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Book review: Hidden Lives in “Rooms for Rent”

Penetrating but inconclusive, Rooms for Rent paints an eloquent picture of the struggles of the poor

Mary Mourad, Tuesday 7 Dec 2010
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Ghoraf lil Egar (Rooms for Rent), Mohamed El Bosaty, Cairo: Akhbar El Youm, 2009. pp107

 

Fatma, Ateyat and Om Youssef are the heroines of a house with “rooms for rent” when they find themselves neighbours overnight. Fatma has fled from Upper Egypt to marry the man who is now her husband, not out of love but rather a desire to escape her home. Ateyat has worked many years as a live-in maid until finally marrying the first person to knock on her employer’s door. Om Youssef, originally the daughter of a poor man who prepares tea for workers in the street, marries a train station labourer and moves all over Egypt with him until they eventually settle in Cairo. The women, together with their husbands, each occupy a small room in the house, sharing a bathroom, kitchen and outside hall. 

In his current novel, Rooms for Rent, Mohamed El-Bosaty takes a plunge into the world of Cairo’s hidden alleys and poor neighbourhoods, and with his delicate and inoffensive “virtual camera” takes some of the most enchanting snapshots taken of Egyptian society. He does not settle for a simple description of families, lives and interactions. Rather, he goes many layers deeper into origins, motivations and dreams, and brings them to the present, inevitable moment. Misery is rarely portrayed in darkness. On the contrary, the various means used to improve their lot becomes a catalyst against misery. There are many smiles and much laughter, and children’s joyful play, giving reality to the world that lies silently amid the cracks of the earth. The novel tracks the struggle for survival with all its challenges and surprises, until the moment the protagonists arrive and meet one another in their shared house. 

Among his deepest insights into women’s private lives, El-Bosaty describes the relationship between Fatma and Ateyat, bringing many intimate images into play: sitting bare-legged to wash clothes in the common hallway, doing halawa (traditional Egyptian waxing) for one another, and finally bathing together and dancing naked in the water in what seems like their only sensual pleasure. In the second part of the book, Om Youssef, now deserted by her husband, moves with her son to another set of flats —apparently cheaper —on the roof of a building and finds new neighbours: a divorced government employee forced out of his house; the dedicated wife of a crippled man; and a grandfather with his small granddaughter thrown out and forced to work as musician and dancer in cheap bars and night clubs. 

Sexuality is a core theme in these lives. With little beyond daily toil and the absolute minimum to eat, intimacy between men and women becomes a centre of pleasure stolen behind thin walls and between half-sleeping children. What would seem to an average middle class Egyptian to be extreme boorishness is merely the natural expression of desire among the poor. Having chosen his heroines from the female community, sexuality is linked not so deeply with desire but with a sense of duty. Yet one strange event takes place with Om Youssef, who finds pornographic art painted on the wall of the lodging where they are living, and she decides to hide it with drapes and pins. Later, she enjoys evenings in arousal, talking to the man in the painting. 

The stories run like an extended series of shots selected from a vast panorama of life among the “simple folk” of Cairo, with nothing much beyond day-to-day survival to keep them busy. As usual with El-Bosaty, the description of action and movement flows very smoothly with hardly any challenge or conflict. Indeed, this small book floats lightly over the wretched and yet still contented lives of the main characters. While at times masterly, the journey leaves many questions unanswered, with characters somewhat deprived of depth, to the extent that each of them merges into the shadow of the others. They all carry the same burdens, and in a strange way react in the same manner. 

The open ends of the thin thread tying the stories together are also common to El-Bosaty; a deep reflection into the reality of the world, with no happy or sad endings either. Every story could be continued, and this time El-Bosaty leaves the reader eager for more. 


 

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