El-Gaw El-Aam (The General Atmosphere), by Ibrahim Dawood, (Cairo: El-Mahroussa Publishing House), 2019, second edition.
Those who are familiar with downtown Cairo will love Ibrahim Dawood’s “El Gaw el Aam”, or General Atmosphere. He skillfully wrote a story book about people he came across in the last decade of the 20th century and the first decade of the new millennium; the common factor was they were all the downtown area. Taking that approach, he was following in the footsteps of Naguib Mahfouz in his famous novel El-Maraya, or the Mirrors, where he used the concept of short chapters to tell the stories of people he knew in real life.
Those who are not familiar with one of the oldest downtowns in the world might be intrigued to look for those mentioned in the book in the faces of the people sitting on the various cafes, whether downtown or elsewhere because the stories do not limit themselves to one part of Cairo. The characters are mobile and the events move with them.
Dawood changed the names of some people, kept others when they have marginal roles in the stories, and mentioned the real places and the real stories of each of the characters he wrote about.
The creativity of the writer shows in the snap shots he takes of his characters, explaining the main event that makes their lives interesting, sometimes unsuccessfully, then makes them disappear in thin air, prematurely in some cases. Many tales were captivating enough, deserve longer stories, even if they were invented and not in conformity with the person's real life. The fact that some of the characters are easily recognisable by those who know them and some readers restrained the writer from extending his creativity.
Nearly 40 characters were put under the writer’s microscope in two or three pages; most are interesting, a few are dull. Most of the characters are normal people, marginalized, exist in every time and place yet, the writer was able to make them interesting in some cases and just described their lives with intelligent observations that makes the reader relate to people they know in real life.
Anecdote and misery combine in the chapter titled The Motor. A decent gentleman, married to two women, likes his friends and cares about them, likes to get stoned regularly and send messages to his friends on their cell phones. One night he walks to his car to discover that someone stole the motor from the car while it was parked. He went to the police station to report it. When the officers realised how the theft occurred, they burst in hysterical laughter, as well as the bystanders that were present at that time. Kamal, the gentleman, was broken by that situation and never showed up again in any of the his social circles. Out of misery, in general, werev produced great pieces of literature; still the breaking of a person leaves a bitter taste in the reader’s mind.
In describing a character that he named Galal, Dawood gave us an image about a hardworking man owning a sandwich stand. His business grew and he became wealthy. He had a beautiful voice and enjoyed hash and alcohol. At one of the plays he attended there was a scene where police officers enter the theatre and arrest the actors for being politically incorrect. Galal got rid of the drugs he had in his pocket by giving it to his friend sitting next to him.
His fear led him to leave the theatre house not realizing it was part of the play. He disregarded the arts world and concentrated on expanding his business, sold his stands and opened a classy restaurant. A couple of years later he met that friend of his who explained what happened at the play. Galal was embarrassed of his fear and his friend (who became a semi famous actor).
Galal had a lady friend who used the opportunity of him being away from the table to hit on the actor. Once he returned to the table, his friend exposed her and they nearly got into a fight with each other because the rich restauranteur would not give in to the idea that his friend who used to borrow money from him can be more attractive to his lady friend. This chapter can be also classified in the dark stories; people cannot forgive themselves for their weaknesses, especially cowardice. The abrupt end of the story leaves the reader wanting more. The writer drew the personalities well but the peak was not long enough. This was the style that Dawood decided to adopt in most of the narratives; it was a conscious choice where the writer avoided a novel that could have been a more interesting book.
Not all the narrations have a negative ending or show an undesirable part of the human soul. In the “correction” account, we see a man sending a letter to a woman explaining simply that he cannot get married to her. He explains that he understands her attempt to trap him into a marriage that he does not want. The man has a high administrative position in the political party they both work at, and he is also a poet. The woman is just a typist and answers the phone. His conclusion is that they are failures in their own way and he manages to deliver the letter by hand at the end of a work day.
The next morning he finds the typist and her family waiting for him at work and she yells at him that she is not a failure and that he is a low life with nothing worthy about him to marry her. After the burst of anger, the fight is over and they set an engagement date. This peak brings a smile to the reader. It shows how loving women deal with harsh situations sometimes. A couple of decades later, the writer sees them downtown trying to find a way for their first child to enrol in the Cinema Institute through their acquaintances.
These were just examples of the various narrations in the book. The downside is the element of dope in the majority of accounts. It gives the impression that getting stoned is a regular activity in the lives of many Egyptians. Whether it is seen as a positive literary feature or not in a country that still incriminates drugs is up to the reader.