Fi Ghurfat Al-Ankaboot (In the Spider’s Chamber) by Mohammed Abdel Nabi, Al-Ain publishing, Cairo 2016. pp.348
Since its earliest beginnings at the start of the last century, the Arab novel has shied away from the topic of homosexuality. In the rare instances when the subject is tackled, it is depicted in a negative light, reinforcing the stereotype of the homosexual as a dissolute person to be ridiculed.
The reader may have encountered such stereotypical depictions in a number of Arabic novels from Naguib Mahfouz to Alaa El-Aswany. Arab novelists have tended to either cater to mainstream sensibilities on the subject or ignore the issue altogether.
Depictions on electronic media have followed suit, often approaching homosexuality with repression and contempt.
The law in Egypt indirectly criminalises homosexuality, with defendants facing charges like "incitement to immorality" and "debauchery," even though some studies have suggested that homosexuals experience same-sex attraction through no fault of the own; either through congenital factors or childhood experiences.
In his latest novel “In the Spider’s Chamber,” author Mohammed Abdel-Nabi addresses this topic in a way that is unprecedented for Arabic literature. The lengthy work speaks of the hidden world of homosexuals, treating them as real human beings suffering repression, abuse, imprisonment and contempt.
The author is one of the most prominent new voices among young novelists. He has written a number of short story collections, the latest of which won the best short story collection at the Cairo Book Fair in 2015. One of his novels won the Sawiris award in 2013, while his work as a translator won him the State Encouragement Award for translation.
According to a note in "In the Spider’s Chamber," the author based this work on the real-life raid in 2001 by police on the Cairo cruise ship Queen Boat, which was an alleged rendezvous spot for homosexuals.
More than 50 people were arrested at the time, and were reportedly subjected to torture and abuse while in police custody, not to mention a campaign aimed at vilifying them.
In the novel, these historic events are witnessed by the fictional gay protagonist Hani Mahfouz, who is arrested while taking a walk with friends, put on trial, tortured and humiliated over a span of a year.
The defendants were initially charged with practicing "debauchery" and were later charged with "contempt of religion," which they were forced to confess to under duress by police.
This trumped-up charge alleged that the defendants were affiliated with the non-existent "Agency of Allah Lord of hosts on Earth" organisation, which supposedly has a prophet and holds clandestine meetings to plot the establishing of a new regime that acknowledges homosexuality.
Through the narrator and protagonist Hani, the author reveals a world within a world, one that is built on secrecy and is always threatened with potential scandal and humiliation. The book explores this world – where homosexuals face beating, exclusion and discrimination – in a way that has never been seen in an Arabic novel.
Abdel-Nabi does not use lyrical or subtle language, but instead takes a blunt and shocking approach. Instead of relying on emotional tones, he lets the events speak for themselves.
The author presents a work that is not only characterised with boldness and the entering of new literary territory, but does so in a solid and sober manner in a work that will not pass unnoticed.