A gamble that ended happily but wasn’t remotely convincing

Hesham Taha, Sunday 30 Jun 2024

Ahmed Al-Morsi’s third novel “Gambling on the Honour of Lady Mitsi” is a historical novel that takes place during the 1920s in Cairo, mostly in the Heliopolis horse racing course.

Gambling on the Honour of Lady Mitsi


Muqamara Ala Sharaf Al-Lady Mitsi (Gambling on the Honour of Lady Mitsi), Ahmed Al-Morsi, Dar Dawen Publishing, Cairo, 2023, pp.350.

Perhaps it is the first time in Arabic literature that a novel’s setting is horse races and betting on them.

On the first page, Al-Morsi uses a quote by an Indian guru: “The power of unfulfilled desires is the root of all man’s slavery.”

He has built the entire novel around this quote, especially through two of its four main characters: the fired police officer Selim Haqqi and Lady Mitsi. The other two are Marei Al-Masri, a racehorse trader, and Fawzan Al-Tahawi, the orphan Bedouin boy.

Using the flashback technique, Al-Morsi starts his novel with the death of Fawzan in 1973. On the thought that there was a hidden treasure, his cousin Ghalib searched his belongings only to find a photograph of this quartet.

After his dismissal from his job for declaring his support to Saad Zaghloul during the 1919 Revolution, Selim becomes engaged in cockfighting, following a colleague’s advice, to earn his living and get the medicines needed for his wife Aida, who is suffering from an incurable hereditary respiratory disease. Then, he sells their furniture piece by piece.

Moving to gambling on horseracing, he gets acquainted with Marei Al-Masri, a racehorse expert. Marei suggests to Selim to buy an Arabian thoroughbred filly with the money of a British lady called Mitsi, who is fascinated with horse race gambling, and bets on it without her knowledge, relying on the information that Marei gets as an insider.

Upon their arrival to Sharqiya Governorate by Selim’s car, Fawzan, the Bedouin boy, was enchanted by Selim and his black Ford car. Without anyone’s permission, Fawzan decided to participate in a race organized in the village and rode Shama’a without a saddle, finishing first. He was whipped by his uncle Barjas, along with his mother, who came to his rescue.     

Being the owner of Shama’a, Barjas sold it to Marei for eight hundred gold pieces to be sent after their arrival to Cairo.

Selim and Aida’s marriage was in dire straits because her father, being of the landed gentry, refused Selim’s proposal of matrimony at first but later accepted reluctantly after losing his wealth when the cotton prices plunged globally. On the other hand, Selim’s father disowned him following his refusal to divorce Aida because she is sterile.

Selim provided Fawzan with shelter in his house. Fawzan was consumed with fear and always sat in a squatting posture. Then, he got acquainted with Aida and used to entertain her with his endless delightful stories about Bedouin life and the desert, which Aida was totally unaware of.

Shama’a lost its first two races where it panicked and threw its jockey in the first one because it was not trained in a way that befits this kind of race. Thus, Selim lost the few pounds he borrowed from an Armenian moneylender.

The strange thing is that Marei, who is presumably a horse race expert must have known quite well that Shama’a was not trained to face clamoring crowds and running the race track within a fixed time. To redress this, he suddenly decided to do these prerequisites and asked Fawzan to be trained with Shama’a instead of foreign jockeys, who did not know how to handle it.

Shama’a won the race after Fawzan threw the whip and the bridle and held its neck driving the crowd to stand up to see this unprecedented event.

Consequently, Lady Mitsi, the owner of Shama’a, was invited to a party held by Baron Empain, who built Heliopolis and whose horse lost the race.

Due to Lady Mitsi’s insistence, Selim went to the party hoping to find someone to mediate for his return to his job. He was engaged in a heated discussion about Egypt’s right to self-rule. As a result, he went out and kept banging on his car’s hood until his fist bled!

Aida was watching all this from afar with severe bouts of pain. Selim broke his promise to her that he would not bet on horses again and lied to her saying that his father sold his share in the land and gave him the money.

Mitsi Khashab was a petite woman, who came from a very poor background and became a widow of a very wealthy man. She lost her child Davies, who was engrossed with betting on race horses and always losing. To make up for Davies’ losses, she insisted on betting feverishly in the hope that she might win.

However, when she won, nothing has changed because she was a woman crushed by depression.

Later, two strange incidents happened. First, Selim, who was dead drunk, almost barged into the house of Lady Mitsi in the middle of the night insisting on meeting her. She met him with her sleeping robe and hugged him to calm him down. Second, he went to visit her another time to make a clean chest about his plot with Marei and how the first underpayment of Shama’a was stolen from Marei only to find her intoxicated and offering him herself both physically and financially. Although she put her head on his shoulder, he did not embrace her.

Afterwards, in an unaccountable move, Al-Morsi decided to extricate her from the dark hole of depression and made her depart to England leaving a farewell letter to Marei (it is a mystery how he managed to read it). She acknowledged, in the letter, her love for him and said that liberating oneself from one’s dreams that restrain him makes him see what lies under his feet not in the seventh heaven.

All of a sudden, Barjas appeared entering Selim’s house, while he was absent, asking for the price of Shama’a that Marei did not send to him. He slapped Aida, beat Fawzan, and threatened them with dire consequences if he did not get his money.

In Fawzan’s last race, the administration conspired against him along with the jockeys. As a result, Fawzan fell off Shama’a’s back. At this moment, Barjas came out of the crowd aiming to take revenge on Fawzan, running after him in the streets of Heliopolis to die under the wheels of the tramway. It was easy for Al-Morsi to get rid of the novel’s villain.

After Selim miraculously survived his third attempt to commit suicide, he sent an apology letter to Aida and decided all of a sudden to work as a senior clerk in an Armenian lawyer’s office and was able to sell his car. Surprisingly, Aida returned to his house with her nanny after leaving it following Barjas’ slap!

In conclusion, Ghalib has just guessed all this history just by gazing at the aforementioned photograph showing Lady Mitsi, Selim, Marei, and of course, Fawzan dressed in jockey uniform and mounted on Shama’a taken in memory of his first win.

There are evocative sentences in the 10-chapter novel. For instance, Lady Mitsi says: “The corpse of hope inside me is rotting and I can’t still bury it.”

Shedding tears profusely was present throughout the novel, especially by Lady Mitsi, Selim, and Aida. If it is an indicator of total loss and despair, how can the reader be convinced of the inexplicable monumental shift that made these very characters discover abruptly the futility of all they have done (Selim’s mingling with those he used to arrest when he was a police officer, being engaged in cockfights, then betting on racehorses, and then working as a senior clerk; Lady Mitsi’s inability to overcome the tragedy of losing her only son, then perceiving out of the blue that what one has is the best instead of chasing unattainable dreams, and leaving for England; and Aida’s return to Selim’s house after deciding to leave and never return).

There is a heart-wrenching scene when Marei confided to Selim about Zeinab, who kept appearing many times as a ghost to him. She was an orphan girl who loved him and lived with him. He exploited her in the most despicable manner until one day on returning to his house he found that she burned herself to death!

To give credit to the author, it must be mentioned that he exerted tremendous effort to know the intricacies and the plots hatched to decide the winners and the losers in Heliopolis horse racetracks. Moreover, Al-Morsi was dexterous in choosing the right vocabulary of the 1920s and making every character, whatever its class and ethnicity, speak accordingly.

The novel was on the 2024 International Prize for Arabic Fiction shortlist.

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