By Chloe Bordewich
Memoirs of a Coachman [Mudhakkirat ʿArbagi] tells us the story of Egypt’s 1919 revolution from the margins. Our narrator, Hanafi Abu Mahmud, is chauffeur to the rich and well-connected—a man whose fortunes remain bound to the horse even as the automobile takes over Cairo’s streets. But this “memoir” is not quite what it seems. The author was not a coachman, but, the editors of a 2011 reprint concluded, the affluent actor and critic Suleiman Naguib (1892-1955). Naguib first published the sixteen vignettes comprising Memoirs of a Coachman in serial form in the satirical Egyptian journal al-Kashkul (1921-22). Soon after, they appeared in a single volume with a playful introduction by the journalist Fikry Abaza. Capitalizing on the popularity of memoir among elites in interwar Egypt and the Levant, the work toys with genre, authorship, and registers of language, shifting between fusha and ʿamiyya in the same manner as its literary heir: Khaled al-Khamissi’s Taxi (2006). Naguib’s irreverent satire leaves no one untouched, including the nationalist heroes of 1919. And though we get the laughs we came for, there is also a poignant undercurrent to the story. Hanafi isn’t real, but his grievances are. He is doing his best to adapt to a rapidly changing world full of fools.
From Memoirs of a Coachman (1923)
By Suleiman Naguib
[Originally published under the name Hanafi Abu Mahmud]
Translated by Chloe Bordewich
Our rich masters think the crisis affects no class but their own. And why is that? Because, as I presume, and as my tiny brain understands matters, they see us as little nobodies beside them, all of us living similar lives, with meager needs. In short, they hold us in lower esteem than their animals.
But I swear by the God that made you, dear reader, that people like yours truly will be the only ones working themselves to death if the crisis worsens and fate bares its cunning fangs, with clear days giving way to troubled nights. Those of us in this predicament truly deserve mercy, because what we are suffering through is a lesson in what happens when humanity turns on itself.
Besides his vocation, my father—your faithful servant Usta Ahmad al-Iskandrani—left me seven coaches and eight teams of horses from his government work, as well as what was left of some auction earnings and the bookings of the rich and leisured as their status declined and creditors began closing in. (So far so good.) But the situation became unbearable. I had to cough up an arm and a leg once those automobiles—from the biggest, which are like houses on wheels, to the smallest, which look like wheelbarrows—began to spread through the streets of Cairo. The municipality—God bless it—let them stick us between a rock and a hard place. We were left hesitating between food for our beasts and food for our kids.
Even on Muski Street—God save us—a ride is a penny now. We are done for, and the plows and horse-drawn omnibuses along with us. May God have mercy on us all.
The Ministry of Finance eventually showed up and, by canceling the war bonus, made us lose the last grain of hope we had in our masters, the officials. This was the icing on the cake. Officials now prefer the burn of the noon sun at a tram stop to the burn of a fare missing from their pocket. In short, when one of us calls out, “Coming, Sir!” these days, there are no sirs around.
For these reasons, I sold everything I owned but a single coach, which I kept to preserve the “family reputation” and the honor of our name—as well as out of love for an occupation in whose bosom I was raised and on whose seat I found myself (a seat there’s no stepping down from, and where no one tells me what to do).
As a matter of fact, let it be said that this job has delighted me, for all its mishaps—from petty police reports to orders from the public clinics to customers’ badgering and various pickles that have befallen yours truly.
God knows how many have set their feet on the steps of my coach. Thousands upon thousands. Nevertheless, there are certain characters who are impossible for someone like me to forget: they are distinctive in appearance, defined by their peculiarities. I shouldn’t name names since there is enough in my description to identify them.
I’ll begin with one first-rate customer who appeared in these parts recently, during the war. (You don’t need to know where he came from or what his origins are.) He lives in Helwan, I assume, since I would often take him to and from Bab al-Louq station late at night and in the morning. Bey? Efendi? Lord knows. Suffice it to say he is someone important: if you saw him but once, his portrait would be imprinted on your imagination, and you wouldn’t forget him.
His laughter can be heard clearly from near and far because the sound he dispatches from his throat has the force and ring of brass. As for the way he speaks—even with me—you couldn’t imagine how smug he is about it! I’d often recite proverbs of his for my friends and family, who were astonished that they had come from His Excellency.
He gives apologies and salutations in French, greeting you with “bonsoir” in the morning and “bonjour” in the evening. He forgets that in his own household, one hears only “al-ʿawafi” and “ya meet mesa.”
When it’s blazing hot, he’ll greet you coldly, saying in French, “Eet ees mighty chilly.” He doesn’t mean wrong by it, but is rather demonstrating his (false) knowledge.
He has a pale brown face adorned with a mustache in the German style, and a cigar between his lips which does not leave his mouth under any circumstances, whether he is awake or asleep, inside or out. Once, he wanted to obtain a passport and the clerk even wrote the following description:
Tawny skin, sleepy hazel eyes, cigar in mouth. Always scowling.
I’ve never once seen him not armed with a newspaper to shield his pretty face from the sun, be it day or night. Beneath his tarbush is hair that has the glitter of a diamond and the sturdiness of reinforced concrete. To his beautiful eyes, all beings appear as ignorance incarnate.
This customer of mine thinks he is handsome, so extraordinarily attractive that when he passes down Haram Street, hearts break and souls are ravaged. What’s more, he insists, the ladies and servant girls in their cars and carriages sigh when he goes by, driven mad by the distinguished gentleman’s love (more like the gasps of someone fearful when danger approaches).
He speaks formal Arabic with difficulty—sentences no one understands but he. Once, I dropped him off with acoquette, and he came back after buying two bottles of fine perfume. He ran into a friend of his on the sidewalk and conversation ensued. The friend said:
“Holy smokes, my good sir! What nice scents!”
“Oh, how kind of you. But it is your perfume that smells so fine.”
“No, no, I’m asking about those bottles there—who are you taking them to?”
“Ah yes, I was just about to explain. This one”—He pointed to the first bottle, smiling. “This is for the brunette at the casino, the one who’s always in black. I’m going to write her this verse:
O… I do not fear battle yet/I fear for your eyes when you cry.
“The other bottle is for that doll Katie. I’m going to write a verse about her that I can’t recall right now.”
He laughed, leaving his friend and leaping into the carriage, saying, “Usta, drive to Gezira!”
I looked, and his friend was standing there, his mouth still hanging open in surprise.
The ride to Gezira went by with him writing down the numbers of the passing cars and coaches in his notebook.
He who has too much free time will play the judge.
Then we went back. I dropped him at Salt, or on the curb by the Saint James. He paid the fare with the utmost magnanimity—something that was worth quite a lot, once upon a time. God bless the days of war and strife, when a pound of copper was like a hoard of gold.
After this trip, I headed to the stable to rest my horses, then off to the café to calm my anxious mind, having wasted time with His Excellency.
Chloe Bordewich is a historian of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Egypt. She received a PhD in history and Middle Eastern studies from Harvard University, co-leads the Boston Little Syria Project, and is currently a postdoctoral fellow in public history at Boston University.