Tayy El Khiyaam

Photo by Brent Stirton

Tayy El Khiyaam (Folding the Tents)
By Hamdi Abu Golayyel
Dar Merit, 2010

By Mohamed El-Bisatie
AUC Press, 2010

In the first piece in the short fiction collection Tayy El Khiyaam, a young man of Bedouin descent chafes at his grandfather’s yearly repayment of a blood debt to members of another tribe. He looks on what he considers a humiliating tradition — and the history that justifies it — with embarrassment and disbelief. “In truth, I didn’t trust my grandfather’s story about the camel that was the reason for his brother’s murder,” he tells us, referring to the incident at the root of the tribal debt.

Such tergiversation will be familiar to readers of Hamdi Abu Golayyel’s work. The author, who is himself of Bedouin provenance, likes to worry stories — and the language in which they are told — to bits, the better to reassemble his own narratives, their seams still visible and frayed. They tend to be rambling yarns, full of discomfiting details, self-deprecation, and sarcastic asides.

Members of the author’s own tribe long ago settled in a village in the Fayoum; the deserts they once roamed, he writes, “no longer exist at all, except inside them.” Still, the stories in Tayy El Khiyaam, like much of Abu Golayyel’s work, are concerned with making sense of Bedouin heritage; the gaps and contradictions between his tribe’s past and its present; the codes it supposedly follows and the realities it faces; and, above all, the unreliable legends by which it defines itself.

Abu Golayyel has already published two well-received novels, Thieves in Retirement (Syracuse University Press, 2007) and A Dog with No Tail (AUC Press, 2009). The narrator of Thieves in Retirement is — like Abu Golayyel — a Bedouin immigrant to Cairo who settles in the slum of Manshiyat Nasr, Helwan, where he’s surrounded by lying, thieving, bullying neighbors and haunted by a “persistent fear that they will unite against me.” The work is a darkly funny social satire, pitting the paranoid hero against a community’s absurd and often oppressive codes. Here, language is a weapon, used to paper over hypocrisies and hatreds, or — in the narrator’s case — to expose them.

A Dog with No Tail — titled El Faa’il (The Laborer) in Arabic — is based on the many years Abu Golayyel spent working on various construction teams around Cairo, all the while nursing the improbable ambition of becoming a writer. The book is an accumulation of loosely connected anecdotes and vignettes that coalesce (just barely — but that’s the point) into an exploration of how we tend to construct the rickety edifices of our identity.

In A Dog with No Tail, Abu Golayyel says he and friends “would walk the streets of Cairo but as sons of another, distant, country, to which we awaited the chance to return.” Tayy El Khiyaam — which, like most of the author’s work, is semi-autobiographical, and which was published recently in Arabic by Dar Merit — addresses that “other country.”

Though the title may seem to hark back to visions of a romantic, nomadic past, Abu Golayyel is bent on ruthlessly imploding all Bedouin mystique. In one story, a young Bedouin woman rattles her elders by demanding a divorce on the basis of her husband’s sexual shortcomings. In another, the author discovers that when his tribe attacked the local police station back in the early twentieth century, it wasn’t an act of nationalist resistance — they were just helping a relative escape. And in the collection’s final section, a novella, Abu Golayyel deconstructs a founding myth of the tribe, first telling the story as it has been recounted for generations, then immediately poking holes in it. “I’m possessed by a desire to betray the storyteller a little,” he writes, before launching into several unflattering alternate accounts of the incident.

Abu Golayyel doesn’t stop at questioning his tribe’s narratives; he also mocks his own desire for stable archetypes, his own weakness for myth-making. An affecting story about his search for a replacement father-figure opens: “I’ll make him a legendary father, I’ll lower my voice around him, I won’t raise my eyes to his face, I’ll get confused and throw my lit cigarette under the bed when I hear his voice, and let its fire consume the bed… so I can tell my friends — as they always told me — that my father caught me while I smoked, I got confused and it was a disaster, the bed burnt. No… I’ll swear to them that I put my cigarette in my pocket, because besides the fact that Bedouins don’t have beds to begin with, putting my cigarette in my pocket will establish the scene of confusion and lengthen my trembling in front of my father, making his awe-inspiring dignity a piercing truth.”

The search for such a father — a traditional point of reference, a founding myth of sorts — is fruitless. The narrator’s identity crisis is such that he can’t even figure out how to choose among the words for “father” available to him. Should he use the Bedouin term, raising his eyes to the sky with “a touch of supplication and clear submission”? Should he say “Abi,” even though that word, in classical Arabic, seems “harsh and routine, like government employees”? “Baba,” in Egyptian Arabic, even though it “embarrasses him”?

In the end, Abu Golayyel’s irreverent grappling with his Bedouin heritage points both to the unreliability of the stories we tell ourselves and to their extraordinary power.

