Book review: New novel charts the greed and corruption of the sugar industry in Egypt and globally

Hesham Taha,Friday 8 May 2020

book cover
book cover

Sukkar Aswad (“Black Sugar”), Amr Kamal Hammouda, Dar Al-Thaqafa Al-Gadida Publishing, Cairo 2019, pp.199.

In his third novel, Amr Hammouda tackles the sugar industry both locally and globally via a trio of characters whose fates are intertwined. The novel is divided into two unequal parts; the first is titled Gypsy Hair and the second Zero Point. All the novel chapters are titled with place names, including Maadi, Abdeen, Paris, Mallawi, and Trieste, with the exception of the last chapter, tellingly named Places Without a Map.

Abbad Alfonso, the pivot around which the novel revolves, is a big businessman and dealer in stolen antiques, who is approached by a network from French sugar company Sucrona, the world's third-largest bank and the European Union to sell a refined sugar surplus in Egypt and ultimately to buy in partnership the sugar plants in France deemed harmful to the environment there.

It transpires that this network is built on shady personal connections, some of which are sexual in nature. Alfonso has been brought up on certain rules, the most prominent of which is “convert every penny into gold ingots,” as well as, excluding a company headquarters and residence, “never own any real estate, or land, agricultural or otherwise” in Egypt.

Alfonso has relied on a gang of six young men and their father in all his mean work (setting his rival factory on fire, stealing Islamic antiquities). Due to the humane way which Alfonso treats this gang -- almost as equals, not subordinates -- it could be easily assumed that this is Alfonso’s true, decent face. But that is far from the truth.

Shahdan, the second character, is an ambitious university graduate who had begun climbing the corporate ladder at Alfonso's company. Through her eyes, the reader begins to appreciate the full extent of the merciless mind resting behind the secret deals, the crushing of a market rival -- even burning his factory -- the taste of luxury and a disturbing secret that unfolds near the end of the novel.

Shahdan's financial and emotional attachment to Alfonso's family are epitomised by the confession she makes to Rami, Alfonso’s eldest son and right-hand man.

She said, “I don't care about anything except losing you or Abbad; it doesn't matter to live in Egypt or abroad. I don't feel attached to any place.” In response, Rami tells her that, “It seems that you have become a gypsy.”

Thus, Shahdan becomes, in her own words, rootless. She is puzzled when she found Muslims and Christians belonging to the same family paying condolences upon the passing of Shafiqa, the gang’s matriarch and Alfonso’s nanny. Due to her evolving relationship with Rami, he confides to her that Alfonso and his gang are descendants of a Turkish gypsy tribe.
Later, the reader learns through Alfonso that Shafiqa was the one who taught him the gypsies’ oral tradition and engraved the letter ‘T’ on his arm.

Saleh, the third key character, is the son of a driver for the state's sugar factory in Minya governorate in Upper Egypt. His mind has been firmly attached since his early childhood to this factory and its machinery. He is portrayed as a brilliant technician, devoted to the factory and trying his utmost to enhance it after stagnation and carelessness inflicted on the entire Egyptian public sector in the seventies and later decades.

Hammouda depicts one state sugar factory as a microcosm, in order to reveal the monumental blunder of the privatisation plan in Egypt and its woes, represented by the sale of factories, even successful ones, at a fraction of their real worth, in addition to the vast land owned by these plants.

Thus, Saleh’s and other factory managers’ resistance to this giant tidal wave of joint efforts of Europeans, Egyptians (both businessmen headed by Abbad and government officials) and an Arabian Gulf businessman is doomed.

Alfonso’s and his associates’ lives stand in stark contrast to those of the factory workers. The former are full of breathless action, ambition and sensual fulfilment, while the latter is more or less a tranquil, unhurried life based on arduous work with few, but meaningful, delights.

Moreover, the almost ideal relationship between Saleh, the factory engineer, and the foreman is so dissimilar to the interest-motivated relations among Alfonso's team. The reader might feel a bit of relief on moving to the chapters located in Minya, away from the squalid games of Alfonso and his milieu.

There is also the relationship between the security apparatus and the factory workers, and Hammouda has stated plainly that the security apparatus’ policy is: as long as the worker doesn't have any ideological affiliations, he is safe. This is quite evident in the relationship between a factory informer and two State Security officers, and his incessant efforts to tarnish Saleh’s reputation out of jealousy, nothing more.

Following a tendency of Naguib Mahfouz, Hammouda chooses characters' names to reveal something of their essence. For example, Shahdan is a derivative of the word honey in Arabic, in reference to the desirability she embodies; Saleh means “the good man,” which suits the good and loyal nature he personifies; Tufail, an Arabian Gulf tycoon, stands for the word parasite, befitting his constant desire for profit.

Interestingly, Hammouda has chosen an open-end finale for his novel, seemingly to bet on the workers’ awareness to rise up.

One of the novel’s minor drawbacks is that the reader keeps trying to guess the period in which the novel is set, and also that the author goes into too much detail on the factory workers’ union and inserting an article on labour union regulations.

Hammouda is obviously an expert on the sugar industry and trade, and the novel contains sufficient details on both. He is also a connoisseur of food and wine, which he has put to good use in this novel and in earlier books. However, it must be said that the new release is not on a par with his two previous novels, Violette and the Lieutenant Colonel and The Broker.

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