The COVID pandemic affected life as we know it. As they experienced home isolation and witnessed severe cases of the virus that either survived or died, people all over the world became eager for any illuminating scientific information on the virus. Therefore, the layman became attuned to any scientific facts such as those concerned with protection against infection and with healthy dieting.
Such a state of turmoil was bound to affect literature. Hence, many authors wrote novels and stories about the pandemic.
In his latest novel Ghorbet El-Manazel, or Estranged Houses, Ezzat El-Kamhawi probes the effect of the pandemic on an apartment building in which people from all social classes live. El-Kamhawi demonstrates great talent as he delves deep into his characters to show how people behave when they are literally imprisoned in their own homes.
The characters who face the pandemic range from a senior public official to a doorman and his family, who live in the building's basement. Suddenly the doorman finds that he has so much time on his hands and very little to do, the social distancing having made his duties much lighter. His wife, who the building’s residents used to rely on to run their errands and clean their houses, becomes a possible transmitter of the virus. Similarly, the doorman's kids, long cared for and nurtured by all the residents, suddenly become a threat, as possible carriers of COVID and hence of death.
The way the public official climbed the corporate ladder makes him an interesting character. We know that he weaseled his way up by accepting all kinds of humiliating tasks inside and outside the workplace. Eventually, he becomes the boss after becoming privy to the secrets of every influential person ranking above him. When the time comes for a promotion he is the obvious choice as he has dirt on everyone.
The author chronicles how the pandemic affects the lives of the inhabitants of Dust city – a clear symbol of Cairo – the most polluted city in Egypt. Each chapter begins with a date. Even if he does not narrate the events chronologically, El-Kamhawi succeeds in both narrating the events without confusing the reader and in maintaining the reader's curiosity to keep reading.
The novel does not have a hero; all the characters are heroes. El-Kamhawi managed to give each of his characters a history, a space to develop and a story that keeps the reader curious about him/her. Eventually all of them show various ways of dealing with the pandemic.
Badie El-Attar, the historian, had isolated himself at home long before the pandemic. He is portrayed as someone who would rather be with books than with people. Once the pandemic broke out in Wuhan in China, he decides to focus entirely on that city.
Through Badie El-Attar, El-Kamhawi describes Wuhan and how the Chinese authorities dealt with the pandemic. He also portrays the instant hospitals and the isolation measures, and describes how the virus spread from there to the whole world. He also describes the race for finding a cure. And yet the author documents only the beginning of the pandemic, thus coaxing readers to do their own research in accordance with their own experience of the pandemic.
Through the historian, the author also mentions and explains two historical pandemics, one in ancient Greece during the Peloponnesian war and the second in Spain before World War One. Both pandemics had come from Asia through the ports. The second of them had the misnomer of “the Spanish Flu”. In speaking of these historical pandemics, El-Kamhawi displays great erudition.
The author portrays another of his characters, a woman who had lived for nearly 50 years in New Orleans before coming back to her home in Dust City. Her name is Safinaz el Waqad and she is of an aristocratic background. Her father had been a friend of the last King of Egypt. Therefore, she had to leave Egypt following the July revolution of 1952. Safinaz takes the decision to return back to New Orleans once flying becomes safe again.
The author displays great knowledge of New Orleans, which had been the setting of Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire, and the style of life there. He even refers to Emeril’s, one of the famous restaurants in New Orleans, without mentioning its name. His portrayal of both the city and the restaurant is so accurate that the reader is led to believe that the author has actually lived in the city and eaten at the restaurant. Also particularly interesting are details he provides about prices of food at the restaurant and the people standing in line to get a reservation.
One of the most interesting characters for readers tend to be the womanizer. Rami, a musician who had his share of fame in the past and who is also a resident of the building, is such a character. In order to ensnare his women, Rami used to play a trick: He used to publish an ad in the most popular newspaper asking for a secretary, and as soon as the girl calls he had the ability to determine whether the girl understood the ad as a job offer or as a chance to have a fling. One day a woman responds to his ad and ends up taking over his life. She never has sex with him despite his continuous attempts.
Only once was he able to sleep with her after getting her drunk one evening. She begins to schedule dates for him and even becomes friends with the rest of his lady friends. Furthermore, she eventually moves in with him as his office manager and stays with him for years in that capacity. Although the author portrays Rami's life as full of stories with interesting details, the character of Rami does not dominate the narrative. The reader can actually feel the author struggling to treat Rami just like any other character in the story.
This novel records the years of the pandemic and how Egyptians dealt with it. Despite the official lockdown, the streets of Dust city are crowded with pedestrians and cars, and many of the city's population act as if COVID does not concern them.
The author also shows how the pandemic created new types of crimes as well. Perhaps out of fear, greed or ignorance some people went as far as throwing their sick loved ones from windows and balconies. They simply did not know how to deal with the issue and allowed their darker side to prevail.
After all the tragedies that occurred in the years of fear, the author gave hope by showing two aspiring examples. The first was a love story that began between two elderly people during the pandemic time; they met during the rare walks and somehow developed a friendly relation that ended up in marriage. The second was the doorman’s wife who started living in an apartment of a resident who passed away; she was having a taste of a more comfortable place to live with the hope of actually moving into it one day. Even the poor can have dreams.