Sawiris Award winner: The Temptation of Confession

Hanin Hanafi, Tuesday 21 Dec 2010

In his new novel, Ibrahim Abdel-Meguid writes about online life in all its bitter-sweet complexity

Fi kol osbu’ youm Gomaa (In Every Week There is a Friday), Ibrahim Abdel-Meguid, Cairo: Al-Dar Al-Masreya Al-Libnanya, 2010. pp 376

He was yawning when he asked, “Is it Friday?”

She laughed, “yes.”

Smiling he said, “Just like yesterday,” and the doorbell rang.

In Every Week There is a Friday is Ibrahim Abdel-Meguid’s latest novel. The title is the key to the author’s stance on current Egyptian social, political and moral realities.  He writes of feelings of suffocation, a state of being where people are stuck in time and in conditions with no escape, unable to act or set themselves free of the “cycle”, and unable to move forward. Self-destruction becomes the only action left. Does this describe the existing reality for some Egyptians?

Abdel-Meguid does not hand over his readers to this determined and tragic repetition, which ironically enough also has hope.   With every complete cycle, there is the promise of a new beginning. One Friday may be over, but it comes again the following week, opening a space for renewed action.

Not only does Abdel-Meguid introduce this ‘threatening’ title, but also chooses to set his novel in the complex form of a virtual group website. He successfully borrows the structure and techniques of the ‘website-novel’ that allows for the development of multi-layered storylines, with numerous sub- plots, sometimes parallel and sometimes overlapping, all with open endings. These inner dynamics support a rich atmosphere of suspense and unpredictability. Outcomes can never be known in advance, since they result from a wide arena of interactions.

Abdel-Meguid evokes the ‘unbiased’ and ‘anonymous’ nature of website interaction to introduce a rich and open stage upon which 19 Egyptian men and women perform, both Muslim and Christians representing different professions, classes and geographies. They are mostly middle-aged individuals, brought together only by the temptation of ‘confession’ or El-Bouh, that has a “magic impact on saving people from insomnia … tensions and complexes”, according to the web community founder.

With this in mind, the readers, as well as the characters - or in this case, assimilated web-surfers - are prepared to enter an intimate sphere where the characters’ personal lives, their inner secrets and their confessions, as well as hidden parts of Egypt, are revealed.

An agonising desire to confess

Like any other community, members have different motivations. These vary from those who seek emotional, heterosexual or bisexual relations,  from a police officer demanding pity, a preacher looking for religious reward, or an upper class Christian woman, who is denied a divorce and  thinks of either committing adultery or converting to Islam, to be allowed to divorce. All these personal stories, among others, emerge with the agonising desire to confess, communicate and reach out for help.

Through relating their personal stories, each character exposes an aspect of social or political corruption, religious hypocrisy, fanaticism, and moral degradation, along with issues of unemployment, youth disaffection, drugs, sexual harassment, police torture, insider trading and a failed parliamentary system.

As the novel unfolds we learn that the website is actually a trap to seduce men in order to murder them. Male group members gradually disappear, one by one killed by “Roda”, the web founder. She is a “Friday” serial killer, assisted by her ‘mentally disabled’ husband, who is constantly looking forward to new ‘Fridays’. As for the motive, readers are left perplexed. Nevertheless, behind the sinister story, the author portrays a young woman, born in Cairo’s slums and whose beauty is her sole asset, which buys her marriage to this disabled but rich man.

Stunted development is one of the unifying themes across several of the stories. A woman searches for her mentally disabled brother-in-law, with whom she bears an emotional attachment. We are also told about another anonymous person with Down’s Syndrome, who is robbed and killed. The concern here of the author is neither sentimental nor trivial. We can infer that Abdel-Meguid uses the theme of retardation as a symbolic reference to human innocence, corrupted and fashioned into a killing machine. As one of the members says: “They (mentally challenged) are in the heart of the truth … they are the human condition in its purist form … before it gets corrupted and fake.”

On the margins of the novel, a theme that gives a tragic edge, is the impossibility of human solidarity; a side story is related by a site member who was unfairly captured, then tortured when he refuses to pay a “tip” to be released. The victim of the incident tried to mobilise website members to reject a police officer’s request to join the group, claiming that, “It’s not enough to confess our pains … we have to do something, take action.”

Freedom of expression

But the group resorts to defending ‘freedom of expression’: if this website can take ‘the lesbian’ and ‘the preacher’, then it can take ‘the policeman’. Laughter becomes the only collective action that unites all members in the chat room.

Abdel-Meguid carefully portrays a sample of Egyptian society, with all of its dreams, frustrations and deformities. While he is the sole author and the text is pre-determined, he highlights the fact that literature, as another sphere of human action and interactivity, is definitely not untouched by the new horizons opened up by technology.

The author demonstrates his skill in creating a realistic community, one of sharing, communication and human empathy, but of all kinds of miscommunication, frustration, stereotyping, deception, manipulation and finally murder.

Victims or contributors? It remains an open question. And who is going to break “the cycle,” or shall we hope for a week without a Friday?

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