Egyptian prize-winning novelist Ibrahim Abdel Meguid’s The House of Jasmine, though set in the ‘70s during Anwar Sadat’s presidency, has a lot of resonance for Egypt’s current Arab Spring. Shagara, a low level employee of Alexandria’s shipyard, reflects in his own petty thievery the corruption not only of his shipyard administration, but that of the Sadat regime. As the translator Noha Radwan explains, this novella is “a story of deception and fraudulence, planned by a scheming administration and carried out by a disenchanted and dejected population.” Shagara redeems himself in the reader’s eye because of his love of beauty, his simple desires, and his own self-criticism.
Shagara is charged with taking workers to events when Sadat comes to town, the first of which is with President Nixon. Shagara withholds half the money promised the workers and bribes the bus drivers to keep quiet. In spite of this repeated thievery, no one complains, so insignificant is his crime in the midst of rampant corruption. His life is simple and mostly solitary, having only three friends who fall in together without knowing each other beforehand. He wants to marry but doesn’t know how to go about it. He has more to offer a bride than many he knows, having moved into a large apartment overlooking the harbor and having accrued enough ill-gotten gains. But he has also been cheated in this purchase of the apartment and can’t help but notice the deterioration of neighborhoods he knows. Even as an apolitical person, he is literally caught up in the huge 1977 revolt over the price of bread and other staples and becomes, albeit briefly, part of a purposeful mob:
I find myself forced to advance toward Sayyid Birsho and the flood of angry workers pouring down Maks Street. Traffic is blocked, and passengers stream out of the tram and stopped cars. The windows of the houses overlooking the street are thrown open, and faces of women and children appear in them. They’re repeating the slogans, and I too am chanting along with Sayyid Birsho.
His and his friends’ aimlessness is part of the populace feeling bewildered and alienated by surrounding events. In time his friends and he do move out of their ruts, some even out of the country. But throughout, Shagara loves his city and is romantic about women. The love of the city is evident from the start:
Alexandria is usually filled with bright light at this time of year, her sea stretching leisurely into the distance, while the windows of her houses open like a woman drying her hair in the sunlight, and the girls stroll cheerfully in the streets. . . . This little city is enchanted; she can rid herself of her garbage even when the garbage collectors and street sweepers don’t appear on her streets. It’s as if she had an agreement with secret ghosts to keep her beautiful.
He is drawn to a beautiful House of Jasmine near his neighborhood—from the garden smells of jasmine and from a beautiful woman’s smiling face in one of the windows. The owner has beautiful daughters, but the only time they are seen is when a taxi draws up and the bride steps out. These events are like Sadat’s flash visits to Alexandria. Eventually the house declines like Sadat’s era:
I saw the house of jasmine was completely dark. No sweet scent met my nose anymore. The flowers were wilted, and leaves on the trees were dry and dusty and many of them had fallen to the street, where they crackled under my feet. . . . On the walls . . . the paint was peeling and moisture had left several large stains, and I saw a ferret climbing upward.
Another romantic venture involves recognizing a girl smiling at him on the bus and going back to his childhood home to find her, only to discover his home is now called “the shelters” where the poor live. The childhood sweetheart, of course, is married and had expected no more than his returning her smile.
The descriptions are so vivid, the details so intimate, that the reader feels he is in the scene. But also the picture one gets of the Sadat era is absolutely counter to what Americans expect or know. Sadat dismissed his people’s complaints as an “uprising of thieves” (perhaps suggested here in Shagara’s petty thievery, which was initially a matter of survival). As the translator says, “The Sadat era was the precursor of Mubarak’s rule,” the 1977 revolt like 2011’s Tahrir Square revolutionaries.
In The House of Jasmine, readers will find not just beautiful writing, well-defined characters, and humor, but also a valuable perspective we need to know.