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One Hot Night in Cairo

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In the spring of 1987, just as I was making preparations for a lengthy research trip to Egypt, I was sent two books. The first was the wonderfully titled Beer in the Snooker Club, a novel by Waguih Ghali, an Egyptian writer of whom I had not heard. Originally published in 1964, it had just been reissued. The second, After a Funeral, was an account of Ghali’s time in London by the writer and publisher Diana Athill. I slipped the novel into my bag and thought no more about it for several weeks. Then, one hot night in Cairo, with plenty of free time and a cold beer to hand, I sat on a terrace overlooking the Nile and began to read. I was so captivated that I stayed up late into the night, reading the book in one sitting. Yet while the words we re quickly consumed, the world they conjured and the issues they raised – of exile and belonging – have stayed with me through the years.

Beer in the Snooker Club is set in the mid-1950s, at the time of the Suez crisis that led to the British-Israeli attack on Egypt and the subsequent withdrawal of British forces from the region. It is not a long novel, nor is it particularly complex in its construction. It tells the story of Ram, a charismatic young Cairene struggling to find a role for himself that will accommodate both his heritage and his newly acquired beliefs. In Egypt the term ‘Son of a Pasha’ is used for someone born into wealth, usually a person who relies on their family to keep them in comfort. Ram cannot be the Son of a Pasha because he has no father: ‘to possess a father in Egypt’, he explains, with the dry humour that colours the whole narrative, ‘is an uncommon luxury’. (If poverty or military service doesn’t kill a father, the secret police may do so, and even if he doesn’t actually die, divorce may remove him from sight.)

But being fatherless does not mean Ram is without hope, for he is the Nephew of a Pasha and, thanks to the bonds of the extended fam

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In the spring of 1987, just as I was making preparations for a lengthy research trip to Egypt, I was sent two books. The first was the wonderfully titled Beer in the Snooker Club, a novel by Waguih Ghali, an Egyptian writer of whom I had not heard. Originally published in 1964, it had just been reissued. The second, After a Funeral, was an account of Ghali’s time in London by the writer and publisher Diana Athill. I slipped the novel into my bag and thought no more about it for several weeks. Then, one hot night in Cairo, with plenty of free time and a cold beer to hand, I sat on a terrace overlooking the Nile and began to read. I was so captivated that I stayed up late into the night, reading the book in one sitting. Yet while the words we re quickly consumed, the world they conjured and the issues they raised – of exile and belonging – have stayed with me through the years.

