Think modernist experimentation is only for Europeans? (Like many professors of modernism and postmodernism that I could name….) Think again. Being Abbas El Abd by Ahmed Alaidy is an Egyptian text that sends identity, meaning and the modern generation into chaos.
To start – I’m doing English Literature at university, so I read a lot of experimental fiction. This has some of the classic stuff – repeated scenes, multiple characters with the same name, and a very thin grasp on ‘reality’. If you like that sort of thing? You’re in luck. Being Abbas El Abd is a slippery book – I kept thinking I had grasped who was who and what meant what, but by the end of the novella, I (delightfully) had even less of a sense of direction than I’d started off with.
This isn’t just another wannabe Chuck Palahniuk (though Alaidy does refer to him as a mentor). To me, it was also quite intensely Arabic. It’s another book that makes me desperately want to be able to read other languages, actually. At the end of the novella, there is a very interesting essay by the translator, Humphrey Davis, about how it pushes Arabic to the brink – challenging the difference between written and oral communication, and high literature and dialect. The translation gets this across really well – I had picked up on it whilst reading – but it would have been fascinating for me to read it in the original.
Finally, there’s a lot of interesting stuff within Being Abbas El Abd about mental illness, particularly phobias. One of the most fascinating relationships is that of the narrator to his uncle Awni, who incites phobias into the narrator, and then attempts to cure him using increasingly dangerous methods. (Fair warning – I did find this part of the book a bit distressing.) As an insight into the young Arabic man’s psyche, however, it was brilliant. My one complaint is the phrase ‘autistic generation’ that was emblazoned on my copy. In a book that seemed so considered and complex, I found this needlessly broad and a bit old-man-shouts-at-cloud.
Alaidy is also the author of a collection of poems called The Sadistic Love. However, I’m having a time trying to find them in English, so we might have to wait some time for those. I would for the moment fully recommend you read this book in the meantime – there is so much in there that I haven’t even begun to unpick.