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Wednesday, 12 August 2020

Book Review: Black Nile Secret Club … When timelines interact

In a highly enjoyable novel of magical realism, Sameh El-Gabbas connects the past and the present, detailing aspects of the consciousness of modern Egypt

Ossama Lotfy Fateem , Thursday 2 Jul 2020
Nadi
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Nadi El-Nile Al-Aswad El-Serry (Black Nile Secret Club) by Sameh El-Gabbas, (Beit El Yasmin Publishing House), 2019.

“Don’t mention your name, don’t tell anyone about the club, don’t lie, and don’t be afraid.” These are the conditions to join one of the most important secret clubs in Egypt.

Novelist Sameh El-Gabbas attracts the reader from page one by publishing a secret report presented to the minister of interior by one of his officers regarding the Black Nile Secret Club.

He clarified the steps that will be taken against its members, how more information about the goals and activities of the “organisation” will be gained, promising to arrest them all and extract the needed evidence. The mouths of fans of the political novel water with these two opening pages, expecting stories of how the political apparatus functions, versus how the secret organisation operates. This isn't exactly the case. Nevertheless, the mysterious club remains of interest until the novel’s end.

The novel examines two parallel lives for club members: one occurring in our modern time, where new members are recruited; and another is that of a historical nature, eternal for club members who live in a parallel world. The historical personalities are real, have medium fame, attended many important events in Egyptian history, but were lost in time and mentioned briefly in history pages. Their narration explains how history occurred, versus how it was written.

The writer tells the stories of those chosen to join the club; they did not apply, didn’t know the reason of their recruitment, and up until the novel’s end they hardly understood the change that happened in their lives after joining the club.

The security reports refer to suspected members by letters only, giving the impression that the novel is an account of a long investigation, the anonymity insinuating that the members can include anyone. This notion is underlined when each of the characters start to tell their own stories. They are normal people. The introduction of each historical character occurs when a new member joins the club, recruited by agents from from the other side — dead in this life but everlasting in the conscience of the nation.

The members chosen are not necessarily good people. One was a disgusting rich man who follows women with alluring bodies, intending to pay for sex, when he stumbles into small allies wherein he must get totally naked to pass through them. The thoughts that run through his mind while pursuing a poor woman who refuses his advances, his joy being to break her before taking her, shows the reader a vulgar, cheating character — someone who despises people, is insatiable for food, women, money, spreads corruption by just breathing; a person that no one can sympathise with and ends up being a member in the club by finding its secret door located by the Nile. Like the other chosen ones, he found a document about a historical figure explaining his life, his story and what place he occupied in history.

In the case of the disgusting character, or suspect H, he learned about Boghos Bek who was the person who organised the customs system in Alexandria during the reign of Mohamed Aly Pasha. The details Boghos Bek gave about his work on how to organise a financial system, while giving a glimpse into how modern Egypt was build, how the politics of the palaces work, how the ruler could make anyone disappear if he doubted his loyalty, are fascinating to any history buff. The recruiter in that case is a noble person who has no similarity with suspect H; the writer intentionally made the recruitment process open to all types of people. The secret club’s purpose is never completely revealed, leaving it to the reader’s interpretation, but it’s a place where “people live like one family, no one owns more than the rest, no money is transacted, they eat what they need and live in happiness and peace.”

Among the characters that can add to the reader’s knowledge is suspect B, a modern escort girl working in a third grade “cabaret” — the Egyptian version of a nightclub. Her job title is “Reklam”, a word invented in these surrounding. She sits with customers and makes sure they keep ordering drinks, while also having a relaxed time. The novelist explain B’s background, her family’s poverty, her training in the cabaret, the tricks that she and her colleagues play on customers, as a team and individually.

Each girl is assigned a group of customers and they alternate to keep them busy while giving the illusion of being in the company of beautiful girls wearing revealing dresses, dancing around them or with one if he choses. B explains the system: how a cabaret madam revises the night’s details with the crew (girls, waiters and bodyguards) at the beginning of the evening and supervises the division of spoils after closing in the early morning hours. The reader sympathises with B while enjoying learning about a nightlife many only see in movies.

Senot Hanna Pacha is among the eternal members of the Black Nile Secret Club. Choosing such a character to be under the spotlight is an invitation to the reader to search Egyptian history about a great man who spend his life defending the nation’s unity between Muslims and Christians and died defending Mostafa Pacha El-Nahas in the assassination attempt on his life in 1930 in Mansoura, a piece of information that the writer decided not to give in the novel, but the admiration with which he wrote about Senot Pacha is clear encouragement for readers to dig deeper into the modern history of Egypt.

The novel’s end is open, mysterious and vague. It leaves the club, its members, activities and goals up in the air. The security apparatus could not reach its goal of catching its members or understanding its raison d’etre. This type of ending (better yet the whole book) falls under the magical realism category of novels. The timeline jumps between the contemporary moment and near and far history. The characters, whether contemporary or historical, end up conversing with each other, passing experiences and explaining the club’s rules. Characters co-existing in an imaginary time and place is a notion the writer makes acceptable to the reader. The latter actually awaits interaction.

In brief, the novel is a joyful read that could have ended in a more satisfying way for the reader. Getting into a secretive political club or organisation would have been a more interesting turn of events. 

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