Nael Eltoukhy’s savagely comic and uncompromising new novel.
Nael Eltoukhy’s Women of Karantina follows several generations of Egyptian crime-boss families in the port city of Alexandria as they attempt to take over the city and re-make it in their own image.
Translated by Robin Moger, whose Writing Revolution won the 2013 English PEN Award for outstanding writing in translation, Women of Karantina is a subversive and hilarious sprawling epic, described by Ahram Online as providing ‘a new twist in the evolution of the form of the Egyptian novel itself.
Out now, read the book’s opening chapter below.
The dog, which was in the habit of rummaging through the trash, could not find the trash it was in the habit of rummaging through.
It was March 28, 2064. For many reasons, to be related herein and hereafter, this day was the grimmest in Alexandria’s history. Everyone suffered its sting, but the one who felt it most was the dog that couldn’t find the trash. He hunted along the Metro station’s wall where the great heap should have been, with clouds of circling flies hovering above it, but found nothing. Not even the wall itself. The neighbourhood was strangely exposed to the sun. Like a desert.
The dog was hungry. He trotted the length of the station wall, or where the wall should have been. He wagged his scabbed tail. Gazed into the distance. Rolled in the dust and rubbed his body against the wall. He was famished and frustrated, despondent and hot. Darkness gathered over the scene and there was nothing, not a single thing, to be found anywhere. He began to bark, and far away he saw a length of piping move. He gave another bark and it was then, with this second bark, that something struck his leg, something hot and hard, exactly like a bullet. For sure, a bullet. One leg lamed and one leg gunshot, the dog continued to sweep the neighbourhood with his eyes, hunting for some other heap of trash and careful not to make any sound that might bring another bullet his way. Feeble, bleeding, he hid behind a dirt pile. Suddenly, his body bucked beneath a rain of gunfire.
We see him now, dead on the bloodstained dust. A little while later a passing woman picks him up and chucks him into a deep trench. Maybe it seems to her the best way—the most seemly—to bury him.
Some unhappy thing has happened here. A life has come to a close, and with it a great tale.
Fate will play its games, will bring together what belongs apart. A man may have standing, wealth, and honour, and all at once be left bereft, without standing, wealth, or honour. Fate may bring two together—two colleagues, two neighbours, two dogs from the same pack of strays—and with love bind them; then all at once, in one heartless stroke, deny each one the other. How wondrous the whims of Fate.
The tale began long ago. It spread through generations, circled above sites from the south of Egypt to the north, and encompassed many a homily and moral lesson, much profound philosophy concerning man and his desires and qualities. It is of that type so rarely found in the history of mankind, a tale in which pleasure, yearning, profitable fact, and precious counsel are conjoined.
Were we obliged to describe the proceedings of this tale in a phrase, it would be “divine providence.” Divine providence it was that set each and every character in his or her proper place and inspired him or her with the right thoughts at the right time. And should it fall to us to derive a lesson from this tale, then it would be that nothing is impossible; that provided his intentions are sound, then man—by the grace of his Lord, exalted and gloried be His name before and above all things—is capable of anything.
The day the dog was killed, another dog, a bitch, was over on the other side of Karmouz, although she, unlike him, was rooting through a fat heap of trash. The bitch, with suppurating hide and patched with bald spots, with swarms of fleas about the bits that still held hair, hid as the gunfire swelled, then bolted. The bitch was waiting for the dog, but a powerful presentiment came to her that he would not come tonight, would not come any night. Her heart was downcast, her soul despondent, and the omens were not shy to show themselves: the trash contained little food, and the sounds of explosion and gunfire took away her appetite for anything.
The tale of the dog and the bitch began three months back, on a patch of wasteland. He saw her rump wiggling in front of him and jumped her. They started rubbing their bodies against each other and the fleas made their way from his pelt to hers and vice versa. Her hide was full of sores, and his too, but that did not prevent them taking their pleasure. They fell in love and resolved to devote themselves to one another, unto death. Now she bore his babies in her womb and all the signs were telling her she would give birth today. And all the signs were telling her that she would give birth alone, without her mate.
Frequently, the tale is greater than us. It might be the tale of a mother and father who loathe each other, or of a family, or of conflicts and interests we’ve not the strength to fight. And it might be the tale of a nation taking shape. The tale here is a tale of a nation taking shape.
In no wise is it a tale of dogs, not even one of men, who remain, however high they rise, mere motes in the ocean of this boundless nation. We are just numbers here, not because we’re nothings in ourselves, but because there are so many others besides, better or worse than us, warring with us or against us, and the nation is the sum of all. All these little tales, these bonds of love and hate, of marriage and divorce, of kin and conflict, of inheritances affirmed by wills and deeds of ownership, of ownership without deeds and inheritance without wills, of composers’ tunes and authors’ works, of engineers’ accounts, and of the decisions of leaders and the strong arms of the poor—of all these things is the nation made. The nation is all these things. The nation is us.
Faint and weary, the bitch moved slowly on. She walked and walked. She passed military checkpoints and soldiers, puddles of blood and piss, shell casings and Molotovs, corpses and torn scraps of flesh and fabric. At a certain point she started to sniff. She caught the scent of her life partner all around her. She looked in every direction, but could not see him. Suddenly she turned to a vast pit in the ground, a pit that had not been there yesterday, and there at the bottom of the pit she saw the body of her dog. The bitch didn’t hesitate: heedless of the pups she carried in her belly she leapt into the depths. Perhaps she died. For sure, she died.
Many tales are born and die this way. Many tales God does not wish to see completed. Entire stories perish every second in every place around the world. Many tales require no more than their telling to be told. Alone of all of them—and in order that we might understand it at all—our tale requires that we tell it entire: in other words, from at least two generations back. Alone, it warrants us taking our time, probing the background; it alone demands a little patience of us, in the telling and the listening. The tale began more than sixty years ago. A very distant day indeed. ■