Book review: "Memoirs of a Horse Carriage Driver" exposes post-revolution life nearly 100 years ago

Sayed Mahmoud, Sunday 22 May 2011

First published after the 1919 Egyptian revolution, the satirical memoirs tell of those who tried to steal the revolution

Mozakerat Arbagy (Memoires of a Horse Carriage driver), by Soliman Naguib Pasha, Cairo: Organization for Cultural Palaces, 2011.

The book "Mozakerat Arbagy" (Memoires of a Horse Carriage driver) recently republished by the series "National Memory" from the organization for Cultural Palaces for the 'author', driver Hanafy Mahmoud, is truly a piece of lost heritage of satirical literature, written by this author among others during the 1920s in the periodical "Kashkul" (Notebook). At the same time, these texts put the new satirical authors in a critical spot: it proves that the literary and social role for literature cannot come at the expense of the literary value of the text itself -  a rule sometime forgotten in contemporary writings.

The book raises questions about the identity of its original author. According to the editor in chief of the National Memory series, poet Osama Afifi, and the managing editor, Tarek Hashim, it is most likely that actor Soliman Naguib is the true author. This comes behind many assumptions related to the cultural background of the actor, who also became the head of the Royal Opera House and who frequented Café Riche together with a host of contemporary intellectuals. Also this seems to be confirmed by the version kept at the Alexandria University Library with some hand scribbles stating that the book is written by Soliman Naguib in 1921 A.D. (1341 Hijri).

Afifi confirms in the introduction of the book, that the content links between the past and present in a surprising fashion. The original text was published in 1922, following the 1919 revolution, as a series in the Kashkul periodical, to track, in a highly satirical yet mature society post-revolution. He exposes the "colored"; those who changed sides after the revolution, those who walked between the camps, the hypocrites, social climbers and opportunists that showed up after the revolution to kill it by pretending to be revolutionaries themselves.

As Afifi mentions, the Memoires came to expose all these and to lash them all with the donkey's whip, aiming to clean the revolution and to protect the spirit and gains of the Egyptian revolution.

The author didn't really represent only his age, Afifi states, but writes something suitable for all moments of "Great Change" and societies post-revolution when the reactionaries seek all means to create havoc and disturbance; when the corrupt raise their voices and slogans.

In the original introduction by Fakhry Abaza Pasha, responding to the Arbagy's 'letter' by stating, "You lashed with your whip the backs of all the immorals, the pedantic, men and women. In the past, the whip was used to discipline and correction, while the whip of the past would spill blood and not hurt the soul, your doesn't wound but touches the spirit, and we are here to heal the souls not the bodies, so thank you doctor of souls."

Apart from its social aim, the book can be viewed as a text with multiple layers, with a unique style that uses briefness and bare language, similar to Yahia Haky's that balances the written narrative with the telling; somewhat carrying the spirit of Bertolt Brecht, where the writer leaves the narrative to address the audience, making the narrative nearly a game in which both the audience and writer join. This was particularly helped by the "Dailies" style, using a journal of 16 trips of the author with his customers; reminding us of the famous bestsellers "Taxi" by Khaled El-Khamisi, with the difference being that El-Khamisi used his own experience as a customer with many taxi drivers, while "Osta Hanafi" was the driver for many customers.

On the historical side, the Memoires reveal the elite's view about the national independence, with Sudan's story forming a heart of the debate, also showing some of the social issues Egypt faced during this era such as Cocaine addiction, mingling of men and women, fear of car accidents at a time when cars were spreading in the streets of Cairo. Yet, the book never uses the language of preaching or morality lessons, somewhat similar to the content of the songs of the same period by Sayed Darwish (famous Egyptian colloquial poet and singer). The book refers clearly to the deteriorating urbanization of today's Cairo, reminding us of a once-cosmopolitan beautiful city, filled with night life, diverse culture and tolerance. 

Short link: