Book Review: Memories of post-1967 Egypt

Manar Attiya, Saturday 20 Apr 2024

In his novel Al-Hay Al-Sabie (Neighbourhood Seven), the writer Naïm Sabry tells the story of a group of friends who left Egypt for Libya after the debacle of 1967. Five years later, they return to discover that nothing is as before.

 Memories of post 1967


Al-Hay Al-Sabie (Neighborhood Seven), by Naïm Sabry, Al-Shorouk, 2023, 424 pages.

The author features real, colourful characters who lived in the same building, located in Al-Hay Al-Sabie (district seven, Madinat Nasr). Throughout the 16 chapters that make up his novel, he mixes private and public affairs in order to paint the picture of the post-war era. He describes in a simple way his own life and that of his friends and colleagues during the years of their youth, in 1970 and 1980.

All were affected by the defeat of 1967, also known as the Six Day War, in which Israel managed to conquer the West Bank, East Jerusalem, the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula and the Syrian Golan Heights in just six days.

This crisis had enormous repercussions on Egyptian citizens: “ Corruption and bribery began to spread (…); the unemployment rate has increased remarkably (...); young people entering working life had difficulty finding a job (...); many young graduates have left the country to work temporarily in the oil monarchies of the Gulf (…); the Egyptian government adopted a policy which aimed to encourage emigration to reduce pressure on the internal labour market (...); production fell drastically (...); Egypt could no longer face its balance of payments deficit (…) .”

The writer thus draws up a cruel observation of failure. What frightened him more was the sharp rise in crimes and misdemeanours in Egypt at that time, a fact which he linked to the adoption of the policy of economic openness (infitah) by President Sadat.

Memories of post-67

Between Shubra and Madinat Nasr
 

Naïm Sabry compares Al-Hay Al-Sabie to his earlier novel Shubra (2000), where he evokes a completely different era.

In the latter, named for a working-class neighbourhood in the north of Cairo, he talks about his childhood neighbourhood in the 1950s and 1960s, always through the life of a building, located on Al-Zohour Street.

Shubra, a district marked by a strong Coptic presence, had a positive impact on the writer, on a personal, professional and social level. He appreciated its cosmopolitan side since it is home to people from different communities.

In the same four-story building live Sabry Boutros, a Copt, Moustapha, a Muslim, and Jacob, a Jew. Italians, Greeks and Armenians also lived in the same neighbourhood. Everyone lived together in harmony.

In Al-Hay Al-Sabie, the author wanted to repeat the experience in another neighbourhood, that of Madinat Nasr, where he later moved. The context is completely different since we are in the years following the debacle of 1967. But he continued to draw inspiration from people he knew and chose “his building” as his starting point.

He makes a comparison between the two neighbourhoods. On the cover of the novel, we see two buildings linked by a simple thread. It is Ariadne's thread that we must follow, to better understand the difference between the eras documented by the author. Moreover, he often compares the Egyptian citizen to a tightrope walker trying to walk on a tightrope.

Microcosm
 

Sabry presents himself as a conductor. The novel brings together its heroes within the same building. Through the description of the light, the decor and the costumes, he invites readers to become an integral part of the work and to feel very close to the characters. The descriptions capture the smallest details and assimilate the emotions of everyone: the accountant, the doctor, the engineer, the trader, the currency trafficker, the neighbours, etc.

The writer immerses us in a society which has been shaken by the war, its setbacks and its disappointments. It shows us how the 1967 crisis was one factor among many that led to the deterioration of the Egyptian economy. Enough to push the younger generation to leave the country in search of work. Naïm Sabry, who studied polytechnics at Cairo University, was himself forced to leave in search of a better life.

However, the Iran-Iraq war and falling oil prices led to a sharp recession and pushed many migrants to return. Egyptians did not escape the crisis and towards the end of the 1980s, many of them returned to Egypt.

When they returned, they discovered that Egypt was no longer what it used to be. Stunned by the social and economic changes, they found it hard to believe that all these changes had taken place in just five years. The country was plunged into chaos. The streets had become dirty and trash littered the sidewalks. Street vendors displayed their wares on the ground in front of the large stores. The writer describes so many images that have become more customary over time.

During their stay in Libya or in other oil monarchies, the heroes of the novel manage to save money. Therefore, they could buy new apartments, get married or try to invest their money by founding their own businesses.

Lose your savings

For example, we follow the adventures of Rami, who did not have the means to create his company. “You have to know how to let go when you can’t change your situation,” he says. His neighbour suggests that he deposit his money with the Al-Chérif company, a private investment company offering much higher interest rates than banks. Rami dreams of increasing his profits and living like a king, but his aspirations quickly dissipate. It turns out that the fund investment companies were a complete scam and their clients ended up losing their money! It was a threat to the stability of the country's financial and economic system.

Naïm Sabry shows us the places he used to frequent with his friends during these years: the Sonesta Hotel, the Al-Baron Hotel, the Amphitryon, and the Roxy. He also mentions the Rabaa Al-Adawiya Mosque, Al-Tayaran Street, where he lived with his wife and only daughter after his return from Libya. The characters he describes communicate with each other by letters or landline telephones. We are a long way from the days of text messages and selfies. He thus bears witness to an era, that of the post-war period.

This article was first published in French in Al-Ahram Hebdo.

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