On a forlorn winter night, Hazem and Dalal walk through Cairene streets from Manial to Dokki. The police are clamping down on activists and friends, and Hazem has a hard drive in his pocket that could incriminate him. A car runs over a cat and speeds off. He is heartbroken but, although he is starting to develop feelings for her, afraid to seek solace in the woman next to him.
With its dim, atmospheric setting reflecting the inner state of its troubled characters, this scene could have been taken from a film. It is, however, from a collection of short stories by Muhammad El-Hajj, titled La Ahad Yarthy Li Qitat al-Madina (Nobody Mourns the City’s Cats, Al-Tanweer, 2018). Unsurprisingly, El-Hajj (who, for full disclosure, is married to Mada Masr’s culture editor and is an occasional contributor to the site) comes from a filmmaking background.
After El-Hajj wrote several short films and the screenplay for Ayten Amin’s award-winning Villa 69 (2014), close followers of the Egyptian film scene expected the promising young writer (born 1986) to go on to produce one screenplay after another. Fortunately for readers of literature, his subsequent cinematic projects were put on hold due to various financial and logistical hurdles — not uncommon in Egypt’s film industry — and he turned to writing fiction. Last year he published his debut collection, one of the most astonishing short story collections to come out over the past decade here.
Nobody Mourns the City’s Cats, which won last month’s Sawiris Cultural Award in the Short Story (Emerging Writers) category, is made up of six stories set after the summer of 2013, when President Mohamed Morsi was ousted following military-backed protests, and then the Rabea al-Adaweya sit-in was violently dispersed by security forces. The stories revolve around six couples, with their various affairs and marriages unfolding in a turbulent political climate. Almost every page is suffused with a searing sense of loss connected to the protagonists’ love-hate relationships with an intimidating Cairo. Like stray cats, they aimlessly roam the streets, laden with memories, regret and melancholic nostalgia.
El-Hajj’s style mixes short descriptive sentences with longer, poetically layered ones, alternately withholding and revealing in the limited microsom of the short story, where every word counts. In some scenes he takes the reader by the hand, without rushing or stalling, to evoke the effect of a delicately swiveling camera that captures both the material world and the thoughts and emotions of his characters.
The characters often seem to be running away from their pasts — from a failed revolution, from failed relationships. In the first story, A Day with Tuna, Tarek, who expects that his boss (a close friend) will fire him to save costs, mistakenly dials the number of his former mother-in-law, Tuna, who promptly invites him over for dinner. Predictably, Tarek ends up meeting his ex-wife, and they muse together about the past and the future. As in the rest of the stories, El-Hajj powerfully emphasizes the contradictions between actual events and recollections of them. His protagonists seem to believe that their relationships (and perhaps their revolution) failed only by a hair. They constantly ask themselves “What if?” and wonder whether their naive idealism may have impaired their perception of reality. It is this question, among others that are never directly asked — are they to blame for their defeat? how can they start anew? — that the characters seek to answer throughout the book.
In Tuesday, 2 p.m., 35-year-old Sanaa visits the apartment she once shared with her now former husband to collect some belongings. While she sifts through them, she nostalgically remembers how they fell in love during the revolution. El-Hajj presents an x-ray of her intimate thoughts, fears and longings, slowly building up a host of tentative hopes within her only to cruelly crush them like a house of cards. As she moves within the confines of that emotionally charged space, Sanaa’s shipwrecked personal and political dreams float around her memory, like bubbles that burst as soon as they come in touch with reality. In light of Sanaa and her ex-husband’s irreconcilable differences, the reader can’t help but wonder whether the relationship really had any chance at all.
In Here and There, Aisha has been sleeping with Omar, who she met on Tinder, for three months. Her recent divorce has rendered her cautious and distrustful, and so when she begins to delve deeper into his life, she almost anticipates disappointment. Omar is unfathomable and she is unsure: “She would pass by his building … and the idea would cross her mind to go up to that place to which she had never been invited.” El-Hajj constructs a cat-and-mouse game without hunter or hunted, where misunderstandings, high expectations and prejudice nip any potential for a serious relationship in the bud. In her frustration, Aisha comes face to face with her loneliness, which, she realizes, might be more tolerable than a relationship she can’t fully inhabit.
Things That Only Happen on Midnight Trains and What Goes Around Comes Around are not quite of the same calibre as the rest of the stories. They both explore the fragile masculinity and insecurity of men who go to great lengths to avoid confronting their strong-willed and discontented female partners. Midnight Trains features an interesting display of the performative aspect of a traditional Cairene masculinity, and What Goes Around — which has a comedic element — sizzles with erotic tension, a sexual energy that could either culminate in crisis or catharsis. While they have memorable moments, the flow and structure of both stories lack the urgency and precision of the others.
The best is saved for last, though: The title story, Nobody Mourns the City’s Cats, is the collection’s masterpiece and the most political. While police, fearing unrest before the anniversary of January 25, 2011, raid the homes of his leftist friends and other revolutionaries in downtown Cairo, Hazem, who has just broken up with his girlfriend, desperately seeks consolation in hopping from one flat to the next, in the city’s bleak streets, and in the arms of Dalal, who is about to move to New York. “I have always loved how it rains in Cairo… I can’t help thinking that it’s the sky crying, feeling sorry for us, the inhabitants of this saddened city,” he thinks during their nighttime walk.
Jostling his way through the painfulness of endings and new beginnings, tackling themes such as imprisonment, immigration and heartbreak, El-Hajj brilliantly compresses the aspirations of a generation of failed revolutionaries, deprived of their dreams. Reminiscent of Czech author Milan Kundera’s 1970 collection Laughable Loves, this book weaves sex and love with politics into an intricate amalgam that examines how an infested political atmosphere feeds into our personal lives, and vice versa.