Book Review - Orfanelli's Hall plays in dangerous water

Ossama Lotfy Fateem , Tuesday 18 May 2021

book cover
Orfanelli's Hall book cover
Salet Orfanelli (Orfanelli’s Hall), Ashraf El-Achmawy, (Cairo: Egyptian Lebanese Publishing House) 2021
Writing about an auction hall is an unusual subject for a novel, especially in Egyptian literature since these halls lost their luster a few decades ago. Bestselling Novelist and Judge
Ashraf El-Achmawy however decided to explore the mysterious world of auction halls through his novel ‘Orfanelli’s Hall’.
The name Orfanelli is that of a bird, that the main character was named after, he is an Egyptian Jew, who was connected to and a silent partner in the auction hall that carried both his name and the name of his partner; ‘Orfanelli –Mansour’.
The writer used the hall to highlight the Jewish community’s clear presence in Egypt before the revolution of July 1952. The writer simply wanted to remind Egyptians that Jews were part of cosmopolitan Egypt under the reign of King Farouk of Egypt.
The story begins with a friendship between two friends: Orfanelli and Mansour. Orfanelli or “Al-Khawaga” (the foreigner- a title that was given to all Egyptians of foreign origins), is a naive man; kind to a certain extent; had an average childhood; is talentless and spineless. He had suffered mildly for being a Jew during the political turmoil that occurred two decades preceding the first Arab –Israeli war of 1948.
In this friendship with Mansour, he is the follower; he falls for all the traps that Mansour sets for him, whether for small victories like getting a meaningful souvenir that Orfanelli got on the occasion of his son’s birth or for big ones, such as having the bigger share and full control over the auction hall.
Orfanelli worked in the archives of the commerce department and the overall impression about him is neutral. Mansour on the other hand is a con artist and is street-smart. He comes from a background of poverty only to reach to the ownership of an auction hall with a glorious reputation leading to strong ties with the Egyptian, nobility including the royal family.
Mansour became a self-taught expert in antiques, furniture, jewelries and other fine objects that can be sold at an auction hall. The character was drawn in a way that makes the reader despise “the Turk” or “the Maestro” as he was referred to alternatively in the novel.
The writer chose to tell the story through three narrators: both owners of the hall and Orfanelli’s son – also named Orfanelli. His full name Orfanelli Mansour Orfanelli, in a symbolic extension to the father’s life who died early in the novel, highlights the strong ties between both men. Having similar names added confusion to the many details that were included in the fairly long novel. The three characters are shady ones; their moral compass is disturbed; they are all willing to commit crimes starting with fraud, all the way to murder and passing through smuggling as well. They are all intelligent, possessing talents in manipulating people and circumstances, including dealing with both the royal family and the new regime led by army officers in 1952.
The three characters have weird love/ hate relations.
The writer’s plot was weak in explaining the never-ending friendship/ partnership between Mansour and Orfanelli, even despite the many dirty tricks that the first played on the second. Mansour’s dirtiness even reached the extent of pimping Orfanelli’s wife to his majesty King Farouk of Egypt, leading to the death of his friend - out of guilt - because he pathetically had accepted Mansour’s plan. Orfanelli’s wife Laila, resisted being a one-night-stand for his majesty and then ended up in a mental institute as a cover up for the king and the royal palace from a scandal involving a Jewish subject.
The novel basically is a vendetta story on how the son is trying to take revenge from a guy who destroyed his family, stole their wealth and caused him and his parents eternal pain; a story that can and did happen everywhere, in any community and in all cultures.
Labelling people by their religion and ethnicity brings parallels to the contemporary political situation.
When an Egyptian writer writes up a story about the Jewish community, the political struggle in the Middle East comes to thr reader’s mind right way.
In the novel, the Egyptian guy is a real manipulative person who has been using his friend since childhood whereas the Jewish character all in all is a victim.
A story that might have happened in real life on different levels and in various magnitudes can go both ways, meaning that a Jewish guy could have fooled and stolen from his Egyptian partner.
Again it is not about religion or ethnicity, but about inventing a tale demonising the Egyptian partner and painting the Jewish one as the victim, who died out of misery and sadness. This is a political statement that contradicts reality especially in the current phase of the non-stop crisis in the Middle East. 
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