People from Minya: The Salt of the Earth

Ossama Lotfy Fateem , Wednesday 26 Oct 2022

Naas men El-Minya (People from Minya) by: Mostafa Bayoumi, (Cairo: Magaz Cultural Foundation), 2019.

The Salt of the Earth


One cannot write about a novel such as Naas men El Minya (People from Minya) without introducing its writer Mostafa Bayoumi. He is one of the most prolific contemporary writers in Egypt; since 1991 he produced 61 books including novels, biographies, literary critiques, historical research, studies on movies, and many other topics.

Yet, in my opinion, he did not receive enough fame for his tremendous efforts in writing about topics that most intellects would find a valuable addition to their knowledge in the various areas he decided to choose for his books.

People from Minya is exactly that. Bayoumi wrote about people he knew from Minya during his childhood and kept up with their stories when he occasionally visited his home city.

He followed a strict structure of 500 words per person in describing their characters, physical traits and the main event in their lives, their past and how they sometimes connect together. It requires great talent to summarise the life of one person in two pages, yet Bayoumi achieves this in such a smooth and stylish way that the reader cannot distinguish whether he is talking about real people or imagined ones.

After reading the novel the reader might wonder how he/she would look like under the writer’s sensitive tools of observation and evaluation. Bayoumi rarely passed judgment on his characters; he just told their stories, leaving the readers to form their own thoughts about them. 

The stardom in this novel is threefold; the first part goes to the common people, the regular ones that we meet in our daily life, nothing special about them, no huge achievements nor extraordinary stories; they are just regular people who lived life with all its problems and events, the good parts and the bad ones like most humans on the planet.

Second is the place, Minya, a city in Upper Egypt called Arous Al Saeed (or Upper Egypt’s Bride) since the 1930s due to its distinctive beauty, whether in its architectural style or the elegance and refined style of its people. Towards the end the reader has a good idea about the city, its geography and its famous places (restaurants, hotels, cafes and even schools) and the mix of demographics that lived there – Minya had Greeks, Syrians, and Turks, just to name a few.

The third factor is time; Bayoumi chose people who were in their prime in the 1960s, and through revealing the lives of the nearly 50 characters he chose, the author managed to insert details about the atmosphere they lived in, the social semi conservative/semi liberal community of the city, the political enthusiasm of the common people for Nasser and his regime; but he also showed the whole spectrum by presenting those who opposed all that Nasser stood for.

The several mentions of Field Marshal Abdel-Hakim Amer, the famous minster of defence after the revolution of 1952 as Minya’s favourite son, shows that at least for a portion of the characters the writer chose to present to his readers, that fact was a source of pride until the defeat of the Six-Day War in 1967. Then sadness and anger encompassed everything in the political regime, including Minya’s golden boy.

Among the characters that the older reader can relate to is Hanafi. By the older reader we mean those who attended the movie theatre in its older form. The ones that had cuts in the movies while a technician changed the film reel manually, the crowd yelled his name due to the inconvenience, and the relativity of time making seconds feel like hours, especially when the movie is an interesting one. Hanafi simply ignored the curses and took his time.

The narrator could not forget the scream of “Hanafi” for nearly 50 years. The name was famous and the character obscure. He saw him only once when a bunch of youth were beating on an old man mentioning his name, the reason for the beating was not clear and the narrator was disappointed when he realized who that was; an small old man that had little luck in life. He imagined him handsome like the movie stars that showed up in the movies.

In that small story of a movie theatre technician, Hanafi himself was not the main character, it was the movie theatre. The people who watched movies and remembered every movie they watched, and it was the lifestyle that existed in the 60s. Hanafi himself must have died according to the narrator.

Just another person on this planet who had little influence; he lived, had his dreams, joys, probably miseries as well, and then died. The simple style with which Bayoumi wrote that small portion of the novel shows the talent and the depth of the author. He made a story out of nothing about someone that no one really knows, just another man from Minya.

Another chapter in the novel was about Samiha, the music teacher in the Anglican school. The narrator attended that school at the age of 10. His description of her elegance, smile, perfume and her teaching was just amazing. He makes every reader wish that he or she had a music teacher like her.

The writer admits that his relationship with music, whether as a singer or playing an instrument, was mediocre to say the least. But she encouraged him when she noticed his writing talent that he might be a poet whose words singers and musicians sought to create songs that everyone would remember and sing.

Her story ends by just meeting our narrator from time to time in the streets of Minya where she asks him about his studies and career with her usual care and clear soul. The reader in Samiha’s story is happy that she does not die and is comfortable about not knowing a lot about her personal life; she is simply an angel that touches her students with her kindness.

The stories continue and each of them has the writer’s individual touch. None of them are similar in their beginnings or ends and the real star is the narrator who actually loves his characters and sheds the light on their lives.

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