Book Review - Thorny Lines: A critique of Egyptian politics and society

Ossama Lotfy Fateem , Monday 28 Dec 2020

Kamel chose characters that Egypt’s conservative society chooses to ignore and turn a blind eye to in her latest novel Khotoot Shaeka (Thorny Lines)


Khotoot Shaeka (Thorny Lines), Azza Kamel, Battana Publishing, Cairo, 2019

Going deep into the world of marginalised people in Egypt is the main theme in Azza Kamel’s second novel Thorny Lines. The title prepares the reader for a complicated novel that will take effort to understand, with story lines that are tragic and interconnected.

The thorny parts are the dark history and lives of the many characters that she has created and integrated together in a novel expressive of Egypt’s political and social arena in the past decade.

“Taher” (Pure) is the novel’s main character, and the glue that ties the story together. A journalist whose job and personal life allowed the novelist to shed light on society.

The writer drew him as a character with a purity that shines in a world full of cruelty, malice, and brutality, while the other characters are rich with viciousness and weakness.

He fell in love at an early age with a girl that died in a car accident before getting engaged to him, he loved her up until near the novel’s end, remaining a melodramatic lover dismayed by his lost love.   

Kamel chose characters that Egypt’s conservative society chooses to ignore and turn a blind eye to. A girl raped by her father continuously until she escapes her family, a man born to a raped woman who becomes a journalist, a mother who escapes her village and falls into a career of prostitution, a father who is a petty thief.

There is also a bully who escapes the village and turns into a criminal and informant to the police, a brutal sadistic pimp who exploits his victims within an inch from their lives, a man who organises his wife’s lovers’ schedule to meet her clients while he collects the fees, an old politician who makes a fool of himself when he drinks and harasses women in any social gathering, and a client to the prostitute who likes to be humiliated.

Many examples of sorry excuses for human beings are materialised in the novel; the writer paints a dark picture of society. The reader sympathises with the victims who sell everything to travel illegally to Europe and end up drowning in the sea, accepts the fate of the prostitute, roots for the raped girl, feels disgusted with the awful individual who beats his mother and lets her die out of illness, feels awful about a dog beaten to death by some children, and many more events that show the worst in humans.  

The writer touched on many saddening subjects, from killing children to blowing up churches, describing and stating bluntly that there is discrimination against Copts in Egypt, and that women are abused in different ways on a regular basis.

The reader sees and notices these subjects everyday in real life and choses to ignore them. Reading about how miserable society is can be a wake-up call and can be demoralising for readers.

Dissecting political and cultural circles in the past few years is another addition to the disappointment of the reader. The writer used direct language to explain her observations on political life in Egypt through Taher’s internal monologue and her account of the events.

This monologue lasted for pages, with the author determined to say her piece, regardless of whether it fits in the novel’s context or not.

She wanted to explain where she stands on certain issues; clearly stating that “writers, artists, and intellectuals who run after money or power are crushed brutally, because they try to escape from underneath the cloak of the ruling power towards freedom and action, then their isolation begins.”

This is the writer’s observation of the current status of the ruling power, and her condemnation of those who give up their independence in regard to ideas and taking a stand that may sometimes be against those who hold power in their hands.  

The novel overall is believable, the characters described in it are people that we can possibly meet or know about in private or public life. It is a snap-shot of Egypt in the past few years, and gives a depressing picture of our society.

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