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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Idris Ali

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To purchase Poor

Title: Poor
Author: Idris Ali
Genre: Novel
Written: 2005 (Eng. 2007)
Length: 203 pages
Original in: Arabic
Availability: Poor - US
Poor - UK
Poor - Canada
  • Arabic title: تحت خط الفقر
  • Translated and with an Afterword by Elliot Colla

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Our Assessment:

B : rough and raw, but fairly effective

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Al-Ahram Weekly . 27/7/2005 I.Hamam/M.El-Wardani
Arab News . 1/11/2007 Lisa Kaaki

  From the Reviews:
  • "(T)he reader may find himself confused as to where to draw the line between the narrator of the novel and the novelist himself: as Ali here mixes autobiography with fiction, it is possible to get lost in a maze of the real and the imaginary. Those who are familiar with the details of Ali's life will be aware that some of what is described here actually happened, though this in itself does not explain these events. Facts of life aside, Taht khat al-faqr is never less than intelligent, and many of its sections, especially the flashbacks to the narrator's childhood in Nubia, make for very interesting reading." - Iman Hamam and Mahmoud El-Wardani, Al-Ahram Weekly

  • "Poor is saturated with feelings of indignant displeasure and anger for the racist insults and wrongs committed against the Nubians. (...) Despite all the feelings of inequality and justified anger expressed in the story, the reader is frustrated to see the narrator, the perfect anti- hero, fail miserably. Instead of trying to overcome his unending hardships and misfortunes, he squanders all the opportunities that presented themselves and becomes a being without a purpose or plans for the future." - Lisa Kaaki, Arab News

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Poor begins with a brief author's note of sorts, in which he states: "I need to be frank with you: I lost control of the narrator of this story". Indeed, the narrator is a man of little restraint, and when the book proper opens, in 1994, he is somewhere between frenzy and frustration, angry at a life wasted, an unfair world, and a country he sees having gone to ruin. Destitute, starving, drunk he seems to be seriously thinking about committing suicide -- but he doesn't want his death to be meaningless:

     But, how to die and make sure your death creates ripples and reactions ? How to protest, by dying, the extent of your life's collapse ?
       Pulled from the brink he instead comes to tell his life-story, starting with his childhood, in 1948, and continuing through young adulthood. Considerable rage remains in the narrator's voice, and he lashes constantly about -- often with good reason. The novel is clearly autobiographical, the narrator, like the author, a Nubian (from southern, i.e. Upper Egypt).
       The building of the Aswan Dam meant much of the Nubian population was displaced, and this loss of home (and the lack of government assistance in helping the local population adjust to the changed circumstances) plays a significant role early in his account. Nubians are treated as second-class citizens, and there's considerable hostility between Egyptians and Nubians, with the latter clinging also to their own identity while the former claim all should be considered Egyptians (even while they treat the Nubians as second-class citizens ...).
       The narrator's father has gone to Cairo, but he doesn't send any money or other assistance back to his family, leaving them completely impoverished. Seeing no future here the narrator runs away from home to find his father when he is still a young boy. His father does take him in and help him out, but the opportunities -- to get an education, to earn some money -- are limited there too.
       It's a life of tumultuous ups and downs for the child . He does gain access to books and finds a world of wonder there (though, given the place, times, and circumstances it's no surprise that Maxim Gorky is his first idol), and reading -- and possibly writing -- become an escape for him. Or at least they suggest a possibility of escape, since the ugly, harsh real world makes so much of day to day life such an ordeal.
       The narrator does try to better himself through education, for example, but it's a corrupt world he lives in, and the school he attends is one where as a matter of course no one ever passes the official exams. There is no form of meritocracy here, and even with revolution only those in power change, not the way things work.
       One opportunity for him to get an education that may be meaningful (in the form of the diploma that goes with it, not the material that is learned) does eventually present itself: he can get a scholarship to the famous-notorious al-Azhar, the great institution of religious learning in Cairo (which author Ali also attended). It's the only place he can study, but, of course, it's an ill fit:
Your path is completely different from theirs. Your readings in the humanities are completely unlike "What Zayd Said" and "What Amr Said." Ibn Malik's Alifiya makes you flee the study of classical Arabic. The study of Islamic jurisprudence in its four schools muddles your thinking. Worn-out books and thousand year-old thinking.
       He sticks it out (and they surprisingly put up with him) for a while, but it's ultimately hopeless. Seeing no other options he finally uses the war-frenzy raging in the country to follow many others and join the military -- though he's obviously not suited for that either.
       Poor is an effective account of a life of hardship, with powerful sketches of arbitrary power, injustice, and the tricks of getting by. The book flashes rapidly across a great deal, rarely lingering for long in any one place or on any one situation. It's a crowded, topsy-turvy account, and along with the many difficulties and frustrations he faces there are surprisingly many sympathetic characters, helping him in a variety of ways. Even the police is depicted almost as being sympathetic to his plight as they rough him up, but like everyone else all they can do is pretty much shrug their shoulders: this is simply the way this world works.
       The family situation (there's another woman in his father's life, for example) also causes complications, as then does the narrator's own lust. For a while he enjoys the benefits of -- and doesn't really seem to mind -- being what amounts to one privileged son's boy-toy, but later it's the frustration of not being able to find release for his pent up sexual urges among women that causes him considerable distress. (And, yes, he finds romance, too.)
       As the author warned at the beginning, the narrator is kind of out of control, but that forceful, angry voice (and some colourful circumlocutions -- he calls what is surely the Arab League the 'League of Idiot Tribes', for example) make for a book that is practically bursting with energy. But the lack of control also makes for what is, in part, a messy narrative, with present anger superimposed on childhood experience and much left incomplete (especially as the account comes to an abrupt end in the mid-1950s, leaving that huge gap between then and the introductory chapter from 1994).
       Poor feels very rough -- in many parts even like simply the outline of a planned memoir -- but Ali does convey a vivid picture of a hard life, and he does so with an often winning angry exuberance. The indictment of Egypt, especially its failures in the 1940s and 1950s, is searing; one just wishes the novel as a whole were more expansive.

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Poor: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Idris Ali (إدريس علي) is a well-known Egyptian author.

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© 2007-2010 the complete review

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