The Automobile Club of Egypt: A novel

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9780307957214: The Automobile Club of Egypt: A novel

From the most popular Egyptian novelist of his generation (“a suitable heir to the mantle worn by Naguib Mahfouz” —The Guardian), a rollicking, exuberant and powerfully moving story of a family swept up by social unrest in post–World War II Cairo.

Once a respected landowner, Abd el-Aziz Gaafar fell into penury and moved his family to Cairo, where he was forced into menial work at the Automobile Club—a refuge of colonial luxury for its European members. There, Alku, the lifelong Nubian retainer of Egypt’s corrupt and dissolute king, lords it over the staff, a squabbling but tight-knit group, who live in perpetual fear, as they are thrashed for their mistakes, their wages dependent on Alku’s whims. When, one day, Abd el-Aziz stands up for himself, he is beaten. Soon afterward, he dies, as much from shame as from his injuries, leaving his widow and four children further impoverished. The family’s loss propels them down different paths: the responsible son, Kamel, takes over his late father’s post in the Club’s storeroom, even as his law school friends seduce him into revolutionary politics; Mahmud joins his brother working at the Club but spends his free time sleeping with older women—for a fee, which he splits with his partner in crime, his devil-may-care workout buddy and neighbor, Fawzy; their greedy brother Said breaks away to follow ambitions of his own; and their only sister, Saleha, is torn between her dream of studying mathematics and the security of settling down as a wife and saving her family.

It is at the Club, too, that Kamel’s dangerous politics will find the favor and patronage of the king’s seditious cousin, an unlikely revolutionary plotter–cum–bon vivant. Soon, both servants and masters will be subsumed by the brewing social upheaval. And the Egyptians of the Automobile Club will face a stark choice: to live safely, but without dignity, or to fight for their rights and risk everything.

Full of absorbing incident, and marvelously drawn characters, Alaa Al Aswany’s novel gives us Egypt on the brink of changes that resonate to this day. It is an irresistible confirmation of Al Aswany’s reputation as one of the Middle East’s most beguiling storytellers and insightful interpreters of the human spirit.

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About the Author :

ALAA AL ASWANY is the author of The Yacoubian Building, which was long-listed for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2006 and was the best-selling novel in the Arab world for more than five years; Chicago, named by Newsday as the best translated novel of 2006; and the story collection Friendly Fire. He has received numerous awards internationally, including the Bashrahil Prize for the Arabic novel, the Kavafis Award from Greece and the Premio Grinzane Cavour from Italy. He was recently named by the London Times as one of the best fifty authors to have been translated into English over the last fifty years. Translated from the Arabic by Russell Harris.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved. :

Aswany / THE AUTOMOBILE CLUB OF EGYPT

1

The story started when a man called Karl Benz met a woman called Bertha.

In the only extant photograph of him, Karl Benz appears distracted, his mind so preoccupied by something other than the details of daily life that he has forgotten to do up the buttons of his jacket as he stands for the camera. His face appears to show a deep-­grained sadness, a look of despondency left by a hard childhood. His father, a railroad engineer, had died in a terrible accident when Karl was just two, and his mother fought hard to provide him a good education. Still, he had had to start working at a young age in order to help support his siblings. The photograph shows his intelligence and determination, but it also portrays him as somewhat distant, as if he is looking at something on the far horizon that only he can see. Bertha’s photograph, on the other hand, reflects a special type of beauty, one not sensual but brimming with maternal tenderness. Still, the captivating graciousness and angelic modesty of her features cannot hide a steely determination of her own and a readiness to sacrifice herself for duty.

It was July 20, 1872. In the German city of Mannheim, the church was full to the rafters with men and women in their Sunday best, so many people having been invited that some had to stand during the ceremony. Despite rebukes and reprimands, the children kept babbling and fidgeting. The smell of the freshly painted church walls permeating the hot air did nothing to relieve the stifling heat as the women muttered and rapidly fanned themselves with their patterned silk fans. Suddenly, cries of joy went up, along with scattered clapping, as Karl Benz appeared in his elegant white suit, arm in arm with his bride, Bertha, who glittered in a beautiful gown of green French lace encrusted with small clusters of diamanté, the gown glistening and the deep round neckline showing off her exquisite skin. It was pulled in tightly to highlight her fabulous waist and below that puffed out in a bell shape like a ballet dancer’s costume. The couple walked slowly up the aisle to the altar and then repeated the marriage vows uttered first by the corpulent priest, who, due to the heat, took a sip after every sentence from a glass of cold water placed near him and wiped the sweat from his brow with a large white handkerchief.

Karl held Bertha’s hand and spoke his vow in a staccato and rasping voice, as if he was reticent about the words. When it was Bertha’s turn, her face reddened slightly, her breath becoming irregular, and the words came out in the disjointed fashion of a schoolgirl reading out a difficult text for a demanding teacher: “In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, I take thee, Karl Benz, to be my lawfully wedded husband. To have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part.”

