Ibrahim Abdel Meguid, No One Sleeps in Alexandria
(American University in Cairo Press, 1996)
Of all the novels I've read and reviewed from the American University in Cairo Press so far, I would put this one at the top of my list of favorites. I prefer it to Meguid's later novel, Birds of Amber, which also takes place in Alexandria, just a few years after this one. Not that there was ever any doubt in my mind that the same author wrote them both. As I will explain below, Meguid has a distinctive style that I like very much.
I think what I most like about No One Sleeps in Alexandria is the extent to which it is grounded in real historical events. In fact, the novel begins with a scene at the chancellery in Berlin, on August 25, 1939, days before the German and Soviet Armies invaded Poland, marking the start of World War II in Europe. While most of the novel focuses on a few characters living in Alexandria, Meguid returns every now and then to a consideration of world events, many of which have an immediate and direct impact on his characters. Sometimes he accomplishes this by having characters discuss the events as they hear about them, other times he uses narrative asides for this purpose. He uses much the same strategy in the later Birds of Amber, although in that novel his emphasis is more on cultural events, e.g., the release of films and music recordings, rather than on political events. The periodic "time capsules" remind me of the "newsreels" John Dos Passos used with great skill in the U.S.A. Trilogy. (Now there's a series I should read again!)
The main character in No One Sleeps in Alexandria is Sheikh Magd al-Din, a devout Muslim farmer who earns exemption from military service by memorizing the entire Quran. He and his wife and young daughter are compelled to leave their home village in the Nile Delta because of an old family feud that involves his brother Bahi. The day they leave is September 1, 1939, the actual date of the invasion and a few days before the United Kingdom declares war on Germany. Since Egypt at this point in time is still under British "protection," troops start to mobilize all over the country and major cities like Cairo and Alexandria begin preparations for the inevitable attacks. The Egyptians are particularly concerned because they expect Italy to enter the war on the side of the Germans, and Italy already has a presence in nearby Libya.
Magd al-Din and his family arrive in Alexandria and move in with brother Bahi, who has lived in the city since leaving military service. Their neighbors in the apartment building are a family of Coptic Christians, for at this time in Alexandria, Muslims and Christians lived in close and reasonably comfortable proximity. I say reasonably comfortable because a major subplot of the novel concerns a doomed love affair between one of the daughters of this Coptic Christian family and a young Muslim man. Because they follow different religious traditions, both families refuse to permit the couple to marry.
The novel follows the experiences of Magd al-Din and his family, his neighbors in the apartment building and other people they start to meet and befriend as they get settled in their new home. Their lives are disrupted by shortages of food, petrol and other commodities, troop movements, the arrival of streams of refugees, and soon enough by frequent air raids. And I thought the London Blitz was bad! There were hardly any air raid shelters, and very little in the way of other civil defense infrastructure, in Alexandria.
After a series of short-term jobs, both Magd al-Din and his close friend Dimyan (another Coptic Christian) land permanent employment with the railroad, the very same railroad that provides a focal point to the otherwise somewhat scattered stories in Birds of Amber. The story takes a suspenseful turn when the two men are assigned to work at the railway station at al-Alamein. I remembered THAT name from Bartle Bull's novel, The Devil's Oasis. Two battles took place in this part of the North African desert that were decisive in turning back the advancing German troops before they could occupy Alexandria, Cairo and the strategic Suez Canal. While the characters in this novel are civilian laborers, they are physically present at the station when some of the worst fighting is taking place.
I would say that this novel represents an interesting and rare amalgamation of Middle Eastern and Western narrative approaches. It has a very clear plot that proceeds along a chronological timeline with few digressions. I marked just two embedded stories, and those are both flashbacks from characters, not retellings of traditional tales, as is more typical in Arabic literature. At the same time, the novel is very explicitly grounded in the traditions and observances of Islam and Coptic Christianity.
What was missing from the packaging of this novel for me were maps, one of Alexandria and another of the rail line from Alexandria west to al-Alamein. I went a bit crazy at times trying to orient myself to the places Magd al-Din and Dimyan walked to for work or prayer or to the places they saw as they traveled to their posting at al-Alamein. I have a nice map of Cairo that includes some information about northern Egypt, but maps of Alexandria are almost impossible to find in U.S. bookstores.
A native of Alexandria, Ibrahim Abdel Meguid makes his living writing fiction, reflections and critical commentary. I found online a lovely piece he wrote about some of the old movie houses he frequented when he was growing up. His American University Press in Cairo biosketch says he is a consultant for the Popular Culture Council. He writes his novels in Arabic. This one was translated into English by Farouk Abdel Wahab, Professor of Arabic at the University of Chicago.