Egypt has been in a state of political tumult and social unrest for several years now. First came the Arab Spring when the country saw the fall of strongman Hosni Mubarak, after three decades in power. Two years later came the overthrow of Egypt’s elected President Mohammed Morsi by the military.
The new government is in charge now, but the unrest remains. The country is awash with diverse and sometimes clashing political ideologies. This situation is similar to that of the final years of Egypt under British rule, the era that Alaa Al Aswany paints in his new novel The Automobile Club of Egypt. Set in post-World War II Cairo, the novel narrates two principal stories: that of Egypt’s first automobile club and that of the Gaafar family, a once wealthy family from Upper Egypt now living in Cairo, struggling to make ends meet.
The automobile club is a segregated place. Only Europeans and wealthy, high-profile non-Europeans can become members. The King of Egypt and Sudan, who loves to gamble, drink and enjoy intimate female companionship, is a frequent client. James Wright, the British managing director of the club, despises Egyptians. He believes they are not self-motivated and “if an Egyptian manages to carry out his duties properly, it is only because a European manager has trained him well.” The only thing that is keeping him in Egypt is his pocketbook. He earns well in Cairo and is ready to add to his assets by satisfying the King of Egypt and Sudan in any way possible.
Alku, an ethnic Nubian in his sixties, is one of the central characters of the book. He is the palace’s head chamberlain and the head of the automobile club’s servants. Under his gaze, servants are terrified to make the smallest mistakes. Having the King’s back, he has carte blanche to control the servants as he desires, whether it be through beating them or depriving them of their badly needed income. And most of the servants have accepted subservience to him. He is seen like a father who has the right to punish his children.
Under such circumstances, Abd el-Aziz Gaafar toils as a servant, working under Alku to support his wife and four children. When he dies, two of his sons, Kamel and Mahmud, replace him. While most of the servants have accepted work under the draconian Alku, and see it is their fate, Kamel, a law student, is not going to give in. The novel is a story of sex, scandals, hidden political discontent and rebellion on the social and personal level. Those who have read Aswany’s previous novels, including his international bestseller “The Yacoubian Building”, know of his eye for detail. Every character in his novel is patiently described in exquisite detail, from Gaafars’ neighbor Aisha who seems “unable to hold a conversation without talking about sex,” to Wright’s headstrong daughter Mitsy who unlike her father, loves Egypt for its "sincerity."
And it does not end there. Understanding Egypt very well, Aswany does not airbrush his portrait of the society. He analyzes the psychological and social reasons behind its characters’ actions. He describes the possible motivations that lead his characters to behave in a specific way. But at the same time he is careful not to judge. He suggests his analysis and leaves the judgment to the reader.
The automobile club does not bore the reader with one story. There are several storylines skillfully juxtaposed: On a larger scale the Automobile club is boiling with discontent, and Communists and nationalists are planning a plot against the king of Egypt and Sudan. And every character has his or her own story; Mahmud, one of Gaafar’s sons, leads a life of sensual pleasures while Gaafar’s daughter Saleha wrestles with the realities of Egyptian society throughout the novel's pages.
Aswany is a master of suspense. Each chapter ends with a half cadence that promises an unpredictable continuation. The story is not monotonous. It is a collection of rises and falls, which lead the reader on to the end of the story.
Unfortunately, as the book nears its conclusion, it begins to feel as if Aswany is eager to be done. Or perhaps it is his skillful storytelling that sets the bar high and causes the reader to expect something better than the book’s disappointingly abrupt ending.