Novel reflects the atmosphere and tumultuous history of CairoThe title of Khairy Shalaby’s “The Time-Travels of the Man Who Sold Pickles and Sweets” has a sweet and sour combination, which sets the tone of this Cairo-set novel. The history and geography of the city are ominously present as the hero, Ibn Shalaby, is prone to frequent time-travels. Carrying his precious briefcase and wearing an Islamic-calendar wristwatch, we follow him as he travels back and forth through the Fatimid, Ayyubid and Mamluk periods with frequent visits to the 1990s.
This intense novel reflects the atmosphere of the largest city in the Arab world, the largest city in Africa and indeed one of the most crowded cities in the world. Cairo is often described by the word “zahma,” which refers to the congestion of traffic and people.
Time loses its value as minutes easily turn into hours when one is stuck in a car blocked in an endless queue. The way Cairenes put up with these inevitable problems defines their unique humor, a mixture of sweet and sour laced with a formidable gusto for life. It is precisely this excitement, this sudden flow of adrenaline, which pushes Egyptians to break the law by driving the wrong way, ignoring to stop at the red lights and crossing the roads in front of speeding cars.
Riding through Cairo is indeed conducive to time-traveling as one gets so often immobilized in streets and alleys where time seems to have stopped. Dressed in traditional garb, the men and women moving through the historic part of the city seem to be living in a different century. In Cairo, past and present, possible and impossible, dust and sun, grime and a clear blue sky are surreptitiously intertwined. Ibn Shalaby, the main protagonist, symbolizes a typical indigenous Egyptian. Following his tribulations through time, we relive Cairo’s rich and tumultuous history and realize that it is still in the making.
Cairo leaves no one indifferent. Samia Mehrez shows in her “Literary Atlas of Cairo” how the city has touched her. She selected an excerpt of “The Time-Travels of the Man Who Sold Pickles and Sweets” to open her “Literary Atlas of Cairo.” She also delivered the welcoming address at the ceremony held at the American University in Cairo when Khairy Shalaby was awarded the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature in 2003 for “The Lodging House” (Wikalat Atiya). She rightly claimed that this novel was “indeed the gem that crowns Khairy Shalaby’s long and prolific history as one of Egypt’s most distinguished story tellers.” However, the same cannot be said of “The Time-Travels of the Man Who Sold Pickles and Sweets.” First, Farouk Abdel Wahab’s translation of “The Lodging House” is far superior to Michael Cooperson’s rendering of “The Time-Travels of the Man Who Sold Pickles and Sweets.”
In fact, this novel is neither easy to translate nor read. In a useful “Translator’s Afterword,” Cooperson explains that the narrative is “dreamlike in its abrupt transitions, its euphoria and horror, and its lapses of logic. But these fevered dreams are not the fantasies of a single-man: they are the history of a people.”
An English-language reader unfamiliar with Cairo and unaware of its history might just find this novel a long and a boring bunch of words. On the other hand, an Egyptian reader will enjoy the subversive aspects of the novel, like watching “the emirs and the sultans of the history books shown up as bounders and buffoons, is a giggle-worthy experience.” They speak in colloquial Egyptian with Ibn Shalaby who either makes a sardonic reflection or comments on how the scene appears from his late 20th century perspective.
Sometimes, a historical figure appears in the present like the 13th century chronicler, Ibn Tuwayr, who endures a conversation with Shalaby talking about magazine syndication. To add to the madness, says Cooperson, nobody finds it surprising that Ibn Shalaby “should be bouncing around in time. Indeed, several of them are time travelers too.” This following excerpt highlights some of the novel’s Kafkaesque atmosphere:
“‘Are you a Fatimid, brother, or an Ayyubid?’ I asked him. He told me that he was an Ayyubid; then that he was a Fatimid by origin; and finally that he wasn’t one or the other, and didn’t know where he was from, since he was taken by slavers in infancy and sold to one owner and then to another and another. Now he was the property of someone else, but couldn’t say exactly who, though his master took orders from someone who took orders from someone who took them from someone else; and he himself had been sent to collect all the items of ceremonial dress and drapery and made a pen-and- paper inventory of them.”
Although Khairy Shalaby belongs to the sixties generation, this novel by its subversive character rejoins the new Egyptian fiction which many hoped would have a social impact like Mohammed Hashem, founder of Dar Merit, publisher of “Being Abbas El Abd” who said last year in an interview with the Associated Press that “while not political, the intellectual stimulation created by all this fiction will one day bring about reform and help contain the dangers of religious extremism and sectarianism.” The recent events in Egypt have proved him right.
While Egypt is still all talk about its revolution, life goes on and people are waiting for the government to deliver political freedom and jobs. Khairy Shalaby, one of the country’s most prolific writer is surely writing. Seventy books have been published, including 20 novels. In addition, the author has published many critical studies, historical tales as well as short novels.
Although the author claimed that “The Time-Travels of the Man Who sold Pickles and Sweets” was a “Narration Comprising Events to Dazzle and Astound, Medications to Divert and Confound, Histories to Edify and Incidents to Horrify,” I sadly experienced none of this. The novel fell short of my expectations and as the novel’s hero, Ibn Shalaby says:
“The pointless tears in my eyes had me seeing double. Then, everything in front of me began to acquire a gloomy hue. The shining splendor faded away, to be replaced by a sticky, stuffy, musty-smelling rust.”