I couldn’t resist the catchy title. Apparently a lot of people couldn’t either.
Those who hadn’t heard of Osama Gharib’s chart-topping book were initially taken aback by the first part of the title: “Egypt is not My Mother.
Spread in large font over the head of a blank-faced belly dancer standing on a dim stage, the words are a spin on the age-old notion that Egypt is the mother of the world – Masr Om El Donia.
But then the punch line kicks in, eliciting laughs – “Egypt is My Stepmother, another spin on the popular joke that stepmothers are malicious by default.
The catchy title is shocking for taunting the phrase, but many can’t help but nod in agreement after pondering it for a minute. And the book – a compilation of Gharib’s columns in Al-Masry Al-Youm daily over the past couple of years – doesn’t keep readers waiting for long to discover the meaning behind the seemingly blunt statement. From the first chapter, Gharib explains it all, leading readers on a journey of rediscovering Egypt’s corruption and its tragic impact on society, from decadent morality to decaying health.
He slightly follows in the footsteps of “Yacoubian Building’s author Alaa Al-Aswany, who in the collection of short stories “Niran Sadika (Friendly Fire) ridicules Mostafa Kamel’s famous word, “If I weren’t Egyptian, I would’ve wanted to be Egyptian.
In “Friendly Fire, the character provides an explanation based on Al-Aswany’s own subjective perspective rather than facts. In fact, Al-Aswany had to explain to some confused attendees in a lecture held after the book launch, that the voice of the narrator is different from the writer’s. But that was just a part of one story and a blurb on the book’s back cover.
For Gharib, the case is different; it’s the title – the statement. And in a time when opposition and critics are often mistakenly labeled as “unpatriotic or even “traitors, writers like Gharib are often careful not to give their pundits the opportunity to even murmur these labels. They often opt to play it safe – sometimes too safe.
But Gharib, as the book proves, isn’t interested in addressing this imprudent segment or at least their shallow attempts to mar any critical voice. While painting the grim picture of the political and media scene in Egypt, Gharib subtly draws the line between Egypt the government and Egypt the people.
Even when he criticizes the people, he examines the origin of the problem – the circumstance that led to the abundant existence of torturers, thieves, and people willing to sacrifice their dignity or credibility for few pounds or a job.
Among other factors, Gharib blames deteriorating education, lack of democracy and the dire economic conditions people suffer for the ills of the society
He paves the way in the introduction by recalling his answer to a friend’s question about his opinion in Egypt’s current social and political scenes. “I feel that Egypt has been struck by a hurricane of the tsunami brand, along with an earthquake, measuring the highest number brother Richter could reach, in addition to a destructive attack by chemical weapons, all at once.
Gharib explains to his astonished friend how millions live in shanty towns along the length of Egypt’s river banks, not to mention those living in the cemetery, something that could only happen in the aftermath of an earthquake or a hurricane. Air and water pollution, the black cloud and the “horrific increase in cancer patients could only be the results of a chemical attack.
If anything, Gharib proves to be a fearless writer and a non-budging critic.
He doesn’t shy away from naming the officials he bashes or stepping the lines of sarcasm to cynicism.
In one column entry, he openly criticizes Higher Education Minister Hani Helal, Housing Minister Ahmed El-Maghrabi and Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit. In another, he says the Nobel prize, like other international awards, is only a tool in recruiting and awarding pro-US and pro-Israel views, shedding doubts on the loyalties of the Egyptian Laureates.
The culmination of this criticism, which in this particular case could be easily labeled as insults, surfaced in an entry about El-Gomhuria editor Mohamed Aly Ibrahim’s detailed description of Saudi and Lebanese mouthwatering feasts. Aside from noting that Ibrahim’s article ran when “Lebanon was burning, in reference to the Lebanese 2006 war, Gharib sarcastically called upon El-Gomhuria editor to give Egyptian traditional dishes a try. “I’m sure the fat [in these dishes] won’t only push Ibrahim to the ‘Ya Delli’ stage [a Lebanese phrase Ibrahim used to express his delight with Lebanese mezzas] but would make him reach orgasm.
It’s the same with the language he uses; boldly incorporating colloquial with standard Arabic. Gharib mixes words like waksa (setback) ,antikh (laid back) and hagayes (nonsense) with seemingly rigid fusha (classical Arabic), creating phrases that sounds like a man from “One Thousand and One Nights was thrown in Cairo’s streets and today’s global village.
We meet his friends Schumacher El-Antably and Mamdouh Montgomery, whom he describes as representative, and sometimes caricaturized, examples of Egyptians.
But the funny tone and the intriguing use of language don’t divert the attention from the grim picture Gharib paints of today’s Egypt. After finishing the book, I couldn’t help but remember Sonallah Ibrahim’s masterpiece “Zaat, and the gloomy mood the novel left me in for quiet some time.
Ibrahim had intertwined the story of an ordinary Egyptian woman with real excerpts from newspapers documenting corruption from the late 70s to the 90s. The novelist showed how a foreign company is first criticized for endangering blooming public sector industries before these critics are silenced for the sake of praising the foreign company which hires the top management of the corresponding public company as its consultants.
Consequently, the public sector company starts reporting losses and the foreign company is either found to be in violations of many health precautions or is dissolved after receiving millions in compensation following a hefty release clause in its deal with the government.
But while I could delude myself by thinking that “Zaat describes a time long gone, Gharib assures that the corruption is still thriving. At one point, he expresses his wish for the government to finish selling all the public sector banks and companies – the properties of the Egyptian citizen, who would always be at the losing end of such deals.
“As long as there is something more to sell, the government will feel the guilt of such crimes, which future generations will suffer from. The government’s fear of the people it is robbing will propel it to terrorize them more excessively. . Let them speed up the sale, maybe the torture would stop and the policy of shock and terror would come to an end.