Qamis Samawy (“Sky Blue Shirt”) Mohamed Amr Gamal, Cairo: General Organisation of Cultural Places 2011.
Loving the place you belong to is the main theme in Mohamed Amr Gamal’s novel Qamis Samawy. The writer is simply passionate about Shebin El Kom, the capital of Menoufeya governorate north of Cairo. The city of Shebin is mentioned at least a couple of hundred times throughout in the novel, sometimes several times in the same page. This turns a good story with interesting characters into a hard read towards the end due to the repetition. The main character, who himself remains nameless, expresses a fondness for the city without giving tangible reasons for anyone loving it.
The writer describes the city as a whore, unforgiving of the bad deeds carried out by the residents, but the story portrays it as not that different from any medium sized city in Egypt, or else the writer did not give us enough material to distinguish it from the rest of them.
Our narrator is a vagabond in all senses of the word. He works many mediocre jobs, including a vendor in a small clothes shop, an informant for the police, causing his friends to be arrested, he lived for long periods of time by taking loans from his neighbor that he never repaid, and as an unpaid theatre assistant where he gives his views on art.
The most intelligent quote in the novel is “If you give art a noble humanitarian meaning, it looks communist.” Being a theatre assistant makes him a perfect candidate to inform on writers, who appear as communists to the security apparatus. In fact, these writers only cared about theater not politics, but this did not exempt them from being arrested and sentenced.
The narrator’s financial breakthrough occurs when he becomes a medical rep for an international pharmaceutical company – he had barely made a living before that job – and marries the mentally disturbed niece of the company’s regional executive. Through this union he gets a job in Arabia. Like his job as a theatre assistant, the main character is someone whose actions are determined by the circumstances. Sympathising with him or not depends on each reader’s experience; the writer gives enough ammunition for both point of views.
Being a foreign worker in the Gulf countries has left its mark on Egyptian writers in quite a few novels. The narrator describes how Egyptians from different backgrounds come to live together in the same apartment, in order to reduce expenses, and how they deal with each other. There are the ones who steal from their roommates, those who try to make their colleagues look bad at work so that they can get ahead and the narrator himself who sets up a scam where he hoards medicine and then sells it under the table for his own gain and makes a fortune.
The writer avoids the unfair way that Egyptians are treated in these countries; his character receives good treatment. This portion of the novel has many details that would interest any reader who worked in these areas.
The narrator describes many characters in depth with a lot of fascinating details, maybe too many characters. The most interesting is the womaniser Selim the drummer, who is an undisciplined decadent man who is always able to seduce other men’s wives. He gets them to steal from their husbands to keep him in the lifestyle he wants, while also cooking and washing his clothes for him. He always has hashish within reach and is generous with his friends; simply a peasant version of Don Juan.
The other fascinating character is Ghada, a gorgeous woman and wife to one of the narrator’s acquaintances, who asks the narrator to home-school his son as a private instructor. Ghada, the boy’s mom has this magical charm that makes any man want to get her attention, befriend her or simply be around her. She eventually realises how genuine his feelings are and accepts his advances. The intimate scenes are written elegantly and the author gives her a fascinating depth and history.
A woman like her never would have never given a second look to a vagabond like him, yet his feeble character makes her accept him. However, she does fall for him, she simply likes being in control of the relationship. She manipulates everyone with silk gloves and eventually manages to scam them of their life savings and disappear, a loose end that the writer could have developed but leaving it like that gives her the mystical persona that he intended her to be.
The writer’s style of inserting poetry into the narration was done skillfully, raising the reader’s interest to the point where one might go looking for the poems themselves to enjoy. However, by the end of the novel he had increased the dose of poetry, reaching the point of annoying the reader. Putting a verse or two in the story is attractive, but a few verses in the small number of pages at the end gives the impression that he did not know how to guide the events or the characters.
Finally, the narrator wanted to give us his story in the flashback/flashforward style to keep the reader interested but by the end we discover that the story was told at least a couple of times during the novel which makes the ending uninteresting. The feeling of déjà vu accompanies the reader in the last chapter. The writer simply did not have the courage to remove the repetitions that repeat throughout the novel.