A few years ago, an Egyptian friend who was about to get British citizenship told me about a book called Beer in the snooker club, by Waguih Ghali—she said it was one of her favourite books about Egypt (and favourite books, full stop). She lent me a copy which I started but never got round to finishing, and she asked for it back when she moved cities to start a PhD in literary translation. That copy was from the 1987 reissue of a book originally published in 1964. In December 2010 the book was once again reissued, by Serpent’s Tail (click the image for a link), with eerily good timing, as we’ll see.
Yesterday I was in Oxford, after giving a seminar on Friday night, and I made my usual pilgrimage to Blackwell’s. They had a display table of ‘Translated Arabic fiction’—a slightly misleading title, since Beer in the snooker club was written in English (by an Egyptian whose first language was French and whose Arabic was ‘deplorable’), and a couple of other books on the table were translated into English from originals written in French: Tahar Ben Jelloun’s This blinding absence of light, the latest Amin Maalouf. Translated Arab fiction would have been more accurate. Still: there I was, and there was Beer in the snooker club, so I bought it. I knew I’d have a longish train journey home that afternoon, and last week I had confirmation that I’ll be teaching my second-year option module on Middle Eastern cities again in the autumn term—I’d already put the novel on the reading list on the strength of my friend’s recommendation. It’s quite a short novel; I read the first half on the train home, and the second half yesterday evening before I went to bed.
My module on Middle Eastern cities covers the period from the mid-nineteenth century to around 1960, as the centre of gravity of urban life in the region took a long, traumatic pendulum-swing away from the cosmopolitan port cities that thrived at the intersection of late Ottoman rule and expanding European imperialisms, and towards the monoethnic national capitals of the postcolonial nation-states. Beer in the snooker club catches the tail end of that pendulum swing, as a glittering Cairo elite faces up to a new order in the 1950s—as the Free Officers’ revolt overthrows the monarchy, in 1952, and the Suez Crisis leads to Britain’s withdrawal and the reinforcement of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s nationalist, increasingly authoritarian regime. The narrator of the novel, Ram, is a young man who speaks French with his mother and English with his friends from school; he’s penniless, but a friend will always lend him a car or pick up the tab for his drinks, an aunt or uncle will always cover his gambling debts—or his shoulders:
There is a tailor in old Cairo who has been cutting suits for our family for years. I go to him, choose a cloth, have it tailored, and somehow the bill is mysteriously paid.
Ram is funny, ambivalent, and unhappy. Entirely of his class, he also despises it—especially after his time in England makes him increasingly conscious of, precisely, class. He feels Egyptian, as does his (richer, but more politically radical) lover Edna—but he is a Copt, she is a Jew, and both of them belong to an elite that has little in common, not even the Arabic language, with the ordinary Egyptians whose exploitation funds its glittering lifestyle. By the book’s own argument, it isn’t about Egypt at all: Ram knows little of Egypt except Cairo and Alexandria, and as Edna tells him, Cairo and Alexandria aren’t Egypt. But what she means is that his Cairo, and for that matter hers, are not Egypt: the Cairo of the Gezirah Sporting Club (“where middle-aged people play croquet. Imagine being a member of a place where middle-aged people play croquet”). The only member of Ram’s family who speaks Arabic and dresses like an Egyptian is the uncle who lives in upper Egypt and manages their collective estates: he is much closer to the fellaheen, the peasants, even though he is the one who is directly responsible for exploiting them.
Edna and Ram are sympathetic to the revolution, but the revolution has no place for them—Edna is disfigured by an officer’s whip, her family’s possessions sequestered—and they are increasingly disillusioned with it. As Ram notes of the Gezireh Sporting Club:
The strange thing about this club is that in the early days of the revolution, it was condemned as a symbol of exploitation and was taken over by a committee or something like that. Well, all the members are still members, with a few additional military members. I repeat the word ‘members’ à propos the military newcomers, because they too have acquired this floating, breeze-like, ethereal quality.
Ram’s tragedy is his detachment: he’s always able to observe critically, even when what he is observing is the artificiality of his own supposedly critical detachment. There’s no way out for him. Alongside his alcohol-soaked life as a privileged drifter, he is engaged in dangerous political activities, collecting evidence of torture and murder in the new regime’s prisons and camps—but the novel’s ending offers neither heroism, nor acceptance, nor redemption.
So the book is a beautiful, funny, profoundly sad and even more profoundly ambivalent portrait of Cairo in a period of revolutionary change: that’s why I’ll be recommending it to students in the autumn, and that’s why the most recent reissue, weeks before the Tahrir demonstrations started, was so timely. The novel deserves a readership on its own literary merits, which are abundant; but, precisely because it doesn’t offer easy interpretations, it is also an excellent place to get historical perspective on the current revolution in Egypt. Whether many Egyptians (other than my friend) are reading it, I don’t know: certainly I doubt that most members of the Muslim Brotherhood would go looking for lessons in an anglophone novel by a francophone Egyptian about a semi-alcoholic Copt who is unfaithful to his married Jewish lover—or recognize the claim both these characters make to be Egyptian, which they are in their own minds but probably aren’t in the minds of the new regime or the supporters it is seeking among the Egyptian masses.
The novel is also as much about London as about Cairo: the London experienced by Ram (and the author) in the 1950s, and the London he half imagines, half remembers, after his return to Egypt—there’s a piece about it on London Fictions. The 1987 reissue was spurred by the publication in 1986 of the publisher Diana Athill’s memoir After a funeral, which is about her relationship with Waguih Ghali, who committed suicide in her flat. This is still in print—an extract from it forms the introduction to the new reissue—and I was planning to buy it until I read Ahdaf Soueif’s review of it (behind a pay-wall, sorry). Soueif offers a warm appreciation of Beer in the snooker club, but finds Athill’s book horribly patronizing. I may read it anyway.
I wrote in a post about Jim Crace’s Harvest the other day that historical novels are often a better way of getting a feel for the past than history books; that goes even more so for novels that belong to their era—especially one like Beer in the snooker club, which communicates a powerful sense of what’s changing by concentrating on one unhappy life.
Incidentally, I picked up a copy of Harvest at the same time. There may be another post about it before too long.