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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Magnificent Conman of Cairo

Adel Kamel

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To purchase The Magnificent Conman of Cairo

Title: The Magnificent Conman of Cairo
Author: Adel Kamel
Genre: Novel
Written: 1942 (Eng. 2020)
Length: 182 pages
Original in: Arabic
Availability: The Magnificent Conman of Cairo - US
The Magnificent Conman of Cairo - UK
The Magnificent Conman of Cairo - Canada
  • Arabic title: مليم الأكبر
  • Translated by Waleed Almusharaf
  • With a Foreword by Naguib Mahfouz

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Our Assessment:

B : neat light picture of the times and society

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The Magnificent Conman of Cairo features two protagonists from very different Cairo families. Malim is the son of a man who: "did not have a name like normal people. People simply called him the Madman of Housh Eisa" who used to work for a newspaper -- both writing and selling it -- but moved on to small-time shilling with young Malim in tow; when his father was jailed, Malim tried to pick up a regular trade, apprenticing in his uncle's carpentry business. Khaled, meanwhile, is the well-educated son of Ahmed Bey Khorshed, a prominent judge turned government official, "with a truly dangerous position in the Foreign Ministry". Having graduated from: "the most prestigious university in England", Khaled returned to Egypt: "in a frenzy of revolt against society as a whole". Now bookish and more aware of the world around him, Khaled finds himself at odds in particular with his father's world -- one in which the pasha felt: "entitled to strip others of their rights, to permit him always to place his interests before others', and generally to consider nothing but himself".
       Malim and Khaled's path's cross at the beginning of the story, Malim coming to fix a window in the pasha's house. When a packet of money slips into Malim's hands things begin to go south. Khaled knows the money is essentially ill-gotten gain, his: "old man, my father, has already pillaged it from the peasants who worked so hard for it on the land he rents to them", but he over-complicates the ruse to get Malim at least a reward for finding and returning the money. Khaled's brother, Omar, comes across the scene, takes the money for himself, and accuses Malim of theft; despite Khaled's account of what actually happened, their father sides with the lying son, arguing: "justice necessitates the sacrifice of Malim for the purpose of maintaining a great family like mine". So Malim winds up in jail.
       Khaled struggles to find his place, the temptations of the easy lifestyle his father's approval can afford difficult to resist but at odds with the beliefs he's come (or wants) to hold. His father operates with carrot and stick, but even the carrots prove unsatisfying: a job placement in a government position turns out to be little more than a place-filler, with Khaled not expected to (or even really allowed) to do anything much resembling actual work, which Khaled just can't go along with. Khaled occasionally tries to go his own way -- at one point even embracing the Bedouin lifestyle -- but he's only able to see things through so far; if not his father's son, so the creature comforts and easy lifestyle he's grown accustomed to being hard to give up. His options are limited, too:

As for the life of being a thinker, that was certain to make its adherents homeless and hungry, and inspired nothing but contempt from one's peers. The status of an artist or a writer in a country like Egypt, which had only a modest claim to civilization at best, was somewhere between a truck driver and a court clerk.
       (No doubt, part of Khaled's -- and Kamel's ... -- problem is contempt for work that doesn't meet a certain standard .....)
       After his release from prison, Malim takes a job at the Citadel, a run-down former would-be palace that becomes a sort of artists' and foreigners' colony. Unschooled Malim proves a useful factotum and fixer:
Malim made their deals, Malim managed their affairs, Malim solved their problems, and no one but Malim could successfully get them out of any crisis they managed to get themselves into. Malim mixed their paints, prepared their pens and inkwells, and sourced the stones and tools for their sculptures.
       Malim and Khaled's paths cross again as part of a sort of confidence game organized at the Citadel. Malim has some concerns about being in contact with Khaled, who still feels some guilt about his role in the injustice visited upon Malim -- "He said he wanted to help me and set me on the right path. These good intentions of his are my biggest fear in life" -- but effectively ropes him in; Khaled remains a seeker -- for purpose, and for understanding society and finding a place for himself in it -- and the Citadel offers yet another opportunity to experience an alternative to the dominant paternalistic and patriarchal one he has spent most of his life in. Needless to say, it does not go entirely well ..... He can not help but conclude:
The rich too have their own world, and the poor do not exist in it. Each of them walks on their own path, ignoring the other. I fear they will never meet.
       An Epilogue jumps four years ahead, Khaled still very much (if also creature-comfortably) in his rut but Malim's position an entirely changed one. Kamel's world allows for opportunity and personal gain, but a fundamental rot remains in place; the structure of society and its workings remains unsound.
       A lament for Egypt and Egyptian society -- Khaled's closing words are: "“Oh, Egypt,” he replied, “always burying your head in the sand.”" --, as corrupt and class-divided in these times as it remains today, The Magnificent Conman of Cairo shifts back and forth between scenes from the lives of Malim and Khaled, with some significant supporting actors as well. Kamel's narrative has a light, almost breezy touch, and there is quite a bit which could be expanded on (not least the character of Malim), but certainly Khaled's (extreme) ups and downs are entertainingly presented. There's a lot of sly humor here, too, and Kamel does paint a colorful and quite broad portrait of Egypt (or, specifically, Cairo) life and society in those times, but it does all feel a bit fleeting -- not necessarily rushed, but somewhat of a surface-skim (with some impressive bright spots along the way).

- M.A.Orthofer, 26 March 2020

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The Magnificent Conman of Cairo: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Egyptian author Adel Kamel (عادل كامل) lived 1916 to 2005.

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© 2020 the complete review

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