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We review Mohammad Rabie’s sinister 2014 novel Otared, shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (popularly known as the ‘Arabic Booker’), and published in English for the first time this month.
“I saw that people would kill their children and eat their flesh, and I saw that the man sitting, eating, and watching television had broken the last of the seals and set loose everything that would later come to pass…”
So begins Mohammad Rabie’s horrific novel Otared: with an Egyptian middle-class man perpetrating a crime that involves interfamilial murder and cannibalism. Its is a future in which the grotesque and the dystopian merge — a world in which casual murder, rape, and public suicide mingle with a certain societal desperation. The urban backdrop is a war-torn Cairo split down its center (a play on the post-1948 trope of splitting predominantly Arab countries into Eastern and Western halves), and occupied by a vicious foreign militant organization called The Knights of the Republic of Malta.
Centering on former Egyptian police officer Ahmed Otared, the novel is primarily set during the year 2025 AD. Egypt has been invested for the past two years by the Knights, a nationalist group representing a republic with “no territory to its name… a state without citizens… without a political or administrative system… Land pirates [who’d] chosen to leave their countries behind them and settle [in Egypt].” A resistance, comprised exclusively of former police officers, established the base of their rebellion in Western Cairo. Otared, a gifted marksman, joins the group and initiates a bloody sequence of murders in East Cairo, one intended to agitate the Knights and foment an insurrection. After his initial assignment is complete, Otared meets with three high-ranking members of the rebellion, who reveal their vision: On a specified date and time, all members of the resistance are to begin openly murdering as many people in East Cairo as possible, with the intention of inducing an open, popular rebellion against the occupying forces.
From there Otared moves in a nonlinear fashion, depicting the noxious occupied city while jumping back, at three different points, to events in Cairo during the years 2011 AD and 455 AH (After Hijra, which refers to the Islamic lunar calendar). Holding the narrative together are a number of riveting scenes: a moment during which Otared and three rebels mock the 2011 revolutionaries, even as they themselves plot a revolution; the violent bombing of Western Cairo by the Knights of Malta; a homeless man’s public masturbation and suicide; and a baby girl succumbing to an implied genetic disease which results in her losing her sight, ears, and mouth. In between these events, the novel revolves around a profound loss of hope, and the devastation of post-revolutionary Egypt. In that regard, the dystopian Cairo is most compelling. Not only do most of its inhabitants use a drug called Karbon, which maximizes the socially desirable aspects of one’s behavior (which is to say it ensures a person is polite, efficient, and hardworking) while totally blacking them out, “uncoupling imagination from reality”, but they also live in such fear of identification by both the occupying force and the rebels that they practically all wear masks.
But more than just a portrait of a bleak future, this novel is of course a trenchant critique of modern Egypt. In Robin Moger’s deft translation, Rabie deployment of irony is skillfully rendered, a tool he uses to invert his country’s contemporary characteristics in an attempt to underscore the absurdity of his narrative. The police force, which is traditionally the enemy of resistance, and which was perceived as representative of the authoritarian Mubarak regime during the January 25th revolution, occupies a central, principled, patriotic position against the occupation. The army, which during the same revolution aligned (at best superficially) with the revolutionaries, is here a broken institution: as useless during the setbacks of the 21st century as it was during the setbacks of the 20th.
The Palestine-Israel analogy isn’t immediately clear, but the parallels are sustained throughout: there’s an occupation by a people who have no land of their own, references to 1967, a divide between West Cairo and East Cairo, methods of resistance which are no doubt reminiscent of PLO operations during the 60s and 70s, and explicit references to West Cairo as “The West Bank”. The masks, which could’ve been deployed as a banal and overused metaphor for split and constructed identity, take on added literary and figurative weight when it’s made clear the vast majority are made in the likeness of famous Arabs: celebrities, singers, actors, politicians, etc. It’s as though pre-occupation Egypt can be found not only in the geography and construction of Cairo, but also on the faces of the city’s inhabitants. Otared, to a certain extent, offers a revision of the period once described as the Arab Spring, but which is now quietly and somberly referred to as the Arab Uprisings — a term which connotes instability and uncertainty far more than it does a hopeful, floral future.
The sections of the book set in 2011 AD eschew the popular narratives of populist revolution, instead telling the story of a family’s breakdown in the face of the period’s political and social instability. Rabie chooses to promote the vile and the vulgar, in a year whose dominant theme was hope. He intricately sketches the violence underlying the enthusiastic images and narratives often associated with 2011 Egypt, as though he’s underlining the fact that the optimism of his people back then was senseless in the face of systemic inhumanity.
Unfortunately, these profound moments are often dampened by interim events that seem, at best, trite. During a key scene late in the book, following Otared’s aforementioned massacre of East Cairenes, he inspects a statue surrounded by hundreds of bodies killed during a mass melee. “On the statue’s plinth, someone had written ‘Mankind has failed’, and I thought to myself that whoever had done this knew where we were, and perhaps there were many others who knew it, too.” Platitudes such as this litter the book, and their inelegance tampers the narrative’s true revelations.
For all this, Otared is an uneven book which oscillates between the surreal and the banal, the compelling and the striking. Yet what the novel lacks in style it makes up with inventiveness, and a dry, brutal nihilism that — given its setting and historical context — seems wholly appropriate.
by Mohammad Rabie, trans. by Robin Moger
The American University in Cairo Press
352 pp.| $17.95