Cairo‘s cannabis-smoking literati relied during the 1990s on an African bango supplier named Soliman. When Soliman was finally arrested, confusion reigned, frustrated “owners of the high humour” (as the Arabic expression has it) scouring the lengths and breadths of the city for a suitable alternative. The terminology of the politically committed 1960s — during which hashish was both widely available and affordable — was used to describe the predicament of cannabis deprivation in the apolitical 1990s. It was said, in the most tragic of tones, that “Soliman the symbol has fallen,” the implication being that with his disappearance an entire way of life had vanished, inducing a sense of loss comparable to that felt upon the collapse of the Soviet Union. Soliman had been one of the few remaining expressions of sixties consciousness, and now he too was gone.
But in reality, of course, even in Soliman’s time a bango gathering was regarded as an inadequate alternative to the older practices of Egyptian hashish culture. In contrast to the widely felt nostalgia for the goza, the Egyptian waterpipe in which hashish burns atop a screen of me’assel tobacco, and for the ghorza, the now nearly extinct clandestine cafe-type establishment in which people smoked, the Western-style joint smoked in a private apartment was looked down upon as the makeshift of a culture in exile. Yet it is to this culture that the veteran Egyptian novelist Khairi Shalabi has often turned, and in his new novel Saleh Heisa he has endeavoured to give literary shape to it. In so doing, he has taken on board the task of documenting one of the most stimulating periods of Egyptian cultural, social and even of political history, that which extends from the 1950s through to the 1970s, choosing, however, to approach events from below and to focus not on the official history but rather on the events of individual lives.
Thus, Saleh Heisa, the subject of Shalabi’s novel, is a symbol of a more significant sort than was Soliman for the 1990s demi-monde. For the nationalist left of the 1960s, he would have been an authentic expression of the proletariat, and the novel skillfully describes the Cairo neighbourhood of Ma’rouf, where he lives, in writing that no doubt owes much to actual experience. Saleh’s father, Amm Abdel-Barr, is a Nubian belonging to the haggana camel corps, soldiers who had answered to the British occupation forces before decolonisation. Armed with whips, they were charged with the task of dispersing anti-British demonstrations, and, as a result, Abdel-Barr was away most of the time when Saleh was a boy, neglecting his sprawling family. Shalabi describes this milieu particularly effectively:
“[When Saleh was only seven years old], Khala Montaha, Saleh’s mother, found herself more and more exposed: Amm Abdel-Barr’s salary was not even enough to buy bread. She had a relation married to the bawwab of a large building in Garden City… acquainted with an important lawyer from the town of Shebin Al-Qanater. Discovering that he is over 60, his wife dead, his children all married and living away,… he needs an honest, clean, well-spoken and well-mannered woman [to clean his villa], and he will send his chauffeur to pick her up from the building every Thursday morning, taking her back Friday evening or Saturday at sunrise… in return for a monthly salary of LE10. Khala Montaha danced for joy, calling on God to protect her relation against poverty or need. They agreed that this business would remain a secret and that Amm Abdel-Barr must never catch wind of it.
Every Thursday she took her son Saleh along, and they returned on Friday evening, visibly better off … For the first time in his life Saleh wore a shirt and trousers, taking off his single, grimy and tattered galabiya… The lawyer had taken to him like a son, buying him clothes. Saleh loved that man to the point of worship, saying that God had given him a new father, a noble pasha… This lawyer was in reality the greatest and most important man in Saleh Heisa’s life, his one and only tutor. He planted in him an awareness, a knowledge, a set of morals and traits he would not have known even if he had attended university… And he inspired him with the realisation that he was a human being, no less worthy of pride and dignity than any other creature. And Saleh told these things to the children in the alleyways…
The lawyer [the Ustaz] was… an important member of the Wafd Party, well-known throughout the land… That was at the beginning of the 1940s, when the world was upside down as a result of the Second World War, and Egypt had quite a headache due to its decision to fight on the British side… Demonstrations increased and became violent. Judges and lawyers in Shebin Al-Qanater went on strike… The police tried to disperse [the demonstrators] peacefully and failed, so started beating them… A telegram was sent for the haggana…
The haggana descended on the town centre vengefully with their whips… Saleh tried to shield the Ustaz against the whips with his own body… But the whip strung a belt of fire across his back… And at that instant, when he looked away from the Ustaz and up at the brutal soldier, the whip had already lashed the Ustaz’s face.”
