and amusing. The fact that the novel hardly fits a genre or discourse might be both the reason for its long neglect as well as its lasting relevance.
Ultimately, the power of literature lies in its ability to interest different generations, whether they are attracted by postcolonial critique, the disillusion following revolutions, or a silent plea for multiculturalism and pluralism.