Book Review: Exploring the emotional legacy of the 1960s on Egypt's unhappiest generation

Ossama Lotfy Fateem , Saturday 22 Aug 2020

In his 13th novel, Safini Mara, or 'Save Your Heart for Me,' Naim Sabry experiments with an innovative style of storytelling as he looks at the difficult lives of the youth of the 1960s

Safini Mara (Save Your Heart for Me) by Naim Sabry, (Cairo: Dar El-Shorouk Publishing House), 2018
Naim Sabry is a particular kind of novelists; his novels cover the social history of his generation, to be more specific, the effect of the political turmoil on the young people who were at their peak in the 1960’s with their dreams and high hopes who were met by a horrible military defeat and personal failures. The aspirations of the Nasserist era turned into nightmares that most of that generation did not recover from.
In his thirteenth novel “Safini Mara” or “Save Your Heart for Me”- taken after the song that marked the birth of a new star in the singing world in Egypt, Abdel Halim Hafez- the author decided to experiment an innovative style of writing. He chose to write a “one shot” novel, no chapters, with one person “Nabil” as the center of the novel, the center of the universe for the novelist in a manner. His life is the summation of the experiences of the whole generation. The one shot writing style made the novel a hard read in spite of the easy flow of ideas and the events surrounding them.
The first noticeable factor regarding the main character is his relationship with the opposite sex, at a very young age he had a relationship with his neighbor’s wife who seduced him and became his concubine. A wet dream for all the adolescents in all times and cultures, we realize towards the novel’s end that he was a handsome man that women find him attractive, but his personality is not that of a Don Juan that can seduce women, he is actually a weak person who deserves sympathy.
The same was repeated when a classy lady, the mother of a girl colleague of his in school, literally invited him to her bed and had a love relationship with him. In the latter relation the feeling of guilt was destroying his morals and personality, the once good student in high school became a lazy unenthused student of mechanical engineering. The relationship with the mother ended when the mother caught him kissing the daughter. Our hero’s relations with females are all crossing the lines and are to a great extent capable of abolishing anyone’s ethics or sense of right and wrong. This was clear in the internal struggle that Nabil kept having until the end of the novel.
What Sabry did intelligently throughout the novel was inserting the major political events into Nabil’s life. From a friend of his being caught by Nasser’s security apparatus and imprisoned for being a member in one of the leftist cells that existed at that time, condemning the torture that occurred in Nasser’s prisons towards fellow countrymen and stating clearly that his choice in Abdel Hakim Amer as the army commanding officer was a disaster that led to the defeat.
The description of the Six days War of 1967 on hour to hour basis had the intention of recording the lies/ crimes committed by the Egyptian media towards the people. Egyptians thought that their army was about to enter Tel Aviv and erase Israel from existence while the truth was that the Israeli forces were victorious from the first hours of that war. All the military airports were hit on June 5th 1967, the Egyptian forces never entered the Israeli territories and the war ended by losing Sinai to the Israelis with thousands of Egyptians soldiers killed and taken as prisoners. This defeat was the reason for the break of spirit that this generation has seen.
Our main character could not finish the engineering school and decide to follow his passion for theater, he becomes an actor, not a very successful one but a professional one nonetheless . From petty failures to big ones, Nabil never found true love and never found happiness; but again who among the living humans found or which generation could be considered lucky or happy? A question that the novel brings while motivating the reader to look beyond the written words for answers.
The author inserted the great poet Naguib Serour into the novel when Nabil played a small role in one of his plays, he brought him to life and tried to paint a quick picture of his personality. By introducing Naguib Serour to the novel, Sabry enthused the new generation to read this man’s work and know more about one of Egypt most talented theater writers, unfortunately his short tragic life did not give him the fame that he deserved, it was a sort of tribute to one of Egypt’s great artists.
Experimenting with the reader by writing a one shot novel is an adventure that was not a successful one. It is a long narration that does not give a chance for other characters to develop, all the events whether public or personal are seen from the narrow view point of the main character. Although the writer made well-structured arguments regarding the political arena whether it was in Nasser, Sadat or Mubarak’s era, it was still one person’s interpretation.
The author’s area of expertise is describing the Egyptian society in the past few decades while noticing the changes that occurred on it due to the changes of the political and economic systems and policies. From socialism to capitalism without being ready for it, to the defeat of 1967 that led to the migration of the population of three cities (Suez, Ismailia and Port Said) and how it affected the whole country and how the theater world changed from serious plays to commercial ones were among the many facts that were mentioned in the novel.
The way Sabry analyses the society and dissect its maladies is admirable but due to the long time span between the events written about and the publication, the reader can tell that the writer is summing up the results of many studies and writings that have previously discussed the same issues over the years. So the writer has the quality of guarding the memory of the society for future generations.
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