Book review: I'll Become What I Want

Sayed Mahmoud, Tuesday 23 Aug 2011

Hamdi Abdel-Rehim's first novel is a narrative, describing events which have taken place in Egypt in the last half-century


Sa’akun kama ureed, I’ll Become What I Want by Hamdi Abdel-Rehim, Cairo: Dar El-Shorouk, 2011.


As an indication to the content of this work, Hamdi Abdel-Rehim dedicates his first novel to the great novelist Alaa El-Deeb. The secret behind the dedication only becomes apparent to the reader towards the end of the novel. The novel itself resembles a photo shoot of the author’s generation, through snap shots of the protagonist’s life.

The hero does not differ greatly from those of El-Deeb’s characters in Lemon Blossoms, Children Without Tears, and Rose-Coloured Days. They all belong to the middle classes and experience the crisis of their intellectuals and contradictions. They all live at the time of the National Project (the Nasserite concept of full mobilisation of resources for achieving a common dream) and its abrupt end, leading to their breaking. Our hero was born at the same time as Abdel-Nasser’s defeat, his mother explains. He lives his life fighting against this defeat and trying to resurrect the National Project. Thus, although the protagonist is similar to that of El-Deeb’s characters, the time frames in which the authors bring their characters to life differ greatly.

Despite the protagonist’s existentialist crisis, the author tries not to sink into a narration of Abdul-Futouh’s personal problems when describing his experiences. Instead, he tries to draw a map of the transformation of Egyptian society in the last fifty years.

The writer gives the reader a set of keys that unlock his own artistic and political biases, debating each of his characters with his own voice. The story’s hero Mustafa, son of a Sufi Sheikh who is often preoccupied with the celebration of saints, is palmed off on a number of women to be looked after.

Naeema, renowned for being lonely, tries to teach him to sing, while Amaal offers him a warming presence. Through selling old books on the street, our young hero discovers his love of reading and writing. Through Sawsan, daughter of his father's friend, he is introduced to Radwan, a left-wing intellectual who comes from the heart of the National Project and is opposed to Sadat’s settlement with Israel. Through Radwan he connects with Sheikh Khamis, a calligraphy lover who in turn introduces him to Zainab. At this point Mustafa is left with the library and private papers of Radwan. The inheritance leaves Mustafa heavy hearted, especially after his parents both passed away, leaving him nothing, and were buried in a cemetery for the impoverished, forcing him to search for his first job.

By working with Takki El-Din, Mustafa and the reader are introduced to the human rights lawyer-model that evolved in the 1980s. He works and lives off foreign aid, is introduced to his new love Ragaa, and his friend Ali who is similar to Radwan. He's only able to get over Ragaa, who is already married, by setting up a publishing house, funded by a French lady who gives him his first physical experience with a woman.

Despite Mustafa's success as a publisher and writer, he's threatened by the Zionist influence that rejects his passion for rebellion. The novel ends in 2007 where Mustafa kills one of the Zionist symbols, and sings a Sufi piece he learnt from his father, confirming that he lived and died as he wanted.

The novel appears to be a cultural autobiography about a man always trying to achieve the unattainable. The author does not employ any modern techniques, but rather conforms to the usual narrative, originally presented by Naguib Mahfouz in the Realist Stage. Sometimes a link is made between the mentor figure of Radwan and one of the heroes of Mirrors, by Mahfouz. The writer also switches to a philosophical genre, and touches upon characters from other novels. Our hero’s struggles lead him to learn about the world, mixing the two diverse concepts of Sufism and rebellion.

The Mahfouz spirit can also be felt in the geographical setup: the hero is born and raised in Al-Hussein neighbourhood, and seeks refuge in Alexandria, a favourite pattern for Mahfouz's characters. There's also the love story with Ragaa, similar to the woman who thrives on pain in Bahaa Taher's Doha Said.

The author references other books and authors in order to pass on his experiences with the world, not in order to merely mingle the lives of his characters and those of his favourite novels; Abdel-Rehim wishes to write about all of our experiences. His work is in honour of friendship, love of life, books and music- the author’s testimony.

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