In his 10th novel, I Remember, Abdel-Rahim Darwish provides the view of a child and a young man of the 70s, 80s, and beyond.
The novel zooms in on Ahmed, a child born in 1970, and his family living in a poor neighbourhood in Giza governorate. Darwish chose the holy month of Ramadan as the main temporal focus of the novel; starting and ending with it.
He concentrated on a number of characters around Ahmed. The most prominent is Ahmed Adly, a leftist journalist and political activist whose detention saddened his neighbourhood and his release was celebrated. He was kind of a cultural mentor to the protagonist, whom he used to call little Ahmed. Adly shared his thoughts with the protagonist on whether to marry Fatma, the gorgeous daughter of a hard-line Islamist.
Ahmed kept wondering how a leftist was to tie the knot with a rightist. Eventually, Adly married Fatma and their marriage was interrupted by quarrels and his incarceration.
Quarrels weren’t limited to Adly and Fatma, but included the protagonist’s parents. The squabbles revolved around their poverty and the unfortunate events that left them poor while those around them were getting rich.
Ahmed’s father insisted not to travel to the Arabian Gulf, a mecca for many Egyptians who hoped to improve their economic conditions during the time of president Anwar El-Sadat’s Open Door Policy.
Darwish showed the Islamists in bad light through Haj Moussa, Fatma’s father: never smiling, eating in a voracious way, and belching obnoxiously. Moussa was imprisoned and tortured many a time under different regimes, which left an indelible mark on his psyche.
Eissa, Moussa’s twin brother, was a truly benevolent (he wanted to reconcile his niece Fatma and her husband) and tolerant person (he was beaten severely by both little Ahmed and Adly on the thought that he was Moussa).
The two major events that shook Ahmed were Sadat’s assassination and a celebration organised by one of the wealthiest people in the neighbourhood.
The first drove Ahmed to cry bitterly and his voice choked the next day at school and couldn’t chant the flag salute, although his parents hated Sadat because of the Peace Treaty with Israel for both of them lost a brother in the war.
The second event was a celebration in which a famous belly dancer and a very popular singer at the time performed and alcoholic drinks were served, instigating both the fascination and anger within the conservative neighbourhood. The event drove the hard-line Islamists, headed by Moussa, to attack the attendees and a battle with security forces ensued in which many from both sides as well as innocent people were killed. Ahmed and his father were wounded.
Moussa escaped from the police and tried to kill Ahmed’s father in the hospital in revenge for informing the police, but he was caught and handed to the authorities once again.
Azza, Ahmed’s schoolmate, was his childhood’s sweetheart, but she was envious of Ahmed’s success at school. Her father was a taxi driver, who opened a small factory and got rich, much to Ahmed’s mother anger.
Being a rational figure and a devout Muslim, many neighbours of Ahmed’s father resorted to him to solve their marital and financial problems. One of those neighbours was Abdel-Fattah Al-Battal, a wealthy man who had a reckless son, who treated Ahmed disdainful, and a beautiful daughter named Amal, who Ahmed instantly liked.
Al-Battal was a womanizer, always quarrelling with his wife about her stealing his money and her infidelity, which eventually ended by him killing her.
In a telling scene, Amal decided to wear the veil and her mother refused vehemently, stating that only the poor wear the veil.
The protagonist loved the greenery and on several occasions he moaned that green spaces, around which he was brought up, were dwindling constantly, indicating urban sprawling.
Amid this greenery emerged Barook, a devout land owner and farmer who was very humane and leading almost an ascetic life. He severed his relations with his offspring since they felt ashamed of their father’s profession. He was nearly a spiritual guide to Ahmed, especially during his college years. Their bond became too strong to the extent that he bequeathed all his fortune to Ahmed and disinherited his children.
Darwish devoted a significant part of the novel to the television, called by Ahmed’s father corruptision after a famous Muslim imam, and showed its devastating effect on the relationship between the protagonist’s parents.
The first time Ahmed’s mother bought a television against his father wish, the pious father smashed it following a heated battle, driving the mother to leave the house.
Ahmed’s father feared that television is degenerating his offspring, especially on airing inappropriate material during Ramadan.
Another quarrel erupted when Ahmed’s mother bought a new coloured TV set. Ahmed and his brother Abbouda and sister Amira were agonised by their mother’s absence and were torn between their parents.
All of a sudden, Ahmed’s father decided to provide shelter to Werby, an apparently poor man and his family, who appeared at his doorstep during the holy month.
The man and his family used to leave the house at a regular time daily, rousing Ahmed’s curiosity. Finally, Ahmed knew they worked as snake trainers, collecting money from onlookers.
Laila, Werby’s daughter, tried to seduce Ahmed at least twice but he was almost shocked and rushed away. Many a time, Ahmed caught Laila in embarrassing situations with the neighbourhood’s youths, including his brother.
Ahmed’s father kicked this family out of the house when he knew that they had EGP 70,000, which was a fortune at the time.
Although Ahmed passes through the angst, confusion between right and wrong, different emotions, and the sense of guilt usually linked to adolescence, the novelist showed Ahmed as a delicate, shy fellow, who refused to make Laila try and put a snake around his neck. Azza took the initiative and kissed him.
Darwish also inserts entire romantic songs of Abdel-Halim Hafez in the novel to convey the era of the 70s as well as Ahmed’s romantic side.
Ahmed’s incessant scholastic excellence brought his siblings’ jealousy and his female neighbours’ awe and attraction. Since his childhood, he was captivated with the announcer’s work and the microphone. He knew the Quran by heart through his father and had a sweet reciting voice. Thus, when he came first in the High School Certificate exams nationwide, he chose to enter the Faculty of Mass Communication instead of the Faculty of Medicine.
Exhausted from being incarcerated many times, Adly went out of prison to become the managing editor in the newspaper he was working in it, in an apparent deal with the government. When Ahmed accused him of selling out he replied that it is just a warrior’s rest and that he had joined forces with the state in combating terrorism.
The last few pages were exemplary in implausibility; Adly married his staunch liberal feminist colleague as a second wife who wears the veil and accepted to live with his first wife in the same house. Ahmed married his lifelong love Azza, Amal, who tragically lost her parents, and Laila the debauched seductress.