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Tuesday, 24 November 2020

Book Review: Soliman Bey Naguib - A Cairo cab driver's social philosophy

The famous actor, who had many strings to his bow, published a collection of the memoirs of a Cairo cab driver

Hanan Hagag, Monday 11 Jun 2018
Soliman Naguib
Soliman Naguib
Views: 7193
Views: 7193

Mozakerat Arbagy (“Memoirs of a Handsom Cab Driver”), by Naguib, Soliman, 2011 pp. 85  (Cairo: Egyptian Cultural Palaces Publishing House). 2011. 85pp.

Egypt's well-known actor, Soliman Naguib (1892 - 1955), was a world of surprising contradictions.

Born to an aristocratic family, his father was writer Mustafa Naguib and his maternal uncle was Ahmed Zeiwar Pasha, an Egyptian prime minister.

When his mother discovered his penchant for acting, she made him promise not to pursue his passion in public while she was still alive.

Despite being brought up in palaces, he sported a rebellious streak that drove him to mingle with street vagabonds and creatives. Yet he occupied a string of official positions, which he felt were imposed upon him due to his family's status

A distinguished employee at the Ministry of Justice, he moved to the diplomatic corps, where he was promoted to Egypt’s consulate in Turkey.  

During this period, journalistic writing was the only means by which Naguib could express his rebellion and his talent, before his advent as one of the of most refined and humorous actors of his time.

He was conferred the noble title of ‘bey’ by King Farouk, following his appointment the head of the Royal Opera House.

Naguib was renowned for telling his friends he would die at the age of 60 or a little more, so seemingly foretold his own death in 1955 at the age of 63.

A lesser-known facts about Naguib is that he regularly wrote to a number of magazines. Among his most beautiful articles were those published weekly in Al-Kashkool under the title “Memoirs of a Hansom Cab Driver,” in the form of satirical articles at the beginning of the 1920s.

In 1923, Naguib collected these articles and published them as a book, the introduction to which was edited by Fekry Abaza, one of the most brilliant writers of the time. The book is comic in its style and content and may be considered a factual record of a slice of society in Egypt.

The book focuses on social relationships and daily behavior through the eyes of a hansom cab driver taxi-ing Cairenes of different classes and professions around the city, engaging in conversation with them about their personal and emotional relationships.

Hanafy Abu-Mahmoud, the name Naguib chose for the hansom driver, records the passengers’ conduct in his diaries, beginning with the outbreak of World War I in 1914 and ending with Egypt's 1919 Revolution.

Although the book was published anonymously, Naguib’s friends and those surrounding him confirm that he was indeed the author.

The book starts with a small, unconventional introduction in which Hanafy Abu-Mahmoud begs and implores prominent writer Fekry Abaza to write an introduction to his book.

Abaza replied, writing that he “did not have to ask, just command and I will obey, since you’ve done me unforgettable favours. You are not  a mere cab driver, but a philosopher, and philosophy is highly venerated in itself regardless of those characterized by it.”

He goes on to say that “You, driver, have lashed your whip on the backs of the dissolute and the pedantic. In the old times, the whip was a tool for refinement and discipline. The whip of bygone days used to make people bleed, yours does not spill blood, but injures souls.”

The book’s 80 pages are divided into 16 chapters, or "notes" as Naguib called them, and an epilogue. Abu-Mahmoud devotes the first note to explaining his interest in writing despite his profession as a hansom driver.

He admits “it is true that I was brought up among carts and horses in an environment where nothing could be heard except whip lashes and the sound of blacksmiths mending horseshoes, but this has not prevented me from a tendency to love literature, writing, reading and following political news.”

"Thus, I do not forget, with the barley and clover for the horses, to buy the evening newspapers.”

He states that his profession made him privy to many secrets, some provoking laughter, others tears.

He classifies the different types of passengers he encounters, describing those who ride a hansom for the first time sitting “upright as if waiting for the verdict” while there were others who sat “effeminately,” resting one leg behind the driver and another on top of it as though forgetting they are in a public street. 

There are also passengers completely preoccupied by their thoughts: engaged in the turmoil of emotional relationships, or penuriously calculating the distance to estimate their miserly fare.

In the third chapter, driver Hanafy comments satirically on the world of politics, specifically the events of the Egyptian Revolution of 1919, demonstrating how cab drivers benefitted from the tramway strike.  

 “The tramway strikes were the best of times, where your obedient driver Hanafy was jubilantly living through the heyday of his business, before the impending disaster of the automobile taxi.”

He narrates the story of a politician who visits at his home when he becomes prime minister, until another is appointed as the new head of government, prompting him to turn home instead.  

One of the most enjoyable chapters is the one devoted to women, whom he calls "the gentle sex." He recounts a day in Ramadan, when three captivating women walked to the hansom stand and chose his cab.

Presuming they were going to see a relative, or perhaps look in a department store, he was surprised when he was asked to go to one of the Rod Al-Farag theatres during the hours of fasting, settings notorious for their gambling dens. The women later emerged penniless from one of these establishments, asking him to take them to the house of a relative who would help them to pay his fare.   

Naguib’s only book is characterised with a lightness of touch and linguistic choices blending simple classical and colloquial Arabic. It may be read as a revelation of Egyptian society through the eyes of an aristocrat, who became a different kind of writer and actor through his choice to shed the garb of his class at the doors of talent. 




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