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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