Poor: A Nubian novel
William ARMSTRONG - email@example.com'Poor: A Nubian Novel’ by Idris Ali, translated by Elliott Colla (The American University in Cairo Press, 220 pages, $19)
The work of the late Idris Ali voiced all the anger and frustration of the Nubians in the south of Egypt. His 2005 novel “Poor” is a heavily autobiographical work - a bleak, indignant, blisteringly direct account of economic, social and moral deprivation, in which the traditional “coming of age” narrative is constantly undercut by the miserable social realities that oppress its central character. At times, the novel’s uncompromising directness can seem overwhelming and slightly adolescent, but taken as a whole it is a visceral and arresting read.
“Poor” opens with the (unnamed) adult central character disorientated and half-unhinged, roaming the dystopian streets of Cairo and preparing for a suicide attempt later the same day. We are then sent back his childhood on the Nile in the agricultural heartland of Nubia, after which the story of his life is narrated - conveniently intersecting with landmarks of modern Egyptian history. Among his first memories is the building of the Aswan High Dam and the flooding of Nubia, which destroyed the local way of life and led in a huge exodus of Nubians to the cities of the north. After some time, the narrator - still not even a teenager - joins these unhappy hoards, with the words of a Cairo-dwelling uncle still ringing in his ears: “Cairo is a big flesh-eating demon. It swallows people without mercy … If you go there in your present condition, you’ll fall into the hell of Cairo’s service jobs and come to hate the day you were born.”
This will come to look prophetic, as the narrator stumbles helplessly from problem to nightmarish problem in the capital, with his hopes steadily crushed working demeaning odd jobs, struggling intermittently at school, experiencing fleeting, frustrating romantic flings, and discovering literature. As all this goes on, we witness the final tumultuous months of British rule, the 1952 military coup d’etat led by the Free Officers, the emergence of the repressive Nasserite regime, and the mass mobilization of Egyptians in the 1956 Suez war - all in the space of just 200 pages. This compression combines with a suffocating emotional claustrophobia, and is emphasized by the second person singular present tense in which the whole novel is written: “You stagger to your feet and stumble into chairs and customers, yet you’re aware of who and what surrounds you”; “You’ve spent your life watching. You’re neither with the Right, not considered among the Left. You feel the cold and isolation of the middle. Where are you exactly?”
That narrative choice also adds to the strong impression that this book isn’t fiction at all, but rather a thinly veiled biography. As translator Elliott Colla, (who has done a good job with relatively unsubtle material), writes in the afterword to this volume, there is “good reason to read ‘Poor’ as a relatively straightforward, self-narrated history, or the ethnography of a member of Egypt’s Nubian community, an underclass that has long been oppressed racially, economically, and politically.” Indeed, knowing a little of Idris Ali’s biography can make you wonder at just what points the novel departs from his own life. However, this isn’t to say that it’s a “straightforward” autobiography; as Colla also writes, the work is replete with creative literary references throughout, both direct and indirect, which unsettle any treatment of it as a simple historical document.
Though it deals with events from decades ago, the novel was published in 2005 and it’s tempting - though probably simplistic - to read in it all the coiled, inchoate frustration at injustice, corruption and lack of hope that would soon explode in the Arab uprisings. No doubt that reading is too simplistic, but “Poor” remains an impressive, startlingly direct read that should certainly be more widely known.