Hezb Balata (Balata Party), by: Nabil Nour Eldin, (Cairo: Al Mahrousa Publishing house), 2018.
Publishing a novel after the age of 60 does not come with the purpose of winning the Nobel Prize in literature or being in the Booker shortlist; it often has different purposes, among which is simply to tell your story, a testimony that your life had something interesting that you want to share, proof that you existed on the planet. That is exactly what Nabil Nour Eldin did in his first novel, “Balata Party.”
The author introduces an account for a rarely explored territory in political literature: clandestine political parties that had a “presence” during the Mubarak era. The novel took eight years to write and is set in Alexandria in the last two decades of the last millennium. The first attraction of the novel is both its titles — primary and secondary. “Balata” means tile, which brings a smile to the reader, giving the impression that it will be a sarcastic novel. Then adding the secondary title “Memoires of the Party Leader” gives depth and a little perspective to the reader’s mind.
“You cannot be a rebel and depressed at the same time”: an early quote in the novel explains the type of party member the leader wants. The training on beating depression according to his activities and experience in the political field is total denial. There is a lot to be done: bringing awareness to the working class and the layman alike while recruiting members to the organisation, organising events and much more. All this is too important to let minor psychological problems get in the way. The road is hard and filled with difficulties.
A rebel cannot afford the luxury of depression is a simple rule that shall be followed.
Through most of the novel we are trying to find the Tile Party, how it came to life, its activities and what did it add to the political arena. These aspect are not here; instead the author concentrated on drawing the character of Belal (or Bolly, the leader) in a detailed and attractive way — an idealist to some extent and a nihilist as well. Belal makes the reader sympathise with the struggle of a poor worker in a public sector garage where he was responsible for the drivers’ scheduling, eventually understanding their way of getting back at management in a vicious circle of corruption versus corruption that leaves the reader wondering how these places are still in operation. After leaving the company, Belal by chance rose up in the world through marriage to a prominent human rights activist, and the author shows us a glimpse of how the “upper” left strata lives and functions, a lifestyle that Belal was not comfortable with, eventually returning to his roots among the poor struggling outcast minority.
The sarcastic party name stayed a puzzle until near the end; the party itself appeared slowly in the novel. The idea started in a simple outing among a group of people, mainly artists, who knew Bolly’s political history, his detentions and imprisonment due to his political activities, and recognised his organisational ability while they were discussing forming an association for the arts in Alexandria. He suggested forming a political party instead, the idea was meant to be a joke, the group was surprised at the suggestion but the idea fell on accepting ears and Bolly was surprised that they didn’t laugh at his words and was taken aback by the seriousness of the response and the fast steps taken to activate the party, forming a shadow government, adopting liberalism as the chosen ideology and recruiting sympathisers, including foreigners. The joke turned into a very serious political project. They actually chose him to be the party leader and head of the shadow government without any real powers. The choice was due to the fact that he was known to the security apparatus. In other words, he would be the scapegoat if and when the police came for them. The party leader was disgusted by the quality of members and how they see themselves; unreliable and wanting to take the fruits of being politicians, rebels, without getting involved in anything other than their personal interests.
The romantic part in Bolly’s story came in the form of the Moroccan girl Gamila that admired him. We discover later that he looks exactly like her brother who was killed during the 1984 food riots, and whose body was never recovered. Bringing Morocco into the novel and mentioning that Gamila is a descendent from Amazigh tribe gave the writer the chance to remind the reader of the 1923-1926 Countryside Republic where Abdel Karim Khatabi formed a modern democratic republic, copying its constitution from European countries and fighting against the colonialism of both France and Spain. Not surprisingly, both colonial powers united against the newborn republic and crushed it. The history lesson allows us to better understand Gamila. She belongs to that rebellious faction that was lost in history books; her role in Bolly’s life was to increase his enthusiasm in his political activities. The flashback and flash forward techniques that the writer uses made her influence intangible, yet Gamila’s struggle to find her brother’s body is admirable, and her free spirit in love and politics makes her character the opposite of the nameless members of the “Party” whose reasons for being in a politics is obscure to say the least.
The novel is a condemnation of what were called political movements in a good 20 years of Egypt’s history, between the big names in the left who were involved in governmental corruption as much as the business tycoons, to the futility of their efforts in achieving their goals to improve society as a whole. The narration style can be confusing, but eventually all the lines are summed up in a non-surprising way with a message that there is a lot of work to be done to have an actual political life in the future.