Déjeuner sur l’herbe Egyptian fashion (Photo from Egypt’s Side-shows, Nicolaas Biegman, London: Thames and Hudson, 1992) Khairi Shalabi
In a melodramatic twist, Saleh glimpses the face of his father, the soldier who is holding the whip and lashing out at the Ustaz. “No one denies that haggana soldiers are kind-hearted,” Shalabi points out, “except when they use their whips on government orders.” Though he had experienced his father’s neglect and had witnessed the man’s mistreatment of Khala Montaha, Saleh had known nothing of his father’s brutal work. But now a struggle breaks out between father and son, revealing Saleh’s resourcefulness and setting him on course for a life beyond the family’s confines. Amm Abdel-Barr is imprisoned for six years, the family breaks up and Saleh wanders aimlessly until ending up supplying hashish.
Saleh, however, is no mere supplier. Rather, he is a permanent fixture of the characters’ day-to-day lives. His job at the supplier Hakim’s ghorza, housed in the former house of Saleh’s family that now serves as the setting of Shalabi’s novel, is to clean out and refill a daily load of 3,000 hashish bowls. A kind of modest expert at the task, a man of immense aptitude and rare pride, he displays a peculiar heisa (clamour, or commotion), often induced by drinking half a litre of meths mixed with Pepsi. This allows him to put in their place those whom he suspects of arrogance.
“During such periods of heisa, which never go on for more than two hours, Saleh Heisa would assert himself and impose respect,” Shalabi writes. The next day, he continues, Saleh was as charming and as obliging as ever, to the point where he was embarrassed at the mere mention of the previous night’s heisa. “Listen, Sir,” Saleh explains in one of the novel’s most memorable episodes, “the world is heisa. Human beings are heisa; everybody in it is either heisa, making heisa, or trying to catch up with heisa. They are all beggars, but each is a beggar in his own way, and I am the king of the beggars because I am a beggar in every way.” Qamar El-Mahrouqi, another of the hashish den’s habitués, comments that Saleh’s “logic may not connect with people. Those who listen to him may think him mad. But if you probe his words, examining them one by one and truly understanding them, you’ll find that it is our logic that is bent and his that is straight.”
Saleh is at the centre of a whole community, unlike his 1990s alter ego Soliman, and events in this community flesh out the novel. The narrator, for example, a younger version of Shalabi himself, can easily spend 20 pages on cameo parts, such as the story of Tal’at El-Imbabi, a graduate student, and his marriage to a left-wing Italian girl, Matilda, following her divorce from another member of the community. There are risks to this procedure, of course, the reader having to follow consecutive stories that are often only tenuously related to each other. However, since the next paragraphs almost invariably turn out to be as fascinating as were the previous ones, whatever their bewildering changes in subject matter, Shalabi’s narrative, sometimes going backwards, sometimes forwards, never loses pace, and it is, in any case, always linked back to the central character of Saleh. Everything and everyone revolves around him, while he fulfills his duties at the ghorza presided over by the shrewd Upper Egyptian, Hakim:
“We all went to Hakim’s ghorza individually at first, some of us in flight from another depressing or risky ghorza… some from debts that can’t be paid, some in search of old places in a crumbling world, some looking for a cheaper price … or for serious hash smoking… Thanks to Hakim we became a friendly, homogeneous group… He would pick a client [and introduce you ]… and if you came on your own, he would make a point of telling you that so-and-so was here, asked after you, being eager to see you… There was never any gossip or backstabbing… We, [who had not even heard of each other before becoming regulars at the ghorza], entered each other’s houses, visited each other at work, invited each other to parties and stood by each other in times of crisis.”
The story, then, unfolds in myriad directions, but by the end we find Saleh Heisa, an active witness first of the British occupation, then of the Revolution, then of the 1967 defeat and finally of President Sadat’s 1977 trip to Jerusalem, where he always is, at the ghorza, his laughter crazier than ever, his heisa more extreme, his bitter insights into politics sounding remarkably like those of Khairi Shalabi himself, or like those of other writers of Shalabi’s generation.
Yet at the end of the novel Saleh finally oversteps the mark. After borrowing 50 piastres and leaving the ghorza for a moment, he is beaten up by the police, packed into a van and driven off. He then disappears without a trace, but is finally found in the rubbish-strewn backyard where he had always slept, lying in his age-old position, dead. The book ends with a clampdown on the hashish trade, the closure of innumerable ghoraz and the effective end of this culture to which one should be grateful, if only for its having inspired the present novel.
Like Soliman some years later, Saleh had fallen.