Egypt Dreams of Revolution, a Review of “Slipping”

8 August, 2021
Tahrir Square, Cairo, February 2011, hours before Mubarak resigned (courtesy Egyptian Streets).
Tahrir Square, Cairo, Feb­ru­ary 2011, hours before Mubarak resigned (cour­tesy Egypt­ian Streets).

Slip­ping, a nov­el by Mohamed Kheir
Trans­lat­ed from the Ara­bic by Robin Moger
Two Lines Press (June 2021)
ISBN 9781949641165

Farah Abdessamad

There’s noth­ing more desir­able and mys­te­ri­ous than the inter­sti­tial, fleet­ing moment between the world of dreams and non-dreams. It’s a daze when time and place briefly dis­unite to reveal a blur­ry win­dow of infi­nite pos­si­bil­i­ties — of real­i­ties. In Slip­ping, Egypt­ian author Mohamed Kheir takes us on a fan­tas­ti­cal jour­ney set in post-Arab Spring Egypt, to known phys­i­cal places and an unde­ter­mined geog­ra­phy of the mind.

Slipping is available from Two Lines Press.
Slip­ping is avail­able from Two Lines Press.

Slip­ping is Kheir’s first nov­el to be trans­lat­ed into Eng­lish by Robin Moger (a trans­la­tor of Haytham El War­dany and Youssef Rakha among oth­ers). The sto­ry fol­lows Seif, a sor­row­ful, hag­gard and day­dream­ing writer, and his adven­tures with Bahr, an Egypt­ian who has just returned from an unspec­i­fied coun­try abroad.

It’s unclear why Bahr choos­es Seif to cov­er his trav­els around Egypt for an unnamed magazine.

“I’d only met the man once and my name wasn’t well known enough to have caught the atten­tion of an Egypt­ian over­seas. The only way it would have got­ten there is if I’d sailed ahead of it. Then, per­haps because Bahr did seem to know me and had request­ed me by name, a faint enthu­si­asm began to glow and catch inside me.”

Bahr may be a pro­jec­tion of Seif’s own mind and delu­sion — an imag­i­nary, sym­bol­ic guide or gate­keep­er to an “oth­er-life” or the webs of sub-con­scious­ness. Bahr is a stranger yet his ruf­fled charm and charis­ma pos­sess the famil­iar­i­ty of a reg­u­lar vis­i­tor. It’s as if Seif would need to exor­cize him­self from his spir­it to find peace in the awak­ened world.

The two men trav­el togeth­er around Cairo, Alexan­dria and vicin­i­ty in a post-Rev­o­lu­tion­ary land­scape which para­dox­i­cal­ly embod­ies both a wel­comed escape and a grip­ping dystopia. They walk on water. They encounter no places and emp­ty places. It’s an over­whelm­ing feel­ing of strange­ness which per­me­ates through these recollections.

“Love is Death – or – How I Real­ized I wasn’t in Love with Irene” is a chap­ter devot­ed to Bahr’s mono­logue in which he shares with Seif details of his roman­tic rela­tion­ship with a woman called Irene. Bahr expos­es him­self as a vul­ner­a­ble man; his mem­o­ries are poignant and his sto­ry with Irene under­lines the issues of self-sab­o­tage, racism, gen­der-based vio­lence and mas­culin­i­ty, and the neces­si­ty of stand­ing up for jus­tice. Bahr meets Irene. They fall in love and soon enough a child is born. The exter­nal world spits intol­er­ance at them — and her specif­i­cal­ly, as the part­ner of a black man. Bahr one day comes to grips, rather phys­i­cal­ly, with Irene’s teenage male harass­er and upon see­ing his inan­i­mate body, con­cludes that he can no longer go home — he must flee. We’re not cer­tain he killed the man yet the aban­don­ment of his fam­i­ly becomes unavoid­able. While telling his sto­ry, Bahr reflects on pass­ing time and the nature of love which can either stir or kill.

“Like, in every rela­tion­ship, there’s a third wheel, which is time. And in my rela­tion­ship with Irene it was the third wheel that I loved.”

Despite the pedan­tic name of the chap­ter, it’s the tes­ti­mo­ny of a man still deeply in love and large­ly deal­ing with regret. It’s com­plex and trans­fix­ing and I would have wished to see Bahr’s sto­ry more devel­oped in the book as it mir­rors Seif’s own hopes and failures.

