THE AUTOMOBILE CLUB OF EGYPT, the new novel from Alaa Al Aswany, begins with a story about love. In Mannheim, in 1872, a German man named Karl, dressed in an “elegant white suit,” takes the hand of his bride, Bertha, all aglitter in her “beautiful gown of green French lace,” as the nervous and excited couple say their vows in a church packed to the rafters.
With its high, descriptive prose and keen attention to 19th-century detail, like Bertha’s “clusters of diamanté” and the “patterned silk fans” used by ladies in attendance, the book’s opening chapter swirls the reader into what feels like the beginning of a captivating Victorian novel that happens to be set in Germany.
But coming from the literary voice of contemporary Egypt, whose celebrated 2004 novel The Yacoubian Building drew comparisons to the work of Nobel Prize–winner Naguib Mahfouz, the reader questions what, exactly, is going on. How could a German man named Karl, shown in a photograph on page one in a rigid 19th-century pose, his face frozen as if witnessing a disturbing future unfold in the distance, have anything to do with modern Egypt?
Soon after the wedding, Bertha (whose youthful image appears in an oval circle, hair pulled back from a severe face, curls spilling onto her shoulder) discovers Karl has a secret. Her new husband begins keeping late hours, grows absent and irritable, is “distant and distracted” in bed and often “beset by demons.” Bertha comes to the conclusion that Karl is in love with another woman and works up the courage to confront him.
When she does, Karl is flabbergasted. Grabbing her by the hand, he rushes Bertha to a little workshop he’s rented and reveals the thing that’s been consuming him, body and soul — the world’s first “horseless carriage.” Together, the Benzes — yes, those Benzes — set out to make Karl’s automobile invention a success, a process in which Bertha plays no small part by taking the contraption on a PR-minded road trip with her sons to prove its worth to a suspicious German public.
From this story of the birth of the automobile, or one version of it, anyway, Al Aswany drives his reader straight into the Khedivate of Egypt in 1890, where a local prince has imported the country’s first car and, with it, the newly formed tradition of the European automobile club. Far from the roadside-assistance association the term might evoke today, or even the groups of goggle-wearing hobbyists of yesteryear, the turn-of-the-century European automobile club developed as (yet another) institution for the display of wealth, title, breeding, and influence — and the rigorous exclusion of anyone lacking one or more of those distinctions.
Once the story careens into British-occupied Egypt, the reader of Al Aswany’s fourth novel begins to understand that this book isn’t at all about automobiles, or even really about Egypt. Rather, it’s about the bloody, fraught, and still-unresolved relationship between the West and the Muslim Middle East. Or, to take some liberty with Al Aswany’s metaphor, it’s about a crash of civilizations in which the whiplash produced by physical collision is minor compared with unseen internal damage.
It’s in the book’s second chapter — sandwiched between two short chapters on the unwittingly symbolic Benzes — that we’re introduced to the Gaafars, whose story reveals the effects of Western involvement in Egypt as played out in the early 1950s, some six decades after the arrival of the first car. Abd el-Aziz Gaafar is the head of a family with an illustrious past as landowners in Upper Egypt, a vast area that, despite its name, stretches from the southern part of Cairo down to Aswan, on the First Cataract of the Nile.
Through generosity and mismanagement — Abd el-Aziz treats houseguests like royalty and considers the children of his relatives to be his own — but also due to sweeping social and economic changes, the Gaafars are left virtually penniless and are forced to move to Cairo, where Abd el-Aziz finds menial work at the Automobile Club.
One morning, after a difficult financial conversation with his wife, Ruqayya, who tiptoes into her husband’s domain by requesting permission to do some sewing for extra money, Abd el-Aziz asks his storeroom boss, a good-natured Greek Egyptian named Comanus, if he could be given more work at the Club. Comanus agrees to speak with the Club’s managing director, a middle-aged British man named Mr. Wright, and in doing so sets off a chain of events that will prove fatal for Abd el-Aziz.
