Book review: Sky-blue shirt a unique tale of a town

Mahmoud El-Wardani, Monday 15 Aug 2011

Mohamed Amr El-Gammal, winner of the Cultural Palaces novel award for 2011, presents the little town of Shebin in Egypt's Delta as the hero of a unique and exciting novel

Kamees Samawy (Sky-blue shirt) by Mohamed Amr El-Gammal, Cairo: General Organization for Cultural Palaces, 2011. pp.348

This is a writer par excellence, master of his tools, and above all, is able to fill his work with surprising vitality. He is not writing in anyone's shadow; the reader barely notices influences from contemporary or older generations, and that is how he created this unique work; a song dedicated to his little regional town, Shebin.

The title of El-Gammal's work is quite a fresh surprise; especially being the first novel of a young writer. It also largely lacks the errors one might expect to find in a first attempt.

El-Gammal employs personal language, with the simple aim of conveying a message; he avoids the twists and turns of linguistic rhetoric. In his attempt to simplify such a large work, bridging three different worlds, he uses one narrator to describe all three. El-Gammal’s work is full of codes which gradually become unravelled throughout the novel, never giving too much away. The most puzzling code is that of Shaimaa who speaks to him on the first page, but remains in the shadows until the last few pages.

Throughout the book, the narrator rarely leaves his little town, and even during his days in Saudi, it is still vividly present in his mind; its streets and alleyways, its cafes and house, its little canals and smells, and most importantly, its inhabitants. He describes the inglorious theatre artists working in the State Cultural Palace, the kind Sufis, the pharmaceutical salesmen like himself, singers and dancers, and even police officers and informants from the State Security.

The author opts for an artistically challenging approach; portraying his entire world, or worlds, with love and emotion. However, for the reader, his description is convincing, without at any stage being melodramatic or over-emotional.

El-Gammal is not traditionally chronological when describing events, but rather builds it horizontally, interweaving codes that are solved at different times. The complex relation between the narrator (whose name remains unknown the entire time) and Ghada, the wife of Adel the wedding singer, unfolds throughout the novel. His relationship with Fahd El-Kashef an officer, who recruits him as an informant and thus traitor to his friends, is described with a mixture of reality and delusion.

The writer successfully avoids falling into a political trap, and although his writing ties in with reality on various levels, his approach is never mechanical.

The author does not use Shebin as model for reiterating his own opinions and ideals, nor is it a Utopia he dreams of. On the contrary, he experiences its prosperity and consequent fall, describing what happens there in a similar way to the daily life in other Egyptian cities. He portrays the increasing poverty and vulnerability of the destitute in society. The artists of the city who spend their lives in the small theatre in the town become puppets, controlled by the police and finally die, burning in the famous “Beni Sueif” incident in the Cultural Palace – the only incident the author describes in detail.

The intention of this article is not to summarise the expansive work, but rather to show the difficulty faced by this author, who attempts to present a world within this small city without being bound by the chronology of time or traditional structures. He uses this complicated structure to portray the small town as the real hero of this novel.

Sky-blue shirt is the story of a small town as well as he marginalised heroes who inhabit it: both oppressors and oppressed. This novel introduces a very important writer to the literary scene who chooses to employ more complicated methods, rather than traditional styles, to entertain the reader. The result is a very touching and memorable story.

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