Belal Fadl’s Um Mimi, on the longlist for the 2022 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, unfolds in Fadl’s characteristic ironic style, following a young man who is desperate to escape the orbit of his family and enter into the world of film. As the novel opens, he is looking for a place to live in Cairo while he attends university. At first, his mother finds him an apartment with a group of strait-laced young men who attend Al Azhar, our protagonist is soon booted from that living arrangement and finds himself in a rundown “can” of an apartment with Um Mimi and her eccentric son. After the old woman dies, more about this strange family begins to surface.
In this excerpt, we meet the titular Um Mimi and the flat in which our protagonist will live.
From ‘Um Mimi’
By Belal Fadl
Translated by Osama Hammad
With the first morning light, I took the first bus that was crossing Youssef Abbas Street, heading to Cairo University. This wasn’t to go to my college, as I usually did every morning, heading to the building that was located in the Faculty of Graduate Studies for Statistical Research on Dokki Street, which was where they exiled the first-year students in the mass media department back in 1991. At the time, our college didn’t have an independent, official building. Instead, I took another bus to go to Al Haram Street. And, for the first time, I stood in the presence of Um Mimi. I found her in the apartment just like the gallant guy had told me, and again he hadn’t quite been accurate in describing the space where I was going to live when he’d called it a “room.”
It wasn’t accurate to call this place either a “room” or a “chamber.” It was truly and honestly more like a can—or, to be honest, it was a can inside a slightly larger can. Um Mimi’s apartment consisted of two cans and a ridiculous small space impersonating a living room, plus a miserable small corner called a kitchen. I’m sure the other kitchens of the world would be humiliated to share the name. It also had what looked like a bathroom with unstable tiles, although the only thing that made it worthy of the name were the heavy smells coming out of the toilet.
But even this hate-filled description doesn’t show enough contempt for the place. You might not be surprised if I told you that, after seeing the can I was going to live in, and before I said anything to Um Mimi, I paid two months’ rent in advance. The gallant guy had done me a favor by psychologically preparing me to deal with the apartment’s wretched condition. He’d also told me that I couldn’t take the risk of being too proud to live in such a place, because the alternatives would either be to live in the street or to go back, defeated, to Alexandria. So I decided to accept this dirty room, hoping that I’d be able to find a better one during the mid-year break.
Um Mimi laughed when I asked if there was a contract to sign; instead, she asked me to read the Fatiha, because it was more blessed than any contract. She said that she wasn’t going to ask me for insurance, as others did. Her justification was “I’m going to trust you with my life, so why would I take a deposit from you?” Then she told me that her firstborn, Mimi, lived with her in the apartment, but that he only came home to sleep each day after finishing work. Mimi already knew, based on previous experience, that the right to enter my room was exclusively mine, although I’d have the pleasure of sitting in the small, dirty living room whenever I wanted. She apologized for not having a TV, because she didn’t like noise, and it gave her a headache, saying that she preferred to listen to the Quran station all day. She shot a resentful look at the cassette player sitting beside my bags and asked me to keep it down when I used it, because the sound of music would bring poverty to the house and prevent angels from visiting, “especially that modern music, which is nothing but banging sounds.”
The few minutes I spent with Um Mimi made me feel comfortable. From the first glance, I felt that she was a kind woman, maybe because I needed to feel that way. Or maybe because she welcomed me with her cheerful chubby face, which was nicer and more cheerful when she laughed. Or maybe because she was limping and coughing, which along with the “Um” title she carried, and her taste in classical music, played a role in making me more at ease.
It wasn’t the right moment to discuss Um Mimi’s views on poverty and houses that angels find clean enough to enter. I assured her that I would consider her feelings whenever I turned on the radio or played a cassette. I wanted to keep the conversation friendly, so I told her that I only had the Quranic tapes my mother had given me, plus one tape of Fairuz’s music and one of Sayed Mekkay. She patted me on the shoulder and prayed for my mother and asked me to pass on her greetings until they met. Then she complimented my taste in music, because she also liked little Feyrouz and Anwar Wagdi’s movies, and she liked Sayed Mekkay because he was a blessed blind man. She asked me to put my stuff in the wardrobe, which was no less ugly than everything around it. Before leaving the room, she turned to me, saying, “I forgot to tell you not to open the window. It will attract dust and mosquitos from the alley.” I tried to hide my shock while telling her that I wouldn’t worry about mosquitos, since it was winter now, and summer was still far off. She smiled and said that mosquitos didn’t distinguish between seasons, and they were available in both summer and winter alike. After she’d put her legs outside the room, she turned again to add one more important piece of information: “And don’t shut the door, because you won’t be able to open it, and you’ll either have to jump out the window or stay trapped inside until we bring a carpenter to break down the door.” When she noticed my disappointment, which this time I couldn’t hide, she spoke with an affectionate tone that held a touch of reproach. “Are you sad because you won’t be able to close the door? You can masturbate in the bathroom.” This phrase revealed how clever she was, so we shared a laugh that she mixed with a sharp snort. This laugh was repeated in all sorts of different situations in this can, so that I will carry with me forever.
Belal Fadl is an Egyptian journalist and screenwriter, born in Cairo in 1974. After graduating from the journalism department of the Media College of Cairo University, in 1995 he co-founded “Al-Dustur” newspaper, one of the most successful initiatives in journalism in Egypt in the 1990s. When it closed, he worked for several papers and TV channels. In 1999, he co-founded the “Cairo” newspaper issued by the Ministry of Culture and worked as a producer for the ART and MBC channels. He then worked as a screenwriter, writing scripts for a number of films and TV series, such as the series “People of Cairo” which won a prize for best Arab TV series, in 2010. He has published twenty books, including four short story collections and Um Mimi (2020), his first novel.
Osama Hammad (@osama_alsebaey) is an emerging literary translator.