“When the war started and it became clear that the units of the Egyptian army had actually crossed the canal, the TV was overloaded with songs of patriotism and people looked keen and anxious, barely able to speak a word but deeply euphoric, despite the hidden fear over what could happen next. Toutou was then under the spell of an irresistible want to run into the heart of events… It was as if life had suddenly stopped everywhere but in Sinai, where it was happening loud and clear.”
This might well be one of the biggest turning points in the events of Mohamed Tawfik’s novel ‘A Night in the Life of AbdelTawab – Toutou’ (layla fi hayat AbdelTawab – Toutou), which was republished last year by Dar Elthaqafa Elgedeeda, over 10 years after it first appeared in book stores in 1996.
Tawfik’s novel is the first of a trilogy that continued with the 2003 Dar Merit’s ‘A Naughty Boy Called Antar (Tafl shaky ismoh Antar), which was translated by AUC Press under the title of ‘A Murder in the Tower of Happiness.’ The third part of the trilogy, Candy Girl (Fatat El-Halwah), was released in 2010 by Al-Dar Al-Massriah Al-Lebenaniah and was translated by the AUC Press under the same title.
While the moment of the Suez Canal crossing by the Egyptian army is a true high for Tawfik’s protagonists, especially Toutou, it is only one of a few moments of fulfillment that the characters of this trilogy had live through before and after the 1952 Revolution, but especially after the 1967 defeat and despite the 1973 crossing.
‘A Night in the Life of AbdelTawab – Toutou’ starts in an upscale socioeconomic setting over the Red Sea the night that that president Anwar El-Sadat is assassinated – 6 October 1981. The primary characters of this novel, who are grappling with unsettling realities, are a group of men and women who joined the Engineering Department at Cairo University in the 1970s.
They came from different parts of society, each with different baggage but all with almost the same sense aimlessness and hidden dismay that took over a society after the devastating 1967 military defeat that so overwhelming ditched the dreams of glory and welfare that were held high in the years that followed the 1952 Revolution that overthrew a monarchy and created a republic.
Toutou is perhaps the most of the confused about what to believe and to where to belong.
“It is the story of a century, really; with one of the leading characters born in 1900 and another dying on the last day of 1999, on the eve of a new century and a new millennium,” said Tawfik. “And yes, it is about the broken dreams of those who were born in the wake of 1952 and came to face the realities of life after 1967 – and more even realities still after 1973.”
A hidden protagonist of the first novel in Tawfik’s trilogy is President Sadat. He was part of the 1952 Revolution that brought about an end to a monarchy and promised welfare and justice, but had instead brought totalitarianism and defeat.
Sadat was also the one who managed to act to reverse the defeat with a military crossing that allowed for a negotiated settlement.
However, as Tawfik shows his readers in ‘A Night in the Life of AbdelTawab – Toutou,’ Sadat was also the one who openly abandoned the 1952 call for welfare for capitalism, from socialism into Islamism, thus striking at the heart of the middle class lives and norms. This unavoidably forces Leila, the stunningly beautiful and deeply bewildered daughter of a civil servant, to abandon her early 1970s dreams of liberal life and to succumb in the late 1970s to her demons and those of society as she walks unguided down the path of political Islamism.
What became of Leila, in a sense, is also what became of Toutou himself, as he reappears in the second novel in the trilogy; a fat cat who fed on the wealth that came to some in society upon “the religion-coated corruption” that came along with Sadat’s hasty open-door policy.
This is also what becomes of Al-Mokheikh (the brilliant one), who appears in the second and third volumes of the trilogy as the civil engineer who offered his engineering brilliance to Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, who wished to possess nuclear weapons but ends up losing all of Iraq to the US invasion that forced Iraqi scientists and those who worked there to flee out of fear of being eliminated.
In fact, throughout ‘The Candy Girl’, Al-Mokheikh is desperately trying to find a safe refuge in the heart of the slums that had mushroomed in the 1990s during the rule of Hosni Mubarak, Sadat’s successor, to escape a US-based intelligence operation that is trying to eliminate him.
“The fact of the matter is that Sadat’s brilliant mind and daring nature had allowed him to act to reverse defeat, but also to act to reverse the socio-political tide of society in a way that forced the dominance of political Islam, rushed open-market policies and the social norms of the Gulf countries that hosted waves of Egyptian professionals and workers as of the second half of the 1970s,” Tawfik argues.
What these changes did to society, according to Tawfik, is perhaps no less damaging than the exaggerated and unfounded hopes of 1952 or the defeat of 1967 – with the results of the latter still unfolding.
Actually, Tawfik is willing to argue that “the moment that the Islamists took over is perhaps the most inevitable moment for the fall of the dreams” of the 1960s as set out in 1952 and beyond.
With the coupled influence of political Islam and the petrodollar culture, and in the absence of both liberal thinking and democracy, the society was doomed to walk the “very disturbing path of overpopulation that allowed for an exaggerated state of underdevelopment and an inflated influence of Islamism on the one hand and consumerism on the other,” Tawfik says.
This all led to the proliferation of slums, which Tawfik would arguably blame on the failure of the Mubarak regime to efficiently promote family planning.
The slums of the 1990s were not just a refuge for Al-Moukheikh, but were also a stark contrast to the old glory of the villas in the heart of Maadi, or even the new luxury of the suburb’s towers overlooking the Nile.
This is a tormenting tear in the flesh of society, whose juxtapositions are embodied at a crossroads at which traffic constable Ashmouni is standing.
Every day, Ashmouni comes from his world in Dar El-Salam to this crossroad before a tower built on the corniche of Maadi, where there is murder, fear and fury; this is where society seemed to be standing on the eve of the new millennium, which Ashmouni hoped to celebrate with his young wife.
“If 1967 caused our society to question its identity, I think that by the end of the 1990s the question was perhaps a more confusing one,” Tawfik says.
This state of confusion is explored further in ‘The Candy Girl,’ where the lines of morality and faith are blurred under the old influences of poverty and radicalism and the new influences of the IT Revolution.
As it becomes difficult in the first decade of the new millennium to define what is good and what is bad, what is real and what is false, havoc is set to take over.
It is in a humble Giza neighbourhood shattered by poverty and the surreal on 20 January 2007 that the last scene of ‘The Candy Girl’ takes place. It is a scene of a ‘bang’, which in retrospect was read as a futurologist’s take on the 2011 January Revolution.
What is next? Tawfik describes an ongoing battle between the influences of the past and the present.
“This is a hard battle given that we are living in a world that is under the sway of radicalism of different types and which is suffering from all the predicaments of the imagined dystopias of the 20th century; ‘Brave New World’ and ‘1984’,” Tawfik said.
The novels by Aldous Huxley and George Orwell, Tawfik added, have offered an effective ‘preview’ of the path Western societies were heading during last century.
He argued that the mix of radicalism, benevolent or rough totalitarianism and advanced genetic engineering is a tough combination whose outcome is difficult to predict anywhere in the world – but it would be equally hard to exclude a real bang.
‘What could be next?’ could perhaps serve as an appropriate title of Tawfik’s next work: a collection of short stories – just like his first published work was a collection of short stories.
He is convinced that there is room for the Arabic reading audience to appreciate short stories – even if the dominating mood is still for novels.
A career diplomat who served his last post in the US as Egypt’s ambassador, Tawfik is a graduate of the Cairo University Faculty of Engineering. He currently runs a monthly writing workshop at the Misr Library.