In a region where there are not many novels in the thriller genre, Ahmed Mourad's racy and dark portrayal of pre-revolution Egypt comes as a welcome addition. Anyone reading his book, Vertigo — first published in Arabic in 2007 and one which he has described as a "criminal political thriller" — can only marvel at the stupidity of the country's former dictatorship and how it did not foresee the storm that engulfed it early last year.
The plot revolves around a society photographer, Ahmed Kamal, who happens to be at a high-end restaurant — Bar Vertigo — when a messy assassination takes place, ordered by establishment bigwigs. The main victims are two corrupt and wealthy businessmen who are close to the regime but have of late fallen out of favour. In the crossfire, Kamal loses his closest friend Hossam, who works at the restaurant. "Their eyes locked for a split second. Hossam closed his eyes and took a bullet in the left side of his head that passed straight through his skull … Ahmed felt like an artillery round had crashed into his heart and he slumped cross-legged on the ground …"
But while ducking bullets and shards of glass, his finger is subconsciously attached to the "click" button — and he has managed to photograph the entire incident.
On the run but determined to make the killers pay, he anonymously sends off the photographic proof to the editor of an "eye-catchingly vulgar" tabloid called Freedom, whose articles were about "bedroom antics, ministers who sold the country out for fifteen pounds, and red-hot tittle-tattle".
The editor, it turns out, is himself very much part of the corrupt establishment and partakes whole-heartedly of the city's nightlife. Kamal's pictures end up as little more than juicy titbits that only help the tabloid's sales. But like in all good thrillers, the bad guys get what they deserve.
Mourad, who served as official photographer to toppled Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak, is well placed to write about corruption in high places in Egypt; after all, he has had a ringside view of events. And in Vertigo, he lays bare the sheer seediness of Cairo's nightlife. As Mourad told Weekend Review, the novel is "Egypt's autobiography … and shows its dark side".
It also exposes the mind-blowing corruption and banality of ruthless elites who climbed the social ladder at the expense of the long-suffering masses. Mourad pulls no punches while belittling the corrupt former establishment. In fact, it is quite surprising that the novel was allowed to be published in Mubarak's Egypt, something the author puts down to "just luck".
The Qatar Foundation, in partnership with Bloomsbury, has done a good job of bringing contemporary Arabic fiction to non-Arab readers, and Robin Moger's translation of Mourad's novel is excellent.
Moger has managed to convey very well the dark humour in the novel. As he said in an interview to ArabLit, "Translating this humour, which runs pretty consistently throughout the book, requires first of all that you're sympathetic to it — that you get it and hopefully like it [which I did] — and secondly [the ‘cultural' bit, perhaps] that you understand the sort of characters and atmosphere it evokes. I think if you aren't familiar with it, it might sound a little bizarre and affect the way you convey it."
As for Mourad, he says that he will continue to write only in Arabic, as " ... it's the strongest and most expressive language. It reflects all my feelings. Besides, it's my mother tongue."
Vertigo By Ahmed Mourad, Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing, 256 pages, £11.99