After tackling hunger in “Gou (Hunger), Egyptian novelist Mohamed Al-Bosaty turns his pen to another predicament troubling the Egyptian poor: housing.
In “Ghoraf lil Egaar (Rooms for Rent), he tells the stories of six poor tenants residing in an old building in one of Cairo’s dilapidated neighborhoods. Their common, motionless lives embody, in many ways, the spirit of our entire latent nation.
Through a series of realist fiction exploring Egypt’s marginalized lower class, Al-Bosaty has become the official literary chronicler of the poor. Unlike other writers working within the same genre, Al-Bosaty doesn’t resort to the element of shock, abstaining from eliciting cheap sympathy. He writes of the everyday in its most mundane details without zooming in on the struggles and sufferings of the poor.
Poverty, lack of education, and unceasing hard work are the ingredients that compose his background; ingredients that surface to the foreground every so often. The bright light through which Al-Bosaty depicts the humanity of his characters enriches his realist approach without detracting from the reality of his characters’ ailing circumstances.
“Rooms is no exception to this unique style Al-Bosaty mastered in “Hunger, shortlisted for the Arabic Booker (International Prize for Arabic Fiction) last year.
In the first part of “Rooms, we’re introduced to three couples sharing one flat. The women – Fatma, Hanem and Ateyat – are the main focus; Al-Bosaty offers only passing glimpses of the men who spend their days outside home at work.
Halfway through the novel, there is a change of direction; Al-Bosaty starts almost anew, shifting his attention on Abbas, another humble rooftop dweller. On the rooftop, we bump into Hanem from the book’s first part. This time, she’s alone after her husband has left her.
Adopting the first person perspective for the second half, Al-Bosaty conjures a dichotomy between the two parts of the book. While the first is devoid of symbolism and written in a detached tone, the stories told in the second are full of life and are more personal. This dichotomy, although successful at sustaining interest and breaking monotony, renders the novel as two separate works of literature.
Yet the division ultimately doesn’t affect the reading experience simply because Al-Bosaty relies primarily on his characters, not the plot. The characters’ past plays a key role in the narrative; Al-Bosaty connects their present to wandering memories from the past and aspirations for the future.
The constant swing between the past and the present work perfectly with the near lack of mystery of the story; Al-Bosaty tells his anecdotes with clarity, refraining from withholding any imperative details. While his trick may have deepened his realist style, it doesn’t leave much room for the reader’s imagination, inevitably resulting in alienation and apathy.
The mystery of the unknown is almost absent in “Rooms. Real action is short-lived and of little consequence. Yet the novel remains engaging, providing a curious peek at these ordinary lives. The lives of these characters are devoid of excitement or true moments of triumph, they’re blessed with indifference to their penury. They dream small and find joy in the precious little, life throws their way. They are comfortable with the absence of change and, at times, the absence of its mere possibility; snug in a little shell of their own, content with the consistency of their lives.
The lighthearted feeling of sedated satisfaction is the dominant sentiment of our time; some readers may even find themselves drawn to the allure of self-sufficiency. Everyone in this country has experienced this form of dormant fulfillment, and Al-Bosaty’s unpretentious writing provides his readers with a chance to relive and reexamine it.
At the same time, Al-Bosaty steers away from class conflicts. His Cairo is confined to the slums, shantytowns and rooftops. He’s not concerned with preaching a solution for our social malaise. In fact, he doesn’t even touch upon any social problems. Poverty is there, but not quite extreme. Lack of education is there, but it affects no one. Even sex, which the women grew indifferent to since their husbands don’t fully satisfy them, is not special.
In one moment when two of the female protagonists toy with homosexuality, it’s seen as nothing more than a fling, each returning to their ordinary sex lives without a second thought, without a hint of physical difference in their relationship with their spouses.
Al-Bosaty constantly deludes his readers. He promises drama and tragedy but withdraws at the last minute. Through the beginning of a love story or an unexpected visit with a promise of sex, shy glimpses of change are offered every now and then. Yet no change materializes except for the mundane, driven solely by haphazard events and fate, but never by the will of the characters.
The stories in “Rooms for Rent feel like snapshots of the status quo taken for future historians to contemplate and study.
Al-Bosaty’s characters have no hope, no despair; his work is perhaps a desperate attempt to invite readers to reflect, if only a little, on this world; to foresee the type of future born out of such a lifeless existence.