Egyptian Mohamed El-Bisatie’s latest novel has a promising premise. After the soccer team of an unnamed fictional Emirate qualifies for the World Cup, its native population travels en masse to Paris for the championship. Suddenly, the millions of migrant workers who power the Emirate emerge from their shadow existence as maids and drivers to find themselves more or less in control of the country. They have large communal lunches on their masters’ lawns. They go for dips in their swimming pools. Prisoners are released for the duration of the tournament, promising to return to their cells afterward.

Unfortunately, the book never fulfills the comic possibilities of this premise. I laughed for the first time on page 102, when an argument erupts over the appropriateness of praying for a particular result in a soccer match (“Then let’s ask Him to help the Emirate team reach the finals.” “What kind of supplication is that? It’s like asking the good Lord to help someone catch the bus.” “What if we pray for the Portuguese team to win?” “God forbid! That’s a non-Muslim nation and you want to pray for it?”). For the most part, the story — as told by its detached, affectless narrator, an also-unnamed Egyptian driver and bodyguard — is rather melancholy, delivering a one-note message about the ennui and humiliation that characterize life as hired labor in the Gulf.

Millions of Egyptians have spent years working in richer neighboring Arab countries; the experience has been entrenched in the Egyptian imagination. Back in the 1990s, Ibrahim Abdel Meguid mined this topic for his acclaimed novel The Other Place (AUC Press, 2005). El-Bisatie’s work adds little to the familiar image of the Gulf as a land in which material gain is acquired at the expense of one’s dignity. He doesn’t seem interested in imagining the specific ways in which the symbiotic relationship between rich masters and powerless migrant workers might be brought into relief by the sudden removal of one side of the equation.

Instead, El-Bisatie portrays the migrant workers’ oppression through an array of sexual metaphors. The narrator and his fellow workers are all affected by “the curse.” Fear of losing one’s job — or worse — has emasculated them, conditioning them to repress all sexual impulses. The narrator has “heard too many stories to drop my guard: fifty lashes in a public flogging and expulsion … How many of such cases had there been during my five years here?” At one point, he observes of some new arrivals, “Their blood was still warm — they had not made the adjustments the rest of us had.”

Sexual exploitation is the plight of the other primary character in the story, Zahiya, an Egyptian maid in a nearby villa. Night after night during the reprieve, she tells the narrator her story, how the mistress of the house encouraged her to sleep with the master, how she had his child and it was adopted by the family as their own.

Zahiya makes for a poignant figure, wandering about her masters’ house in their absence, like a ghost with no claim on the life that surrounds her. She proves incapable even of telling her own story — she keeps getting sidetracked into talking about her mistress, instead. “When I saw you I felt I had to speak with you,” she says to the narrator. “I have no one here I can talk to … I thought by speaking to you I might be able to feel a bit less homesick. But all I’ve spoken about was her.”

In the case of both Zahiya and the narrator, the point is made abundantly clear: life in the Emirate either steals or suppresses one’s creative and reproductive powers; the kingdom thrives by leaching the life out of its immigrant workers.

This subtext informs the book’s strangest scene, in which the local male workers congregate at a cafe to watch someone referred to as “the African” perform a feat of sexual prowess. The book’s title is linked to this scene as well — the narrator and his friends wonder if “the beating of the drums does all that.” El-Bisatie says drumbeats represent vitality, the life force that has been drained out of the “broken-down” migrant workers. But is it really necessary to adopt such a naive, racialized symbol for sexual energy?

Up until now, El-Bisatie has set the bulk of his work in the Nile Delta. A member of the so-called “Gallery 68” writers, his work has been informed by a concern with marginal communities and social justice. But unlike, say, his novel Clamor of the Lake (AUC Press, 2004) — in which Lake Montazah and the surrounding fishing villages come to lyrical life — in Drumbeat the physical and social setting remains lifeless, amorphous.

El-Bisatie has said Drumbeat is based on time he spent in Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. He has blended his recollections to make the Emirate of the book not a real place but a fairytale one, with its own curse. His flat, matter-of-fact narration is plainly meant to convey a sense of alienation. This approach works well for parts of the story — those set in the gleaming, impersonal suburbs, for example. But it falls short in the scenes that are meant to convey the excitement of the foreign workers taking over the city, holding parades and giant cookouts. Throughout the book, one expects some eruption (of violence, sex, joy) that never comes — the cat may be away, but these mice play very sedately.

Maybe that’s because the workers are almost devoid of personality. The narrator is relentlessly bland; Zahiya serves her purpose, telling her tale of oppression, but she doesn’t reveal her motivations or much of her inner workings. The other immigrant workers — Pakistanis, Indians, and Filipinos — are simply narrative extras. El-Bisatie hopes that we sympathize with their plight, but he treats them in much the same way their masters do: as an undifferentiated mass, there only to carry out his instructions.