Beer in the Snooker Club is set in the mid-1950s, at the time of the Suez crisis that led to the British-Israeli attack on Egypt and the subsequent withdrawal of British forces from the region. It is not a long novel, nor is it particularly complex in its construction. It tells the story of Ram, a charismatic young Cairene struggling to find a role for himself that will accommodate both his heritage and his newly acquired beliefs. In Egypt the term ‘Son of a Pasha’ is used for someone born into wealth, usually a person who relies on their family to keep them in comfort. Ram cannot be the Son of a Pasha because he has no father: ‘to possess a father in Egypt’, he explains, with the dry humour that colours the whole narrative, ‘is an uncommon luxury’. (If poverty or military service doesn’t kill a father, the secret police may do so, and even if he doesn’t actually die, divorce may remove him from sight.) But being fatherless does not mean Ram is without hope, for he is the Nephew of a Pasha and, thanks to the bonds of the extended family, this means that he and his mother are well looked after: they have had to sell their car, but they are still able to live in a smart part of town, and can still gain entry to the rarefied world of Cairo’s moneyed classes with their villas, servants and sporting clubs, their long dinners and even longer nights of gambling. Ram and his friend Font are involved in the struggle against the colonial power – they take time out from college to protest in front of the British base on the Suez Canal, an Egyptian equivalent of Greenham Common. Paradoxically, they are also Anglophones: they have read plenty of British authors, have been educated at an English-based school, value much of the order established by Britain and dream of finding enough money – and enough contacts – to visit England. And just as they are preparing to spend another long, hot summer on the Mediterranean coast at Alexandria, their dream comes true: Ram’s girlfriend, a slightly older and considerably wealthier Jewish woman, provides tickets, pulls strings at the British Embassy to get visas and they are on their way to London. ‘Just to stand in the streets of London was satisfaction enough for us,’ Ram relates breathlessly on his arrival, and yet before long he wants much more. He has a fling with the daughter of a Hampstead socialist, encounters racism, laughs at British bureaucracy, drinks plenty and discusses everything with everyone. It isn’t long before he becomes alienated from his friends and no longer seems to know himself. He toys with the idea of living rough in the East End – but he is the Nephew of a Pasha, after all, and he finally rents a room in Battersea. In the anonymity of a mechanic’s home, he finds the distance and the experience he craves. He also discovers the self-assurance he will need to look after himself when he eventually returns to Cairo. When I first read Beer in the Snooker Club I was struck by how different it was from any other Egyptian novel I knew. While Ghali was at work on this fresh, bright novel that wears its serious themes so lightly, Naguib Mahfouz, just a couple of years off being elected a Nobel laureate, was still trying to recreate the great nineteenth-century English novel, dressed up in Egyptian clothes. Not every Egyptian writer was moving in that direction – some, such as Mohamed Salmawy, also visited Europe in the 1960s and breathed in other influences before returning home to write. But Ghali was different: he was an exile. Obliged to leave Egypt because of his opposition to Nasser’s regime, he never went home. Perhaps even more important, he wrote in English not Arabic. It was the English experience in Egypt that provided Beer in the Snooker Club with one of its central themes, the attempt by Nasser’s regime to forge a credible – and equitable – post-colonial political system and a national identity. ‘Give them time,’ Ram tells his impatient and more radical friend Font, who looks after the snooker club of the title, ‘they’ve only been a very short time in power.’ Ram’s personal quest is more complex. He is a dispossessed member of a dispossessed class that is suffering more under Nasser’s Arab socialists than it had under the British – the novel opens with the wonderful image of Ram’s wealthy aunt signing away her land holdings, one by one, each in three-acre parcels. ‘She must be tired, poor woman, signing a thousand papers a day and this her third day. I felt for her.’ But this is Egypt, and even after the revolution there is a sense that nothing can change. Ram’s aunt may have signed away much of her fortune, but she still lives a life of great ease and luxury. What’s more, she wouldn’t expect things to be any other way. On his return to Egypt from London, Ram becomes involved in collecting evidence of beatings and torture by the Nasser regime, which he then passes on to the press, who suppress the story. This became a self-fulfilling prophecy because Beer in the Snooker Club was banned in Egypt. And even though it is now available, it has not been translated into Arabic. When I first appeared in Cairo with my copy, an Egyptian writer begged to buy it and then asked me to find ways of sending him more copies: ‘Everyone wants to read it,’ he explained, ‘because it is such a sharp portrait of our country.’ I have just read the book for the fourth time and what now strikes me is not the book’s political credentials but the pleasure to be had in the company of its wonderful hero/narrator. In Ram, Ghali has created a very Egyptian version of a character familiar from Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye: a young man trying to square dreams and idealism with the realities of the world around him. It is impossible not to sympathize with his predicament. It is also impossible, for me at least, not to be swept along by the deceptive ease of the storytelling, by its pace and its sheer skill. When reading this tale of alienation, with its final reconciliation, I cannot ignore the fact that I know what happened next. For Waguih Ghali himself there was no happy return home, no finding of his place. Instead, there was a spiral of sadness and self-loathing, a loss of control, a shrinking of his creative abilities. Soon after the publication of Beer in the Snooker Club, he said to Diana Athill, ‘If I thought I was trying to “make literature”, to “write beautifully”, I’d never write another word.’ This was another prophecy he fulfilled. He did write beautifully, and he had created a work of literature, but he was never published again.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 1 © Anthony Sattin 2004


About the contributor

When he first read Beer in the Snooker Club, Anthony Sattin was researching Lifting the Veil, a history of travellers in Egypt. Since then he has spent some years living in Cairo (where he was a member of the sporting, but not the snooker club). He now lives in London but travels regularly to Africa and the Middle East. His review of Diana Athill’s After a Funeral will appear in the next issue.

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