In the late 1940s and early ’50s, the period in which The Automobile Club is set, Egypt was ruled by the notorious Farouk I, a libertine king whose interests lay less in governing his country than in enjoying fast cars, Western women, alcohol of all kinds, and his truly impressive coin collection (which included the US Double Eagle, one of the world’s most valuable coins). Farouk’s appetites were large enough to impress even the CIA, who gave him the moniker “Fat Fucker.”
With nationalist sentiment on the rise in Egypt, and Farouk ill-equipped to meet the challenges of guiding the country through turbulent times, the king’s legitimacy and throne were maintained by the British, whose decades-long occupation, though ended, had left Britain with considerable economic power in the former colony — as well as with 10,000 well-trained troops stationed on the Suez Canal. Though in the period after World War II Farouk had gained considerable leeway in governing his country — including the ability to dissolve parliament at will — the British had been known to train their tank cannons on the windows of the royal palace in cases when one of their policy “suggestions” went unheeded.
As an institution of royal patronage, the Automobile Club of Al Aswany’s book is a reflection of wider Egyptian power structures. For the king, the Club is a playground for drinking, gambling, and womanizing, and his regular attendance infuses the place with royal cash and another critical currency, prestige. The job of ruling is left to others, and in particular to Alku, the king’s royal chamberlain and closest adviser, who oversees an elaborate system of patronage that requires the Club’s Egyptian employees relinquish an exorbitant share of their tips.
With the Club’s four department heads — the chef, maître d’, head barman, and casino manager — functioning as Alku’s vassals, upholding the system from which they benefit financially, Alku’s power is limited only by the aloof unofficial imperial representative Mr. Wright. As with most corrupt systems, it’s violence that ultimately undergirds the social order. The Club’s Egyptian staff tremble at the very mention of Alku’s name, which evokes “some great and legendary winged beast,” and implicitly assent to the harsh corporal punishments meted out by him with the help of his morally debased enforcer, Hameed, for even the most minor infractions.
This is where Abd el-Aziz runs into trouble. Working extra hours as an assistant to the Club’s aging doorman, the dignified former landowner is shocked when Hameed baselessly hurls an insult at him, calling him a “piece of scum” and a donkey. Daring to assert that he, too, is a human being, Abd el-Aziz enrages the despotic Alku. The result is a humiliation Abd el-Aziz has never before experienced: two staff members hold him by the arms as the sadistic Hameed slaps him across the face until his nose bleeds.
Returning home late that night, Abd el-Aziz sits down to eat dinner, but before he takes a bit of food his head rolls back. He dies more from shame and humiliation than from any physical cause.
The lives of Abd el-Aziz’s four children become, in large part, a reaction to their father’s death. The ruthless and money-hungry eldest son, Said, marries the daughter of the Gaafar’s neighbors and sets out to make his fortune, partly by marrying off his sister, “beautiful and brilliant” Saleha, to a wealthy businessman. Mahmud, the brawny but mentally slow youngest son, begins pimping himself out to older Western women, earning a pound or two for supplying sexual services.
But it’s the story of Kamel, the second-eldest son, who’s drawn to poetry but studies law, that concerns us most. Given a job at the Club in lieu of a pension for his father — a privilege granted only to the Club’s Western employees — the gentle and intellectual Kamel is drawn into an underground resistance group plotting to overthrow the monarchy and oust the British. Along the way Kamel falls in love with Mitsy, Mr. Wright’s open-minded English daughter, who returns his affections.
The story is pulled along by a fast-moving plot that layers character upon colorful character and unfurls with amusing though not always relevant incidents, sometimes causing the plot to overflow its banks.
We learn about the Gaafar’s neighbors, the sultry Aisha and Ali Hamama, a grocer who used to perform circumcisions until a hashish-induced slip of the hand ended his career. There’s also Odette, the Jewish daughter of a wealthy Lebanese businessman who ensnares Mr. Wright in the coup plot; there are Dagmar and Rosa, upper-class European women who seduce Mahmud; Uncle Suleyman, who grows rich as the king’s good-luck charm; the hash-addicted Fawzy, who involves Mahmud in an absurd eating contest; the king’s chief pimp, Botticelli, who curates beautiful women, including Mitsy (who “cleverly” feigns a throat infection as she’s seduced by the king); there’s an outbreak of cholera, an episode of spying, a staff revolt, and a rich old Egyptian woman who nearly dies of belly dancing.
