Authority of Cultural Palaces, Cairo; 2008
Taqlib al-Mawagei (Stirring Agonies); Khairy Shalaby
His old age and long experience with life, coupled with a rare artistic talent earned him the title “The Storyteller” by all who know him. Khairy Shalaby, today in his seventies describes himself as the hakawaati (storyteller) who roams the streets, alleys and lanes of villages and small towns searching the fertile soil for the roots of original stories to tell. The texture of his stories reveals the scope of toil and effort he exerted in weaving the events of his tales and drawing the framework of his characters.
Khairy’s latest collection of short stories was aptly named Taqlib al-Mawagei (Stirring Agonies) and was recently published by the Authority of Cultural Palaces. The 35 short stories vividly bring to life situations of Egyptians everyday life, more often than not coloured with pain and suffering. The common line that joins these stories is the harsh fate that, without mercy, kicks around these miserable creatures trapped in a den of a corrupt age.
Closer to colloquial
The stories are simple and are written in a language closer to colloquial Arabic. This serves to render the emotions easily penetrable to the reader’s heart, right from the first few lines. Some stories are shocking, such as Qalb Kalb (Heart of a Dog) which narrates the story of a butcher’s wife who is in the habit of throwing delicious leftovers to a dog. The dog, however, every time carries the bag and runs away with it, not ever bothering to eat the food. His weird behaviour intrigues the butcher who therefore decides to trail the dog. The butcher finds out that the dog carries that food to a poor hut where a wretched young woman and her family live. The young woman tells the butcher that she trained the dog to be their bread winner.
The common complaint of unaffordable food prices finds expression in Nar al-Jannah (The Hell of Paradise). The story is about a fruit shop on the ground floor of a building which is inhabited by some poor and middle class families. One day the daughter of a civil servant residing in the building asks her father about the price of a kilogram of apples—fruit is commonly sold on Egypt by the kilogram, and apples are considered a delicacy. In embarrassment because he could never afford it, he tells her it costs EGP18. Shocked, she takes a deep sorrowful breath. She does some quick maths and later asks her father to lend her three pounds. When he asks why, she says she would like to buy one apple.
Codes of Islam
Shalaby tackles the idea of religious fanaticism and the manipulation of religious dogma to commit non-condonable deeds in more than one story. In Taalim al-Salat (Teaching Prayer) a religious man forces a child to pray five times a day (according to Islamic creed) in the longer version. When the child complains to his uncle about being forced to spend so much time praying, the uncle looks into the matter, only to discover that the man of religion keeps the child distracted so he could spend time having an affair with the child’s attractive step mother.
In Foqdan al-Rushd (Losing Awareness) Shalaby depicts the influence of narrow-minded religious teaching as in an episode of the widely-viewed talk show al-Beit Beitak (Feel at Home). As the Mufti discusses halal and haram—what is sinful and what is not—many viewers are so engrossed listening to the number of taboo behaviours the Mufti lists that they become over-anxious. People who are already burdened with so many problems discover that they have to inspect every action or thought in terms of whether or not it accords with the codes of Islam.
Shalaby documents some of the terrible situations which have become widespread in Egyptian society—and in many other societies for that matter. Khalas (Salvation) tells the story of a woman whose husband has gone to Saudi Arabia for work and she finds herself the single parent of seven children. Her worst fears materialise when her son Emad becomes a drug addict and his problems mushroom by the day. The horrid actions of her son reach their peak when he attempts to rape his sister. When the mother fails to find an outlet to the unbearable situation with her son, she poisons him through a glass of lemonade she offers him, then begins to scream. She becomes hysterical, scratches the skin off her face, and finally asks her daughter to call the police.
Illegal immigration cannot go unnoticed in Shalaby’s real-life stories. He captures the tragedy in Roqaat Lahm Manqousha bil-Akhdar (A Piece of Flesh Engraved with Green). A young father who plans to travel illegally to Iraq searching for work practices the Iraqi accent before his son. The son caches the words “Mu Misriyeen” (Not Egyptian). The father imagines that the Iraqi authorities might catch him, so tries to answer in the Iraqi accent to make believe he is an Iraqi citizen. The father takes the journey to Iraq only to return to his family a piece of flesh—a dead corpse. When the police comes to investigate, the son rushes to meet them hysterically reiterating “Mu Misriyeen, Mu Misriyeen ”.