In the Spider’s Room: A counter-oppression novel

Hani Mahfouz tells his story with a limpid language that’s both a merit and a fault in Mohamed Abdelnaby’s novel Fi Ghurfat al-Aankabuut (In the Spider’s Room, Dar al-Ain, 2016).

The language is a merit because it’s the language of Mahfouz himself, narrator and protagonist, introduced merely as an academic who has only recently developed an interest in literature and started reading it, sometimes in Arabic but mostly in English. He is also presented as someone who is — temporarily — voiceless, using written expression only to compensate for the want of spoken expression and because his psychiatrist has advised him to speak out.

The language is a fault because In the Spider’s Room is a novel, after all, and I believe readers expect a linguistic performance worthy of reflection in itself — not just an instrument of communication. In the novel we occasionally come across everyday language coated with an extra thin layer, but this doesn’t bring it closer to classical rhetoric as much as it distances it from colloquial ease and smoothness. When reading a phrase like, “his gang largely included artists and media people,” we don’t have much taste for it, I believe, unless it’s in an ordinary everyday colloquial register. This is the case in J.D. Salinger’s beautiful novel The Catcher in the Rye (1951), in which the author allows adolescent protagonist Holden Caulfield to choose the language he likes (although Caulfield, if I recall correctly, is an excellent student of English, unlike the rest of his school subjects).

In the Spider’s Room can be classified — like The Catcher in the Rye — as a Bildungsroman or coming-of-age novel: it observes a person as he grows up, faces uncertainty with his own questions and searches for answers. I would add, however, that this novel — like Salinger’s — is a parody of the genre, because the hero barely learns anything from his journey. We see him from childhood through to his forties going through various — but not many — experiences that only add to his uncertainty, barely providing answers to any of the questions that trouble his existence.

Perhaps Mahfouz himself is a question this novel suggests to us, and I guess we’re required to answer it. One theme the novel deals with is the notorious “Queen Boat case” of the early 2000s, when the police arrested a number of gay men, levelling at them several absurd charges and putting them on trial in a case that caused a lot of controversy, in Egypt and the west. This novel clearly confronts us with what should be an easy question: the question of oppression, which any sane person should instinctively reject. But there’s another, possibly more difficult, question that Mahfouz himself represents: Are we ready to see? Many of us seem centuries away from those who acknowledge the right to same sex relationships without being oppressive in the name of religion, law or societal norms. But are even those who acknowledge gay rights really ready to see these freedoms in reality? Do they even have the ability to read a description of such relationships in a novel like this one? I believe that for some it would not be easy.

In the Spider’s Room is a very straightforward novel. It lacks the splendid complexity of Rijuua al-Sheikh (The Return of the Sheikh, 2013), the lavish linguistic presentation of Baad an Yakhruj al-Amiir lil-Sayd (After the Prince Goes out to Hunt, 2008), and the ingenious plot twists in the short stories of Shabah Anton Chekov (Anton Chekov’s Ghost, 2009) or Kama Yathhab al-Sayl bi-Qaryah Naaima (Like the Flood Washes away a Sleeping Village, 2014) — all of which are also by Abdelnaby.

This new novel is a simple extended first-person narration skilfully edited into a clear narrative. It’s just a person writing down his life, from the moment his grandfather arrived in Cairo at the beginning of the twentieth century, dreaming of working with actor Naguib al-Rihany, to the moment of his own arrest near Tahrir Square and subsequent months in prison with the “Queen Boat” defendants. My assumption that it will not be easy for many to read has nothing to do with the technique or style of writing, but with the world depicted in the novel, and the ability of readers — i.e. you and I — to see Mahfouz as he suffers with his love for Abdel Aziz and reacts to Raafat (who abandons him for a wife) by having promiscuous affairs with all kinds of men, to the rest of the relationships in the novel which, I believe, will shock some readers.

Apart from that, reading this novel is quite enjoyable. One important reason for this is probably the fact that it’s not just a report on the Queen Boat case, which it chooses to transcend (though I am concerned that some hasty or prejudiced readings might reduce it to a “Queen Boat novel”). It’s a novel about a person called Hany Mahfouz, and perhaps we’d not be drifting too far away from him if we are reminded of Patrick Süskind’s protagonist in Perfume (1985). Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is an odorless person, and this is his greatest agony. He’s able to discern the odors of everything, even things that people with an excellent sense of smell agree have no odor.

