Mesbar El-Kholoud (“Immortality Probe”), by Sherif Al Asfouri, Cairo: Dar El Mahrousa, 2019. pp. 271.
Egypt’s famed president Gamal Abdel-Nasser still inspires many novelists, writers and artists, and is alive in the minds of both those who love him and those who blame him and his policies for all the misfortunes of the country since his rule.
In his new novel Mesbar El-Kholoud, Sherif Al Asfouri reimagines Egyptian political history if Nasser had lived until the year 2022, not as the ruler of Egypt but as an observer of what happened after his official date of death in 1970.
This brilliant idea brings with it insights into all the main political figures of the 20th century, ending in the second decade of the 21st. In his second novel, Al Asfouri has produced a page-turner with an accurate, intelligent and honest description of some of the main events in modern Egyptian history.
The author has created two parallel worlds, a historical one and an imaginative one. The historical one documents the life of Nasser, his close relationship with his mother, his personality traits, his ambitions and how he prepared himself to be a hero like the ones he read about (although with no admiration for any of them).
He realised at an early age that a hero must be deceptive, cunning, shrewd and a liar in order to reach glory.
In short, the author has carried out a complete psychoanalysis of Nasser’s personality.
The reader can tell that every detail and fact mentioned in the novel are truthful and well-researched.
The incident in which Nasser encounters a dancer/call girl was not documented in the main books about him, but the author stated that he confided in his friends in order to purify himself from that indecency.
That is just one incident among many that show the passion and the dedication of Al Asfouri to his work, in spite of his well-known political position against Nasser’s “revolution.”
The genius idea of giving Nasser immortality was inserted into the novel in the form of a medical experiment in the former Yugoslavia that gives eternity to those who go through it.
As a result, a parallel world is created, that of “Ahmed Gamal,” the name given to Nasser by the author.
He is a CEO of a company that he built with his friends, symbolising Egypt, and he narrates the crises that Egypt faced during Nasser’s era as if they were economic and legal problems facing a normal business.
The excitement is so high sometimes that the concept of both characters meeting each other is anticipated, especially as they are both in a confessional mood throughout the novel.
Exposing the true intentions of the characters (Nasser in his several capacities -- the ruler, the observer of his own time and then his post-mortem observation), the avidity for absolute power, the way he justified some of his crimes such as turning on all his fellow officers who participated in the 1952 revolution.
Nasser simply could not stand anyone else being “in the picture” other than himself. Getting rid of the second man in the regime, Abdel-Hakim Amer, was shown as a stroke of genius, while in fact it clearly showed the vicious, ruthless part of Nasser’s personality.
Yet the author demonstrated how the great Nasser could not detect the malice in Anwar El-Sadat’s personality and how the “yes man” turned out to be a cunning politician with his own agenda, and ended up reversing all Nasser’s policies and principles when he took power.
The interaction between both worlds (that of the country and that of the company) is done in a persuasive, methodological way that entertains the reader.
For a complicated idea such as one person becoming two people with different life spans, the writer has managed to remove confusion from the reader’s mind.
The novel is a smooth read that calls into question the history lessons learned in school versus the true history that is extracted from various books, politicians’ memoires, published and unpublished documents, and intelligent analysis of the various political facts of the Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak eras.
The information that the writer has provided about Mubarak’s personality, for example his insatiable, voracious greed, food and love for material goods in general; his lack of moral and ethical values, and finally how he dealt with the people who worked “for” him not “with” him, was revealing information that was kept hidden.
Saad Zaghloul is another leader that Al Asfouri writes about in the novel, and he explained how his stubbornness and strict positions, lack of political skills, and huge popularity led to the failure of the negotiations with the British again and again. The reader can conclude that the direct result of Zaghloul’s personality failures was an extra thirty years of British occupation.
Another interesting account that the novel has uncovered was the Cairo fire of January 1952. It was an organised operation, the tools to break into the secured gates of companies, the criminals were professionals and their resources were available. The perpetrators are still unknown.
The revolution of January 2011 figures as one of the important events in the life of Ahmed Gamal as well. The author gives a balanced version of what happened in 2012 and 2013 and how the living persona of Nasser would have joined the masses in demonstrations against the rule of Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood president who stirred all the political forces against him in a few short months.
The writer has named each chapter after a particular year; they are not in order, but they fit together like mosaic pieces, together making up a masterpiece.