Make no mistake about it. This is a book about the Arab Spring. It may be set in the Egypt of King Farouk (who is never named in the book). It may be about a petty tyrant exerting his power over the servants at the Club. But it is about the Arab Spring. It is about an ordinary family caught up in the politics of the time, and how their ordinary lives have a transformative power. It is about resilience, it is about dignity, it is about hope.
The heart of this story is the Gaafar family. Abd-el-Aziz Gaafar had been a rich landowner who took his religious duty to assist the poor seriously to the point of getting himself into financial difficulties which led to him selling his land and moving his family to Cairo. He takes a menial post at the Automobile Club of Egypt where he comes into conflict with Alku, the tyrannous Royal Chamberlain, who is responsible for staff affairs at the Club. It is from this clash that the rest of the story grows.
Each member of the family finds his or her own way to deal with their situation. Said, the eldest son, marries and seeks to build a life for his new family regardless of the others, Kamel becomes a nationalist and political activist, Mahmud sells his body to old ladies for easy money, Ruqayyah seeks the quiet dignity of being a homemaker for her three sons and her daughter Saleha who wants to complete her education at university. Each one of them will play a role in the developing history of Egypt. This is a story of how ordinary people can shape events simply by being themselves, and doing those things that they have to do.
Even Alku, for all his viciousness, is trying to serve his country by doing what he can to ensure the safety of the King, and to maintain the monarchy. It is not his fault that the King is dissolute – well, perhaps it is, but that is an integral part of the story and you will have to decide for yourselves. And lurking behind all this are the British, occupying the country and using the King and the Egyptian nobility as a cover for their exploitation of the country which, of course, is the fuel for the nationalism of Kamel and the others.
It is quite obvious to me, however, that although the story is set in the late 1940s and early 1950s, it is about any tyranny. It is about the fear of the ruling class, and the methods that they use to maintain control. It is about petty officials trying to exert their authority and to pursue their own interests in a colonial regime. But most of all, it is about people asserting their dignity. Alku is very like the villain of George Orwell’s “Burmese Days” and Abd-el-Aziz Gaafar is like Cavaradossi in Tosca.
And now I hope I have said enough to persuade you to read the book. Any more, and I will give away the plot, and especially the denouement.