By Mina Nagy
Ten years after publishing the first Arabic edition of his novel, the English edition of Meccano, by the Egyptian writer Ali Kotb (b. 1991), neatly translated by the Egyptian-American translator Marian McCullough, is being released this month by the BOD (books on demand) publishing platform.
Before it was published by the now-shuttered Sharkiat publishing house in 2011, the novel won the Ihsan Abdel Quddous Award that same year. Sharkiat was famous for bringing out new, experimental and poetic works by the Egyptian literary “nineties’ generation,” in addition to, afterwards, texts by younger youth, including Ali Kotb, who was only 20 years old when he took the Quddous Award and published his first novel, part of the generation known globally as Millennials.
Egyptian Millennials were in a unique position, growing up in the nineties and early 2000s, a position well-represented in the novel, which centers on the trauma and grief of a protagonist the same age as the author, a law student named Ahmed who has recently suffered the death of his closest friend, Adel. The novel looks at how he and his two other close friends, Khalid and Karim, deal with it.
The extended flashback in the second chapter, for example, recounts one of the group’s journeys to Alexandria, the coastal and second-biggest city in Egypt, seeking bodily pleasures in a heavily religious atmosphere. Ahmed, the narrator, describes his encounter with a sex worker:
I went towards her, turned off the light. At that moment, the prayer started from the mosque that was close to Adel’s house, I turned the light on again and gestured at her to wait. After a few minutes, I switched off the light.
The disparity deeply affects how the young friends perceive themselves:
I went to the bathroom, took off my clothes, and went under the water to purify my body from this act. But would it cleanse my soul?
This raises a sense of guilt, which continuously accumulates in their sub-conscious:
Did we really reach such a level? Sex made us travel all this way and pay all this money. Our sexual impulses were controlling us. I closed my eyes one more time and said, “Wake me up when we get there, and no one should wake me up before that.” I sank into darkness, seeing strange dreams… graves and hungry dogs… The dead became alive, and ghosts were running wild in contaminated places.
This shared conflict, which results in collective guilt, peaks when Khalid, who Ahmed has jokingly nicknamed “Strong Desire” for his ferocious sexual appetite, peeps at the breasts of the 16-year-old daughter of the newly deceased gatekeeper who is lying beside them in his deathbed, staring at the ceiling, which sparked a fight between the friends.
Disturbances are not entirely internal affair for the Millennial friends. Beside the usual external difficulties, embarrassing moments happen—one of the friends meets a sex worker he’d been with, by coincidence, when he is with his fiancée. She approaches, saying that she has seen him before and that he was one of her clients. This left him ashamed and bewildered.
“Meccano,” the name of a global model construction system, is also in Arabic “كانو me,” a play on words that phonetically means “me/they were.” Both literal and phonetic meanings are related to the subject of the novel, a young man trying to understand and get past the sudden death of his closest friend.
Ahmed’s life and thoughts are brutally scattered, as his parents who work abroad—another common feature of the Egyptian Millennials—cannot help him, so he starts on relentless attempts to (re)construct his life, as with Meccano parts, by searching for his other friends, regularly seeing a psychiatrist, getting close to his late friend’s girlfriend, and unselfishly helping a young boy he accidently hit with his car to achieve his life’s dream of entering an official club football team.
Getting close to Adel’s girlfriend ignites a sharp sense of guilt in Ahmed, especially since she encouraged the relationship, despite her boyfriend’s recent death. This sharp guilt throws Ahmed into a psychosis, creating a fatal and demonic double called “Mohab” who slowly and maliciously tortures him till the end.
Ahmed himself was previously in a relationship with an older woman, a widow, a recurring motif in Ali’s works, which abruptly ends when Adel’s father wanted to marry her as a third wife. The widow’s name is Madiha, which was also the name of the female protagonist of a widely shared pornographic novel, circulated among young people in the early 2000s, that appeared not long before Ali’s.
When it comes to sharing names, it is somehow suggestive of how the author, “Ali Sayyed Kotb”—Ali’s name on the cover of the first edition, which was later adjusted to “Ali Kotb”—has within it the same name as one of the most infamous Egyptian extremists, Sayyid Qutb. It is suggestive, maybe, of how the dismal shadow of Islamism and religious extremism chases a secular writer at the start of the new millennium.
Perhaps as a comeback, Ali bravely traces the signs of fake religiosity in the Egyptian society:
Kareem puzzled me; his religious dealings were purely commercial transactions. He performed his religious duties and had no problem going to the Umrah each year. But, on the other hand, he had many strange views, which sparked our astonishment. He used to say, “The relationship between what is religiously allowed or prohibited is relative.” Many times, he adhered to this logic to make a particular mistake acceptable. I didn’t want to say that Kareem was like his father, who used religion for financial gain. However, just like me, he needed a lot of time to change for the better.
We see that, for Ahmed, the religious path fails to ease his bereavement as the dominant religious mentality, back then, was aggressive, and also guilt- and fear-inducing:
It had been months since I last attended Friday prayers. I justified my nonattendance on trivial pretexts. No, in fact, it was not trifling at all; it was terrifying to me that every Friday, the preacher talked about the torments of the grave. He inventively and meticulously described it, scaring us with it.
We also see the playboy and pleasure-seeker friend Khalid is on his way to becoming a jihadi because of that mentality—because there are no real life-loving alternatives for the youth of this generation to grow up with, humanely, facing all the existential and spiritual challenges alone in a society that frightens and consumes itself every single moment, a matter that Ahmed sums up in a statement catastrophically pointing to what was unjustly wrong in that place in the world:
I did not know who should be blamed for this; us or the life that offered us only very few choices, and no chance to answer except from the given ones.
This is a turn-of-the-century catastrophe that only an Egyptian Millennial writer can really feel, grasp, and describe in words—words nonetheless still filled with hope and a future-ward gaze.
A brief excerpt from the novel:
Mysterious faces emerge in our lives. We meet such people and think it is just for once and that’s it. But they come into view once again and have an effect on us. They are divine messages that leave in our souls a barefaced mark in a manner that is either strange or exquisite.
People appear once in our lifetimes and promptly disappear. We think that they will have a constant effect in our lives, but we move on and abandon them.
One week passed and the second followed. My father and my mother checked on me. They asked my aunt to come from Ismailia every now and then to see me.
I laughed so much when I heard that. Had she ever even cared about me!! I knew she had lots of problems with my mother, quarreling because of a silly inheritance, a small house next to the house where my aunt lived with her husband. My aunt asked my mother to waive her portion so she could demolish the house and expand her house. But my mother completely refused. My aunt was not convinced by my mother’s justifications. Anyway, what did memories mean? An odd reason not to sell the house, and her goal ranked higher than my mother’s. At any rate, there was nothing to affect their cold relationship now; their relationship was at the edge. It was nothing more than some courtesy and exchange of words on occasions, like feasts and Labor Day. I liked my silly joke; it made me laugh a lot.
I did not know why my mother called her anyways? Was my mother that worried about me? My situation was not that bad, at least not yet. There were still spaces between me and craziness, but all the paths were leading to it; I had to resist fate, and I had to do something to escape this destiny.
The beautiful nurse met me with a reassuring smile, and I asked for an appointment. She searched her list. She apologized for not finding any appointment for the following three days. I told her I was not in a hurry. I reserved a suitable appointment and left, not caring about her warnings that all revolved around the idea that: “If I did not come in due time, I would lose all the money.”
Mina Nagy is an Egyptian writer with 6 published books, including the novel City of the Sun (2020) and 33: On Loss and Phobia (2021) a work of literary nonfiction that won two writing grants.