Despite the somewhat reflexive comparisons to Mahfouz, Al Aswany in The Automobile Club calls to mind not the lean, sparing prose of his Egyptian predecessor but the beautifully effusive writing of Brazilian novelist Jorge Amado, whose relentless diversity of character and endless abundance of plot burst off the pages of books like Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands and Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon. In the first paragraph of Dona Flor, the reader is already swimming in Amado’s world:
Vadinho, Dona Flor’s first husband, died one Sunday of Carnival, in the morning, when, dressed up like a Bahian woman, he was dancing the samba, with the greatest enthusiasm, in the Dois de Julho Square, not far from his house. He did not belong to the group — he had just joined it, in the company of four of his friends, all masquerading as bahianas, and they had come from a bar on Cabeca, where the whiskey flowed like water at the expense of one Moyses Alves, a cacao planter, rich and open-handed.
At the heart of Amado’s profusion lies neither an idea, nor even an emotion, but a mysticism of life and death that manifests through romantic love. Impelled by an exploration of transcendental themes and through the sensual avenues of music, food, dance, chance, and, of course, sex, Amado never condescends to make a point, though the story feels propelled by an unseen, perennial purpose.
In The Automobile Club the opposite is largely true. Al Aswany makes his point over and over, jabbing an authorial finger into the bellies of his character to get them to say what must be said and do what must be done. The book’s main characters fall squarely on either side of a moral divide. Characters like Abd el-Aziz, Ruqayya, Saleha, and Kamel embody the humility, dignity, and modesty of an idealized authentic Egypt. Alku, Mr. Wright, Said, and, of course, the king are either agents of the occupation or have been corrupted by the greed, exploitative sexuality, and mental slavery that define it.
Despite their color and charm, which keep the plot moving and the reader engaged, the characters take on the feel of die-cast social archetypes, each of which bears a single defining feature: Mr. Wright represents imperial arrogance, the king is clientelistic depravity, Saleha embodies native purity, her brother, Kamel, nationalistic self-sacrifice, and the quickly-forgotten Abd el-Aziz is the totem of fading Egyptian innocence.
Thus, the dialogue sometimes comes off more like a moral message delivery system than the expression of complex human beings torn by conflicting motivations. Lying with Odette in a postcoital haze, for example, Mr. Wright casually opines, “I always think that the Egyptian’s capacity to work as well as his moral values are completely different from our own.”
Her hackles raised, liberal-minded Odette launches into a retort that reads more like a primer on the ills of colonialism than the outrage of a woman who, naked in bed, has just discovered her lover is a bit of a racist. She says: “The only modernization the British have carried out is that which helps them to fleece the country. The British built the railways to transport troops and to filch Egyptian cotton. Their administrative systems enables them to control all economic activity.”
In spite of the power of the narrative, the book’s language is sometimes jarringly clichéd or stilted. The “backside” of Said’s bride-to-be, Fayeqa, is “so undeniably unique in its contours and contents that the particulars could fill up pages.” Enraged by Said’s sexual advances, Fayeqa “blow[s] her top” and angrily admonishes her overeager adorer, saying, “Listen, buster!”
Though ever-present, sex in the book is given a kind of wink-wink approach. Mahmud and his older Western lover Rosa go at it “hammer and tongs” as Mahmud would “pump away” like a “street brawler,” leaving Rosa lying there “like a rag doll.” Mahmud’s German client Dagmar is “hot to trot” before she arrives “in seventh heaven quite a few times.”
When it comes to the topic of women, the book’s attitudes are similarly off-kilter. Neither traditionalist nor progressive, Al Aswany’s characters espouse an ideal of women as free — to realize the true nature of their femininity. “The hanging of the wash,” the liberal and feministic Mitsy waxes un-ironically, “is one of the most beautiful expressions of Egyptian femininity. When an Egyptian woman reaches out to arrange an item on the line, her body achieves its highest humanity, realizing the height of her attractiveness and powers of seduction.”
