Book Review: Rotary Phone -- yearning for the past

Ossama Lotfy Fateem , Monday 14 Dec 2020

book review
book review

Telephone b-Qors (Rotary Phone), Tarek Fahmy Hussein, Ibn Roshd Publishing, Cairo, 2020

In his first published collection of short stories, Tarek Fahmy Hussein arouses the interest of the reader using one factor: time. In the book of 21 stories he moulds, twists, and turns time and comes up with an anti-climax that throws the reader off balance as the story moves to a different dimension.

The stories are bonded by the same character; a man in his late 50s who is nostalgic to past and pessimistic about the future. The best story representing the collection is the one that carries the book’s title “Rotary Phone”.

The protagonist finds an antique rotary phone that is still functional. It is a source of joy to wire the phone and make it work.

He starts making phone calls, dialing numbers he has memorised since childhood. The phone numbers take him back to a different time. He calls his father at work but can't find him; his childhood girlfriend blames him for not coming to school the previous day without telling her; his mother at her workplace but she had just left. The conversations are startling to him because talk to him as if he was the young man he was decades ago.

The protagonist encounters the final blow when he decides to call his home number, he talks to his young self and the story ends when he realises that.

The story is written in a flowing, exciting style. The writer attracts the reader’s interest with a simple, smooth style. Many readers will be tempted to know more about the young man and how he turned into that adult, how he is going to handle his old life and if both the young and old will ever meet.

It is clear the story revolves around yearning for old times and innocence; longing for a time when life was much simpler.

The time twist is repeated in “By the Girls' School Door”. In this story, Hussein shows his mastery of interesting techniques. The main character is a young man waiting for his girlfriend at her high school to take her to their favourite places to spend a few hours of innocent fun.

He parks his small car by the school and all of a sudden nothing is familiar: the doorman is not the same guy, the girls look different, and finally we realise that a few decades ahead, the main character is an old man searching for his old life, his innocent love that probably did not materialise into a successful relationship and a present time that seems to be unfulfilling.

The story shows a depressed, unhappy man whose life has passed by and is searching for happiness in his past.

Another feature that characterises some of the stories is the failed attempt at preaching. The protagonist drives by a Cairo bridge everyday on his way to work. He watches the early risers with their fishing hooks, those who just stand by the river to enjoy the fresh air, and those who are just walking by trying to find some sort of truth that the river might offer.

The writer explains the thoughts and reasons of the bridge lovers to be there at that early hour. Then he realises that the only way to know their feelings is to join them, and indeed he does so.

The message here is clear: walk in someone's shoes rather than establish notions about their motivations.

Not all the stories are depressing, however. Nor are they cornered in the grey area between joy and sadness.

In the story titled “60”, Hussein describes the last day in a man's life before retiring. The reader gathers the man is a company director who is loved by his colleagues and subordinates, and the reader can tell that he is happy to start his life after retirement.

The gentleman believes he is handsome, notices how the ladies that he passes by daily gaze at him flirtingly, whether in the parking lot, in the pharmacy next to his workplace, or the teenager in his apartment building while taking his wife out on his first day of retirement.

The last scene is funny. His wife laughs at the young girl standing by her husband in the elevator in spite of having enough space next to her, the point being that being happy makes people notice you.

Evaluating short stories is always a challenge. Some writers condense the feelings or describe an event in a few pages, but Hussein compressed the lives of his characters through one angle.

Each of the stories could have been a novel by itself if provided with the necessary background while enriching the characters and events. This can be perceived as a substantiation of the writer’s talent, yet some of the stories deserved to be longer. 

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