Oth­er female char­ac­ters tran­scend such evanes­cent descrip­tions and their pres­ence lingers. There is Alya and her enchant­i­ng if not entranc­ing, siren-like voice and Leila, Seif’s girl­friend. Both women’s fates col­lide with Egypt’s Rev­o­lu­tion and mass protests and their com­mon­al­i­ties are uncan­ny to the point of seem­ing inter­change­able like avatars.

“What else?”

“Every­thing.” She smiled. “All the sounds.”

Himar: the sound of falling rain. Ajij: the sound of flame. Flut­ter­ings, trick­lings, graz­ings, trillings. Sounds I didn’t know had names, names I didn’t know had sounds, and Alya knew every one, could sing them all. In the morn­ing, hum­ming; in the evening, singing; at mid­day tak­ing me on a jour­ney through the sounds of every wave there was.”

Realms that Seif and Bahr vis­it inter­twine with the dis­tinct blur­ri­ness of ear­ly morn­ing semi-con­scious­ness — this is both com­pelling but also dis­ori­en­tat­ing for the read­er. I often ques­tioned whose point of view I was exposed to and while appre­ci­at­ing mean­der­ing, braid­ed scenes (which spec­tac­u­lar­ly come togeth­er at the end of the nov­el) it left me short of desir­ing a less per­plex­ing struc­ture in the first part of the book which large­ly focus­es on slow world-building.

Mohamed Kheir is a novelist, poet, short story writer, journalist, and lyricist. Slipping (Eflat Al Asabea, Kotob Khan Publishing House, 2018; Two Lines Press, 2021) is his second novel and his first to be translated into English. He lives in Egypt.
Mohamed Kheir is a nov­el­ist, poet, short sto­ry writer, jour­nal­ist, and lyri­cist. Slip­ping (Eflat Al Asabea, Kotob Khan Pub­lish­ing House, 2018; Two Lines Press, 2021) is his sec­ond nov­el and his first to be trans­lat­ed into Eng­lish. He lives in Egypt.

For instance, we fol­low Bahr and Seif’s dis­cov­ery of the aban­doned vil­lage of Wah­da, emp­tied as its for­mer res­i­dents fled by boat. It’s a des­o­late and enig­mat­ic scene, with a back­sto­ry only revealed lat­er in the book which also ties in with oth­er flash­backs. This dis­joint­ed nar­ra­tive style, char­ac­ter­is­tic of Slip­ping, is not always easy to fol­low with­out lit­er­ary guid­ance and a map. At times, one may have wished to stay clos­er to the two pro­tag­o­nists and delve more deeply in their nascent bond and arcs.

Seif finds com­fort in sleep (“Back home, I tossed and turned, caught between sleep and wak­ing, between life and death.”) which pro­vides a win­dow to dull painful mem­o­ries. The chap­ter “Beware Flow­ers,” with its evo­ca­tion of a “death flower,” is a metaphor­i­cal ren­di­tion of tense protest days and con­veys a loom­ing proph­esy of impend­ing dis­as­ter, such as in the voice of Alya:

“She looked at me, ques­tion­ing, and I remind­ed her of the night she’d wok­en full of foreboding.

Through the rough music of the crowds she stared at me, quite silent. Then, as though we both knew the answer, she asked, ‘You real­ly think I was wrong?’”

Alya’s rhetor­i­cal ques­tion doesn’t refer to the euphor­ic days of 2011 but rather the long win­ter which came after the Arab Spring. The protests in Slip­ping car­ry a men­ac­ing, efflu­ent under­tone with the char­ac­ters strug­gling to escape their magnetism.

In this oneir­ic jour­ney of fic­tion, Kheir wants us to imag­ine the infin­i­ty of the mind and how to deal with despair and trau­ma. Mem­o­ries of arrests and bru­tal­i­ty pop­u­late the nov­el in dart­ing expres­sion­is­tic strokes. Kheir’s pre­vi­ous short sto­ry col­lec­tions Remsh Al Ein (2016) and Afar­it Al Radio (2011) received the Sawiris Cul­tur­al Award, and trans­la­tion of his work has appeared in Eng­lish in The Book of Cairo: A City in Short Fic­tion, edit­ed by Raph Cor­ma­ck (2019).

Through fan­tas­ti­cal depic­tions, Kheir asks whether we can ever let go of our ghosts — can we let go of them before they con­sume us? For a region which has expe­ri­enced col­lec­tive trau­ma for so long, this is indeed a press­ing mes­sage, which calls for heal­ing and, one day, dream­ing together.