But one of the stranger effects comes as a result of the narrative intermittently flipping between the omniscient third person of most of the book to the first-person narration of Kamel and Saleha, the only characters with dedicated chapters bearing their names. In the midst of the book’s hard-charging storytelling, the internal dialogue of Kamel’s and Saleha’s chapters comes across as precociously self-aware, as if they’re reflecting as much on their own literary character types as on the circumstances in which they find themselves.
In her introductory chapter, Saleha tells us:
I used to list to myself the features of my body that I was proud of: my ink-black hair, the greenish eyes I inherited from my grandmother, the prominent line of my upper chest and my slim thighs. I even loved my small feet!
Speaking in roughly the same register as his sister, Kamel, in his first chapter, wants us to know that:
At that time, my emotions were in turmoil, and I was reeling from one extreme to another. I could feel overwhelmingly happy and optimistic and full of self-confidence, and then suddenly, for no reason, I would lose my enthusiasm and a sense of gloom sapped my will to do anything at all. I would withdraw into myself, alone in my room sprawled out on my bed, reading, smoking and giving myself over to my restless imagination.
Though these narrative depositions come early, by that point the reader is already familiar with the strand of metafiction running through the book. For reasons which remain obscure, the book’s prologue introduces the reader to a prominent contemporary Egyptian author who’s escaped the hustle and bustle of family life in Cairo to be alone at his seaside villa. Preparing late at night to print the manuscript of his latest novel, he’s interrupted by a ring of the doorbell.
Standing at the door are a young man and woman with, they say, a very important message. When our author reluctantly lets them in, the two take a seat on the couch and declare themselves to be Kamel and Saleha Gaafar. With somewhat credulous incredulity our author responds, “You can’t be!” But Kamel goes on to explain that actually they can:
I am Kamel Gaafar and this is my sister, Saleha. God alone knows how much we like you. My sister and I are products of your imagination and have come to life. You dreamed us up for your novel. Your imagination led you to write down the details of our lives, and at a certain point as you outlined our characters, we came into being. We have moved from the realm of imagination into that of reality.
Kamel and Saleha tell their author that he’s made some mistakes with his depiction of their lives, which they’ve come to correct with a truer version of the book. After some back and forth on the topic of authorial privilege — “No one has the right to interfere with my work,” our author insists — Saleha leaves a CD containing her and Kamel’s version of the novel — the version, we’re given to understand, which we’re reading.
It’s possible that some of the ungainliness of The Automobile Club can be attributed to the translation (though my one-word Arabic couldn’t say whether or not that’s actually the case). And even with its linguistic foibles, the force of narrative and the liveliness of its characters give the book the power it needs to draw the reader through its 44 chapters.
But, setting aside the smaller issues, at the heart of the book lies a more fatal flaw. The Automobile Club’s major characters, plot points, and dialogue labor to present a dichotomy that pits the evils of Western imperialism against the virtues of nationalist independence. It’s an idea that, in 1950, might have imbued the novel with a compelling urgency and boldness. In 2015 it’s a bit cliché. More importantly, looking at the recent history of nationalism in the Mideast, and elsewhere, it’s also to some extent untrue.
That Al Aswany has put politics at the center of his book should come as no surprise. As one of the most outspoken voices for democracy during the 2011 revolution, Al Aswany has used his voice to offer a vision of an Egypt united in tolerance and moderation. Frequently, this means challenging those who’ve sought to restrict freedom and monopolize power — even when those challenges come with considerable risk to Al Aswany’s own freedom.
But rather than allowing the characters of The Automobile Club to lead him to deeper truths about human nature, as revealed through the lives of Egyptians caught in a maelstrom of change and injustice, Al Aswany leads his characters and his readers to a foregone conclusion. And maybe this is why the book’s prologue begins with its two main characters coming to tell their author that he got it wrong. The question is, was their author listening?