Pop power: On Ahmed al-Aidi and Abbas al-Abd

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By Youssef Rakha
The Daily Star - May 15, 2004

A mobile phone number inscribed in red lipstick on the doors of women's toilet cubicles in shopping malls all over Cairo, and wiped over with a surprisingly effective fixative - Kleenex soaked in soda water - "call me."

Such is the central motif of "An Takoun Abbas al-Abd" by Ahmed al-Aidi, perhaps the first truly popular novel to appear in Egypt since the 1950s. Drawing on the references of global consumer culture - "The Matrix," CNN, hackers, mp3s, "Friends" - it is the story of a disturbed video rental attendant, his uncle, an unorthodox psychiatrist and the appearance in their life of a nihilistic cosmetics salesman, Abbas al-Abd, a kind of Dean Moriarty of the Muqattam Hills.

More an essay on contemporary middle-class culture than a novel, the book has no real plot. Rather, like a Cubist painting, it precariously juxtaposes motifs, anecdotes, critiques, encounters and conversations that reflect one man's mental chaos, for it transpires that all three characters are but projections of the same diseased psyche. The fragments only gradually converge into a comprehensible account of this complex predicament. A slim volume loosely modelled on Chuck Palahniuk's "Fight Club," "An Takoun Abbas al-Abd" is the Arab world's answer to a millennial cult classic - something that highbrow authors, who have written without the benefit of a viable readership for half a century, would not have thought to produce.

Whether working in the framework of social engagement set up by the Generation of the 1960s or giving in to the subversive individualism of the 1990s, Arab writers profess little interest in how readable their work is or how relevant to an audience that remains more or less illiterate. Aidi, who diffidently espouses complete unfamiliarity with modern Arabic literature, seems more concerned with issues of accessibility and impact than literary achievement.

In his debut he not only chooses the compelling theme of psychosis but pays painstaking attention to the presentation of his text, down to replicating, on the printed page, the shifting visual planes of electronic communication. His flickering fonts, simplistic punctuation, and eccentric paragraphing echo a mobile phone screen or Internet chat window. He also substantiates standard Arabic with the latest slang (he owns an obscure paperback dictionary to which he frequently refers for that purpose), clip art, English words that have entered the vernacular, literal translations of Americanisms - "give a damn" - and terms like "copy/paste" in English script. This manner of presentation reflects Aidi's compositional technique, which consists in long hours spent "typing, deleting and retyping" before the screen of a computer "so old it still has the first version of Windows on its hard drive."

Born in Saudi Arabia in 1974, Aidi is more bespectacled nerd than urban adventurer. In his unique brand of geeky cool, however, the two identities, which resonate with the book's seamless mixture of fastidious erudition and streetwise vicariousness, are easily reconciled. On arriving in Cairo at age 15, Aidi failed to score high grades in the ubiquitous, rote-learning based thanawiya amma, and eventually enrolled in an ongoing marketing course at the Open University. Though he still regards his career prospects as rather bleak, it is to one of several writing-related jobs he has had since then that the first draft of "An Takoun Abbas al-Abd" owes its conception. His financially rewarding contributions to a series of popular comic publications proved so outstanding that the publisher asked him to write what he would, giving him the necessary nudge to explore his own concerns.

The resulting text was to go through at least five more incarnations, surviving the publisher's refusal to run it and several dispiriting encounters with men of letters. When excerpts finally appeared in the well-known literary journal "Akhbar al-Adab," following a phone conversation with Sonalla Ibrahim and a chilling meeting with Gamal al-Ghitani, two celebrated 1960s novelists, Aidi was more incredulous than vindicated.

The novel may be the first glimmer of hope for a true fictional renaissance - an instantly rewarding read embraced by an unprecedented range of literary figures from Nabil Abdel-Fattah to Ibrahim Dawoud, the kind of best-seller everyone is talking about. But the fact remains that its popularity is due largely to the perception of one or more of the many desirable elements it brings together, not to any sense of it as a holistic achievement. "An Takoun Abbas al-Abd" is, for one thing, a delightfully humorous book. It exploits the ironies embedded in an increasingly hybrid vernacular, fluctuating from complete rootlessness - ("You are a computer engineer.... a hand in the mines of digital, an electronic slave in Bill Gates' colony") to the culturally specific ("We will succeed only when we turn (ancient Egypt) museums into public bathrooms").

In its harsh depiction of the practices of experimental psychiatry it broaches a subject seldom touched on in Arabic fiction. It flaunts an underworld of microbus journeys, pharmaceuticals abuse, prostitution and street brawls as an aspect of everyday life. And it employs a dialogue-centred form that thrives on thought-provoking word-play and unexpected connections. By constantly reminding readers that they have entered a fictional construction embodying a single human being's take on the world, the author demonstrates postmodernism far better than Arabic literature's self-acknowledged postmodernists; the story seldom strikes a true-to-life chord, yet by sustaining a kind of Brechtian detachment it manages to engage the reader to the last page.

And perhaps it is to his awareness of the subjective pluralism behind its success that the author refers when he speaks of the book being almost anathema to his peace of mind and, even worse, his sense of focus. It has brought him no material reward, neither improving his career prospects nor expanding the scope of potentially lucrative activities. Crucially, it has heightened what he describes as "my autism," the nerdy tendency to turn in on himself, feeling the brunt of an existential communication block that deprives him of social sustenance - rather like his frustration with the response of a well-known psychiatrist he contacted while writing "An Takoun Abbas al-Abd," in order to find out more about his subject's psychosis: the doctor failed to see him as anything but a prospective patient, regarding the alleged book as an excuse to seek medical assistance. To Aidi this typifies the futility of life in the Arab world.

Following a reprint of the book last month, Aidi has entered into another of his "typing, deleting and retyping" phases in Nasr City. He is not really writing, he says, simply passing the time while his writer friends - all of whom, he insists, are far more talented than he - manage to produce gripping and exciting new books that will lend credibility to the art of literature in an age of satellite television and virtual reality. "To me happiness," he says, "depends on a collective sense of achievement - something that involves not person but a whole generation. And being very familiar with their work, my own mediocrity notwithstanding, I'm convinced that my generation of writers are destined to make a huge difference in the way people see books and the activity of reading."

Yet it is precisely because of their "mediocrity" that literature will rely on books like "An Takoun Abbas al-Abd" to face the irrevocable forward march of pop.

- Youssef Rakha is a writer and photographer living in Cairo.


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