A dinner for the family and some close friends followed the ceremony. Just before midnight, Karl opened the door to their new house, and Bertha paused before walking across the threshold. She thought about how one part of her life was coming to an end and a new one was beginning, and she whispered a prayer to God to bless their life together.

The bedroom was upstairs. Bertha had only ever permitted Karl to give her a few furtive kisses. Her vigilant Protestant conscience only allowed her to give her body to him after a licit marriage in the house of God. Thus, their first act of physical union took on a unique and celebratory dimension, every last detail of it to remain imprinted in her memory forever. Bertha, her whole life long, never forgot those first spontaneous, confused, eager, feverish yet delightful moments—­their attempts at conversation on a scattering of subjects, the speechlessness which struck them both, how Karl edged toward her and started kissing her gently, his warm breath smelling of cigar and alcohol and the feel of his prickly mustache and the fresh aroma of his white silk pajamas mixed with that of his body. She would always remember how she almost passed out from shyness as she whispered to him to turn out the light, the string of kisses that made her body gradually relax until she felt she was swimming in a wide open void and then the way their bodies clave to each other in a strange yet familiar way, causing her at first a little pain, which soon gave way to the wonderful feeling that they were now truly joined together for life.

Bertha would always recall those days with a smile of satisfaction and tenderness. Those first days of marriage were a period of utter contentment. She did everything she could to make her husband happy, in the hope that they would create an upright Christian family that would be like a fruiting tree in the Lord’s garden. Unfortunately, though, clouds started gathering and obscured the sun. Bertha quickly found out that her husband was more eccentric than any other man she had known or heard about. He was different from her father and brothers and the husbands of her friends. He sometimes appeared so unpredictable that he could almost be two different people in one body.

The gentle, mild-­tempered and affectionate Karl whom she loved and married could be suddenly beset by demons and turn into another person, absentminded, irritable, nervous, ready to quarrel over the slightest matter. He could be curt in a way that she had never expected. He could become unfathomable, shrouding everything he did with such secrecy that she started to wonder whether she really knew anything about him.

She knew that he was an engineer at a workshop and that he had set something up with a partner in order to earn a living. One day he came asking her to lend him a sum of money to buy out the partner. She did not hesitate for a moment but handed over the amount from her own savings, with Karl kissing her hands in gratitude. He said excitedly that he would never forget her kindness, but within a few days he had gone back to his odd ways. He told her that he had rented the cellar of the Millers’ house in the next street as a workshop. There, he said rather brusquely, he would be able to finish what he had started in the workshop. Then he avoided answering any of her questions, smiled cryptically and left the house.

Karl started spending long hours at the cellar, refusing to allow Bertha to see it, and when she asked him who was cleaning the place for him, he pretended not to hear. As the days passed, his behavior became more erratic. He would settle himself down in the far corner of the sitting room, smoking a cigar and saying nothing, completely aloof from everything around him, when suddenly he’d jump to his feet and rush out of the house as if he had just remembered some urgent chore. He would be gone for hours on end and, when he returned, would carry on as if nothing was awry.

One night when they were in bed, their bodies joined in the passion of lovemaking, Bertha opened her eyes and, in the glimmer of light coming through the window, she saw his face. Karl, in their most intimate moments, looked distant and distracted. He was with her in body but his mind was elsewhere.

That night Bertha realized that she had lost him forever. She agonized over having a husband who seemed to be thinking of something else when making love to his wife. Then it came to her in a blinding flash: Karl must be in love with another woman. This was the only way to explain things, but who was the other woman? Was she more beautiful than Bertha? How and when did they fall in love? Why did he not marry her instead of deceiving Bertha? Could she be sure that he had used her money to start a business of his own, as he claimed, or might he be spending her money on that other woman? Could she even be sure that he was using the cellar as a workshop? The Miller family, known for their greed, might well turn a blind eye on adulterous activities in their cellar provided they received a decent rent.

Bertha was wracked by such doubts when one night she woke up to find Karl was not lying there next to her. She sprang out of bed and found him in his study, smoking and writing something on a sheet of paper, but the moment he saw her, he tried to cover it up. She asked him about it, but he tucked it away, saying, “I’ve got some work to finish tonight.”

She stood there looking at him. Did he have so little shame as to leave his marital bed to write a letter to his girlfriend? She thought of lunging forward and grabbing the paper from his hand, come what may. But she hesitated and then just went back to the bedroom.

She lay awake wondering why she had not confronted him and why she had not snatched the letter away, the proof of his guilt.

Deep down, she was afraid of confronting the truth. Anxiety over her adulterous husband had been gnawing away mercilessly at her soul, and there was only the most remote possibility of his innocence. What if she were to confront him and he confessed to adultery? What would she do then? Should she tell her family, walk out on him? She had to think it through properly first. She decided to play for time while preparing to have it out with him, remembering that once you start out on the road downhill, there is no stopping.

One morning after breakfast, as he was about to leave for work, she was standing by the door to see him off and was surprised to hear him say, avoiding her gaze, “I won’t be home tonight.”

“For what reason?”

“I’ve got some work that I can’t put off, so I am going to work through the night in the cellar.”

