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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Being Abbas el Abd

Ahmed Alaidy

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To purchase Being Abbas el Abd

Title: Being Abbas el Abd
Author: Ahmed Alaidy
Genre: Novel
Written: 2003 (Eng. 2006)
Length: 131 pages
Original in: Arabic
Availability: Being Abbas el Abd - US
Being Abbas el Abd - UK
Being Abbas el Abd - Canada
  • Arabic title: ان تكون عباس العبد
  • Translated and with a Note by Humphrey Davies

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Our Assessment:

B+ : quick, fairly effective

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       In an acknowledgements page at the opening of this novel Ahmed Alaidy thanks his "partners in crime" -- and the first of his "mentors" he lists is ... Chuck Palahniuk -- ordinarily warning enough to chuck a book right there and then. Still, given how few contemporary Arabic voices -- especially such young ones (Alaidy was born 1974) -- one can find in bookstores one hopes Palahniuk lost something (well, everything) in translation -- and, after all, among the other mentors listed are more reassuring figures, such as Sonallah Ibrahim, and so one bites the bullet and hopes for the best.
       In his translator's Note at the end of the novel Humphrey Davies notes that: "Being Abbas el Abd breaks new ground for Egyptian writing in more than one way." Indeed, here's a distinctive voice and approach that, for want of a better term, is emphatically modern, a narrator who is unmistakably Egyptian but lives in a world that, in many respects, has gotten very small, a post-MTV age in which some (pop) cultural references have become universals (even as they are almost entirely disposable, replaced by new ones the year -- or week -- after) and all communication sometimes seeming to have been entirely reduced to Instant Messages.
       Alaidy plays with form: an introduction (titled: 'An Introduction You Can Suck or Shove') is a brief scene that is then repeated (in its proper chronological place) later in the story, and it's a novel of short paragraphs, fast dialogue, and many digressions (including lists of phobias), the narrator alternating between (brief) moments of patience and reflection and an ADD-like topic-juggling frenzy. The book is fast and short enough that the style doesn't become too wearying, though some of the word-play (such as the invented phobia-names ("Decidophobia: fear of making decisions ")) -- trying to be clever, but too often falling short -- can get annoying. But there's a vitality to the experimentation; overall, it works fairly well (and what doesn't can excused by the still fairly adolescent mind of the narrator).
       The narrator has spent almost ten years as a video store clerk, at "Amerco Video Film". The films thrust foreign modern society in his face daily, but he's stuck in his empty, small job -- like a clerk at a video store anywhere in the world:

You're the computer technician with the loosened tie and a box of CDs in your hand.
Unskilled labor in the mines of Digitalia. An e-slave in Bill Gates' colony.
WATCH Sandra Bullock in The Net.
Then press ESC.
       It's not that easy, of course, and while he's in a global brotherhood of people stuck in similar positions, he's also clearly in Egypt, which has its own local features and issues.
       Being Abbas el Abd, as the title might suggest, is a novel that deals with identity on all its levels. One of the main storylines is the narrator's friend, Abbas el Abd, setting him up on a date:
Abbas gets into passionate relationships over the phone and punts me over two girls because, as he puts it, he wants to get me out of my "social isolation".
       The girls are both named Hind (more identity issues ...), and Abbas has set up dates with both of them at the same time, on two different floors of the same establishment. And both Hinds are led to believe they will be meeting Abbas, so that's the role the narrator has to play. Not surprisingly he's not quite up to it; this inability -- here and elsewhere -- to 'be Abbas' (and thus also everything he represents) is, of course, one of the main points of the novel.
       Abbas is a fairly intense personality:
Abbas says, when he's feeling good: "Don't fight things by resisting them because they'll strike back with a vengeance. Fight things by doing them -- that way they lose their meaning.
Got a problem with smoking or eating chocolate ?
Smoke till your lips turn into filters. Eat Cadbury bars till your teeth melt or the factory closes.
Do it till you lose your mind."
That's his philosophy, and he practises it to perfection.
       The other dominant figure in the narrator's life was his uncle, Awni, a psychiatrist with some very unusual methods. The boy was Awni's guinea pig, dragged by him even to America (which is where Awni, after a brief return to Egypt, also remained). Awni is Egypt personified, his methods those of the state and culture and weight of history, the burden (especially the fears) he thrusts on the narrator those that Egypt forces on its people. The narrator admits:
To have doubts you have to have distance, and I had no distance at all.
       He is as entangled in all that is Egypt as he is in Awni's peculiar games: there's (almost) no escape, just frustrated fear and almost futile fighting against it. (There is a fight scene in the book, and the narrator is the helpless victim; only Abbas' contrarian approach can save him .....) Abbas, of course, knows better:
Destroy your pharaonic history.
We will only succeed when we turn our museums into public lavatories.
       But they're still quite a way away from that.
       Being Abbas el Abd is packed with ideas and issues, tackling identity and, especially, adaptation to the contemporary world. The clash of civilizations isn't overt here, but it goes to the root of the novel, Awni, Abbas, and the narrator each struggling with it in a variety of sometimes radical ways. Very personal, and focussed on an individual who obviously has a lot of issues, it nevertheless also offers an interesting glimpse of much of contemporary Egyptian society. It appears to be a character study, but turns out to be (or can readily be read) as a novel of a whole generation and nation (or at least a wide swath of each)
       The narrative takes some interesting turns: right down to the Postscript-chapter Alaidy manages to come up with new twists that throw a different light on what came before (and, from the Introduction on there's a nice circularity to the book, too). The voice is credible enough: the narrator may be in his late twenties but he's not really been allowed to mature, and that comes across well -- though the stylistic experimentation tends to be very hit-or-miss. Obviously, there are also translation issues, and Humphrey Davies mentions several of these (including the problem of translating "words and phrases imported en bloc from other languages, such as al-boyyi frind" ...).
       Occasionally frustrating, but overall quite clever: Being Abbas el Abd is certainly an intriguing novel. Worthwhile.

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Being Abbas el Abd: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Egyptian author Ahmed Alaidy (أحمد العايدي) was born in 1974.

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© 2006-2010 the complete review

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