On Monday, January 14, SOAS University in London is set to host a talk with Egyptian author Abdelrashid Mahmoudi and translator Nashwa Gowanlock about her English translation of his novel, After Coffee:
The English translation of the novel — which won the Sheikh Zayed Book Award in 2014 — was this summer. You can find out more about the event — titled “Imagining Egypt post-2011: City/Country, East/West, and other newly-thought binaries in Abdelrashid Mahmoudi’s ‘After Coffee’ — at the SOAS website.
The excerpt below is from the book’s final movement, when the central character is a middle-aged man:
Music would arrive uninvited and force itself on him. What did music want from him? And what was it inviting him to? Where did the call come from: from the depths of his self, or from behind the solar array? When it played, he would forget his limited existence. That was his experience as a child, and the same thing was happening again now, when he had passed forty. Music still surprised him in every stage of his life. Yes, music had entered his life from the beginning. He recalled now how Haniya’s daughters would sing to him as they carried him as an infant, coming and going between their mother in the village of the Salehis and his grandmother in the village of the Qassimis. And he recalled a night – or nights? – when he had heard the poets singing in the seera as he lay across Na’sa’s chest, as he drifted in and out of sleep. ‘That’s impossible,’ Na’sa had said, when he mentioned it once. ‘You were on my chest breastfeeding.’ Music had invaded him when he was at the French beach, in a house in Sayyida Aisha, at the train station on the outskirts of town, in the building where he lived with his wife, and on Kirtner Street. Each time, it had dragged him from his earthly existence and lifted him – then Mr. Lopez arrived to talk to him about his ‘bind’ and to give him lessons in classical music. Music followed him wherever he went. If it hadn’t been beautiful and giving, he might have said it was pursuing him. What temptation did it see in him? And what was the truth behind this wine that outweighed the impact of any drug? Why did it travel with him as he wandered in his infinite space? What was the meaning behind the stupor that struck him whenever a melody seized him? And what was the significance of the girl from the sauna being transported to the string quartet? Why did music pay him this much attention, when he knew so little of it? Was he capable of responding to it by writing the novel? And how could that be? Writing fiction was concerned mainly with the prose of life. There were some poetic moments, true. But did the melody sometimes seep into the novel until it became a part of it? Could the novel mimic the symphony? Or could it be made of ‘movements’?
This intoxication bound his life in Cairo to the beauty of the city. His long journey from Abbasiya to Sayyida Aisha with his friend Bayumi meant – as well as enjoying the sights of historic Cairo – listening to the Russian composers (especially Tchaikovsky) with their friend Saeed. It was a limited program that Saeed enforced on them, but it was perfect at the start. It was enough to seize his attention and captivate him during the entire journey from Sayyida Aisha back to Abbasiya, and he now realised it was an extension to his childhood elation with the world and his disorientation in it. That would be his lot in classical music, but that little amount was enough to last him until he travelled, for the first time, to Vienna.
In Vienna, he found music everywhere. It was there that, for the first time in his life, he acquired a record player, and there – in the first place he lived, in his cold and dreary room – that he bought his first records. Initially, they were Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff before he started to venture further afield. For a while, he wouldn’t listen to anything but Tchaikovsky, until one day he gathered up the courage to buy a record with a violin concerto by Bach. He was amazed that the concerto – despite its strangeness, or because of its strangeness – was pleasant and beautiful in a way he didn’t understand. That piece taught him he was capable of savouring more composers, so he set forth on his mission.
And it was in Vienna that he experienced – as no one else had – the evil of being denied music. One day, the wonderful sounds were silenced in his home. Saniya absolutely rejected foreign music. She refused to allow it to enter the house, refused to let him have any contact with it outside the house, and a violent storm would erupt if he was ever seduced into approaching it himself. When their first daughter, Fathiya, started to crawl and to examine things with her fingers, her mother let her fiddle about with the record player, and that was the end of the device and some of the records. Thus, the marital nest cleared of music and its tools. No, it wasn’t completely cleared, since music, as usual, found a way to reach him that the wife could neither foresee nor block. They had an elderly neighbour living on the upper floor of the building. One day, he found her gasping up the stairs, so he carried her shopping. When they reached the third-floor landing, she stopped to say, ‘I think the years of our lives are like the steps of this staircase,’ she said. ‘After every ten steps, for example, there is a landing, and at each landing, or at the end of each decade, a person discovers – or let us say a person past middle age – they have lost one or more of their strengths, and that’s how you find me after the end of my seventh decade of life. Thank you for your kindness.’ He wished her a long life, so she laughed. ‘I don’t want to hurry up death, and I don’t long for it.’ She suddenly stopped laughing to add, ‘But I’ve lost the ability to enjoy things. When I was young, I used to love men, food, and wine, in that order. But there is nothing left of that. Soup for lunch with a single glass of wine, and soup for dinner with another glass. That’s all that’s left.’ ‘And why have you forgotten to mention music?’ he asked her. She looked puzzled as she turned her head with difficulty to look at him. ‘How did you know?’ she asked. ‘Because I hear your records,’ he replied.
Every day, music travelled to him from her flat until eight or nine in the evening. It would seep through to him from the building’s inner atrium that the kitchen looked onto, and Saniya would be annoyed by this music that intruded as she cooked, or as they ate at the marble dining table in the kitchen. ‘That deaf bitch,’ she would complain. ‘Does she have to make all that racket?’ And if she saw he was listening attentively to the music, she would frown. Sometimes, she would tie a scarf around her head and complain of a headache.
The old woman wasn’t deaf, but it was definitely lucky for him that her hearing worsened at each landing, since that meant she needed to turn up the volume. After the conversation on the staircase, she started to exchange greetings with him whenever they met, and she would stop to answer his questions about the music he’d heard. One day, he asked her about the music he’d heard the day before – an exceptional tune that made him stop eating as it descended from her flat and invaded his soundscape. His soul clung to it and releaseditselfas he grew dumbfounded and stood frozen to the spot. ‘What’s wrong with you?’ Saniya kept asking him, but he didn’t answer, as though he were suddenly deaf. He didn’t stir until she screamed out. ‘You obviously don’t like the food!’ Then the chiding began. ‘I work myself to death all day in the kitchen and then you, Sir, come and tell me you don’t like the food. You’re like a spoilt little brat.’ He would mumble, his ears still tuned to the window leading to the atrium. ‘Not at all, my darling. Your cooking’s delicious. Bless your hands.’ The elderly neighbour told him what he’d heard the day before was Schubert’s string quintet, and he timidly asked her if she could put that record on for him at ten thirty the following Sunday morning. The old woman smiled sweetly. ‘Of course, Sir. You can ask for anything.’ At ten thirty on Sunday mornings, Saniya always went out to the market on her own to buy Turkish and Arab food, and he stayed at home to look after their daughter. While she was gone, he could listen to the entire Schubert quintet, uninterrupted. The window to the atrium became the artery of happiness in his life.
Saniya wouldn’t stop calling him a ‘peasant’ from a ‘backwards’ and ‘uncivilised’ culture. ‘Don’t your family still live in mud houses?’ she would ask. ‘And didn’t they only recently live in tents made out of camel and goat hair?’ ‘You’re right, my darling,’ he would reply. ‘But I don’t know what type of hair they used.’