Alaa Al Aswany
The Automobile Club of Egypt by Alaa Al Aswany, translated into English by Russell Harris, has an odd opening chapter. Two of the Gaafar children in the novel materialize and leave the author a copy of his manuscript in which they speak in their own voices. The novel then embarks on the story of Bertha and Karl Benz and the invention of the first automobile. This segues into the formation of the Automobile Club of Egypt and the fate of the Gaafar family.
Founded by foreigners and the Turkish aristocracy and under the patronage of King Fuad, the Automobile Club serves as a venue for the king and his sycophants to gamble, drink alcohol, and engage in all manner of licentious activities with a bevy of women selected specifically for that purpose. James Wright, an English man, is appointed as the club’s managing director. The employees of the club are Egyptian, and their treatment and compensation depends on where they’re situated in the hierarchy.
Into this club enters Abd el-Aziz Gaafar, a once respected landowner who has been reduced to taking a menial job at the club to provide for his family. His untimely death leaves his bereaved wife and four children destitute. Two of his sons, Mahmud and Kamel, become employees of the club. Mahmud earns additional income by becoming a gigolo; Kamel works in the Club’s storeroom while studying for his law degree. Said, the eldest son, marries. He abandons his mother and siblings to their own devices. And after an unfortunate marriage and divorce, Saleha decides to continue with her education to fulfill her father’s dream by becoming a university professor.
Simmering in the background is the beginnings of the political upheaval that would eventually overthrow the king and end British rule of Egypt. We see evidence of the exploitation of the workers and the poverty that forces them to tolerate inhumane treatment. James Wright’s racism rears its ugly head in his opinions of and interactions with the local population. We also see evidence of internalized racism in how the Egyptian supervisors treat those beneath them in the hierarchy.
The novel has some strengths. In addition to the Gaafar family, we are introduced to their neighbors and the club’s other employees. The wide array of characters, their backgrounds, overlapping stories, and struggles to survive makes for interesting reading. The narrative moves forward at a rapid pace. The plot sustains the reader’s attention with most chapters ending with a mini cliffhanger that is picked up again a few chapters later. Al-Aswany skillfully alternates the narrative between first person and third person point of view.
There were also some weaknesses. The opening chapter in which the two characters speak to the author served no purpose, did not enhance the story in any way, and could easily have been omitted. And the ending was abrupt and lacked closure. But the main weakness lay in characterization.
Although the Gaafar children are depicted as unique individuals with differing temperaments, the portrayal of some of the remaining characters bordered on being stereotypical: the septuagenarian women desperately seeking humiliating sex with virile, young men; the too-good-to-be true young English woman who defies her father, is enamored of all things Egypt, and falls in love with an Egyptian; the racist who spews racial bigotry every chance he gets; the corrupt officials who have no qualms about torture; and the Egyptian supervisor with his internalized racism, gleeful torment of his compatriots, and obeisance to all things western.
In spite of these weaknesses, this was an interesting novel. It sheds light on Egypt in the 1950s, portrays the political and moral corruption of the king’s court, and illustrates the panoply of ills that imperialism inflicts on a country and its indigenous population.