Book Review: My Father’s Wives, Novel or Autobiography?

Ossama Lotfy Fateem , Sunday 31 Jan 2021

'We all lose a few and win a few and make mistakes, take stands that we might be ashamed of,' Writer Nabil Omar says before he tells us about one of his grave mistakes

Book Cover

Zawgat Abi (My Father’s Wives) Nabil Omar, (Cairo: Delta Publishing) 2017.

Journalist Nabil Omar decided to write his own “selective” autobiography in his novel ‘My Father’s Wives’. The narrator/writer is a good person who does almost everything right. He stands by good versus bad and right versus wrong, maintains his dignity in all the situations he faces in life and gives the impression of a fair person in describing his family member and friends.

The reader is in doubt about the narrator up until near the novel’s end; when the writer comes all out, mentions real names, dates, events, and bluntly mentions his name, telling the reader about himself in a display of narcissism.

“We all lose a few and win a few and make mistakes, take stands that we might be ashamed of,” he tells us about one of his grave mistakes.

He presented the work of one of his friends in a writing competition in his school, his friend was not a student there and the deal was to split the prize if they win. After winning the ninth position, he hid the result in order to keep the prize for himself, which was four books, a precious prize at the time. Once his friend found out that he kept the prize from him, he threatened to expose him; our hero gave in with bitterness.

The writer goes on about his self-guilt for accepting the deal in the first place, then about his reaction after the win and how he treated his friend, and the loss of the books. in this chapter of his life, he was wrong on all fronts.

The writer eventually becomes a journalist and his friend, much later in life, contacts him to look at some of his work and publish it if he sees fit. To no one’s surprise, the work was poor and mediocre; good for winning a competition for fourteen-year-old boys; he implies that without coming all out and saying it bluntly.

This situation shows the reader a person who does not shy away from cheating, someone with a “no honour among thieves” attitude, yet he expects the reader to sympathise with the narrator. Unfortunately, he only managed to alienate readers. The narrator holds no esteem beyond himself.  

Having multiple wives at the same time is an acceptable social and religious custom in Egypt. The writer intelligently used that fact as the key to ease the reader into his life, his story, his friends, and his personal choices.

The writer chose to follow Naguib Mahfooz’s style in his famous novel “Al Maraya” or the Mirrors. Each character has their own chapter, with the possibility of interacting with each other in later chapters.

His spoilt father who spent his fortune on getting married to several women for short periods of time, his mother who endured her husband’s behaviour and insisted that her sons get educated, his aunt and her loyalty to her husband, his grandmother with her strictness in raising him to repair her mistake in letting his father become the spoilt man that he became due to getting his way all the time; and many more of the female characters in his family before digging into his own life.

The first few chapters are simply an attentive description of characters that probably exist in most families living in the countryside.

Once our narrator moves to Cairo to pursue his studies — specifically in the Shoubra district — the praising of the famous ‘quartier’ starts. All the writers from Shoubra take pride in their work. The uniqueness of Shoubra comes from the diversity of its population. It is not just Christians and Muslims, but also Lebanese, Syrians, Italians, Greeks, Palestinians and many more.

The important factor in that quartier is its openness, the ability of its people to learn and exchange experiences; loving Shoubra is a trait that all the writers from that area have in common. Our main character lived there for thirty years and did not deviate from that trait; you feel a sense of pride in his words describing the place that saw his youth and early years of adulthood. 

The narrator, through his characters, was able to catch the evolvement of Egyptian society and its transformation during the 1960’s and the 1970’s. From the socialist society that existed during Nasser’s time to the transformation towards the market economy that followed under Sadat and its negative consequences on the Egyptian society as a whole, through the microscopic example of his cousin Waheed, a handsome man that looks like a movie star that did not finish school and worked as a chauffeur for musicians, celebrities, and ultimately businessmen and men in power.

The cousin made money and invested it and then lost it. The last we heard of him in the novel is that he was broke and lost his luster. The way the writer tells us his cousin’s story is neutral, no sympathy nor envy, just telling the story in a silent way that condemned the lifestyle without expressing it openly. 

The part that shows the virtuous side of the main character was when at a young age, he was offered the opportunity to teach the younger girls among his neighbours. He knew about their love affairs and they even hid letters in his notebooks expressing innocent pure feelings, but he never crossed the line of being a playboy when the opportunity presented itself with Batta.

Batta was the rich daughter of a merchant that he met and tutored in math privately per her father’s request. He took her out to the movies once, then stopped teaching or seeing her all together. He did not give an explanation, leaving the reader to draw his own conclusion.

The novel’s interesting portion is his life as a journalist. He had already worked as an accountant and noticed the corruption in the railroads and resigned from his position shortly after. This was a courageous stand, following his dream of being a journalist/ writer.

The narrator told us about his adventures as a journalist and how he made it in that field through a letter he sent to the editor in chief of Rosa El-Youssef, who loved his writing style and sent him a letter asking him to come for a meeting. Then his whole life changed, and his real career started. 

It is not uncommon that a writer praises themselves in their work, yet it is a risk that they take. They open themselves to criticism and evaluation by every reader and critic with accusations of vanity, self-importance, and egotism.

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