Book Review: The freedom to live in some other place

Mahmoud El-Wardani, Sunday 17 Aug 2014

After eight years, author Mahmoud Abdel Wahab releases a new novel where he delves deeper into his artistic practice, refining his tools and the language of loss

(Living in Another Place) by Mahmoud Abdel Wahab

Al-'Ayish fi Makan Akher (Living in Another Place) by Mahmoud Abdel Wahab, Dar Afaq Publishing, Cairo, 2014, pp.202

In 2006, Mahmoud Abdel Wahab's first novel, Her First State, was published. After eight years, his second novel, Living in Another Place, appeared a few days ago. Between the two novels he wrote three short story collections. This, in turn, permitted Abdel Wahab to delve deeper into his artistic expression, busying himself with his tools, not only to refine them but — which is more important — to contemplate on them as well.

Perhaps the "tale" is the most important foundation in this writer's work, except his collection The Transitional Phase's Dreams (2013). The tale in his work is traditional and this isn't a fault in itself, even if apparently opposed to modernism, experimentation and adventurousness. Abdel Wahab loves the tale and relies on it. The tale or the "fable", or the story — call it whatever you like — is the hub on which he constructs his work, starting from it, and returning to it.

If his first novel, Her First State, was the tale of a beautiful woman named Nasma, an impossible dream, an unfulfilled union, and an unachievable love, his second, Living in Another Place, is also a tale of a beautiful woman — even her name is similar to the first heroine: Tasneem. However, she isn't Egyptian, but she came after her lover from the farthest place on Earth: South Africa. As for the theatre of events, it is Mecca, but it is another Mecca, not the stereotypical city, where the author rediscovers it and reveals it in another light.

Let me take the initiative to say that I will deliberately stop the comparison between Her First State and Living in Another Place, for this isn't my intention, but I'll only point out the links connecting the two novels to highlight the profundity of the experience of loss and impossible love in the author's work.

From another perspective, it seems beneficial to me to draw attention quickly to the theatre on which all those characters move with vibrancy. Since the novel's first lines, Abdel Wahab competently presented the character of the clever "hotelier" and separated decisively between the author/narrator and the hotelier. Events start with the departure of a group of those working in hotels in Egypt to work in Mecca, where the protagonist meets his destiny — Tasneem, a married woman coming with her husband to perform Hajj, like hundreds of her Muslim Indian compatriots.

When I described the competence of the author in presenting the character of the hotelier I wasn't exaggerating, for there is no identification between the narrator and the hotelier; even his departure to South Africa was basically with the aim of founding a tourism company to bring pilgrims from South Africa to Mecca, using the capital of another woman named "Fazeela"; the narrator knew her in Mecca also.

There is a noticeable vibrancy and characters full of life and diversity that the hotelier meets during the month he spends in several cities. There are more than 10 main characters and a number of other minor characters, whether they are ones whom he got to know, serve and acquire their confidence during his work in Mecca, or those whom he saw for the first time in South Africa. There are people who die and women who make love to him. Deals are made and projects fail, including the main project for which the hotelier traveled. In the background, or before all this, there is Tasneem who discovers that she is pregnant from her husband after eight years of sterility, which changes their mutual plans.

These are the main events in this really fascinating work that is built on exclusion with the aim of retaining the wide stream that the novel has dug. What boosts the author's choice in concentrating on exclusion is his immaculate reporting, aiming at conveying a message in language. It isn't a sentimental, crammed-with-metaphor language. It is a "bevelled" language that enables him to appear neutral and not involved, in a work that seems apparently a mere love story and fiery and passionate affair.

Thus, the neutral is just an artistic trick, and the deliberate exclusion of metaphor and embellishments is just a means to allow a confrontation between the author and his bare work, apart from the details of the novel itself and its minutiae. Moreover, it is a means that liberates the author from sliding into gratuitous emotional involvement. This is precisely what I meant by Living in Another Place being a work built on exclusion in order to retain the main stream.

As for Tasneem and the hotelier "Joe", they weren't consciously planning what went on between them; they even didn't make love except in South Africa and after arduous attempts at least from her side to evade it. She isn't a whore, she is a lover. For she has decided on her own to get divorced from her husband "Apu" after "Joe" traveled, returning to Cairo and then to Mecca.

Living in Another Place is a widely spread, vastly expansive work on several levels. On the location level, events occur in Mecca, Cairo, Sharm El-Sheikh, Kenya and many cities in South Africa. On the nationality level, the novel is intertwined with Egyptians, Saudis, Arab Gulf nationals and South Africans. On the abstract meanings level, the novel is packed with fervent longing and passion, practical hotelier intelligence, opportunism and gaining profit in the shortest time possible, replete with loss, underachieving, frustration and failure as well as fiery passion and sweet glowing moments.  

Finally, the narrator/hotelier returned to his roots after he escaped the injustice and persecution of his superiors in Mecca. The novel ends with something similar to a final melody for loss — a whispering and maybe cold undertone. The only choice for the narrator, the only choice he was allowed to take with his own free will, was to live in another place, maybe his homeland, where in the last lines he begins to depart for, after undergoing a vast cycle, achieving nothing.

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