Salwa Bakr. Sawaqi Al-Waqt (Streams of Time). Cairo: Dar Al-Hilal, 2003. pp137
Reviewed by Ferial J Ghazoul
Salwa Bakr is one of the most prominent Egyptian writers today. Her short stories, novellas and novels have been well received, and many of them are available in English translation. Her latest, a novella on the incongruities of Cairene life, is a page-turner. In her light, tongue-in-cheek style, Bakr tells the story of an old-fashioned watch repairer turned into modern-day dealer in imported and expensive watches. In the process of the extraordinary events that befall the protagonist Hassan, we get to know what has been happening in Cairo, and by extension in Egypt.
Bakr was one of the earliest fiction writers to encapsulate the deterioration in the quality of life of Egyptians in recent years. Her short story "The Spirit That Was Gradually Stolen" (1989) bemoans the good old days when people had time to visit friends, attend cultural events and grow green plants in their balconies. The pressures of making ends meet and the oppressive conditions of life in crowded Cairo have led middle-class Egyptians to work extra hours, forget about leisurely conversations, replace concerts with TV programmes, and substitute plastic flowers for fresh plants.
The new economic order, which was touched on in Bakr's brilliant short story, is more fully and wistfully exposed in Sawaqi Al-Waqt (Streams of Time). The novella is written as a first-person narrative, but Hassan, the protagonist/ narrator, is a complex character with contradictory voices within him, pushing him in different directions. The narrative opens with the narrator annoyed by the internal quarrels within him between Hassan I, II and III. Eventually, the opportunist Hassan wins, but rather mindlessly, after lengthy battles with Hassan the idealist and Hassan the conservative. We -- as readers -- are aware at every move of the inner dialectic within the protagonist. Bakr's humour turns city- dwellers coping with daily chores and urban squalor into a laughing stock.
One day, trading Bedouins show up in Hassan's shop and press him to buy the three sheep they have with them. Hassan remarks that he has stopped eating meat because of his goiter. Sheep and other animals do not cross his mind. The only beasts he thinks of are the disappearing donkeys. Even the zabbaleen, the garbage collectors, have traded in their donkey-driven carts for Japanese vehicles. After a long conversation in which Hassan tries everything to drive away the Bedouins selling the sheep, he succumbs and buys them at a cheap price. However, he does not know what to do with them. He seeks help from a nearby street vendor, and in turn he is pointed to the bawab, the custodian of an apartment building, who in turn finds a Bedouin woman-shepherd to take care of the three sheep along with her herd.
This chain of people allows Bakr to introduce an invisible Cairo and to show how certain groups and lowly classes live, talk and think. As the novella unfolds we encounter different economic and social strata constituting the heterogeneity of Cairo. Hassan is a childless middle-class widower, and his way of life lacks lustre and affection. He hardly ever visits, or is visited by, his siblings, and he is devoid of initiative. He is like a feather, blown around. Giving in to the Bedouin sheep-traders, and later to the agents of foreign companies, are twin faces of the same coin. The contrast between the modes used by marginalised nomads and by hegemonic transnationals in twisting Hassan's will and way of life are contrasted in the unfolding of the novella.
An affair develops between Hassan and the Bedouin woman, Sahba, who is taking care of his sheep, but this is ruptured eventually because of their different values. This rupture is indicative of which way he is veering. Hassan had relations with both archaic nomads and super-modern businessmen who know no national borders. This medial position has been maintained for a while, but eventually Hassan has moved "upwards". Accordingly, his appearance changed to match his nouveau riche status. Not only did Hassan dye his hair blonde and get a new haircut, he also stopped reading the papers as the Satellite TV became his source of information and contact with the world. With beautiful sexy women advertising imported watches and various channels offering openly the "secret world" of sex, Hassan gave up on reading. Seated on a sofa with a remote control gadget to find the most attractive women on screen was more attractive than reading the news in a local paper.
Hassan became an agent for a well- known brand of watches because of the strategic location of his shop situated opposite McDonald's and other fast- food places. Not only did he give up repairing watches and clocks, but he also changed his eating habits and his culinary preferences. Instead of the Egyptian morning coffee, he moved to instant nescaf� -- finding it easier to prepare and a chic drink, which convinces customers of his taste and the quality of his shop.
The new business relations require socialising and partying of a certain kind. Hashish smoking, wine drinking, shrimp eating, and occasionally courting are part of the scene. One expects such a financial bubble to explode, and it does so, sooner rather than later. One of the partners in the shop with Hassan who has been involved with a mafia smuggling Egyptian antiquities is wanted by Interpol and disappears. A friend warns Hassan that he should expect to be interrogated.
The novella ends in Hassan's dream, which crowns the carnivalesque aspect of Cairene life. He dreams that one of his partners is holding a long horn, like the one seen in Moulids and folk celebrations; another partner is beating on a drum with a heavy drumstick, while Hassan dressed in the motley colors of a jester is dancing. He is surrounded by sheep, whose eyes resemble the blue contact lenses he has been using, and whose wool is as blonde as his dyed hair.
The city as an ongoing masquerade makes us see its ludicrousness as we laugh. The novella makes us smile at the grotesque in Cairo and its metamorphosis into a city where the foreign displaces the local, the new coexisting with the traditional.
Bakr brings all the incongruities in her novella into an artistic whole through the clever use of time, with time-measuring as a unifying element. Hassan is a repairer of clocks and watches. His profession is to mark precise time. As a child he used to love watching the minute and second hands of the clock as "they shaped time with their repetitive movement." Fixing broken clocks and watches gave Hassan a great pleasure; it was not simply a matter of making a living. The clock is also used frequently in the novella as a master metaphor. Hassan refers to his body -- in one of his interior monologues -- as "neglected, used up, biological clock" that has regained its strength.
He says about the Bedouin woman with whom he has an intense sexual relation: "she was able to fix the rhythm of her physical clock to his and move its hands in the same direction and with the same rhythm." Finally, "lost time" is foregrounded in the conclusion: a stranger asks Hassan about the time, and when Hassan responds 8.45 after looking at his old father's watch, the stranger says, having missed his train: "Time ran and stole away." Hassan remains waiting for an imaginary train that may or may not come.
Following the novella, there are several short testimonies by Salwa Bakr at the end of the book. In these brief essays, Bakr expresses her point of view on issues that bear on the novel. The first deals with the nature of cities, and the last is about the New World Order. In "Moving On in Cities of Brass", Bakr borrows the metaphor of "City of Brass", the tale told by Shaharazad in the Arabian Nights to describe the modern-day city. She foregrounds the temptations of the City of Brass and the dangers it poses. In The Thousand and One Nights, the city is distracting, with its beautiful sirens and dazzling with its attractive trappings. Men are enamoured by what they see and fall from the city's ramparts, taken by the riches and glossiness within.
In contemporary cities of brass, the role of the writer, Bakr says, is to resist temptations of power and wealth. Bakr turns the tale into an allegory. She mentions another story by Chekhov in which a bookshop owner starts selling knick-knacks to make quick money, and gradually the books on his shelves are replaced by trifles. In her last testimony, inspired by Adel Al- Siwy's painting entitled "The New World Order", Bakr contemplates what is new and what is the nature of this so-called New World Order. She sees in it a framework for the dependency of the Third World and the hegemony of the First. In short, it is "organised robbery". What Bakr expresses indirectly in her novella is presented directly in her testimonials in the epilogue.