Similarly, Mahfouz is almost literally a “selfless” person. In a dream scene, he attends the celebration of his own birth and looks at the flour sieve (where new-borns are placed in a traditional ritual) to see the swaddling of his seven-day-old self. But he unclothes his baby self and finds nothing underneath, absolutely nothing. This takes place toward the end of the novel and confirms what it has been hinting at: this is an almost void person, who only recognizes himself in comparison to others, a person who has something to say about others but not much about himself, a person who stands facing the mirror when he finds out about his mother’s informal marriage, unsure how he should feel.

So we see the world from the point of view of a person who doesn’t know who he is, who can barely walk in this world without leaning on another person (mother, lover, godfather or cellmate) and, above all, who only moves behind his dark glasses. When I say we see the world from Mahfouz’s point of view, I mean entirely, on each page and in each sentence. There is no voice in the novel other than his. People called Karim, Abdel-Aziz, Al-Birins, or Gomgoma (in one of the most beautiful scenes in the novel) may speak, but they’re not actually speaking; it’s rather what Mahfouz remembers, understands and retains from their words. There’s no way we can be certain about them and we can’t claim to know any of them. They’re only what Mahfouz sees in them.

And Mahfouz only sees gay men. There are no heterosexuals voiced in the novel. A police officer might speak here or there, but he only utters profane insults to gay men. Thus Mahfouz exercises in his journal (which has become a novel) a form of oppression against heterosexuals. The reader finds himself in an off-balance world. The narrator eagerly highlights diverse types of gay men — against their distorted image in reality and the usual reduction to stereotypes. We read about the composed gay man, the infatuated gay man, the debauched gay man, the activist gay man defending his political principles, the introverted gay man who hasn’t come out of the closet, the bisexual, the religious or sufi gay man (Karim, the Al-Azhar student and son of the legendary chief who has understanding for Mahfouz and treats him like his own brother during prison time), the effeminate gay man, and the gay man influenced by patriarchal society. Apart from gay men, we only see a single entity: police/state/oppression. Yet I believe homophobic people who reject or even antagonize same sex relationships do so for a wide variety of reasons. It would have added more weight to the novel if those reasons were illustrated, and much more weight if they were discussed.

But there is always this justification: this is a novel written by Hani Mahfouz, who is suffering from a harsh medical condition and traumatized by a ground-shaking shock, so we should not expect him to be that neutral, and we should not expect him to identify with his enemies and abusers in an attempt to look for their motives and explain their justifications, if any. But the result is a novel from one perspective, or perhaps a semi-novel.

While it can be understood why the novel is not tolerant of the protagonist’s enemies, it’s difficult to understand why it is only loyal to these characters, depicting them as victims and disregarding almost entirely those hurt by gay men. Why does Mahfouz pay no attention to these people, who presumably add to his own dilemma? I’m talking about the woman he married, for instance, just to get a loan from his mother, which she would only grant under condition of marriage. This woman is the victim of a deception big enough to destroy one’s life, and she is worthy, perhaps, to be the protagonist of a novel herself. She is married to a closeted gay man, and she gives birth to their daughter. Perhaps the novel overlooks them because it consists exclusively of Mahfouz’s journals, and he only writes the world as he sees it, from his perspective. 

With the experience of nearly 20 years of writing fiction, Abdelnaby knows how to reward readers of In the Spider’s Room. Many of his rewards are really valuable, including a few little bright stories generously assigned to minor characters. There’s Gomgoma, a heavy drug user until he starts seeing the prison cell as his home and his cellmates as his children, wife and sister. We see this prison rascal, the sandwich thief, transform into an extremely gentle man who is very kind to his sister. There’s Karim, son of the legendary chief who acquired his exceptional powers when he drank from the Nile at a moment when it stopped flowing. There’s the frustrated singer Al-Birins, the mother who works as a supporting actress, and the devastated aunt — these and all the other characters Abdelnaby engraves in our memory. Even with little Badriya, Mahfouz’s daughter, Abdelnaby manages to get her father to write a few lines about her, hoping that they’ll be enough to determine our view of the narrator’s conclusion, or even how we judge him.

When Mahfouz meets his daughter after coming out of prison, she says: “Don’t cry, dad, you’ll get well and you’ll talk again, I pray for you every day.” After this incidental charming appearance the child never shows up again. She’s with her mother, while Mahfouz is confined in his agonies. She’s with her mother, and Mahfouz is with his unfaithful lover. In the end, Mahfouz does not think about this. When he learns that Karim, his favourite inmate, is wandering about after finding out that he has HIV, Mahfouz sets out with his repenting lover and another man, who was acquitted in the case, to look for Karim, the innocent, religious, HIV-positive gay man.

This ending may encourage sympathies in the reader for some characters and not others, and I am afraid that it may also indicate that those who are alike should stand united against everyone else.

Read Ahmed Wael’s take on the novel here.

Ahmed Shafei 

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