Now, for the first time, Bertha could not control herself. She exploded, and her voice could be heard throughout the house, “Just stop it, Karl. I can’t continue putting up with your lies. What work would make you spend the night out of the house? What do you take me for? I am neither a child nor a fool. I know what has been going on. You’re cheating on me, Karl. But why live a life of lies with me? Leave me and go to her, if you’re in love.”

She said all of this, standing with her hands on her hips, her hair disheveled, a look of fury on her face and her greenish eyes exuding bitterness and anger. She was raging, ready to fight it out, but then she burst into tears. Karl looked at her calmly, in a state of incomprehension. He knitted his brows and said nothing but tried to embrace her. She pushed him away forcefully, sobbing, and she shouted, “Get away from me!”

Then, suddenly, he grabbed her hand and pulled her toward the door as she cried out, “What are you doing?”

“Come with me.”

He grasped her hand more tightly and pulled her outside.

The autumn sky was dull, overcast and threatening rain. Karl strode forth while Bertha tried to wriggle out of his grasp, almost falling a few times; they were such an odd sight that some passersby started giving them sidelong glances. When they reached the Millers’ house, he led her down to the cellar and unlocked the door with his right hand while keeping hold of her with his left. The door screeched open in response to his kick. He pulled her inside, finally letting go of her hand to turn on the lamp.

Rubbing her now freed wrist, she looked around. The space was full of strange objects, machines great and small, bicycles of various sizes lying on the floor, a large blackboard covered with scores of equations, technical drawings hanging on the walls, a wooden workbench with engine parts on it with countless nails and screws in containers nearby. Karl sat her down on the only chair, and he leaned against the old wall covered in flakes of paint as he started to explain. As she listened to him, she started to put the whole picture together, and her sullenness turned into astonishment. When he’d finished explaining, she asked him a few questions, to which he gave straightforward and complete answers. Finally, there was nothing left to say, and a pregnant silence fell over them. Karl knelt down beside her, kissed her hands and knees and said, “Bertha, I love you. I will never love another woman. I am so sorry that my work has kept me away from you, but I have been working for years to achieve the dream I have been living for. I am trying, one day, to invent a horseless carriage. A carriage driven by a motor.”

She flung her arms around him, pressing her nose into his hair, and whispered, “I love you too.”

That night she gave herself to him as never before. Unfurling like a rose refreshed by the dew, she threw herself at him as if he had just returned from a long voyage, kissing him all over, cradling him like a child, as if her long mistrust of his faithfulness had turned, in an instant, into feelings of guilt, unleashing a torrent of affection. Thereafter, Bertha understood how to love her husband for what he was and not to wish to change him. She no longer cared if his mind wandered elsewhere when he was with her or if he spent the whole day outside the house. Now that it was clear he was not an adulterer but a devoted, industrious and upright Christian, nothing worried her any more. She could want no better. If he had things to do that took up most of his time, so be it. At least he would not be drinking, gambling or wandering, as many other husbands did. Bertha was happy and bore him four children. They took up most of her energy, and he carried on spending most of his time in the workshop, obsessed with his work.

One evening, as she was busy making dinner, the back door flew open, and Karl stood there with oil-­spattered hands. “Bertha,” he cried, “drop everything and come with me!”

She had no idea why, but the overwhelming joy on his face was contagious, and so she dried her hands, undid her pinafore and went off with him. The moment she entered the workshop, she beheld something very strange indeed: a giant bicycle the likes of which she had never seen before, with three large wheels, two at the back and one in front, and a seat wide enough for two people. Behind the seat was a metal cylinder from which hung a black leather drive belt.

Karl looked at her, gave a shout and clapped his hands. He threw his arms around her and lifted her up as he showered her with kisses. “Bertha!” he cried. “This is the greatest day in my life. I have made the first motor carriage in history.” He went over to the carriage, took hold of the leather strip and explained, “Look. It doesn’t need a horse to pull it. It is propelled by an engine!”

As the significance of what he was saying dawned on her, she exclaimed, “Oh that’s wonderful. Thank God.”

“Tomorrow,” Karl said dreamily, “I’m going to register the patent in my name. I’ll find investors for a factory. It’ll be called the Benz carriage, and we’ll sell thousands of them and earn millions.”

A thought came to Bertha’s mind, and she asked gently, “But Karl, do you really think that people would buy this carriage?”

“Certainly. They won’t need horses anymore. They’ll drive my carriage. The Benz carriage.”

“Karl, I don’t know if it’s that simple. It’s hard to get people to change their ways, and I don’t think that they’ll spend their money on something they don’t know anything about.”

Then, as Karl looked at her pensively, she got up slowly and walked toward him with a look of determination. She took his head in her hands, planted a kiss on his forehead and whispered, “Karl, I am just as happy as you about your invention. I’m proud of you. But our work isn’t over. It has just begun.”

The next day Bertha set to work on her plan.

She invited Mannheim’s most famous photographer, Tom Miesenberg, to the workshop. He was a tall, slim man in his seventies with completely white hair. His clothes were as shabby and creased ...

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